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Long read: Are schools coping with trauma?

Every violent death, terrorist attack or major fire that hits headlines will have an impact on pupils somewhere. But are their teachers equipped to deal with the fallout?

Are schools equipped to deal with trauma?

Every violent death, terrorist attack or major fire that hits headlines will have an impact on pupils somewhere. But are their teachers equipped to deal with the fallout?

Whether it is a terrorist attack, a fire swallowing up a building, or the fall-out from the violent death of a child, trauma experts are clear: the impact felt in the local community will not stop at the classroom door.

But do teachers recognise the signs of traumatic stress in pupils – and should they be expected to?

In the wake of the Grenfell Tower anniversary last week, the story of a pupil excluded after their behaviour deteriorated following the death of a relative in the West London fire indicated how quickly things can spiral downwards for such children.

The case, raised at the launch of a new campaign to improve transparency over school exclusions of vulnerable pupils, highlighted how poor behaviour and low achievement linked to distress can often be misinterpreted by teaching staff. 

There are increasing calls for the traumatic effect that events in the local community can have in the classroom to be acknowledged both within the school gates, and beyond.

'If something happens in your family you talk about it'

Some schools grasp the nettle from the off to mitigate problems further down the line. Garnetbank Primary, for example, is just a street away from Glasgow School of Art, where a massive blaze – the second in four years – lit up the night sky last week. Confined within the inner cordon sectioned off by the emergency services, children were frightened – not just by the roaring fire but by the screams from spectators as windows shattered.

“They were being really vocal,” headteacher Linda Reed told Tes. “Children are talking about hearing people screaming and how scary it was.”

Pupils were invited to come and discuss the fire and its impact at a daily lunchtime drop-in session the school offers in its nurture base.

“When something happens in your family, you all talk about it,” Ms Reed explained. “That’s what we are doing here. We are providing stability, normality and someone to talk to.”

But not all schools will offer pupils such opportunities. Moreover, spotting the signs of trauma is not easy for the uninitiated and can be easily misconstrued in the classroom.

The widely recognised term "adverse childhood experiences" (ACE) describes highly stressful and potentially traumatic events or situations that occur in a young person’s life. Marc Bush, Chief Policy Advisor at the mental health charity YoungMinds explains that this can be a one-off event, or a prolonged experience.

For many, the adverse event will have a significant impact on their emotional and mental health and some will go on to have a traumatic response. Those who have previously experienced significant adversity will be particularly vulnerable.

Spotting the early signs

When trauma first manifests, it isn’t diagnosable and the child can have a wide range of symptoms. This can make it particularly challenging for frontline workers like teachers if they are not trained to spot the early signs. Acting out the trauma through challenging behaviour is common, explains Bush. 

The pupil who has experienced the knifing of a peer, for example, might manifest the raised sense of threat they now perceive from outside through increased aggression. This can then lead to their distress being misunderstood and punished, and result in exclusion. But another pupil might just sit at the back of the classroom and avoid any contact with the teacher because their experience means they ‘freeze’ or lose trust in adults.  

“The [actual] behaviour is irrelevant, it’s what sits behind the behaviour that is really important,” says Bush. “But because of the way schools are structured, because of the increased focus on academic achievement, there is a perverse incentive to disinvest yourself from these children.”

It’s not just the pupil’s behaviour that is likely to be affected, but their academic focus too. Bush points to “well documented” evidence of the significant impact trauma has on comprehension and cognitive development. This is because the part of the brain used to regulate emotions and process executive thought, including learning, is "literally switched off" when trying to cope with threat. So when a teacher is trying to give the pupil struggling to process an adverse event a set of instructions, they shouldn’t be surprised if they are met with a “blank look” from the pupil.

One headteacher who seems to understand these issues all too well is Joan Deslandes, headteacher at Kingsford Community School in Beckton, east London. Last week, she raised her own experience of running a school that in the past had the misfortune of losing three pupils to knife crime in the space of three months.

“There are no league tables that actually have done an assessment of the impact that that has on communities, on mental health and how you actually help pupils to drag them out of some of the challenges they face,” the head said.

“The impact of these things on mental health is another story altogether, which I cannot begin to explain and when they are looking at achievements of inner city schools, is often forgotten.”

Call for a culture shift 

YoungMinds is running the Wise Up to Wellbeing in Schools campaign, which calls or a culture-shift in schools and in the accountability system so that there is an equal focus on wellbeing and academic performance. The charity is also lobbying for trauma to become a public health priority in England, which would ensure frontline workers, including teachers, are able to take an “adversity and trauma informed perspective” to situations. Scotland already has The Transforming Psychological Trauma framework, designed to increase understanding around trauma.

Bush says teachers can play a crucial role in identifying emerging signs of trauma, which in turn can prevent it escalating. He stresses that this doesn’t mean doubling up as mental health specialists, but having enough knowledge to spot the signs and the skills to make a difference.

“A compassionate teacher that takes an interest in you could be enough, for example, it could be protective enough,” he says.

In England’s education system there is some recognition of the emotional turbulence likely to ripple through a school following an adverse event in the community.

Ofsted, for example, will usually postpone an inspection when staff and pupils are coping with the immediate aftermath of a major incident, such as the recent death of a pupil. “When we do inspect schools that have been affected by a major incident, inspectors will always be sensitive to this and take into account the context in which the school is working,” a spokesman says.

The inspectorate is currently working on a London based project related to the “devastating impact on children” that crime and violence can have,  and the role of schools in keeping children safe, which his due to be published in 2018-19.

The Department for Education says schools that have experienced adversity can apply to the exams regulator, Ofqual, for special consideration to be given to students taking exams – the most recent high profile examples being the Manchester bombing last year and the Grenfell fire. 

A DfE spokesman says: “Children and teachers should feel supported if they have suffered a traumatic event. The department has a dedicated Emergency Response Group that provides services to schools ranging from counselling and mental health support to emergency funding, tailored to the specific needs that schools have.

“We are also updating our ‘Mental Health and Behaviour in Schools’ guidance to ensure it reflects the impact of trauma, attachment issues or post-traumatic stress experienced by  individual children.”

How schools can get things wrong

A variety of other initiatives seek to support schools after an event or minimise the likelihood of it happening in the first place.

The Miriam Hyman Memorial Trust, set up in the memory of Miriam Hyman, who died in the 2005 London bombings, for example, provides teaching materials that include learning coping strategies to face adversity with resilience, including emotional life skills and developing empathy. The materials, drawn up in association with the UCL Institute of Education and Copthall school, where Miriam was once a pupil, also look at diversity and extremism. 

Betsy de Thierry, a trained primary school teacher and psychotherapist who specialises in childhood trauma recovery, says an increasing number of schools are “cottoning on” to the issue of trauma.

“Ultimately what I push is that the vast majority of mental health conditions are actually caused by childhood trauma,” she says.

“If you intervene early enough they don’t go on to cause mental health conditions so actually our priority in education is to intervene early and to get the right intervention, not the wrong one. It will reduce the adult mental health problems, the criminal justice problems, and actually will have happier communities and a lot of less stressed teachers.”

But de Thierry also has personal experience of how schools can get things wrong. When her son recently had a knife pulled on him at school, she was appalled that there was no system in place to offer him support.

 “[A school] needs to know how to reduce that impact of that experience, not just on the child who experienced it, but also on those observing, and those who hear about it on the grape vine,” she says. “How do we reduce the impact of that?

“If we don’t, their emotions are going to explode, their behaviour is going to lead to exclusions, their memory is going to be impacted which will reduce their ability to learn, which means their grades are all lower, all because we didn’t actually respond appropriately to a critical incident.”

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