Could a Trauma Informed Approach Reduce Exclusions?

These are the summary notes for the on demand course “Reducing Exclusions Through a Trauma Informed Approach” which is accessible to all members or via a 2 week free trial.

TRAUMA REWIRES THE BRAIN; BUT BRAINS ARE PLASTIC

Trauma rewires the brain.  When we are in danger our thinking, speaking brains shut down and we go into fight, flight or freeze mode.  When that happens repeatedly or continuously this can end up as a default response, with these pathways strengthened through repeated use whilst other pathways go neglected. The good news is that brains are plastic and every single time a child has a positive experience or interaction, a little bit more work is being done to move towards brain whose default wiring is not to fight / flight / freeze.

  • A trauma / fear response can take many forms – it is as likely to look like anger as fear
  • When we are in a state of high alert, higher thinking and language is shut down
  • This is not the time for reasoning – in this moment calming is the number one priority
  • Trauma can take many forms – attributing blame is not helpful, our focus is on the child
  • It can help to view a child’s responses as those of a younger child – like a brain development delay

FIRST, KEEP THEM SAFE 

Our first and most important job in supporting children who’ve experienced trauma is to keep them safe.  Our second job is to make sure that they FEEL safe.  It’s one thing meeting their needs, but another successfully communicating this with them. A child who has repeatedly been hurt, neglected or fearful can come to expect to be hurt, neglected, rejected or otherwise unseen or unheard. 

  • Physical safety first, but we also need to create social, emotional and cognitive safety
  • Step into their shoes and practice empathy and curiosity
  • When you see a fight / flight / freeze response try to understand what might have triggered it?
  • Note spaces and faces that make a child feel safe – can these be accessed in times of need?

WORK WITH FAMILIES TOO FOR LONG TERM CHANGE 

There are often intergenerational issues at play and whilst supporting the child and taking a trauma informed approach to our work with them will be somewhat beneficial, the real prize will come when we are able to work with families to educate, inform or inspire them to replicate some of this practice at home.  When we work in partnership with families, signposting support as needed, sharing advice and ideas and building trust and safety in the relationship between the school and the family, the child always wins.  This is by no means a quick win, but when you succeed you are sometimes breaking the cycle of multiple generations. 

  • Moving from ‘us and them’ to team-around-the-child
  • Consider how school may trigger /re-traumatise adults too
  • Adults who’ve experienced trauma and not had the benefit of support from someone like you, may still have a trauma-wired brain which quickly moves to fight, flight, freeze… but brains are plastic
  • Teaching families strategies for supporting a child’s emotional regulation can also provide them with important tools they can use themselves
  • Do not underestimate how useful some of your everyday skills and ideas might be to families
  • Also seek to learn from families – this should be a genuine collaboration

WHEN THE ADULTS CHANGE… 

Trauma informed practice works best when it is a school-wide approach and it starts with the adults.  As adults, we need to consider what our role is in promoting positive behaviour and responding to challenge as it arises.  In his book ‘When The Adults Change, Everything Changes’ Paul Dix shows us how adults who are kind, caring and curious can help to influence a long term change in behaviour.  Again and again I see this in the exemplary work practiced in alternative provision settings where the children who often arrive feeling lost and given up on, often flourish in response to a radically different approach to behaviour than they’ve experienced previously.  

  • Emotionally regulated adults result in emotionally regulated children
  • Calming strategies or a simple script can buy time as well as creating calm
  • Know your triggers and your limits – have strategies for creating moments for mini resets
  • Seeking the help and support of colleagues is not a sign of weakness
  • If you feel that your hope for a child is fading, consider who can take on the baton 
  • Learn from each other – look to your support staff for how to build trust and connection
  • The stories we tell about children are the stories children will, in turn, tell about themselves

BE CURIOUS NOT FURIOUS

In my discussions with inspiring practitioners who are getting this right, the word that comes up more often than any other is ‘curious’.  When a child is not behaving as we want or need them to, one way to respond is with anger.  Another way is to respond with calmness and curiosity.  This takes confidence as it may not be the societally expected response.  When we are calm, and in turn help a child to calm and we become curious about what the child is experiencing, we begin the process of making sustainable change for that child and helping them build the skills, understanding and neural pathways that’ll help them to thrive not only at school but in life.  

  • Be curious about the child: ‘I wonder why they’re behaving that way?’
  • Be curious about yourself: ‘I wonder why this is making me feel so agitated?’ 
  • Be curious about the situation: ‘I wonder what we can learn from this?’
  • Be curious about the future: ‘I wonder what we can do differently next time?’ 

WHEN THINGS GO WRONG, 

Things will go wrong.  Tempers will flare – sometimes the child’s, sometimes yours… Prevention is always better than cure and learning to pick up early warning signs, diffuse situations and support a child to emotionally regulate or move to a place of safety is optimal; but if it all falls apart then our primary concern is of keeping a child safe (in every sense of the word) and keeping the rest of the class safe as well followed by moving towards a state of emotional regulation and calm.  The most likely thing to derail this is if we become distressed ourselves and / or if we begin to respond to secondary behaviours. 

How we restore calm and how we later respond, by repairing the rupture, is also an important part of the learning journey and the building of positive neural pathways for the child.  If you can find it within yourself, role modelling responding to distress and practising forgiveness might be the first time a child has been exposed to these important lessons. 

  • Intervene early with a reminder of a recent positive 
  • Run towards distress and remember that anger needs to feel heard
  • We need to be the swan… calm, assertive, in control
  • Calm things down with a slow, low, low response
  • Have some broken record phrases you can return to in difficult moments
  • Don’t respond to secondary behaviours – focus on the primary issue
  • Role model forgiveness and moving on 

LINKS & THINGS… 

On Demand Video Courses

Promote Emotional Regulation in Autistic Children

Enable Children to Feel Safe so They Can Flourish

YouTube Videos

TRY THIS? | Be curious not furious

ANXIETY | Top phrases for calming anxious children

How and why to take a therapeutic approach to behaviour – ideas from Asha Patel

Learning from angry, aggressive or anxious meltdowns using the ‘5 Whys’ approach

5 Tips for Brilliant Listening

Books

When the Adults Change, Everything Changes by Paul Dix

The Simple Guide to Child Trauma by Betsy deThierry