Nowhere in the world should be safer than a school. Yet for all the work that teachers do to create happy and secure learning environments, many children are burdened by harms that follow them wherever they go.
The large body of research on the stark and wide-ranging consequences of traumatic incidents in early life is now impossible to ignore. Adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) such as abuse, neglect, injury or the death of a loved one, are credibly linked to lower educational attainment, mental health problems and even higher rates of heart disease in later life.
Sadly, it is not always within a teacher’s power to prevent pupils from ever falling victim to these experiences. Contrary to some preconceptions, ACEs are a normal part of life, which most people will suffer in their childhoods. Where teachers can make a difference is in how they serve their pupils, who will, for the most part, each be working through the after-effects of deeply personal and sometimes deeply troubling events in their own lives.
In the last decade, the notion of ‘trauma-informed’ public services and disciplines has gained increasing currency. Trauma-informed practice is more a constellation of interlinking approaches than an officialised code of conduct. In an educational context, it calls upon schools and teachers to recognise how traumatic experiences can weigh on young people’s lives, and implement strategies to alleviate the impact of trauma on learning.
On Wednesday June 22nd, Protocol Education will be hosting an in-depth webinar about trauma-informed practice in schools as part of our Educator Festival. You can sign up to attend here.
Read on for some useful background information on accommodating trauma in education ahead of next week’s session.
Guiding principles of trauma-informed practice
Trauma-informed care is not something that only applies to educational settings. Instead, it is a more universal framework for how services should meet their users’ needs. One definition, formulated by clinical psychologists and used by the US Centers for Disease Prevention and Control, outlines five key underlying principles. Adapted to fit educational contexts, these are:
1. Safety – All efforts are in place to ensure the safety of pupils and staff.
2. Trustworthiness & Transparency – Schools have cultures of transparency, with high levels of trust shared between staff, pupils and guardians.
3. Peer Support – Staff have a thorough understanding of what constitutes trauma, and approach pupils with open ears while supporting each other as equals.
4. Collaboration and Mutuality – Schools value and recognise the contributions of pupils, staff and guardians in making the system work.
5. Empowerment, Voice and Choice – The school strives to empower pupils to grow from their experiences of trauma.
6. Cultural issues – Staff are sensitive to any cultural contexts or considerations that may impact how they help pupils mitigate the effects of trauma.
A pre-requisite of creating a trauma-informed environment is becoming ‘attachment-aware’. This means cultivating a better understanding of how trauma can disrupt the way children relate to other people.
Attachment theory holds that the character of our earliest relationships, typically with our parents or caregivers, will dictate the way we react to others in later life. If a child’s foundational relationships are typified by abuse, neglect or a lack of affection, they may encounter problems forming healthy bonds later in life.
For instance, children who have suffered from dysfunctional relationships with adults early in life may display challenging or unconventional behaviour at school. Some may see the social world as a fundamentally threatening place that demands hypervigilance, lashing out at peers over perceived slights. Others may be conspicuously clingy or inappropriately affectionate.
A key facet of trauma-informed practice is understanding that such behaviours are often too deeply-rooted in ACEs to be resolved by punitive, disciplinary measures like detention or exclusion.
A child’s ‘attachment style’ – the prism through which they view their relations to others – may not be the reason for challenging behaviour in every case. Nonetheless, a trauma-informed approach to behaviour management should always consider and explore such a possibility before punishing – or, indeed, pathologising - the child. Educators must also strive to model healthier modes of interpersonal connections and impart emotional literacy by example.
Learn more about trauma-informed practice on 22nd June
As part of our inaugural Educator Festival, Protocol Education is hosting a free webinar on trauma-informed practice. Hosted by our in-house experts, the session will provide educators with a thorough grounding in the theory behind trauma-informed and attachment-aware teaching, with practical case studies and tips that you can take with you into the classroom.
Spaces are limited, so make sure to register to attend here as soon as possible.