Vulnerable students need key adults to fight through isolation

19 Mar 2020, 12:11

As schools rush to put home learning and free meals in place, we mustn’t forget the importance of key adults in vulnerable children’s lives, writes Sheila Mulvenney

Even in normal times, the combination of overwhelming stress and lack of adults who can help them manage it can lead children and young people to be unable to regulate their behaviour. As partial closures begin, with schools responsible for supporting vulnerable children, we need to be aware that many of them may end up with reduced access to the very adults who help them to manage themselves. And this in the midst of a situation of prolonged, repeated and inescapable stress for the nation that is likely to be felt hardest by the most vulnerable among us.

It is important to remember that children as well as the adults trying to shield them from it will be suffering from the effects of stress, whether it is evident or not. While small doses of stress can be good for us (call them life’s “desirable difficulties”) resilience is really all about context.

Stress is an integral part of learning. In every class, we know that we have students who cope well with it and students who don’t. Those who don’t are likely either to be experiencing other stress in or outside of school, or to have experienced toxic stress, which can cause injury to the developing brain.

The term toxic stress is used to describe stress which is overwhelming, where there is not enough support from calm adults to help the child regulate. When this happens repeatedly to the developing brain, the result is that the survival instinct (designed to help us fight, flee or freeze to keep us safe) is repeatedly activated. Children who have experienced this are likely to respond to situations where they perceive threat with aggression, reluctance, refusal or disengagement. Situations that otherwise might appear simple enough to cope with quickly become overwhelming – doing work that’s challenging, not being able to sit where they want, the absence of the teacher they were expecting, and so on.

It’s easy to forget, but we are not born able to regulate

While teachers will be undergoing their own stresses, and protecting them from undesirable challenge in the classroom is important, simply sanctioning unwanted student behaviours that are the result of stress is likely to be ineffective. The key is to afford the student the opportunity to learn how to self-regulate.

It’s easy to forget, but we are not born able to regulate. An infancy and childhood of having needs met, developing healthy attachment, and experiencing treatment that is soothing teaches us how to do this for ourselves. It is entirely dependent on adults being available. Predictably, insecure attachments are therefore more likely in situations where there are other adversities (domestic violence, deprivation or substance misuse, for example) or in situations of toxic stress (such as neglect or abuse). But they can develop in any child.

The absence of someone they can trust and attach to so that they can “co-regulate” with them could create the space for many children and young people to unlearn what calm feels like and make repairing the damage caused by their sustained-survival response all the harder in future. And those most likely to need and to miss the key adults they rely on in school are the very same who are least likely to have access to the home-learning opportunities schools are frantically (read: stressfully) working to develop.

In short, the evolving situation of this pandemic has the potential to re-traumatise a huge number of children, so it’s time to ditch the myth that resilience can be developed through adversity. Recent developments in the study of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) seem to show that adversity without support or compensatory experience causes damage to the developing brain rather than developing “character” or “grit”. Recovery from such trauma and adversity may mean that resilience is developed, but not all resilience mechanisms are pro-social.

Schools are already identifying their most vulnerable students and making sure they have access to the hot meals they would otherwise miss. Access to a key adult through regular communication could be just as important to their healthy development.

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