The concept of trauma-informed practice is still, somehow, a controversial topic in education.
This is baffling to me. Educational psychologists, mental health professionals and social workers in particular all have a rich history of using trauma-related academic research and experience from practice in their roles, so why would we not embrace it in schools?
Perhaps the issue is that some don't understand what the term "trauma-informed practice" means. Certainly, I have seen some odd interpretations among its critics.
As a very basic visual representation of the experience of some young people, think of a see-saw; if the number of risk factors experienced is greater than positive events, this will result in poorer outcomes later in life.
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From the magazine: What do we mean when we say we care about our pupils?
Listen: How trauma impacts behaviour
Pupils who have experienced, or are still experiencing, traumatic and turbulent home lives may exhibit issues around self-regulation, along with other associated impairments in executive functioning.
For example, toxic stress has the potential to literally change the way our brain is wired (see Romeo and Mckewen, 2006; Cichetti, 2010). Such changes can be manifested in the form of aggression, decreased capacity to maintain attention, as well as wider academic implications (see Sapienza and Masten, 2011; Compas, 2006).
Trauma-informed practice is accepting and understanding this research, and implementing it so that we can better support pupils.
The latter is not about using "fluffiness" or excusing behaviours that may be deemed inappropriate, as some have claimed.
But it is about better understanding the behaviour of certain individuals so that we are not doomed to engage in a futile exercise of "punishing the need away" for some of the most vulnerable pupils in our society, ignoring the real issue at play.
Doing it correctly
So what does that look like in practice?
It is widely acknowledged that trauma-informed practice must adhere to five principles: safety, trust, collaboration, choice, and empowerment (see Berger and Quiros, 2016; Conover et al, 2015).
These may not always be appropriate at all times, but they are targets that all schools should aim towards whenever possible.
However, this is why informed is the key word.
We recently revisited what being trauma-informed meant to us, as a staff team, and decided on the following 10 fundamentals to doing it well:
- Good quality, appropriate, relationships.
- Using clear, positive language.
- Explicit high expectations and clear boundaries.
- Being assertive (not confrontational).
- Being empathetic.
- Being curious – greater understanding of why we are seeing behaviours.
- Productive mistake making.
- Challenge what you don’t want to see: whatever you tolerate will continue.
It is worrying to know that anyone would be so dismissive of such practice, that they would not want educators to exhibit these facets in their professional practice, informed by a huge amount of academic literature around child development, stress, coping and resilience.
It has really worked for us.
At our school we have utilised an attachment and trauma-informed practice (ATIP) approach for more than two years and it has been revelatory, both in terms of subjective staff wellbeing and objective measures such as staff absence.
We are getting much more adept at recognising the impact of our actions on pupils’ behaviour.
We also better understand the impact that working with vulnerable and traumatised pupils can have on us, and the need for self-care (see Knight, 2018), scheduling weekly supervision sessions to help guide personal reflective development and promote wellbeing.
I am certain that trauma-informed practice can not only help make us better teachers, but people too.
Ollie Ward is outreach lead at The Key Education Centre, Hampshire. He tweets @oliverward82