Trauma-Informed PE Series 2/3: What is Trauma Informed PE?

We had an incredible response from last week’s blog on Trauma Informed PE: Relationships at the heart of Physical Education

We wanted to follow up by explaining what Trauma Informed PE is.  Neil Moggan has been roadtesting Trauma Informed PE in his secondary school since September 2022. Neil takes up the story here:

Becoming trauma informed

We need to develop an understanding of what trauma informed practice is and what we are trying to achieve.

What does being trauma aware mean?

According to Lisa Cherry, “A trauma aware approach seeks to provide an environment that means that when we are vulnerable, the environment we are in will aid recovery and healing and not add to it.”

I had to ask myself some pretty challenging questions during the summer term, about whether I was aiding recovery or making things worse. My answers were not pretty.  

For front line PE teachers we need to focus on creating an environment that will aid recovery and healing and not add to it.


What does being trauma informed mean?

According to Serious Mental Illness adviser, being trauma-informed means we:

  • Recognise the prevalence of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) / trauma among all people.
  • Recognise that many behaviours and symptoms are the result of traumatic experiences.
  • Recognise that being treated with respect and kindness – and being empowered with choices – are key in helping people recover from traumatic experiences.

What are Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs)?

Trauma occurs when children are exposed to events or situations that overwhelm their ability to cope with what they have just experienced.

These can range from Big Traumas such as:

  • Child physical abuse
  • Child sexual abuse
  • Child emotional abuse
  • Emotional neglect
  • Physical neglect
  • Mentally ill person in the home
  • Drug addicted or alcoholic family member
  • Witnessing domestic violence
  • Loss of a parent to death or abandonment by parental divorce
  • Incarceration of family member
  • Affluent Neglect
  • Consequences of the War in Ukraine

To smaller traumas such as:

  • Moving house
  • Birth of a new sibling
  • Failing at an exam
  • Friendship issues
  • Illness/injury
  • Loss

The key thing to remember is that all of us process trauma differently so what might have a significant impact on one person may not have such an impact on another.

Toxic Stress

When our body perceives that we are in danger it releases cortisol and adrenaline to keep us safe. These chemicals are great, for example, if we are crossing the road and we see a lorry flying towards us and they help us get out of the way. However, prolonged exposure can lead to physical illness, mental illness and early death.

The Adverse Childhood Experiences Study (ACE Study)

The ACE Study was one of the biggest Public Health Studies of all time. Researchers interviewed 17,000 people and found that ACEs are the leading determinant of the most common forms of physical illness, mental illness and early death in the Western World. Cancer, diabetes, heart attacks, depression and anxiety are all linked to ACEs.

ACEs set people on a journey from childhood trauma to early death, following a predictable pattern outlined in this image.

Mechanisms by which adverse childhood experiences influence health & wellbeing throughout the lifespan.

Source: Brown, D.W. et al (2009) in their Adverse Childhood Experiences and the Risk of Premature Mortality study

Half your class have suffered at least 1 adverse childhood experience

In today’s post lockdown educational landscape, many young people have experienced trauma. In fact, a number of studies have demonstrated that just under 1 in every 2 of us has suffered at least one adverse childhood experience (ACE). That’s nearly half your class on average.

At the Youth Sports Trust Conference in Spring, 2022, Professor Barry Carpenter, the first mental health in education professor in the country said that ‘no one is escaping this pandemic untouched in some way.’ when highlighting the impact of Covid-19 on our young people and teachers. Therefore, the figures may now be higher than 1 in 2.

What about the impact of Adverse Childhood Experiences in schools?

As the number of ACEs increases so does the chances of the young person having; learning difficulties, weak attainment, low attendance and/or violent behaviour.

Learned Helplessness

According to Award-winning author, Dr Mine Conkbayir, Childhood trauma typically gives rise to learned helplessness in survivors.

Characteristics include:

  • Feeling useless
  • Wondering what’s the point
  • No one cares
  • Low motivation
  • Low self-confidence
  • Low/no expectations of success
  • Difficulty with persisting
  • Not asking for help
  • Ascribing a lack of success to a lack of ability
  • Ascribing success to factors beyond their control, such as luck.

As educators , you may well have seen and heard similar, or wondered why some children don’t even try. It is vital to be familiar with Learned Helplessness and the possible signs, to avoid misjudging and labelling.

Not having any control over, or options to escape an abusive childhood takes its toll in countless horrific ways. Healthy brain development and function is impaired, which impacts self-regulation, behaviour and learning.

ACEs in Schools:

In 2015, a study of 700 8 year olds found that if a child had 3 ACEs or more they were:

  • 3 times as likely to experience academic failure
  • 5 times as likely to have attendance problems
  • 6 times as likely to have behavioural problems

From children who had 4 ACEs or more, over 50% of them had learning problems. 

Children with 4 ACEs or more are 32 times more likely to have behavioural problems than a child with 0 ACEs.

A story of hope

It is not all doom and gloom though as research shows that a range of protective factors before the age of 18 can help interrupt the cycle from childhood adversity to early death.

Protective factors for a young person include:

  • I believe my mum or dad loved me.
  • When I was small other people helped my parents take care of me & seemed to love me.
  • Someone in my family enjoyed playing with me and I enjoyed it too.
  • When I was a child there were people who helped me feel better when I was sad or worried.
  • Family, friends or neighbours talked about making our lives better.
  • When I felt bad I could almost always find someone I could trust to talk to.
  • There are people I can count on now.
  • Someone in my childhood believed in me.

It is very difficult for teachers to provide the first 4 protective factors but I believe that teachers can absolutely provide the final 4 protective factors:

  • When I was a child there were people who helped me feel better when I was sad or worried.
  • When I felt bad I could almost always find someone I could trust to talk to.
  • There are people I can count on now.
  • Someone in my childhood believed in me.

One emotionally available adult can make all the difference for a young person who has suffered from trauma and that one person can often be found in schools.

The good news is that we can become more emotionally available to our young people and that not only benefits them greatly but also benefits us.

When I reflect on my teaching pre summer holidays I was not as emotionally available as I should have been for a number of reasons and that was having a negative impact on the young people I was teaching.

Simply by becoming more emotionally available my relationships with my young people have been transformed leading to a whole range of benefits for both myself but more importantly the children I serve.

Does each child you teach feel SAFE or UNDER THREAT?

All of us as human beings have a need to feel safe and be safe. Our amygdala is constantly looking for cues around us to check that we are safe.

This is no different for our children within our classrooms. When they do not feel safe they cannot learn as an over stimulated amygdala prevents the brain from being integrated.

When the brain is integrated the executive functions in the frontal lobe increase our children’s: ability to learn and concentrate, emotional and social intelligence, ability to inhibit impulsive behaviour, good stress regulation, empathy, the ability to reflect and problem solving.

All key skills if we want our children to thrive in Physical Education and beyond.

As teachers we can protect our young people and help them feel psychologically safe through our body language and increasing our safety cues.

When we do this we trigger their social engagement system rather than their social defence system. This leads to: happier children who are more capable of learning, and less time managing behaviour and stress for you as the teacher.

Polyvagel theory

According to Polyvagel theory, when we trigger their social defence system, our children go into fight/flight response which can lead to rage, anger, irritation, frustration or panic, fear and anxiety and this is where many of us have seen an increase in behavioural issues in our classrooms since lockdown.

If they go past the fight/flight response into the freeze response they may demonstrate dissociation, numbness, depression, raised pain threshold, helplessness, shame, shut -down, hopelessness, and feeling trapped.

Sadly, I am sure many of us can think of a few children who we have taught since lockdown with these characteristics.

Children who have suffered from trauma in the past are more susceptible to perceiving trauma/danger even if they aren’t in danger.

Sometimes even the simplest, non threatening instruction can be perceived as a threat to their safety and an opportunity for conflict.

We want our students to be calm and connected, settled, grounded, curious and open to new ways, compassionate, mindful and being in the present.

To achieve this we need to trigger their social engagement system in order that all our young people feel psychologically safe, so how do we do that?

Face + Voice + Body = Psychological Safety

Our face, voice and body are of upmost importance when sending the right signals to create psychological safety in our classrooms.

Meeting and greeting our students on entry at the start of the lesson becomes crucial. Welcoming our students with a smile, a fist bump or high 5 and a friendly question or comment to let them know that you see them and notice them is transformational.

How does this apply in PE?

As Physical Education teachers, we understand the power of PE in positively shaping students’ physical and emotional wellbeing. However, addressing the impact of trauma in your classes can be complex, especially with limited resources and professional development opportunities available.

I have spoken to dozens of brilliant PE teachers grappling with this challenge over the last few years, just as I was.

I collaborated with leading experts in the field of trauma-informed practice and then road tested the adapted strategies in my own PE department to make sure they work.

On the back of this, I developed the Trauma Informed PE online teacher training course to equip you with the knowledge, strategies, and tools to effectively integrate trauma informed practices within your physical education curriculum.

The 7 Step Recover Roadmap

The 7 step Recover Roadmap was created to help you transform relationships with your young people, their wellbeing, engagement, behaviour, attendance and progress within 90 days, and their life chances in the long term in 7 easy steps.


Stage One – is called ‘Approach’ and informs you about the evidence base behind the decline in engagement, attendance, behaviour, and progress in a post-lockdown education world as outlined above. Stage One covers Step One and Step Two.

‘Relationships’ is Step One and focuses on what a trauma-informed approach is, what Adverse Childhood Experiences are, and how this affects children in the classroom at the moment and their life chances, based on the ACEs studies.

Step Two is a story of hope and how ‘Emotionally Available Adults’ and the eight protective factors can break the cycle through the power of relationships. We clarify the role of the PE teacher in supporting young people recovering from trauma so you know what your role is and what it is not.


Stage Two is called ‘Implementation’ and is all about how we go about implementing a trauma-informed approach within Physical Education.

Step Three guides you on how to create psychological safety for our young people through the use of your ‘Visuals and Vocals’ to transform relationships and enhance their engagement by triggering their social engagement system.

Step Four looks at how we can use physical activity to broaden our children’s window of tolerance so that they feel calmer and make better decisions. We guide you how to use PE to develop a sense of belonging for young people and to help them feel loved. We then explore how we can support children’s neurodevelopment and relationships through the power of play.

In Step Five, ‘Connect before Correct’, we guide you on how to manage challenging behaviour in a compassionate way that does not retraumatise our youngsters but maintains high standards so that you achieve the outcomes you need and want for effective teaching.


Stage Three is called ‘Impact’ and is about how we can have a broader impact across our school and wider society. It covers Step Six and Step Seven.

Step Six is called ‘Enhance’ and looks at the different ways we can have a whole-school impact using a trauma-informed approach such as sports sanctuaries, enrichment clubs and drop down days.

In our final Step, ‘Recovery’, we explain some key points that you need to know when supporting young people suffering from trauma and share our secret formula for a transformational PE teacher in a post-lockdown education world.

Join us for next weeks blog, where we will explore:

  • Examples of how you can implement Trauma Informed PE in your setting.

How we can help you

If you would like to know more, we have got a range of taster resources for you to try. We have created the ‘Enhancing Engagement Scorecard’ to help you track your progress in implementing Trauma Informed PE practice within 2 minutes.

This scorecard acts as a valuable tool for self-reflection and continuous improvement. Click on the link to take the first step and get your score.

Additionally, we offer a ‘Taster Trauma Informed PE Course’ for you to Step 1 of our full course so you can develop your understanding of what a trauma-informed approach is, what Adverse Childhood Experiences are, and how this affects children in the classroom at the moment and their life chances, based on the ACEs studies.

Click here to complete this 1 minute form to receive your personalised login.


We have created a ‘Trauma Informed PE’ Online teacher training course to guide you in 7 simple steps how to implement the Recovery Roadmap in your PE department to transform relationships, wellbeing, engagement, behaviour & progress in the short term, and more importantly your children’s life chances in the long term.

To find out more visit our website.

Please quote PEScholar10 to receive a 10% discount if you go on to purchase the course.

For the final blog in this Trauma Informed PE series, ‘Examples of how you can implement trauma informed PE in your setting’ click here

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