When life throws curve balls! An educators guide to assist children who have experienced situations of loss.

Life doesn’t always go as planned! Unfortunate and sometimes tragic situations happen and children are often caught up in extraordinary events that are frightening or perhaps even life-threatening. Many children can maintain a relatively stable equilibrium, make healthy adjustments to situations of loss, with seemingly no adverse effects. Other children suffer mild to acute distress and can adopt trauma related behaviours as a result.

Our brain is continually processing incoming sensory signals, forming memories which are pivotal in behaviour development and the way we adapt to our environment. Experiences that are painful or frightening are encoded, and highly memorable, due to our brain being primed for protection and survival. Subsequent reminders of a traumatic event are likely to bring about the same physiological and psychological fear reactions as when the event first happened. As a result, we find children commonly disconnecting and withdrawing, adopting behaviours of protection in order to manage the grief they are experiencing.

Children, particularly younger children, tend to express their grief behaviourally rather than emotional, so it is not surprising when negative or impulsive behaviors arise. These behaviors are commonly directed towards learning and the school environment and can be misinterpreted as the child having a difficult attitude or behaviour problem, whereby they are often reprimanded and punished accordingly.

Neuropsychotherapy provides a framework to address situations of loss. It is based on a ‘bottom-up’ approach where the limbic system is calmed, and stress is down-regulated through a safe and supportive educational environment. Emotional safety is essential for effective patterns of neural firing to begin, therefore understanding and not overlooking a child’s situation of loss is important for future well-being and learning to occur. Teachers and school staff are in a position to assist a child when loss occurs. They can be highly influential in promoting and encouraging behaviours that help a child connect, rather than adopting avoidance behaviours. Teachers and school staff, have the opportunity to move a child forward and change a trajectory, even after sad, distressing or tragic circumstances have unhinged and destabilized a child’s life.

I will be presenting this information at The Inaugural Australasian Conference for Neuroscience, Learning and Well-being in Melbourne, Australia on the 25th-26th of March 2019 and will provide guidance for principals, teachers and school staff who are faced with the unexpected, sensitive and very difficult area of loss within the school community.


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