Can Sensitivity To Trauma Change SA Schools?

SA Schools

Since the beginning of 2019, shocking incidents of school violence in SA have made headlines, over and over.  There’s learners attacking learners; learners attacking teachers and teachers attacking and abusing learners. As the narratives are unpacked across media platforms, there’s a rising despondency at the SA school environment.  Instead of being safe places of nurturing, learning and human development, many SA schools instead hold up a distressing mirror to their surrounding communities. These are beset with poverty, crime, gangsterism, substance abuse and other mental health issues – all of which, traumatise people.

The interesting thing is that research that stretches back more than two decades has shown that trauma has a unique, physiological effect on the developing brains of children.  Dubbed the ACE (Adverse Childhood Experience) studies, it has been shown that the brains of children exposed to sustained and/or significant trauma develop differently, and with negative consequences, both the short and long-term.

For Judy Strickland, founder of the Hope House Counselling Centre in Bergvliet and speaker at the upcoming SACAP Festival of Learning, working towards trauma-informed schools in SA is a keen focus. She explains: “What the ACE studies have concluded is that when someone experiences trauma, their brain goes into fight/flight or freeze mode.  If this this trauma is on-going in childhood, the cortical part of the brain is not able to develop properly.  This impacts on behaviour, as well as learning. The limbic and survival brain are engaged and on red alert but the thinking parts of the brain, the cortex and prefrontal cortex are disengaged to the detriment of normal.”

While trauma-informed schools’ interventions are used extensively in the USA, it is a new concept in SA that, Strickland believes, should play a part in counter-acting school violence.  It’s not necessarily a quick-fix, but USA research has shown that in three years there is a vast improvement in behaviour, school retention rate and academic scores, with reduced burnout and stress for teachers and learners alike.

Strickland says “I believe that it is not only the South African learners who are impacted by trauma, but our teachers as well.  While many teachers recognise that they need help with behaviour in the class room, they resort to old punitive methods because they do not realise the behaviour is not bad behaviour but trauma.

The documented benefits of trauma-informed schools include:

  • For children– they are not re-traumatised by events at school, and the risk of triggering is lessened.  They are given the opportunity to benefit from their schooling. There’s a reduction in the school to prison pipeline    
  • For teachers – It helps teachers to recognise and deal with their own trauma.  It lowers teacher stress levels because misbehaviour and violence in schools decreases while academic performance improves    
  • For school counsellors – Every child needs help, being a trauma-informed counsellor, enables them to work with the child in a way that does not re-trigger them, and also gives the child the opportunity to benefit from the extra relationship.   Healing for children takes place in relationships, and trauma-informed counsellors have the opportunity to build these with the children they see.

To find about more about how trauma-informed schools can help reduce school violence in SA, catch Judy Strickland at the upcoming SACAP 2019 Festival of Learning.

The 2019 Festival of Learning hosted by SACAP:

Cape Town, 23-24 May

Venue: SACAP Campus, Claremont

Times: 23 May from 17h30 to 20h30 and 24 May from 09h00 to 17h00

Human Library: 24 May from 11h00 to 15h00

Johannesburg, 30-31 May

Venue: SACAP Campus, Rosebank

Times: 30 May from 17h30 to 20h30 and 31 May from 09h00 to 17h00

Human Library: 31 May from 11h00 to 15h00

Tickets for the 2019 Festival of Learning are available through Webtickets. Tickets are R250-00 for the full-day programme, and R200-00 for the short-talk evening programme. There is a special offer for students and alumni at R80-00 per ticket.