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