To discuss trauma in this context is to discuss the creation of an environment where children feel safe at school, where their experiences are taken into account, and where they know that they will be supported, understood and heard.
Trauma, the psychological response that happens after witnessing or experiencing a distressing event or series of events, is particularly common in children who have experienced Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs). These can be leading causes of both physical and mental illness and can have an adverse effect on children’s ability to be present in an educational context, to learn effectively and to build resilience. Children who have experienced trauma often develop what are known to practitioners as ‘survival behaviours’ to help to manage the extreme stress that trauma can bring. These can include physical violence towards others or themselves, eating disorders, becoming closed off around other people and paying decreased attention to risk.
While these issues are all incredibly serious in their own right and are worthy of intervention, in a school setting there is a combined challenge—how to implement an approach which makes a tangible positive difference to the lived experience of children who have experienced trauma, while also ensuring that in your role as school leader, you are continuing to provide the high-quality educational standards that they deserve.
Research has repeatedly shown that the presence of protective factors in childhood can be incredibly positive in helping children to cope with the detrimental effects of ACEs and improving the life chances of children who have experienced trauma. One such protective factor is access to interventions from emotionally available adults, which act as a buffer to give children who have experienced trauma the space to work through their experiences in a safe and secure environment. This forms one of the key cornerstones of the implementation of trauma-informed practice, which has repeatedly been shown to have a transformative effect on children in schools.
While I strongly believe that a trauma-informed approach is applicable to every type of school, as a leader of an Alternative Provision (AP) provider, this is particularly crucial. Many of our pupils arrive having been permanently excluded from mainstream schooling, often for exhibiting symptoms of survival behaviours. Some of our pupils have special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) or social, emotional and mental health needs, while some come from backgrounds where they experience trauma on a daily basis. Given their backgrounds, for our pupils, it’s critical that we pay attention to their individual circumstances and invest in listening and understanding each of their individual stories.
A trauma-informed approach in practice
The Government’s December 2017 Green Paper, Transforming Children and Young People’s Mental Health Provision, advocates that appropriately trained staff in schools can achieve comparable results to trained therapists in addressing mild to moderate mental health problems. Organisations such as Trauma Informed Schools UK have also backed this approach.
At our Trust, we are always looking for innovative practices and well-informed research to ensure we are continuing to provide the very best possible educational standards for our pupils, while also delivering the high-quality social and emotional support they need. We are passionate about the implementation of trauma-informed principles across all our sites, including our ACE Schools Plymouth sites and Courtlands Special School, where pupils have experienced exceptionally high levels of trauma.
Through adopting a trauma-informed approach, practitioners across our sites focus on the pupil as an individual and contextualise their learning experience by taking their past experiences into account. We place an emphasis on emotional and social wellbeing, as well as teaching and learning, with our ‘Safe, Secure, Happy’ ethos, which is evident in everything we do.
We take time to devise personalised plans for our pupils based on their specific difficulties, and a cornerstone of this is ensuring that we meet with these pupils on a regular basis to provide a sense of continuity and access to a trusted, reliable, emotionally available adult. Since we have started doing this, we have seen a huge increase in our pupils’ self-esteem, along with a better ability to communicate and greater willingness to seek help and self-regulate behaviour.
This approach is also brought to life through a range of specific tactics that are utilised on a regular basis. These include activities such as Theraplay, which uses play to recreate secure attachments with adults in a safe environment, and learning outside the classroom, which many pupils find decreases their levels of stress. We have also introduced a sensory area, which many of our pupils, particularly some of our SEND pupils, find relaxing and they use it as a way to manage increased stress levels. Combined with the sense of security that emerges from introducing these activities, the improvements have been undeniable across all age groups.
One Year 2 pupil, who had previously been permanently excluded for physical violence, was unable to receive positive touch from an adult when they started with us however, after introducing play-based therapy to reframe the pupil’s experience with touch, they are now able to tolerate positive touch while also displaying rapid improvements in regulating their own behaviour. This transformation has enabled them to make real progress with their learning, as well as their emotional wellbeing.
This differs, of course, from the techniques that we use with our older students. One of our Year 11 pupils had been excluded from school after responding physically to persistent bullying, receiving multiple SEND diagnoses and enduring challenging family circumstances at home. When they arrived at our school, they were suffering from incredibly low self-esteem and high levels of anxiety. However, by using the PACE strategy—Play, Acceptance, Curiosity, Empathy—while also including access to an emotionally available adult who listens empathetically to the student’s concerns, setting times for reflection, providing a quiet workspace and allowing a flexible timetable, staff have seen a significant shift in the pupil’s ability to manage their emotions and their anxiety.
Holistic support for the whole school
While our students are our priority, it’s also important that we remember the impact that emotionally demanding work environments can have on staff. This is why our approach is not only focused on our pupils, but addresses the whole school in a holistic way. Before implementing a trauma-informed approach, some of our staff acknowledged that they could feel the impact of highly emotional work on a daily basis. At our site in St Austell in Cornwall, initiatives include ‘kindness kits’ in staff bathrooms, a ‘just because’ board, where staff can leave positive feedback on their colleagues, and an ‘unsung hero of the week’, which celebrates best practice. A key point of trauma-informed approaches is that they are truly inclusive—understanding the needs of staff and students alike.
With staff feeling like their emotional loads are also being taken into account and understood, and with mechanisms in place to encourage mutual appreciation and listening, our staff have reported increased morale as well as an increase in collaborative working. A core element of our ethos is that believing in a common goal— never giving up on our pupils—is vital to our success, and with trauma-informed practice building upon this foundation, we have seen our pupils flourish more than we could have ever imagined and are seeing its farreaching influence every day.
If there are any school leaders reading who would like to replicate such an approach in their schools but are not sure where to start, I believe that the most important part of implementing trauma-informed practice is having a school community that believes in its aims and its value: something that I have experienced in the utmost.
Key elements of trauma-informed practice:
- Ensure continuity – structure and clear expectations are important, with the caveat that when it comes to negative behaviour, it’s vital to take individual circumstances into account before agreeing a course of action.
- Create safe spaces – for SEND students this is often a point which is particularly important. However, a lot of our pupils without SEND needs have benefitted from this, and have come on leaps and bounds in their learning.
- Emphasise empathy – what works for one pupil may not work for another, and while personalised approaches can be time consuming, the improvement in student outcomes is remarkable.
- Develop trust – for some pupils, being able to speak to a designated member of staff when they are overwhelmed provides the continuity and level of care that allows them to express themselves in a calm and appropriate way.
- Remembering staff – providing for the mental wellbeing of staff is also important and encourages teachers and school staff to remain committed to the cause.
Sarah Gillett is the CEO of the high-performing ACE Schools Multi-Academy Trust and is guest lecturer at Plymouth University. Sarah believes in the philosophy of school-to-school support as a vehicle for raising standards and is committed to providing an inclusive education.