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Last updated on 15 September 2016
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Is there guidance on supporting a pupil who has witnessed a violent incident? We relay expert advice and look at written guidance on supporting pupils who have had a traumatic experience. You will also find guidance on helping bereaved children and those who have experienced ongoing trauma.

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Supporting a pupil after a traumatic event: key principles

A school leader asked us whether there was guidance on supporting a pupil who had witnessed a violent killing.

We put this question to the Anna Freud Centre, an organisation supporting children and young people with mental health problems.

A representative explained that schools can support pupils who have had a traumatic experience using the following key evidence-based principles as a guide.

Increase the child’s sense of safety

Consider what the school can do to make the child feel safer, as he/she may be worried that the event will occur again.

The representative explained that the child may need reassurance and someone to listen to his/her concerns, with a view to making a plan for how the school can ensure the child is kept safe.

The involvement of the police, where applicable, may also help ease the child’s concerns.

The child may need reassurance and someone to listen to his/her concerns

Enable calming

Support the child to develop strategies to calm him/herself down, and consider who would be best placed to help the child stay calm, e.g. teachers or carers.

Encourage the child to engage in activities, such as sport and socialising, that will help him/her calm down.

Enhance social support

Consider whether the child or his/her family need help to connect with the social support offered to them.

The representative noted that children who have had a traumatic experience may isolate themselves afterwards, where it might be more helpful for them to spend time with others.

Avoid making the child feel powerless

The representative explained that those rushing to help the child may end up making him/her feel more powerless.

Instead of specialists “rushing in to do something to fix” them, children in this situation are more likely to need someone they already know and trust to encourage and support them, listen to them and help them plan what they are going to do.

Encourage optimism

Talk to the child about his/her plans for the future, and encourage him/her to focus on these instead of the traumatic event.

Engage other professionals

The representative added that if a school has access to an educational psychologist, this person may be well placed to support the child.

He said that schools needing support in helping a distressed child are welcome to contact the Anna Freud Centre for further advice.

Helping pupils cope after a traumatic event: guidance

Guidance on supporting pupils after a traumatic event

Gloucestershire County Council has issued guidance for its primary schools on how to support pupils after a traumatic event.

"The majority of people will get over the experience with the support of family, friends and school"

It explains that pupils will react differently to traumatic events. A pupil may, for example:

  • Be unable to concentrate or not want to do school work or make decisions
  • Experience physical effects such as feeling unwell, headaches, listlessness or being over-active
  • Undergo changes in his/her personality such as feeling depressed or becoming irritable or angry

It explains:

These reactions are all common responses and are usually short-lived, e.g. up to four weeks. The majority of people will get over the experience with the support of family, friends and school.

The guidance lists ways in which staff can support a pupil after a traumatic event. These include:

  • Listening to the pupil and trying to understand his/her views of the event
  • Giving the pupil reassurance and permission to feel upset
  • Maintaining routines and encouraging the pupil to resume social activities

It also explains how pupils of different ages may act and feel when they are grieving.

Guidance for parents on helping children cope with trauma

South Lanarkshire Council's Psychological Service has published guidance for parents on how to help a child cope with a traumatic experience. Though aimed at parents, you may find the information helpful when supporting pupils in school. You may also find it helpful to pass the information on to the parents of the pupil(s) concerned.

The guidance explains on page 3 that people are affected by traumatic experiences in different ways, and while some will get over trauma quickly, others may still be affected years after the event.

Pages 4-5 look at reactions to trauma in children of different ages. These may include:

  • Increased jumpiness and uneasiness
  • Appetite disorders
  • A reduced attention span
  • Recall of vivid, disturbing images
  • Rebellion at school or home

Guidance on supporting children after a traumatic incident is provided on pages 6-9. It suggests, for example:

  • Reassuring the child that adults will help keep him/her safe
  • Providing opportunities for physical activity during the day
  • Keeping regular routines
  • Explain to the child that it is OK to be upset
  • Being honest when talking about the event and correcting the child's misunderstandings

Child trauma toolkit for schools

A US organisation, the National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN), has created a toolkit for schools to use to help them support children who have been traumatised. Though the toolkit refers to aspects of the US school system, you may nevertheless find much of it helpful.

Provide a safe place for the child to talk about what happened

The toolkit explains on page 7 that a variety of experiences can be traumatic for a child, including abuse, the death or loss of a loved one and witnessing or experiencing violence at home or in the community.

It looks at the effects of trauma on children of different ages, and on pages 5-6 makes suggestions about how staff can support a traumatised child. These include:

  • Maintain usual routines
  • Give children choices or control where appropriate, to counteract the feelings of chaos and loss of control that traumatic experiences can cause
  • Set clear, firm limits for inappropriate behaviour and develop logical – rather than punitive – consequences
  • Provide a safe place for the child to talk about what happened
  • Be sensitive to the cues in the environment that may cause a reaction in the child
  • Consider making accommodations and modifications to academic work for a short time

It also advises staff to:

Seek support and consultation routinely for yourself in order to prevent 'compassion fatigue', also referred to as 'secondary traumatic stress'. Be aware that you can develop compassion fatigue from exposure to trauma through the children with whom you work.

Supporting bereaved children

Winston's Wish, a child bereavement charity, has produced resources for schools to help staff support children who have been bereaved.

Use clear language when talking about death

The free resources can be downloaded from the charity's website and include a 'charter' for bereaved children, lesson resources, a strategy for positive responses to death and an information pack for schools.

The information pack looks at how children of different ages understand death and answers questions staff may have about supporting a child who is bereaved. On pages 2-3 it offers tips for staff on talking to pupils about death, such as:

  • Be honest, and model the fact that experiencing difficult feelings is OK
  • Use clear language when talking about death
  • Allow time and space for pupils to digest the news, find out the facts and discover exactly how they feel
  • Acknowledge that some days will be better than others

Cruse Bereavement Care, a charity, also has guidance for schools. It looks at topics such as:

  • The impact of bereavement on children
  • How children's behaviour may change after bereavement
  • How to prepare for the child's return to school

Supporting pupils who have witnessed domestic violence

If you are supporting a pupil who has witnessed or been the victim of an incident of domestic violence, you may find the following resources useful.

Archived Home Office guidance provides good practice recommendations for professionals who are supporting children who have experienced or are experiencing domestic violence:

The Co-ordinated Community Response to domestic violence (CCRM) was created to help local services map their provision. It has uploaded guidance for schools on how to work with a non-abusing parent to support children in situations involving domestic violence:

Operation Encompass is an initiative to support better communication about domestic violence between schools and local police. You can read more about the initiative and which police forces are involved on its website:

Supporting pupils experiencing ongoing trauma

The Trauma and Learning Policy Initiative (TLPI) was set up in the US by Massachusetts Advocates for Children and Harvard Law School to help ensure children who experience trauma are able to succeed at school.

TLPI has published resources on helping traumatised children learn and creating a 'trauma-sensitive environment' in school, which you can download for free from its website. Though some of the content is more suited to schools in the US, much of it is also relevant to UK schools.

Volume 1, entitled 'A report and policy agenda', looks on pages 21-41 at the effect that ongoing trauma can have on pupils' academic performance, behaviour and relationships.

Effects of trauma on a pupil may include:

  • Problems with regulating and modulating emotions
  • A lack of motivation and academic engagement
  • Verbal or physical aggression, defiance or withdrawal
  • Poor relationships with school staff or peers

The resource goes on to look at how schools can create a 'trauma-sensitive environment'. Pages 61-76 look at academic and non-academic strategies for helping traumatised children in school.

It recommends, for example:

  • Creating an environment that is predictable and safe, for example by posting a daily timetable on the board and clearly communicating schedules for lessons and activities
  • Drawing up an action plan to follow when a traumatic reaction is triggered in the pupil
  • Presenting information in multiple ways e.g. both written and verbal
  • Making the pupil feel appreciated and cared for by helping him/her form strong relationships with staff
  • Encouraging the pupil to take up extra-curricular activities

Volume 2 looks in more detail at creating a trauma-sensitive environment. You can download both volumes from the webpage below:

Supporting mental health after a traumatic incident

Non-statutory advice from the Department for Education (DfE) explains on page 10 that difficult events, such as traumatic incidents and loss, may disrupt the balance between risk and protective factors for pupils' mental health.

Difficult events ... may disrupt the balance between risk and protective factors for pupils' mental health

It explains:

Schools will often be able to support children at such times, intervening well before mental health problems develop.

The guidance goes on to look at how schools can support and promote pupils' mental health generally, and also identify individuals who may have mental health problems.

You may find the following article helpful when monitoring mental health across the school and seeking to identify which individuals may be most at risk:

Post-traumatic stress disorder

The DfE guidance explains on page 50:

If a child experiences or witnesses something deeply shocking or disturbing they may have a traumatic stress reaction. This is a normal way of dealing with shocking events and it may affect the way the child thinks, feels and behaves.

If these symptoms and behaviours persist, and the child is unable to come to terms with what has happened, then clinicians may make a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

It says that therapeutic support focusing on the trauma can be delivered in schools.

You can read more about PTSD and find information on it for children on the YoungMinds website: 

This article was written in response to a question from the SENCO of a medium-size urban primary school in the south east.

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