Educational Trauma

Educational Trauma

Educational trauma is not only experienced by children. I argue that numerous parents are traumatised by the same educational organisations when advocating for their child’s rights to be acknowledged and supported.

Educational trauma refers to: ‘The psychological distress and negative experiences that individuals may suffer as a result of their education.’ I would add ‘…and as a result of advocating for those rights in educational organisations’.

It can encompass a range of traumatic events, experiences, and conditions within the educational setting that impact a person’s wellbeing and academic outcomes.

As a former teacher, if someone had suggested that my classroom or school was adding to a negative situation or creating trauma for the children in my care, I would have been outraged, insulted, and in complete disbelief. Many educators today are likely feel the same way. Remember, though, when we know better, we do better. Please open your mind to the possibility that this trauma is real and it is our responsibility to acknowledge and change it.

Not all Departments of Education are created equal, and the one where I worked had a communication strategy to make it seem inclusive, supportive, and understanding on its website and other media. However, in practice, the reality was far different. Teachers believed the rhetoric that they were already following the department’s stated policies on inclusion and creating supportive environments. Sadly, this was not the case, and the gap between stated policies and reality caused—and continues to cause—trauma for parents and students alike.

Educational Trauma psychological distress

What causes psychological distress and negative experiences individuals may suffer due to their educational experience?

Systemic organisations and perceptions Include, but not limited to, bullying by peers and teachers, harassment, active and passive disability discrimination, high-stakes testing and academic pressure, and inadequate or unsupportive educational environments. Under-identification and misdiagnosis of Twice-Exceptional (2E) children may experience educational trauma due to under-identification or misdiagnosis of their exceptional abilities or disabilities.

Their strengths may mask their struggles, making it difficult for educators and professionals to recognise their unique needs.

  • Unchallenging or insufficiently stimulating curriculum.
  • The lack of sensory-friendly environments.
  • The lack of individualised support and accommodations: providing individualised support plans, such as Individualised Education Programs (IEPs).
  • Accommodations for the unique needs of students with autism and ADHD (attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder). This may include modified assignments, extended time for tasks, visual aids, and assistive technologies.

Educational trauma has profound effects on a person’s educational attainment, motivation, and wellbeing. While it is felt by neurotypical (NT) individuals, educational trauma is more evident in those divergent individuals with ADHD, autism and co-occurring conditions such as dysgraphia, dyslexia, sensory disorders and anxiety, tics, social phobia school refusal, PTSD, depression, panic disorders and Tourette’s syndrome.

Educational trauma adult

We must face the facts and acknowledge that some educational institutions are not meeting the needs of their students and families due to their organisational practices and beliefs. This might include: IEP meetings, communication methods, behaviour management, segregation and exclusion practices, defined roles, confusion and divergent interpretations of policies and blaming parents for their children’s behaviour while at school. The  misunderstanding is that no funding means no support, and that medication is all that’s required to ‘fix’ children’s presentation at school. It could encompass lack of familiarity with legislation and policies.

Schools and teachers rarely know enough (or anything at all…) about federal or state disability discrimination legislation, or about their responsibilities and obligations with respect to implementing disability adjustments for students with disability in the classroom and for tests and exams. Too many schools in all three sectors (public, Catholic and independent) still initially allege to parents—and to me as the parent’s advocate—that they have never heard of any kind of disability discrimination legislation, viz.:

Federal Disability Discrimination Act 1992 (‘DDA’). act/dda1992264/ (or perhaps one of its various state counterparts); and  federal Disability Standards for Education 2005 (‘Standards’) subordinate legislation made under the DDA, the provisions of which are enforceable (DDA, s. 32).


Then there is almost the unbelievable. For example, Dr Sally Robinson, Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for Children and Young People, Southern Cross University, explained that in her research, students with disability referred to the ‘drip, drip, drip’ of harm in their lives, in contrast to the critical incidents parents report:

… when you speak to children and young people with disability about their experience of safety and harm at school, they say different things than their families say and that education professionals say. What they talk about is how chronic harm is in their lives.

They talk about the drip, drip, drip of things that happen… They talk about being insulted and ignored and minimised. They talk about how those things build up in their lives …

They talked about things like people speaking badly to them, people making threats to them, the sort of cruel nicknames that people had for them, through to verbal abuse and physical abuse and incidents of harm. What their families talked about were critical incident-type harms, the things that eventually built to something that people came home with, or another person told them about, or a teacher reported home to.

This evidence broadly reflects the findings of the NSW Ombudsman’s inquiry into behaviour management in schools. It found that restrictive practices were being used in ways inconsistent with, and contrary to, the intentions and guidelines for their use. Similarly, the report indicated that suspensions were being used as a general measure to reduce  disruption to classrooms, despite there being no evidence to suggest that they would. The report indicated that, in fact, research shows suspensions may exacerbate challenging behaviours for student with disability.

Students may also have a presentation of traits that makes them more vulnerable to trauma. Traits such as perfectionism, self-criticism, and difficulty with emotional regulation and coping skills can be particular challenges for neurodivergent (ND) children. Educators often misinterpret these children as wilful disobedience. ‘Maladaptive behaviours’, such as situations that exceed an ND child’s ability to self-regulate, and self-regulatory stimming, can lead to suspensions, punishments, and a lack of positive rewards. This exacerbates the stress and anxiety these children experience.

For parents of ND children, the constant worry and stress of finding support for their children to engage in school is overwhelming. Occupational therapists, speech therapists, behaviour specialists, psychiatrists, and paediatricians all provide advice on how to help children progress towards becoming active, involved, and happy members of society. Yet that advice is rarely accepted and acted upon in schools, this causes incomprehensible stress and anxiety to the parents.

The fear of misunderstanding—by other students, parents, and the wider community—only adds to the stress and anxiety of parents of ND children. In addition, the knowledge of the suspension-to-incarceration pipeline often makes parents feel inadequately prepared and supported and guilty for the position they find themselves in and raising their children.

The stress of behavioralism, particularly Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA), which attempts to make ADHD and autistic individuals more NT, is considered by some to be an outdated approach. It can suppress these children’s character, personality and coping mechanisms while sending a negative message that they are not “normal” or “enough”. This creates yet more significant potential for mental health issues in the future, making early intervention and proper support an urgent need.

All these concerns raise psychological distress when parenting ND children in NT settings, and matched against NT expectations.

In many ways, the challenges faced by ND children, their parents, and educators are also opportunities to rethink and develop new models for education that are more inclusive and understanding of the diverse needs of learners. By recognising and responding appropriately to these needs, we can help ND children survive the educational experience and thrive in that experience, achieve their goals, and reach their full potential.

Parents of ND children want nothing more than for their children to be recognised for their abilities, not their disabilities; for their child’s strengths and interests. They want their children to have friendship groups, be supported, and engage in various educational activities. This requires a fundamental shift towards more compassionate and convincing approaches that consider the unique needs and strengths of ND children.

At the core of this approach is a deep commitment to understanding and supporting the social, emotional, and cognitive aspects of ND children’s learning experience. It’s essential to recognise that these children have cognitive differences that require a different perspective, and by recognising this, we can support and enhance their learning experience, wellbeing, and future success.

I urge educators, parents, and society to embrace greater empathy, understanding, and support towards ND children. By doing so, we can provide a foundation for more compassionate, inclusive, and effective education that will, in the long run, benefit all learners.

Educational institutions should also offer opportunities for parents to engage in self-care and seek their own support networks. This can involve providing access to counselling services, support groups, or educational workshops to help parents cope with their challenges. By acknowledging and addressing the trauma experienced by parents, educational institutions can foster a more inclusive and compassionate environment for the entire education community.

In summary, parental trauma and child trauma within educational settings is a significant issue deserving attention, acknowledgment and compassion. Educational institutions must recognise and address the emotional toll placed on parents, provide support and resources, and actively involve them in the education process. By doing so, we can

create a more supportive and inclusive educational experience for children

and parents alike.