“Educators, please gather round as I present this case study, and at the end you will each propose your diagnosis or treatment plan. This child is persistently confrontational and has been involved in several fights. He has a short attention span and his mum says he has been causing trouble on the estate. We are concerned about the impact he is having on the other children and also that his academic attainment appears to be suffering. Your thoughts please?” A variety of suggestions are now made; talk of tighter boundaries both at home and school, suggestions of a mentoring program and school report, a screening tool for SEND is emailed around, all whilst Mr Gammon the Art teacher silently contemplates the thought that the little sod probably just needs a good slap.
“Well, in order to support your thinking, I’ve brought along some extra help. Mrs. Geneticist thinks it might be epigenetic influences triggered by his environment, perhaps specifically in the expression of the MAOA, DAT1 or DRS2 genes. Mr. Evolutionary Biologist wants to point out how common it is to see aggressive competition over mating opportunities within mammals, especially at this stage of development. Sir Child Psychiatrist is collecting information that may indicate a pattern of disorganised attachment, whereas Dame Endocrinologist wonders if it is connected to his cortisol levels, and if that is linked to a dysregulated stress-response system. Dr Systemic Therapist thinks that the family dynamics may be influencing his behaviour and Lady Psychologist is wondering whether there is an element of transgenerational trauma compounded by structural and systemic racism. It appears Mr Gammon has left the room.”
Absurd as this example is (other than a totally random choice of Art teacher, I hope I have not misrepresented or undermined any of the professions above), it serves to illustrate an error in our collective thinking, essentially to over-emphasise the importance of the “bucket” (professional milieu) you happen to live inside of. To fall for categorical thinking, as if behaviour can be explained by the actions of one parent, of one neurotransmitter, by one childhood trauma or one failure to apply a consistent behaviour policy. Within education, this thinking error would manifest as the belief that what we do in our schools explains the behaviour in them, or that the expertise that will improve the behaviour within our nation’s schools will come from within its schools.
In 2008/09, the rate of permanent exclusion was 0.09% and there were 307,000 fixed term exclusions. Nearly a decade later, the rate of permanent exclusion in 2017/18 was 0.10% and there were 410,000 fixed term exclusions (1). “The evidence on changes in pupil behaviour over time is mixed, with no conclusive perceptions of behaviour improving or worsening” said a government summary (2). We have failed to change the long-standing disproportionate exclusion of students with special educational needs, those living in poverty, those in care and those from specific ethnic groups. Teacher surveys on school behaviour in 2018 showed that 57% believe it has deteriorated in the last 5 years and 32% believe there has been no change (3). It is time for us to stop pootling around in our own bucket.
In a wonderful introduction to Human Behavioural Biology, available on YouTube (4), Professor Robert Sapolsky highlights three problems with categorical thinking, where we focus solely on our own professional platform to try and explain things:
1. “When you think in categories, you underestimate how different two facts are within the same category”
In the most recent initiative to improve behaviour, the DfE revealed a new behaviour taskforce (5); one lead and six advisors whose role is to “support 20 lead schools with “exemplary behaviour” to help others tackle classroom disruption”. Two quotes sum up the “same bucket” thinking of this initiative: “Give all schools the tools they need to improve behaviour by making sure that they can learn from the best (schools)” (Gavin Williamson), and “Behaviour hubs will support these schools with the schools who know how to turn things around” (Tom Bennett). If I have understood the process correctly, it involves selecting a small number of schools who are perceived to have predominantly excellent behaviour and getting them to support / advise a larger number of schools who are perceived to have problems in managing behaviour. There is unlikely to be “new information” regarding improving behaviour in schools, as we can assume that this would have been disseminated to all. I don’t think anyone can argue against the sharing of advice that has been effective in one setting, which may have the potential to help another setting. But recall point #1 and remember we may be overestimating the similarity of schools and the transferability of interventions within the contexts in which they operate.
A large variety of factors have been found to influence behaviour in schools. Example 1: comparative wealth. We know that there is a strong correlation in the UK between the level of comparative economic deprivation of an area and the amount of negative behaviour within school that is serious enough to trigger an exclusion (6). Example 2: size of school. Evidence from the USA found that serious violent crime in schools occurred at different rates depending on the size of the student body with large schools having a higher rate of incidents (7). Think of all the other things that could affect behaviour within a specific, local student body… a rise in gang-related activity in the area, civil unrest or protest, access to mental health services, budgeting from the local authority, health epidemics, disintegration of a local industry causing unemployment, homogeneity of local culture, racial and/or religious tensions between groups, structural racism within the community, access to green outdoor spaces… the point being, to assume something that appears to be effective in one context is going to be effective in another might be one hell of a huge assumption.
2. “When you think in categories, you overestimate how different they are when there happens to be a boundary between them”
“Teachers are NOT therapists” is a frequent phrase used whenever mental health is mentioned in the context of education. Knowing the boundaries between categories like this help to keep us all safe and hopefully stop the local publican performing an emergency tracheotomy because he has seen it done on “24 hours in A&E”. Teacher and therapist are obviously in two completely separate buckets, unless you happen to have qualifications in both! Except, controversially perhaps, this didn’t really square with my personal experiences in teaching. With absolutely no intention of acting as a therapist, I have spent hours listening to children who feel suicidal, children who have been sexually assaulted and children with undiagnosed and diagnosed mental health conditions such as PTSD, anxiety and depression. Whilst running a unit for students at risk of exclusion, I have spent day after day directly supporting children who self-harm, children who have sexually abused others, and children who have witnessed unspeakable violence. So thank goodness I have a PGCE in Secondary Physical Education. And for anyone who mis-interpreted that as flippancy, it was my sarcastic expression of bitter resentment. I resented my lack of training and absence of clinical supervision. I was envious of those who could “end a session” after an hour because I spent almost the whole school day with my “non-clients”. And despite my self-imposed, arbitrary boundaries, that in my own mind kept the gap between what I was doing and therapy, I wondered how different I really was. (Interesting activity for you = Google “skills of a therapist”)
3. “When you pay attention to categorical boundaries, you don’t see big pictures”
BIG QUESTION: What would it take to bring about a sustainable improvement in school behaviour in the UK?
If there are achievable answers to this question, how likely is it that WE (educators) will find them? We must have some advantages, surely! WE understand behaviour because we have taught thousands of children, of different ages, and across a range of school systems. WE understand behaviour because we have been on leadership teams charged with the responsibility for planning and implementing different behaviour strategies and been directly affected by the impact of their results. ONLY WE should be able to comment on behaviour in schools (even though WE often hold completely contradictory views!) WE accept we have a boundary to our “expertise”; it gives us confidence and WE can use it to “other” those who challenge it. If that was painful to read, or felt particularly insulting, I am happy to hurl myself onto this conceptual sword, because I am currently a behaviour consultant within education. This requires no qualifications; “behaviour specialist” is a title which anyone is free to bestow upon themselves. My work is neither systemically regulated, nor could it be described as objectively rated. No-one, yet, has ever asked me what research or experience I rely on that comes from outside of the realm of education. My job, thus far, has been reliant on me “selling” my experience within the bucket, yet the biggest shift in behavioural thinking within schools over the last couple of years has come from outside the bucket.
Trauma-informed (or Trauma-responsive) education is a developing, sometimes messy and ill-defined, shift in thinking that has come from outside the education bucket. Decades of clinical research across child psychiatry, neuroscience, endocrinology, genetics and epigenetics, to name just a few areas, which repeatedly point to the impact of nurturing relationships and the importance of the individual’s stress-response system in directing behaviour. Many educators may have felt that they “instinctively” knew this, many others may still be actively resisting it. Either way, we did not earn the evidence base for it. The “gold standard” of clinical research is the Randomised Controlled Trial (RCT) and these are notoriously difficult to implement in schools, particularly in relation to large-scale behavioural intervention. A review of RCTs in education spanning 36 years found 1017 studies, the majority of which were done in North America (8) (in comparison, there are over 1.5 million studies of this type in the Cochrane Library, which informs healthcare decision-making). This led the CEO of the Campbell Collaboration to conclude “the scorecard shows that education is badly and sadly lagging health in the production of evidence and evidence-based products (9).” If we are to rely on our own bucket-specific evidence for change, we will clearly be waiting a long time to do it. When I consider how I learned to survive in the classroom, I don’t recall being aware of research-led evidence; I remember putting together my own instincts with the modelling of other teachers (cherry-picked of course!) And making a lot of mistakes along the way, because behaviour management is not simple.
Seeing as he provided the framework for my rambling thoughts, let’s return to the words of Professor Sapolsky from the talk mentioned earlier: “There’s no buckets. All there are, are temporary platforms, and each platform is simply the easiest, most convenient way of describing the outcome of everything that came beforehand, starting with millenia back in evolution”. (Professor Robert Sapolsky). Educators, I think if we impose the boundaries of a bucket upon ourselves, we might not even SEE the big picture, let alone be well-placed to make our mark upon it.
This might seem like the start of an odd opinion from someone who is currently trialling a more trauma-informed model of education in a prison, recently spoke on a podcast called the "Trauma-informed Educators Network" and spends her spare time reading research on the effects of trauma on the brain and trying to apply this to educational settings. But hear me out...
Firstly, the word "trauma" has some pretty negative connotations. It's certainly not something educators should be discussing with young people, using to label young people or trying to diagnose young people with (particularly as it isn't a diagnosis!) Many of us may recognise it in our pasts; it may have been an important part of understanding things that have happened to us, but that is part of an individual journey of integrating narrative and maybe not something that should be forced onto anyone.
Secondly, it isn't a word that many educators associate with their students. Senior leaders may be loathe to invest in training for something that may be judged to affect only a tiny minority of students (although there is no objective way of knowing if that is true). It can be hard enough to convince some that their most disaffected, disengaged students are worth the investment, when exclusion, off-rolling or moves to other provisions can feel like quicker, "cleaner", more immediate wins for staff and students. The use of the word "trauma" could be a barrier to convincing a school's leadership that certain strategies are useful for many.
Trauma, particularly during the years when the brain is developing, does affect our neurobiology and consequently our behaviour; whether that is through externalising behaviours such as defiance and aggression or internalising, such as avoidance and numbing. Most trauma-informed educational initiatives encourage staff to start to understand these changes and consider their responses through a different lens. So why would we start that learning process with a language that we cannot universalise and share with the young people we work with?
One of the "hallmarks" of complex trauma (also sometimes described as developmental trauma) is a state of dysregulation. Physical dysregulation and psychological (including emotional) dysregulation. And we all experience this... it's what we describe as being STRESSED OUT! Think about the physical and psychological symptoms you experience when you are tired, hungry, ill or worried that you cannot cope with the demands of your environment. We become less logical and rational at these times because the deeper, more primitive, systems of the brain are taking over, reducing the use of our incredibly skilled cortex, which does all our executive functioning such as planning, problem solving, analysing... sounds like some stuff we would need to access new information in any educational setting. Luckily for most of us, we shift back to our cortex, sometimes using specific strategies, and recover from our stressed state.
My point is that whether a young person is in an acutely stressed state because of developmental trauma, or because their dog is terminally ill, really doesn't matter when it comes to an appropriate immediate response. A child doesn't need to be traumatised to be extremely dysregulated. And neither do we. If we all stayed in our logical, thoughtful cortices, road rage wouldn't exist and we wouldn't shout hurtful things at people who care about us. Time, help with regulation and supportive relationships will help anyone through their stress, whether adult or child. This process is frequently known as Regulate, Relate, Reason and is a sensible approach for any trauma-informed or "stress-informed" educational provision. The only difference in being aware of the effects of developmental trauma is the knowledge of how the chronic stress that they can be under can matter in ways that have a huge impact on their ability to access learning in a school environment. The state of stress for them has effectively become a trait.
We know that young people who have experienced high levels of adversity will often experience changes in their stress-response system and this is so important to understand as educators because of the hyper-vigilant state that some of our students exist in. "A person with an overactive stress-response system would pay close attention to the faces of people like teachers and classmates, where threat might lurk, but not to benign things like classroom lessons" (Perry & Szalavitz, 2008). Research has indicated changes in cortisol levels, heart rate, brain volume, and a whole other range of differences in brain structure and function. Cook (2005) did an incredible summary of the impairments caused by complex trauma and most teachers will recognise a student they have taught who has come from a disrupted or potentially unsafe background: difficulties in focusing attention, problems with boundaries, difficulties with perspective-taking, difficulty complying with rules, aggression towards others, impulsiveness... the list goes on and on (and I highly recommend looking up the seven domains of impairment that Cook published).
These are typically the young people who struggle in school, sometimes from a very young age, and statistically are more likely to get permanently excluded; they are also more likely to be in the secure estate (see the large Welsh ACEs study that showed those with 4 or more adverse childhood experiences were 20 times more likely to have been incarcerated). And we NEED trauma-informed education strategies for them but some of these are exactly the same as "stress-informed" strategies, and STRESS is a concept that young people will find far easier to grasp, talk about and most importantly it is an equaliser, which normalises those reactions for us all. It allows a more human connection and therefore enhances relationships, which are a HUGE, FUNDAMENTAL, INTEGRAL (I don't have a thesaurus, but I am trying to emphasise the point!) part of both helping someone recover from a stressed state and helping someone heal from trauma.
So I will be trialling the term "Stress-informed Education" (TM)… and am interested to see the response.
Thoughts, as always, are welcome - please send them the way of @KatStern4!
Perry, B.D. & Szalavitz, M., (2008), “The Boy Who Was Raised As A Dog: and other stories from a child psychiatrist’s notebook: what traumatized children can teach us about loss, love and healing”, New York: Basic Books
Cook, A., Spinazzola, J., Ford, J., Lanktree, C., Blaustein, M., Cloitre, M., DeRosa, R., Hubbard, R., Kagan, R., Liautaud, J., Mallah, K., Olafson, E., & van der Kolk, B. (2005). Complex Trauma in Children and Adolescents. Psychiatric Annals, 35(5), 390–398
Senior leaders and teachers can feel overwhelmed with the current information on trauma-informed approaches to behaviour in schools. Sometimes it can feel like it's been designed by people who have never taught 30 students at a time, or had to design a behaviour policy for 1500 children. Sometimes it can feel a bit short of actual strategies and more of a generalised approach - e.g. it all "just" boils down to relationships...
So here, for the pragmatists who want immediate change, are some straightforward ideas that are borne out of current understanding of trauma and its' effects on the developing brain... (hint: you are going to realise you already do some of these):
1. Show them the plan
Have a clear schedule of activities somewhere visual in each lesson. If there need to be changes, explain them. Sound too simple? It reduces anxiety based on unpredictability of what happens next and helps traumatised young people plan for transitions between activity. Many students struggle with transitions between states of arousal (think how bouncy they can be in the lesson after lunch); trauma makes it even harder to regulate our brains and bodies, so help them by clearly indicating when it will be group work, silent work or game time!
2. Proactive planning for regulation
"Lack of capacity for emotional self-regulation is probably the most striking feature of chronically traumatised children" (van der Kolk, 2003). They ARE going to lose control of their emotions, and with it lose much of their capacity for logical thought, which is always a challenge for educationalists as we are often used to relying on the reasoning part of the brain to engage with young people. They will do this less if we plan ways for them to physically and mentally regulate within lessons. What helps us regulate the deeper structures in the brain? Physically: movement, rhythm, breathing control and sensory input such as touch and smell. I currently work with incarcerated young people and we use a range of tools such as scented fabric, lap pads, fidgets and a time out room with lots more. There are also simple cognitive strategies that children can learn, such as grounding, positive self-talk and mindfulness, but be aware these might require one-to-one tuition and lots of rehearsal.
3. Regulate, Relate, Reason
When the emotional outbursts occur, it may be possible to manage them in the classroom. Give them time, space, explicit personal support and a distraction task (e.g. Billy could you spend a few minutes sorting the coloured pens / cones for me). Expect it to take a while for them to settle; once the "alarm" system in the brain has fired, there is no immediate fix. If they need to be removed from the lesson, follow in the order Regulate, Relate, Reason. Again, time, space, sensory distraction and allow their stress-response system to settle; if needed and at all possible, co-regulate with them. The next thing they will need is to feel some connection (all of this is really about helping the mind to feel safe again). Engage with them as a human being and demonstrate your personal support; you will get much more out of the final stage (Reason) where you want them to empathise, reflect on what happened and start to mend it.
4. Spot the signs
Young people often don't arrive in your lesson with a diagnosis of PTSD or complex trauma. Many children have witnessed domestic violence, live with substance abusers or are experiencing extreme neglect, and often we are not aware in school. Look for persistent and impairing behaviours, i.e. across a range of contexts and those which have a significant negative impact on their life. Check for those who "zone out" in lessons and truant, as well as those who "explode". A lack of trust in the majority of adults can also be a good indicator. If you have concerns about persistent and impairing behaviours, refer to specialists for further assessment. In the meantime, get them spending time with a key adult who they can build trust in.
5. Look after your staff and yourself
Working with students whose stress-response systems are constantly firing, triggers responses in our own. Ever felt like an emotional punching bag for a child? Ever wondered why they seem to be taking everything out on you? The best way to help is to look after your own wellbeing first and then stay calm and remember it actually isn't personal (however much they try and convince you it is!) Much as we know that as teachers we are completely safe and would never intentionally harm them, their brain may be unable to perceive us as safe. This can change, but it takes a huge amount of repetition and every time one of us has a positive interaction with them, we help the mind heal. But we have to be ok ourselves to have the patience and compassion to do this, so ask for help when needed!
To embed trauma-informed education in a school takes more than these 5 strategies, but hopefully they are a useful starting point and will benefit all students at some point or another. For a bespoke package that is tailored to your school, get in contact!
"The neurobiology of childhood trauma and abuse", van der Kolk, B., (2003), Child Adolesc Psychiatric Clin N Am, 12:293-317
In the above article, John Blake (Head of Education at Policy Exchange) ironically makes the same mistake as he is attributing to the Parliamentary Education Committee - that of interpreting the recent increase in exclusions with his own judgements of “why”, “who”, and “what should be”. It is nonsensical to argue within the same article that “no-one - not the select committee, not the Department for Education, or Ofsted - knows what the “correct” level of exclusions should be” and follow that with his own opinion that it is “perhaps more likely that it is that there are too few, not too many”. By implication, there is in fact a “correct” level that only he is aware of… or he may be just seeking controversy to increase his readership. Regardless, are we really in a position to assess the use of exclusions based on this data? Or the individual motivations behind use of exclusion?
In the heated debate over school exclusion, there is often a great deal of anecdotal evidence and personal experience that comes to bear on our opinions. This might frustrate those who are trying to somehow “clear up” the argument by removing subjective bias, but it reflects the lack of objective information that we have, or are able to successfully gather as to how permanent exclusions are being used. For many of us, this is also an extremely emotive topic and this is not something that I think anyone should be ashamed of. It is intrinsically linked to poverty, mental health, special educational needs and many other complex issues within our society - permanent exclusion is disproportionate and not a reflection of the individual decision-making process of each child. Trust me, I currently work in a Young Offenders’ Institute where 40% of young people have been through, or are still in, the care system and, whilst I am not claiming this is a causal link, 88% of incarcerated youth have been found to be excluded from school at some point (MOJ, 2013). If you are seeking an accurate and reflective cross-section of society, you will not find it in the education provision of a YOI.
My lack of faith that we can currently interpret how permanent exclusions are being used is definitely influenced by personal experience. As a practitioner, I spent 5 years running a unit for students at risk of exclusion, within a large mainstream academy, and by the end of the first month I had realised that my new role was really that of a mental health worker. What I worked with, side-by-side, day after day, was a roll-call of undiagnosed ADHD, anxiety, self-harm, PTSD, depression, ASC and developmental trauma. These things change the brain and change behaviour - not my opinion, but surely a clinical consensus. So I have a bias around exclusion of vulnerable students, but hopefully I can use this to inform my strategic thinking at a whole-school leadership level without dismissing the lessons learned through the different perspectives of others.
Having touched on my personal experience, here’s some of my anecdotal evidence, none of which would have made it into any data collection or study. I have been in meetings where parents are clearly told to move school or off-roll their child, else they will be permanently excluded. In a similar vein, I have seen parents told the school is doing a “managed move” for their child to the borough Pupil Referral Unit and if they reject this, their child will be permanently excluded. I have watched all 3 siblings from the same family within the same school be permanently excluded on not one, but two occasions. I have been aware of 5 students who were off-rolled against their will at the end of year 10 for persistent absenteeism and told the only way they could rejoin the school was to enroll in year 10 again the next year. The disabled, single parent of one of these students took the school to court and won; none of the others mounted a legal challenge and their children drifted out of the system. Anecdotes matter… for a start, they can help identify the questions that need to be asked and how best to ask them.
From a leadership perspective, I have also struggled with finding the right way to improve standards of behaviour across schools in different contexts (and I believe that context matters!) I have watched other leaders struggle with difficult decisions that try and balance the needs of an individual child with the impact of those needs on others, both students and staff. I have seen many “reluctant” exclusions and shared in the frustration that social services and/or CAMHS have been unable to help further to support a child. So whilst my opinion may carry little weight at any influential level, I think we can all avoid simply commentating and try and help contribute suggestions as to how we can improve. Here are three preliminary thoughts:
A response to Channel 4’s “What makes a murderer?” - are there implications for working with young people?
Trigger warning: article and program discuss a murder, the experience of being placed in care and psychopathology
I'd like to start with the elephant in the room; the impact of John Massey’s acts are just not featured. We are given his description of the events leading up to the shooting of a nightclub bouncer and some of the detail of how he says the murder was committed, but anyone trying to examine this program’s content from a morality “balancing-act” perspective will be deeply frustrated. This decision on the part of the program-makers may well be to protect the family and friends of the victim, or it may be to try and avoid moral judgement altogether and recognise this as simply a presentation on the neuroscience of an individual who committed multiple crimes. If the subject is indeed a psychopath (as those involved strongly suggest), the viewer is in a way being asked to mirror a similar perspective to this type of personality - at least in the sense of being dispassionate about the fear, grief and loss of the many individuals who will have been affected by Massey’s actions.
During the program, Professor Adrian Raine and Dr. Vicky Thakordas-Desai performed a number of tests, including MRI scans of the subject’s brain, and found the following:
1. John Massey was born with a type of serotonin-transporter gene that means low levels of this neurotransmitter (which contributes to feelings of happiness and well-being) are available.
2. His amygdala is shrunken on one side of his brain, which means he has a reduced response to threat (he experiences less fear and stress).
3. His striata, which anticipate reward, are enlarged to the point of being in the top 1% of the population. This encourages a predisposition to risk-taking.
4. His insula, which help us recognise emotion in others, functions poorly when viewing fear, leading to a lack of empathy for others’ distress.
So what has any of this got to do with young people? Well, I'm currently in the business of educating incarcerated young offenders aged 15-17 and 2018 data from England and Wales shows that “violence against the person” accounted for the sentencing of 41% of the youth custody population. We are in the process of embedding a trauma-informed, therapeutic education policy based on current research of the brain as it is affected by developmental trauma and PTSD/CPTSD. Our systems are being designed around an over-stimulated stress-response system, difficulties with emotional regulation, poor relationship-building, re-enactment of trauma and the effect that all of this has on the ability to engage the executive functioning areas of our brain that are necessary to learn. But here's the spanner in the works… John Massey doesn't fit into these categories. Whether he ever did is up for debate, but he wouldn't have done at 16 years old, and he doesn't now. Our education policy doesn't match his brain. Which raises some interesting questions - how would we do that? Is it even possible? And is it both a useful and just investment of our time to do so?
I distinctly remember having a conversation with a 12 year old where I described how we had a “watchtower with a guard” in our brains that was there to look out for danger (the amygdala), and how my guard was sitting in a deck-chair reading a magazine, because they didn't feel needed right then. He interrupted me and said, “Why would you only have one guard? You need at least four, so they can face in different directions. In fact, put a ring of ten, all facing outwards. And outside the tower, you need an army.” This young person had perfectly described what it feels like to have an amygdala that senses threat often and indiscriminately, making them “hyper vigilant” to perceived danger. Put this in a classroom context, their stress-response system can go off every time someone walks past the room, flashes a light, drops a book, stands up, moves close to them or changes the tone of their voice. The least threatening cue in that environment is the maths problem on the board, so that is the last thing their brains will attend to and any sensory information will distract them from it. The best way I can describe my experience of working with traumatised young people is that they are subconsciously scared all the time. In this sense, they are the complete opposite of John Massey.
All of this poses a massive challenge to prison education. Statistically, we are more likely to find a young John there than in a mainstream classroom. The C4 program states that about 1% of the general population has a psychopathic personality but in murderers that base-rate is 25% (no source provided) and a tragic consequence of the rise in knife crime is that we have also had a rise in the number of young people serving life sentences. We are also far more likely to find traumatised young people in this classroom, who have experienced huge adversity, for starters, 39% of incarcerated young offenders in the UK have been through, or are still in, the care system. Investigations into the American juvenile justice system found that more than 82% reported exposure to multiple traumatic events (Costello 2002). Therefore, within the same classroom, you may be more likely to have the extreme ends of the continuum… from someone living in a state of complete hypervigilance to someone who feels almost no fear at all. One whose amygdala fires so often they lose their capacity to concentrate versus one who is capable of using a high level of focus to manipulate everything towards an anticipated personal reward. Essentially, it is the difference between a brain that is struggling to regulate itself and form trusting attachments and one that is regulated but unempathetic, seeks to manipulate for personal gain and has no emotional interest in relationships. Now might be a good time to remind ourselves that the teachers in these environments are required to have no further qualifications or specialist training than regular teachers in any mainstream school.
So if we start to recognise the extreme differences in the brain structure and function of various young people, it becomes easier to understand why their thoughts and actions are so deeply affected. There is now plenty of information regarding developmental trauma and how wide-ranging the effects can be; from aggression, problems with boundaries and substance abuse to poor concentration, lack of sustained curiosity and learning difficulties (see Cook’s domains of impairment, 2005). In addition, it helps explain why there is a continual debate within the education community about the “intent” of anti-social behaviour. We variously interpret actions as a marker of extreme distress due to adverse experience, or calculated misbehaviour due to a lack of punitive boundaries. Is the validity of our own analysis something we can measure? Absolutely not, it is fundamentally biased, including by our own emotional response to the situation and/or young person. But that is where academic and clinical research can be helpful. The history of school disengagement and exclusion found in our prison cohort tells us we have to do something differently.
So, for the moment, we will be continuing to develop our trauma-informed approach to teaching and learning in a prison classroom environment, whilst measuring the impact against a control group in the hope that our findings may be useful to others. We will be basing our interventions on approaches that have proven useful in therapeutic settings. And until there is some valid research that shows success in changing the brains that are similar to James Massey (which we will do our best to transpose across to a classroom setting), I guess we will just have to manage as best we can. You might want to wish us luck...
Youth Justice Statistics 2017/18 England and Wales, Youth Justice Board/Ministry of Justice
Prison: the facts, Bromley Briefings 2019, Prison Reform Trust
Cook, A. et al., (2005), Complex Trauma in Children and Adolescents, Psychiatric Annals, 35(5):390-98
Six books that I've found invaluable - in case you are wondering where to start or which will be most applicable, I've summarised below:
1. The Boy Who Was Raised As A Dog - the single most brilliant book I've read to inform a deeper understanding of trauma on the brain. Essentially case studies from the perspective of a child psychiatrist. Note - some of the realities of the cases are upsetting. All of them are handled sensitively and used to take the reader on a journey that makes topics such as sensitisation, tolerance and neuroplasticity, accessible to non-specialists.
2. Attachment Disorder - Bullet Point Guide - a nice primer for understanding some of the "why" behind the behaviours young people demonstrate that, when taken at face-value, appear to be illogical.
3. The Body Keeps The Score - a look at how PTSD and other forms of trauma are "stored" in the body and brain.
4. Anger Is My Friend - a super-accessible book on anger, how we display it and how it feels. Great to use as a prompt with young people and should be in all secondary school libraries. Use it for circle-time discussions or PSHE lessons.
5. Therapeutic Residential Care - might be too niche for some, but a wonderful look at expanding trauma-informed approaches into the home environment. Honest and highly-skilled reflections.
6. Treating Traumatic Stress in Children & Adolescents - depends how deep you want to explore! Some lovely activities at the back, can be used by mentors/counsellors, etc. Great section on understanding how parents/carers feel and the challenges of regulating themselves as well as their child. Not designed for the education market, but it is all applied theory rather than deep neuroscience, so check it out!
Dear young person,
Please could you regulate the following, through the school day:
1. The time you arrive to school. There is no point blaming the bus or your baby brother, you are responsible for this so take the detention and leave earlier next time.
2. The equipment you have brought. Go through your timetable and pack it all the night before, then you can just pick it up and go! If you lost it yesterday, then you should have replaced it by this morning.
3. The homework you are set. This is why you have a homework planner and record the deadlines in it. If you have any problems doing the homework, then contact other students / the librarian / the teacher for help. If you didn't leave enough time to do this, then you need to start sooner next time.
4. What you eat and drink. Junk food is not allowed, so spend the £2 cash your family have given you on something healthy in Poundland and make sure they have topped up ParentPay for your lunch card.
5. When you need the toilet.
6. Your output level. This should not be affected by boredom, fatigue, stress or low self-confidence as you should be practicing the important life skills of resilience, focus and determination.
7. What you say and do to others. No matter what they say or do to you.
8. What you feel. When you are angry... calm down. When you are worried... put it to the back of your mind. Avoid these feelings "spilling over" into your interactions with others.
9. Your special educational need. We accept that this is not something you can regulate, but it needs to be contained within whatever extra support or strategies we can provide.
10. Your behaviour. The only thing you can control is yourself. If you are behind your peers in terms of brain development of the structures needed to self-regulate, you had better catch up fast... (see https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-49150993 "Disadvantaged pupils stuck 18 months behind)
Pause for thought: Educationalists, if you could rank these in order of importance, (discounting number 10), how would you do it? If you were leading a school, are there any of these "battles" you would choose first?
There has been a lot of discussion about a behaviour curriculum that sits alongside an academic one, but maybe less evidence of what that might look like.
Maslow's hierarchy of needs seems like a reasonable starting point in terms of regulation. Level 1 "Physiological" - from here the particularly relevant needs would be food, water, sleep and excretion. I wonder how many of us chose 4 and 5 from the list as priorities? There are definitely students who struggle with food and sleep due to welfare issues and mental health difficulties; however it is usually the school itself that tries to control excretion! Plenty of good advice is given around going to bed earlier, switching off mobiles etc., but actual sleep can be very difficult to regulate. As can getting through an hour and a half lesson after lunch without your body digesting and needing to excrete whatever you ingested. Some suggestions for how to help students regulate level 1:
- Co-create some strategies for tiredness with them that they can use during the day - getting up and stretching their muscles, opening the window, splashing cold water on their face, checking each other, going outside during breaks, getting some exercise where possible, setting small work progress targets in lesson, etc. Flag up the persistently tired or sudden "zombies" to pastoral/health teams in school. Remember sleeping problems are associated with depression and anxiety; two of the most common mental health issues. And that tiredness happens to all of us (particularly I find when I sit still and listen for a while); it is not the fault of the teacher, lesson or child. Teach and remind them of strategies to wind down before bed, but also those to try when they cannot sleep.
- Be proactive and prevent issues with your schools' food, water and toilet plans. How do students who don't have enough to eat subtly remedy that? Educate all students and staff about the effects of low blood sugar or dehydration on their performance and mood. How do you move forward with parents/carers who don't put enough money on their card? How many water fountains and toilets are there? How would you react if someone told you that you couldn't go to the toilet? Is your system for going for water / to the toilet, something that meets their needs or simply something you believe you can cope with? Review whether your Free School Meal and food provision for internally excluded students is enough to meet their calorific need.
On to Level 2 "Safety", and some questions from Maslow to reflect on: "Do you feel physically safe right now? Do you have enough money to feel financially secure? Are your family and the people you care about safe? Are you concerned about your health? Are your belongings secure from damage or theft? Are you under any kind of attack, whether emotional or moral? Are there people around you, who care enough to try and keep you safe?
My most memorable teaching quote was from a primary headteacher collecting a lifetime service Teaching Award, who turned to the camera and said "They cannot learn until they feel safe". Do not fool yourself that because you are a safe human being that the brain of the young person is telling them they are safe in your classroom. You are not the person who might steal their mobile phone, insult their mother in front of a crowd of people, lie about them to the rest of the class, bully them, post on social media about them, take away their best friend, push in front of them in line, point out their bad hair, shit trainers or funky smell... and that is well before we consider what more important things might be on their minds from their lives outside school. (At some point I will do an additional blog about the brain of someone who has experienced trauma or who has been raised in a chaotic and unstable environment, whose amygdala is firing all the time meaning they cannot feel safe and pretty much cannot learn in your classroom, regardless of how safe you are, the other students or the situation around them).
So my argument would follow that the greatest stressor in the mind of a student is not you; but in terms of how they react, you are very much having to deal with the fallout and then it is often "socially safer" for them to focus on blaming you than the real instigator. Some start-up suggestions for how to help students regulate Level 2 (basically become safer with each other...):
- Co-create strategies for as many situations as possible, e.g. What COULD you do if someone pushes in front of you in line? Avoid over-reliance on "tell the teacher"; get them to think through the potential consequences of each action and help them practice empathy ("What if the teacher didn't see it happen? What do you expect them to do then? Is that a reasonable expectation?)
- Get them to reflect on the "why" of each others' behaviour. Start with themselves; how does their mind and body change when they are angry/frustrated/sad/bored/tired/happy/excited? Then onto the thinking behind someone else's behaviour - why might someone insult your mum in front of a crowd of people / deliberately knock your work off your table / start a rumour about you? Go through options for their responses again.
- Teach them about differences between them; why it is easy for some to ignore an insult and feels nearly impossible for others. Get them to think about how little they might know about someone's life if they only know what shows up at school.
Most importantly: get them to plan their own strategies for when their emotions are "feeling too big" and support them in using them. Then get the class to plan group strategies for when someone is out-of-line and help them be consistent with them. Review regularly.
Structure, particularly for lesson starts; routines and consistency (although it doesn't need to be obsessive - look at the level of distress of the child in front of you and be flexible accordingly). If you have varied from these, briefly explain your reason why.
TBC in future blog on trauma-informed education as the overlap is massive.
In summary: As you can see these are early thoughts and I do not assume that they will meet the needs of all staff or contexts. I am a fan of discussion and of reaching for complexity; with that in mind, please be gentle with your disagreement!
Yesterday, I used some of the questions in the previous post when getting a report at the end of the lesson from a student who had struggled to engage in any way and was clearly "locked up" in their own emotions. The report itself was good enough, basically 2s with the occasional 1. The first question went brilliantly... "What was your best lesson of the day?", "(kissed teeth) NONE, they were all jarring man". Huh, evidently I'm a behaviour guru... but perseverance pays off. Second question: "OK, what was your worst lesson of the day?", "Dunno man, no wait English, that was just JARRING". "So how did you cope?" (long pause and then...) "I just shut down man, just aired the teacher when she tried to speak to me. I mean if you don't leave me alone then you get what's coming to you right, me and her would have had problems..."
Tactically ignoring the veiled threat, I empathised instead. "I know that feeling. It's like... I just want my own space, everyone needs to leave me alone and mind their own business". Suddenly everything shifted and the student just opened up in her own difficult way about having a wall and not wanting anyone ever to try and get inside it.
The next day, I picked her up and put her in a room by herself with some reading. Poems, written by an ex-student and used with her permission; raw, angry, sad, blunt, "front", loneliness and vulnerability. By herself, she sat and read every one of them and then stared into space for a long while. She then wandered round the room, collected a piece of paper and began to write (reproduced with permission):
"I'm never going to open up fully. So people shouldn't expect to much from me. I don't care what nobody says but trouble always starts with family. It went from arguments every week to arguments everyday. I went weeks without talking to my parents or brother for that fact. People dont understand people like me. Ive got a increasing number of exclusions to my name and it feels shit. teachers think there doing the right thing by telling you your not gonna make it no where but realisticly there digging you your own hole that your going to struggle getting out off in the future.
I grew up in south east london where you cant walk down a street without finding a bag of green. Kids below the age of 13 standing round a street corner screaming "who wants weed". Just so they could get some money to eat. So it agrivates me when teachers start talking shit about how "when they were younger they listend". The worst thing someone could do to me is compare me to other people my age when they haven't been through my experiences. They havent had to stand in my position and make decisions based on the situation there in at a young age. So excuse me if I dont want to talk about it and the way I act. But Im never going to break my mental wall down so the sooner people realize that the better".
Kids like this want to be found. I didn't push her to read what she had written, she gave it to me. The power of reflection and writing is incredible and the space and time enabled her to think more clearly and say things that she wouldn't have expressed verbally. It was triggered by the honesty of another young person who showed the sadness, frustration, anger and loneliness that she needed to relate to. And the following conversation started the process of changing that perspective.
Some "starters for ten"... Why do we put students on report? On what basis are teachers expected to judge them? Are there consequences for high or low scores? And how many of us are using a four-number system to tick off the four horsemen of the classroom apocalypse: BEHAVIOUR, ATTITUDE, EFFORT, HOMEWORK? It's like the Top Gun Academy designed the process based on feeling the need.... the need for speed (AHA - in high-pitched voice)… Honestly, I've done exactly the same for years and the bit that takes the longest is signing my name.
Is it reasonable to ask subject teachers to spend time unpicking the lesson with every student in the class who is on report? I think not. The realities of teaching a full timetable are that you are generally rushing off to get to the next lesson yourself, or just to get to one of those valuable moments of time that is supposed to be YOURS, e.g. the toilet. When a student hands me a report (hopefully at the start of the lesson, but usually part-way through when it accidentally falls out of something), it gives me a valuable piece of information - they are struggling. Whether it is in one lesson or across the board, something is going wrong and despite how their indifferent or rude behaviour may present, they are probably finding lessons, or even school, a miserable experience.
So within the multitude of competing demands and pressures within my lesson, I might choose to actively pick out a bit more positive, notice when they are just doing the right thing and guide them with as much compassion as I can muster when things go wrong, but mostly this post is more of a discussion about how you as a form tutor, mentor, pastoral lead, etc. can use a terrible and basic system to a greater level of depth. (A note here about using reports to threaten students: I have seen, on more than one occasion, a teacher repeatedly and publicly refer to what they are going to write on a student's report as a tool to manipulate their behaviour - all this does is put more pressure on a student who is already feeling under pressure and probably struggles to self-regulate, HENCE THE REPORT!! You will, of course, be "proven right" about their terrible behaviour when the child explodes; just remember that 99% of the time you will still be getting them back in your classroom, so some empathy may serve you better in the long run).
At the end of the school day, the procedure for the person who the student is "on report to", frequently goes as follows: a) receive tattered, folded square, unfold and peel open pages b) scan down looking for a vague pattern of numbers and any negative outliers c) briefly check if teachers' signatures look as if they have been constructed by an adult's hand, given allowance for being in a rush and not having anything to lean on whilst writing d) All 1s and 2s - praise, any 3s or 4s - berate and ask why they failed, which leads to... e) listen to complicated version of what happened in the lesson to explain the 3s or 4s that you cannot possible judge or comment on (but will try anyway as it feels like a professional duty), because YOU WEREN'T THERE! f) apply detention or merit/praise accordingly.
Wouldn't it be easier if it was just a two-comment system: 1. Good stuff...…. 2. Things to work on.....? Fighter jet pilots would still keep it brief (e.g. 1. No issues and 2. Keep it up) but even "stayed in seat" or "too distracted" gives the pastoral staff something easier to work with ("Why did the teacher choose stayed in seat? Is that something that gets you in trouble in lessons?"...)
But let's assume we are just numbering our horsemen. Here are some suggestions about how to unpick it to something that might be useful, with students who struggle to articulate their experience:
* What was your best lesson of the day? Can you think of three things that made the lesson work well for you?
* Which lesson did you feel like you learned the most? Can you teach me something you learned?
* Did you get any merits? What did you do that made the teacher feel so good about you that they wanted to give you merits?
* This lesson has got some low scores. What did you find hardest in the lesson? How did you cope with that? Now we are outside of that moment, can you figure out why the other student(s)/teacher reacted in that way?
* This subject seems to be a consistently low score. Can you rate the behaviour of the class out of 10? Why would you give it that score? Where do you fit into that picture? If we asked the teacher, where would they rate you compared to the rest of the class? If other students are "getting it wrong", does that change your behaviour? Is that under your control?
* Do you know when you are starting to get into trouble? What does it feel like / what happens? What would help you get back on track? Can we come up with a plan?
Next time you have a student in a 30 minute detention who is on report, try as many of these questions as you can. Help them unpick their thoughts first (no matter how delusional you suspect they may be) and then use a coaching approach. Remember the words they use are just a cover for the emotions, and that they have no earthly idea what it feels like to be a teacher, so getting them to empathise will be a long-term journey, but one you can definitely move them forward on today!
A final post-script - when reports are consistently poor across multiple subjects, please trigger a SEND referral, team around the child (TAC) meeting or whatever your internal processes are. For the many students who arrive in school with undiagnosed ADHD, ASC, dyslexia, PTSD, anxiety, etc. the effects of persistent sanction, removal, isolation and exclusion can be life-changing for them, not only in terms of their mental health, but as the group most likely to be permanently excluded from school and often society. Those with welfare issues, who may live in chaotic and unstable home environments have other more important things on their minds than following our lesson plan and their cognition, attachments and behaviour may be significantly impaired due to developmental trauma and Adverse Childhood Experiences (I am not ready to hand back my primary school Grammar certificate - ACEs are the current trendy acronym, hence the capital letters). Berating these students every day for their poor reports will not improve their behaviour and will cause more harm.
Any topics you would like my rambling thoughts on, (even if it's just to disagree or question who in their right mind gave me a grammar certificate), please post a request in the comments.