Views & Opinion

After lockdown, we need to deal with the effects of trauma

Comment by Dr ASHA PATEL, CEO of education not-for-profit Innovating Minds

Year 9 were working quietly. Dave, their maths teacher, walked round the class checking that everyone was on task and keeping an eye out to see if anyone was struggling with the work. As he walked from the back of the classroom towards the front, Mateo jumped to his feet knocking his chair over and ran out of the room. As classroom incidents go, it wasn't a big deal but it did disrupt the lesson. 'I was surprised,' said

Dave, 'but Mat had never struck me as an aggressive kid so I waited till the end of the lesson and had a word. He couldn't tell me why he had done it but he was clearly distressed.' Fortunately, their school has invested in a whole school approach to

mental health and so Dave had colleagues he could turn to. The class teacher and SENCO had noticed that Mat had been arriving late to school and that his work was not up to his usual standard. Over several weeks they learned Mat had a bad time during lockdown.

His mum's new boyfriend had moved into their small two bedroom flat and was very controlling. He took her phone to make sure she did not contact family and friends, told her she was spoiling Mat and his little brother, insisted that they needed more discipline and found ways to control every aspect of their lives.

Long term effects Trauma – violence, abuse, neglect, bereavement, racism, becoming a primary carer – all these leave their mark on a child. Their world shifts and they feel vulnerable and on edge. Mat was short on sleep and food and felt he had no one to turn to. He

had become hyperalert, so keyed up that he was stuck in fight or flight mode and super-sensitive to anyone in his personal space. Back in the classroom, he was more aware of someone standing just out of his line of sight than he was of the maths on the page in front of him. Schools express their willingness to make better provision for children

who are depressed, distressed or in crisis but I often find that they have no real understanding of the issues and what the child is experiencing. I recently spotted this on a school website: 'Our rewards and sanctions

are trauma-informed'. This shows a total misunderstanding of what trauma is.

When children experience trauma, their brains go into survival mode. A child will prioritise survival over most things, and certainly it is more important than schoolwork, detentions or loss of privileges. A child who has experienced chronic toxic stress will have a difficult time feeling safe even when in a safe environment. This child isn’t returning to school ready to learn.


What schools can do to help children in trauma The first and most important thing schools can do is to help children to feel safe in school through nurturing and empathic relationships with safe adults.

• Many children do not know the staff in their school and after six months and staff changes, they may feel even more keenly that they are in a sea of unknown faces

• Routines that are flexible can help pupils but if there isn’t any leeway then children will feel they are failures or that they are unsafe

• Make sure policies, practices and safeguarding arrangements are in place that avoid re-traumatising the young people and stigmatising their behavioural or emotional response to trauma. This means quiet areas, opportunities to connect with a safe adult who is grounded

• Monitor breaks and communal areas because these are the times and places when children can feel overwhelmed with feelings in their bodies. Transitions and crowds of people can make evoke feelings such as anxiety in their bodies which flicks their brain to operate in survival mode

• A trauma informed approach isn’t about ‘fixing’ children. It is offering children a response that is driven by compassion, positive energy and holding a safe space for the child to connect with an adult that is grounded and non-judgemental

• Being in survival mode, especially for long periods, means children will have developed an armoury of weapons to protect themselves including lying, running away, throwing furniture. These are coping mechanisms that they have accidently learnt, so it is important to look past the behaviour and support the child

• Support the child by giving them the tools they can use to help their body and brain feel safe and relaxed. Breathing strategies and gently swaying can help children calm their bodies

• A trauma informed approach isn’t about asking the children ‘how do you feel’, and trauma cannot be healed through a cognitive process

• Educational staff are not clinicians, so it is important to know your staff’s limits regarding the delivery of therapeutic interventions, and the need for professional input. However, every staff member can help by adopting a trauma informed approach, investing in empathic relationships with children and creating systemic whole school wellbeing cultures

For those who would like more training, Innovating Minds is running

the Healing Together facilitators programme which will equip staff to deliver a trauma informed programme to support children impacted by domestic abuse. If your school is ready to embark on the journey to creating a whole school wellbeing culture, sign up to EduPod and access hundreds of resources and clinical input from the team at Innovating Minds.

November 2020

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