Self-harm and primary school children

Self-harm occurs
when people deliberately hurt their bodies. It is often done
as a way to cope with painful
or overwhelming feelings, such as anger, stress,
depression, or fear. Understanding self-harm
can help schools play an important role
in supporting children who may be at risk
or showing signs of self-harming behaviours. Self-harm is a term
used to describe a group of behaviours
that people use to deliberately hurt
themselves. Some examples are cutting,
burning, and self-hitting. There’s two main reasons
why people self-harm: firstly, it’s to cope
with overwhelming emotions; and, secondly,
it’s a way to communicate to the self and to others
that things are not okay. We know that biologically what happens when a person
self-injures or self-harms is that certain chemicals
are released in the brain. These chemicals
actually lead the person to feeling more calm. It’s a very similar effect
to what you might find after you do some exercise
or eat some chocolate. This might soon contrary
to what one might expect after someone self-harms. Some people have
likened self-harm to an addictive behaviour. This because
although initially the self-harm behaviour
will make you feel good, nice and calm, it then leads
to feelings of shame and other negative emotions, which can lead to another
episode of self-harm, which in the end sets up this cycle
of self-harm behaviour. It can be really tricky
to pick up self-harming behaviour
among children because they really try
to keep it hidden. They can do this by
wearing long sleeves, long pants,
bracelets and jewellery, to cover up their skin. They might avoid activities
like swimming and sports or anything else
where their skin might be exposed. There’s a difference
in self-harm behaviour between primary-school
children and adolescents. Among primary-school children, you’re more likely
to see scratching, head-banging,
and hitting; whereas among adolescents,
you’re more likely to see cutting and burning. We know that self-harm
is the most significant risk factor
for suicide attempts, so no matter what age
or severity, self-harm needs
to be taken seriously and addressed immediately. In terms of occurrence, there’s actually not much data
about self-harm in primary-school-aged
children. There’s been very few studies
that have researched this. However, one large
Australian study conducted in 2010 did find that 7.6 percent
of 10- to 12-year-olds had self-harmed
at some point in their life. Now although
there was no data about kids
younger than 10 years old, we do know
that it is happening although it is very rare. Self-harm needs confronting, especially when
it’s associated with suicide. However, it’s really important
not to make the assumption that a person who self-harms
is attempting suicide. Especially among children,
self-harm is usually a way to cope
with overwhelming emotions and is not usually
a suicide attempt. At the whole school level, it’s important that schools
provide the opportunity for children
to develop their social and emotional skills, which gives them
healthier ways to cope
with difficult situations, rather than turning
to self-harm behaviours. Schools should also be
promoting connectedness and positive relationships
between students and peers, staff and families. It’s also really important
to have clear and consistent
management policies and procedures in place
when responding to self-harm. Other things to keep in mind
are encouraging children to seek support from staff when they’re distressed
or need help. Also, it can be helpful
for teachers to have some kind of education
about self-harm. It’s useful for schools
to identify key staff who will be there to respond
to children who self-harm. Ideally, these staff
will be from the welfare team or it might be
the school counsellor. The most important factor
to consider when responding to a child
who’s self-harmed is to be nonjudgmental and calm. A useful way
to think about this would be to respond
as though they had accidentally
hurt themselves. If you don’t respond
in an overly dramatic way, then you won’t reinforce
the behaviour. It’s also really important
that, if needed, the wound is seen to. School procedure
should be followed. Notify the key staff member that an instant
of self-harm has occurred. In turn, the key staff
should contact the family, arrange a referral,
and follow up if needed. Another thing to consider is that it may be
very confronting to witness
an episode of self-harm, so it’s a good idea
if you have a chat with the school counsellor
or welfare team just to debrief. Families are often
stressed and overwhelmed by this situation. Schools can be a place
where families can feel comfortable seeking
information and support. School staff
can also support families to work and liaise
with other professionals who may be involved. Collaborative
and consistent approaches to working with children
who have self-harmed are always more effective. An important part
of prevention of self-harm is having a supportive
school environment which is focused
on building self-esteem and helping children learn
how to manage their emotions. The Kids Matter framework
supports schools in assisting children
who self-harm by promoting positive
coping behaviours. Effective emotional
coping in childhood help support children’s
mental health for life.

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