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‘Trauma’ is a word we hear a lot of these days and for many people, it suggests an event or set of circumstances where something awful, shocking, painful or upsetting has taken place. This might be, for example, a physical injury or poor health, abuse or bereavement. Some traumatised people might have experienced a war zone. Whatever the incident was, we assume that the effect was lasting and damaging.

However, specialist SEN tutor Leon says that it’s not always that simple to define what is traumatic, especially when you’re talking about young people with Special Educational Needs (SEN). “I think there can be degrees of trauma – from something that is very clearly deeply upsetting to other things that are unsettling for a person,” he explains. “The same event can be different for different people.”

Special Needs Can Lead Teenagers into Stressful Situations

Leon works in an alternative educational provision where he supports young people with complex issues. Some of them have been in trouble with the police, involved with drugs, in the care system or have even witnessed violence. A lot of these youngsters, he says, have additional needs which make them especially vulnerable to trusting the wrong people.

“So many things can be traumatic for all teenagers,” he continues, “and I think that maybe they can be heightened for kids with SEN. For example, a lot of young people don’t like school but I would say that ninety per cent of the children I work with have had a horrible experience of school.

“If, say, you have poor executive functioning and you start secondary school where you go from one classroom to the next, following a timetable, you can be overwhelmed. If you can’t cope and forget things, you might get a ‘telling off’ and if you’re not a deliberately naughty child, that can affect your confidence and leave scars.”

Navigating Social Situations can be Overwhelming for Kids with SEN

Friendships are notoriously challenging for all adolescents as they struggle to forge their own identities and find out where they ‘fit in’. This can be highly stressful for neurodiverse youngsters in particular who often have difficulty following social expectations.

“One girl I work with is extremely bright and very articulate but she gets herself in trouble by saying things like, ‘I don’t like your jumper’,” Leon carries on. “She finds it difficult to understand why that upsets people and she’s in and out of friendship groups. I heard of another young lad with autism and ADHD who was persuaded to post an explicit picture online and then got blackmailed. He’d been so easily led but then he was going out of his mind with the worry of it.”

A Relaxed Attitude

Working with troubled adolescents, no matter what their difficulties, Leon says he deliberately takes an ‘un-teacherly’ approach. “I do a lot of listening and I get to know them,” he explains. “I find out what music they listen to or what computer games they play. I rarely ask them directly about things they’ve been through but sometimes, they offer that information themselves. If that happens, I might get them to expand further by saying, ‘What happened?’ or ‘How would you have liked to behave?’”

He adds that it’s important to remember that any of us can be traumatised by something and that we shouldn’t assume our own reactions will be the same as someone else’s. “Trauma is difficult to quantify and we shouldn’t minimise the effect it might have on someone. Some people will lodge a traumatic event away in their mind and forget about it whilst for others, it will dictate so much of their lives.

“Try not to say, ‘I understand’ if someone tells you about an awful experience,” Leon concludes. “After all, you might not be able to fully understand what it was like for that person. Just acknowledge the event happened and allow the person to feel heard.”

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