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Trauma informed practice in schools and beyond

All behaviour is a form of communication. Children and young people may not have the words to describe what has happened to them, or are too scared to articulate it, but they’ll find a way to tell us, if only we take the time listen. Thinking of a child’s challenging behaviour as ‘bad’ disposes us to respond with a punishment. Thinking of them as distressed or struggling helps us to act differently. This is as true in a classroom setting as it is in a fostering placement or the family home following a traumatic event, say flooding. So, instead of asking, ‘what’s wrong with you?’ we should all take a moment to ask, ‘what happened to you?’

Lots of children and young people have been exposed to repeated and extended trauma in their short lives, from bereavement, neglect and family breakdown to being affected by serious and scary incidents such as the terrorist attack at Manchester Arena a couple of years ago. These events leave lasting effects, once the initial threat or harm has passed children can exhibit ‘survival behaviours’ to cope with new stressors. Children are more susceptible to stress as a result of traumatic experiences. In the longer-term unaddressed trauma reduces resilience, adds to developmental delays, may impact on the ability to form trusting relationships and increase the likelihood of engaging in risk taking behaviours, from running away to substance misuse.

In recent weeks new education policies and priorities have been revealed, apparently there is support for behaviour policies based on zero tolerance and the use of sanctions despite the knowledge this will penalise vulnerable learners. Fixed term and permanent exclusions have been rising since 2013/14 and learners receiving support from social care, those who are eligible for free school meals or children with special education needs and disabilities are significantly more likely to be excluded than their peers. The ink is barely dry on the findings of Edward Timpson’s review of exclusions yet the narrative from central government has hardened and worryingly may even include the use of reasonable force in classrooms.

So, I find my thoughts turning with increasing frequency to the disconnect between this apparent new policy direction and the relationship-based approaches used in wider children’s services. Trauma can manifest itself in the classroom as refusal, hostile or even threatening behaviours. We teach children that making academic mistakes in school is a valuable part of the learning process yet behavioural errors are somehow worthy of punishment. The benefits of all schools adopting trauma informed and restorative ways of working, showing empathy and building trusting relationships between learners, their families and teaching or pastoral staff are myriad.

We need to think differently and more inclusively for the benefit of children and their futures. Adopting restorative approaches and being alert to the impact of trauma on a child’s wellbeing and development isn’t a quick fix nor is it simply warm words. It requires cultural and organisational change, a real investment in staff development and the most precious resource of all, time.

Rachel Dickinson, President of ADCS 2019/20.

This column was first published on the CYP Now on 23 September 2019 - Link

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