All schools need to be aware of children affected by trauma and have practical measures in place to help them, says Lynn Miles. But, she warns, there is no low-cost, quick-fix solution
It is a sad fact that half the children in the UK will have suffered an adverse childhood experience (ACE) – including emotional, social and physical abuse, often perpetrated by the primary caregiver – and 10 per cent will have endured four or more of these experiences by the age of 18.
I was one of those children. At primary school I was violent and unpredictable and at secondary school withdrawn and disengaged. Fortunately, thanks to a few perceptive teachers, flexibility in the school system and my welfare being more of a priority than exam results, I turned out all right. These teachers understood what my throwing meant and took the time to build relationships with me, taught me new strategies to deal with my emotions, filled my skills gaps and channelled my strength and anger into throwing javelins instead of furniture. My life would have been very different if it had not been for them. I would not have trained to be a teacher and chosen to work with children like me.
School leaders need to take steps to ensure that children affected by trauma can thrive rather than just survive. They need to recognise that there is no low-cost, quick-fix solution, because the damage has often been done over many years. A handful of strategies implemented over a term by a few staff will not work; nothing short of a whole-school approach will create an environment that enables children to feel safe, supported, valued and ready to learn.
There is no low-cost, quick-fix solution
Heads must take stock of the number of trauma-affected children. To do this they need to attend comprehensive ACEs and trauma training to understand the huge impact that these have on children’s social, emotional, neurological, sensorial, physiological, moral and cognitive development.
They should then explore interventions, policies and procedures that support and accommodate children suffering the repercussions of ACEs/trauma and discuss with their senior leadership team (SLT) which approaches are suitable for their school and, most importantly, the children.
Once the key issues have been identified, all staff should get relevant training. This should include specialist ACEs and trauma training from an external provider that ideally should be topped up regularly.
The whole-school approach should ensure that frontline staff are equipped to support pupils whilst the SLT can embed the knowledge they have acquired into school policies and procedures.
Strategies to aid vulnerable pupils, backed by resources, are essential. For example this might involve the SLT buying in a social and emotional learning (SEL) programme or introducing “calm corners” into all classrooms, backed with training and resources on how to do this effectively.
Wider school policies should be reviewed too. Research suggests that zero tolerance and punitive behaviour policies, for example, are ineffective for children who have had difficult childhoods (see Zero-Tolerance Policies in U.S. Schools are Ineffective and Unaffordable and Unlocking the Door to Learning: Trauma-Informed Classrooms & Transformational Schools).
Schools should consider instead restorative practices to improve and repair relationships between people and communities. For example, creating a space where conflicts can be discussed and resolved; providing appropriate resources (scripts) to support discussions; and introducing whole-class negotiations as to appropriate next steps for adverse behaviours.
These children benefit from the most qualified and experienced staff who truly understand what has happened to them and the impact it has had on their bodies and minds; staff who will be there consistently and compassionately, no matter what is thrown at them. These staff need to be effectively supported too.