Being trauma informed is central for effective discussion on how we can promote a school culture which supports all children to learn and develop. Sarah Johnson explains…

Behaviour is complex. Teachers consider a wide range of children’s needs and juggle competing demands. The skillset required to be a teacher is enormous; from knowing the curriculum, effective pedagogy, making sure children remember what they have learned to then being able to deal with the myriad of ways that children may behave.

In more recent years, the topic of being “trauma informed” has entered into teaching discourse. I don’t remember it being there when I started teaching in a psychiatric unit twenty years ago but now, often liaising with mainstream schools and Pupil Referral Units, terms such as “adverse childhood experiences” and “trauma informed” are common parlance, just as much as “behavioural policies”, “warm-strict” and “zero tolerance”.

Being trauma informed is not the panacea that offers perfect behaviour in every class and every school. However, it has never promised to be and nor should it be. Nor is trauma informed about the allowance of children to do as they please without consequence or sanction. Being trauma informed is another part of our effective toolkit to support children’s emotional well-being, help them understand their emotions and to look at our own responses to further support a child in a period of distress.

“Being trauma informed is not the panacea that offers perfect behaviour in every class and every school. However, it has never promised to be and nor should it be.”

The term ‘trauma informed’ is often used to denote an approach which hopes to delve deeper into why children may behave in certain ways. Why they may shout, cry, throw things, or otherwise demonstrate that they’re upset. It might also serve to remind us why some children might not talk in front of their peers, may struggle to finish tasks, or find it difficult to come to school on time.

The role of trauma informed practice is to raise awareness amongst all staff within the school or wider organisation about the effects of trauma and how we ensure that our approach, environment, and interactions do not serve to traumatise or re-traumatise children that may have experienced adversity. Being trauma informed is not just about being informed about trauma but is also about being curious about what may be driving behaviour or whether there are underlying issues.                                                                                                                                                                                   

I have heard the term ‘trauma informed’ practice being talked about as if it is antagonistic to robust school behavioural policies, rules and subsequent consequences. However, the aims of both systems can go hand-in-hand and have the same aims; an environment where all children can learn and be safe.

For me the core of some of the dichotomous conversation is to find some common ground, which there are many. Firstly, in building a culture around behaviour, it is important that the rules make sense. Children that have had chaotic experiences in the past benefit from understanding what the rules are, how they are applied and if there are exceptions why these exceptions are being applied. In fact, children without chaotic experiences in the past are likely to enjoy the same benefits.

Furthermore, it is important that we anticipate issues and address them if they arise, with open dialogue about what the challenges might be. For example, as we return to school, we are probably fairly used to seeing local newspaper headlines decrying uniform rules.

However, there are myriad reasons why a child may not bring in their PE kit; from poor organisational skills, being embarrassed about not having the right equipment to being too worried about changing in front of others. Simply following a pre-determined consequence, such as a detention, does little to change the underlying issue.

Instead, as part of our toolkit we should find out what the difficulty is in abiding by this rule and then look at strategies. For example, how we can support a child’s organisation so that they are able to remember what is needed and on what day. We can talk both to parents and their child about where they can source the correct PE equipment without the financial burden.

“Being trauma informed is not just about being informed about trauma but is also about being curious about what may be driving behaviour or whether there are underlying issues.”

We are in a position in which we can provide support or alternatives for children that may feel physically exposed in a changing room or overwhelmed by the noise. In looking deeper, beyond what is being presented, we can address the behaviour that we actually want to change.

In some of the work that I do I talk about the need for curiosity to understand how a child might be presenting within the classroom and within the wider school community. The first step is noticing – what are we really seeing when a child does something and how can we then start to build a bigger picture in identifying the reason for that behaviour and therefore our understanding before we respond? This is to see behaviour within the wider context. Humans interact in lots of different ways depending on their own experiences, what reaction they received in the past or simply because behaving in that way is fun or asserting their own independence and autonomy.

Is a child humming because it is fun to avoid work, or perhaps because they can’t do the work, it helps them concentrate, or maybe it is because it is a part of a wider neurological difficulty such as Tourette’s syndrome? If we just jumped to the response and reaction aspect then the behaviour will change, and in some instances, it may not even be appropriate to try and change it.

Being trauma informed is a vital component in working with other people, it recognises the huge diversity of child and adult experiences. It reminds us that we need to be mindful of the environment that we create within a school community and that we aim to support access to learning in a way that not only feels safe but is safe for all those that enter the school space.

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