What is a Trauma-informed School?

Childhood trauma contributes towards many social issues in society, including school exclusion rates. In this blog Aidan Phillips, Trauma-informed Communities Project Manager at WAVE Trust, a charity that specialises in trauma and trauma-informed practice, outlines how to create a school culture better suited to supporting children who have experienced adversities such as abuse, neglect and domestic violence

School is more than just a place to learn. It’s a community of peers and potential role models, a microcosmic society within which children spend an extraordinary amount of their childhood. What happens here affects not just their academic performance, but also the development of their social skills and self-esteem. For good or bad, the environment the school provides can also have a significant impact on their stress levels, especially for those whose stress response is already on high alert.

This is where trauma comes in. Experiences such as abuse and neglect have the potential to have long-term effects on a child’s stress levels, perceptions of the world and, through this, their behaviours. With a mind primed to constantly “survive” past or homebound adversities even when it is physically distanced from them, such students can be prone to aggressiveness, anxiety, concentration problems and/or a host of other symptoms that a regularly activated stress response can throw up.

School staff aren’t able to erase past (or present) experiences. But with a greater understanding of how traumatic experiences can affect mindsets and behaviours – and with changes to practice and policy to match – they can achieve drastic improvements in student behaviour, with offshoot benefits for attendance levels, academic performance and even staff well-being to boot. This is what being a Trauma-informed School is all about. Here’s a breakdown of what that means in practice.

Before reacting to behaviour, ask yourself what may be at its root

The popular phrase for this is “don’t say what’s wrong with you, ask what happened to you”. Some staff achieve this by mentally ‘separating the student from the behaviour’. All this is easier to achieve once a staff member has at least a basic understanding of the science, hence why a trauma-informed transition often begins with an inset day, with further learning to follow. Sharing this knowledge with students and routinely asking them questions to uncover to the root of their behaviour can also pay dividends, with some also monitoring their psycho-social well-being using accessible tools such as Boxall.

Relationships, relationships, relationships

Frequently considered to be the 3 most important parts of trauma-informed practice, these are at the centre of everything. Authentic, meaningful connections on a personal level enable children who have experienced trauma to also experience the kind of trust, compassion and respect that may have been lacking when the adversity occurred. Teacher-student relations are nothing new, but schools who adopt this approach often take this to the next level, encouraging staff to see this as a key priority in their role.

Keep calm and carry on

It can surprise people to realise how much of an impact they can have on others’ behaviour through the way they carry themselves. Trauma-informed staff take advantage of this trait to positively influence students’ reactions through maintaining a calm, respectful demeanour at all times, including when delivering discipline. School activities are also chosen, and spaces designed, with a view towards creating ‘therapeutic’ experiences and environments. A calm mind is seen as key to a good education.

Make discipline an educational experience

Far from being ‘soft’ on discipline, the approach frames rules and boundaries as a means to provide the stability that many traumatised children desperately need. Stability requires predictability, which means the rules have to be adhered to. Yet how this is done is what matters most. Besides the calm demeanour mentioned above, trauma-informed staff seek ways to impose repercussions in a manner that will leave students more capable of controlling their behaviour in future. For instance, two students involved in an altercation may engage in ‘restorative practice’ to come to terms with one another’s perspectives and feelings en route to the resulting consequence.

Give students a sense of control

Rather than handing over the keys to the school, this is more focused on providing them with opportunities to exercise autonomy and vocalise an opinion. As with all other elements of the approach, this is welcomed by all students regardless of background, but it often matters more for those who have experienced situations or environments where they felt vulnerable to the whims of tormentors or circumstance. Enabling them to lead on therapeutic exercises, adopt responsibilities and have a seat at the table when school policies are being set can all play a part. It’s a balancing act, but one that can soothe minds and strengthen bonds when executed well.

Look after you to look after them

As one deputy headteacher once told me: “You can’t pour from an empty glass.” Self-care, a supportive staff culture that takes mental well-being among its ranks seriously and a culture of openness across the hierarchies can all put staff in a calmer place to execute all of the advice listed above.

Aidan Phillips works for the charity WAVE Trust. He has conducted interviews with dozens of senior school staff across the UK who have implemented trauma-informed practice. Find out more about WAVE Trust’s Trauma-informed Schools training here: https://www.wavetrust.org/making-education-better-for-all

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