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The power to transform lives

November 05, 2018

Childhood trauma is an epidemic and the single biggest health crisis of our times, a Centre for Professional Learning (CPL) conference was told today, and that crisis was even worse for children with a disability.

Michelle Montgomery, a trained teacher and former school counsellor who now works with the trauma-focused children’s charity KidsXpress, said educators had a vital role to play in arresting the trend.

“It’s you guys, the educators, who have the power to transform lives,” she told the audience for Mental Health of Students Disability K-12 conference in Surry Hills.

“Research tells us the number one thing that makes a difference for a kid at risk is having one single positive stable adult relationship. The one thing that makes a difference is providing safe stable nurturing support. And that’s you, and you can do that tomorrow.”

Ms Montgomery said from her experience as a counsellor, the main barrier to tackling the crisis is a lack of training.

“I had very little training [on the matter],” she said. “I can remember at university we did one lesson on behaviour management … we certainly didn’t get any training around what to do for kids who have experienced trauma.

“In a classroom, you will have 13 out of 30 kids who are not learning-ready because of the level of adversity they have experienced. So that’s a third of the class, now I didn’t get any training about that, did you?

“The key message is that many of our kids are experiencing toxic stress because of what’s happened to them and maybe it’s still happening.

“Many of our kids are dealing with toxic stress and that is getting in the way of their ability to make smart choices, it’s getting in the way of their ability to learn to read, and it’s getting in the way of their ability to go on the educational journey.”

Ms Montgomery said there was a noticeable paucity of research in relation to childhood trauma and children with a disability.

“What we do know is that people with intellectual disability are four times more likely to experience abuse and neglect and that one in three children is sexually abused,” she said.

“In a study of 7000 people with disabilities, 70 per cent of those people identified as having experienced abuse, of those people 90 per cent had experienced multiple abuses, it was but only 37 per cent of people reported it because they didn’t think that anybody would help.

“We know that people with disabilities are far more vulnerable to trauma but what we learn now is that trauma toxic stress and childhood adversity leads to higher incidences of disability as well.

KidsXpress is a trauma-focused charity that provides free trauma therapy for children who have experienced trauma, “but we also look after the caregivers, we support the grown-ups working with those kids with the resources to get through the day”.

“We can get through stress if we have that one person we can turn to, to talk to for support,” she said.

“But these children with toxic stress experience danger; the world is not a safe place for them. The problem for many of these kids is those relationships that give us that peace that allows our body to recover from the stress response; those relationships are the source of the problem.”

For teachers interested in learning more, research summaries and reports are available on the KidsXpress website.

— Scott Coomber