Demand on rise for child trauma service in Cork

Demand is growing for a service that works with children that experience trauma. Sarah Horgan hears how trauma can take many forms and how a Cork-based organisation are raising awareness in schools
Demand on rise for child trauma service in Cork

Co-Founders / Directors at Trauma Responsive Education with Marie Delaney and Lisa McSherry , at the Republic of Work, South Mall, Cork. Picture: Jim Coughlan.

A UNIQUE organisation helping schools deal with traumatised children has been forced to open a waiting list in the wake of overwhelming demand for its services in Cork.

Trauma Responsive Education has already liaised with 16 schools in the Cork area struggling to cope with children displaying the effects of severe trauma.

Marie Delaney from Crosshaven, an educational psychologist who has previously worked with educational staff in post-conflict areas of Iraq and Lebanon, set up the social enterprise two years ago with Lisa McSherry.

A consultant for the pharmaceutical industry, Ms McSherry was equally passionate about improving educational outcomes for traumatised children.

The pair say they are in dire need of government funding as more teachers and special needs assistants begin to recognise heart breaking signs of trauma in their students.

Marie and Lisa combined their experiences of neuroscience, educational psychotherapy, attachment theory, and positive psychology to help equip teachers working with affected children.

Marie expressed concern that symptoms of trauma can often be misdiagnosed as ADHD, resulting in some children faring poorly in the education system.

Ms Delaney said she has seen this first-hand after working with prisoners, the majority of whom have either left school early or experienced literacy issues.

“The reality is that many children are misdiagnosed,” Ms Delaney said.

“With any trauma, a child’s brain goes on the alert for danger which means they are constantly scanning their horizons and wondering where the danger is coming from. In school they can’t settle to do their own work and are scared by the children behind them.

“This often presents itself as ADHD resulting in some children being misdiagnosed. In many cases children just need safe and secure surroundings with safe adults that listen and understand them.”

She honed in on how the pandemic resulted in long-term issues for many children.

“You have children with parents in prison whose struggle was [exacerbated] during Covid because they weren’t able to visit them. There are areas where it would not be uncommon for a number of students to have family in prison.”

Lisa McSherry told of how concerns had been raised by parents attempting to cope with family trauma.

“If you are a child from a family, who historically has been involved in crime, you can be treated differently,” Lisa explained.

“There was one parent who didn’t know how her child would cope after their father was responsible for a very severe crime that was committed locally. She was extremely worried about how this was affecting her child’s behaviour and treatment in school.”

AWARENESS

Marie said it can be helpful for school staff to have awareness around challenging behaviours demonstrated by children.

“There was one school who told us about how part of the building had been closed off,” Marie said.

“The students were told not to go down there but the Ukrainian students went down to have a look. The school was shocked because they had been so well behaved prior to this. Nonetheless, for these students to feel safe they needed to know what was down there.

“In their world it could have been a big threat but it’s understandable that this might be mistaken for defiance. This might not be what you want in a school but it’s important to understand where it’s coming from. In this situation, the children’s experiences of war taught them that nothing comes from waiting and you have to push yourself to the front of the queue.”

Trauma, Lisa explained, can take many forms.

“If gardaí have been there the night before to take someone away then the child’s mind is going to be preoccupied,” Lisa said.

“It’s all about acknowledging that rather than always assuming that they are being difficult. Assessing the situation and asking yourself ‘what can that be?’ is also important. The question to ask isn’t ‘what is wrong with you?’ but rather ‘what has happened to you?’.

“It is difficult to respond in the moment when you have a class of 30 children in front of you. The idea is to shift the mindset.”

RISKS

She spoke of how traumatised children are at a significantly higher risk of developing an addiction later in life.

“Safety connection and belonging are the main needs of someone affected by trauma. You can belong to your school community and feel connected to the people in it. If you haven’t got an attachment you are going to attach to something. That attachment could be a gang or a drug depending on the extent of the trauma.”

Marie said she feels that diversity is currently lacking in the education system.

“This isn’t the life a lot of teachers have had,” Marie said. “A major issue is the lack of diversity in teaching.

Co-Founders / Directors at Trauma Responsive Education with Marie Delaney and Lisa McSherry, at the Republic of Work, South Mall, Cork. Picture: Jim Coughlan.
Co-Founders / Directors at Trauma Responsive Education with Marie Delaney and Lisa McSherry, at the Republic of Work, South Mall, Cork. Picture: Jim Coughlan.

“They have succeeded in the system but children with trauma have had a very different experience.

“For many children, the system in itself is traumatic because it doesn’t suit everyone.”

She is urging people to put aside their judgement.

“One has to look at the pattern of behaviour a child might have got used to from adults,” Marie said.

“People think that those with addictions can’t be good parents but that’s actually not true. There are times when they are present with their children and other times when they are not.

“You have to be careful not to put any blame on parents or families because everyone is the doing the best they can with the resources they have.”

Ms Delaney described how trauma in children is very often misunderstood.

“Sometimes schools don’t understand what trauma is. When many people hear of trauma relating to children they think of kids who have come from a war zone or who were involved in a serious accident.

“It’s the other stuff going on underneath the surface that causes the same reactions in a child’s brain.

“While issues such as bereavement, domestic abuse, or separation can affect any family we can’t ignore that poverty also has a devasting effect. Scarcity of food is essentially a trauma and we need to recognise that.”

She warned that while some well-meaning incentives might benefit some children, they can often isolate children with trauma.

“Attendance awards might seem great but there are children who missed days because they had to travel long distances to visit their daddy in prison or had to visit a parent in hospital. Nothing is ever as clear cut as any of us — who are not fully involved in it — think.”

Meanwhile, Lisa urged teachers and SNAs not to blame themselves for a child’s trauma.

“Staff can sometimes get upset because they feel they have to fix the children’s lives but it’s not about fixing them,” Lisa said.

“It’s really about someone being there for you to hear your story and see the good in you. We have to remember that while a child’s protective behaviour may be disruptive it might have been keeping them alive outside of the safety of a school setting.

“Teachers and SNAs might have their own biases. Like all of us they are only human, but it’s about catching yourself and stopping it when you recognise that thought process.”


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