Trauma-informed practice is the right response to austerity

8 Mar 2020, 5:00

Trauma-informed practice is good for everyone and best of all for the most vulnerable. Why would our government favour compliance instead? asks Colin Diamond

Speeches like Gavin Williamson’s last week, in which he appeared to endorse the nationwide replication of so-called “no-excuses” or “warm-strict” schools, hardly deserve the attention, let alone the heat, they generate. In truth, even if the political desire is for uber-compliance, it is unlikely ever to become the norm. If nothing else, the school system simply doesn’t have the capacity to deal with the level of exclusions that would result.

As government policy moves inexorably towards an ever-tighter definition of the role of schools and teachers, an increasing number in the profession are turning to attachment theory and trauma-informed practice to make sense of their work and its daily demands. Some seek to characterise professionals who champion this work as lowering the bar on behaviour standards in schools. No. This is the key to understanding vulnerable pupils and unlocking their potential.

All of us in education want children to do well, and each of us understands that this requires children to be ready to learn. For teachers struggling in schools with chaotic classrooms and corridors, emulating the warm-strict diet is an understandably seductive prospect, yet many schools in challenging contexts manage to maintain high standards and be inclusive.

For my part, that approach is highly preferable on the grounds of social cohesion alone. In that spirit of consensus, it’s worth noting that there is no dividing line between being research-informed and being attachment- and trauma-informed.

Absence of resilience is often a symptom of emotional or physical damage

Many ministers over the past decade, for example, have promoted growth mindsets, grit and resilience. The last secretary of state even championed the idea of Gatsby-style benchmarks for character education. We can certainly agree that teaching and modelling resilience to young people is desirable. But we must also share an understanding that its absence is often a symptom of emotional or physical damage.

It won’t do, then, to teach resilience without teaching what to do when someone in our life lacks it.  In the current policy era, I have witnessed a student arriving at secondary school distressed and minus a few items of uniform. The school’s response was to put that young person in an exclusion room, compounding the damage. This was rationalised as “maintaining standards”, but no standard that perpetuates or aggravates abuse should be maintained. A good test is to ask whether you would treat a young person like this if they turned up at your house.

As a young teacher, before we had terms like Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), I ran an on-site secondary school unit for pupils with additional needs. It wasn’t unusual to hear my students referred to as “the mad, the bad and the sad” by ill-informed colleagues. The truth was that the behaviours they manifested could not be dealt with by what I was learning at the Institute of Education.

So I trained at the Tavistock Clinic to understand how to meet their needs. I read John Bowlby’s book The Making and Breaking of Affectional Bonds and I learned to see that my students were unable to form and sustain healthy relationships at home or in school because adults, particularly male parents and carers, had let them down from an early age and broken their trust.

As heads report enormous concerns about children’s mental health, compounded by poverty and instability, it’s tempting to say the book and the theory’s time have come again. In fact, its time never really went away. That’s not advocating a low bar for children’s behaviour in school. It’s setting a high one for adults.

Being knowledge rich may well be the ticket to individuals’ future economic prosperity, but happiness is not dependent on that alone. A prosperous society is more than the sum of its parts, and we will continue to be denied it as long as wellbeing is relegated to an also-ran, and the resulting rise in exclusions and elective home education is normalised.

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