‘My brain’s all shaky’

7th September 2018 at 00:00
Today’s children have a lot on their minds – and this concoction of stress, trauma and over-stimulation can have a destructive impact on learning and behaviour. Now, one Scottish local authority is tackling this issue head-on, using neuroscience and trauma research to create calming learning environments and safe spaces where anxious children can take refuge. Henry Hepburn investigates how Clackmannanshire has become an international pioneer in pupil wellbeing

There was one classroom in Park Primary School where children never seemed to settle. No matter the class, no matter the teacher, every year it was the same: the P1s who used this room just weren’t as productive and at ease as they were elsewhere in the Alloa school.

“It was always a jumpy classroom – and they couldn’t work out why,” says Clackmannanshire Council educational psychologist Lesley Taylor.

Last year, staff finally got to the bottom of what was bothering the P1s. There was a big window overlooking the path along which parents arrived and left on the school run each day. That sight knocked the children out of kilter – particularly those whose anxiety grew each time they were parted from Mum or Dad.

The solution was simple: staff blocked the window up to adult eye level.

Throughout Clackmannanshire, Scotland’s smallest mainland local authority with just three secondary schools, teachers have been finding ways of creating better conditions for learning for all pupils.

It’s a “trauma-informed” approach called Readiness for Learning (R4L), which Clackmannanshire educational psychologists say is unique in Scotland. Schools have, for example, been – or are considering – turning off strip lighting, muting the bright colours typical of primary schools, playing classical music between classes, doing away with the school bell or creating enclosed spaces that provide the solace some teenagers derive from pulling up a hoodie.

“Does everyone experience trauma? No – but everyone experiences stress,” says principal educational psychologist Whitney Barrett. The authority’s universal approach, which started about two years ago, is being built up incrementally. So far, 650 Clackmannanshire staff have had training and it should reach all school staff by 2020.

However, a key feature of R4L is that it marries universality with highly individualised approaches for pupils who need them.

One S1 girl at Lornshill Academy, for example, was struggling badly at school. Laurie Dodds, principal teacher of pupil support at the Alloa school, says the girls could not move from one class to another without a “massive incident”. There was extreme and indiscriminate physical violence and verbal abuse that even resulted in the school being forced to call the police because she was “so out of control”. The R4L pilot that started in the school last year led to staff changing the structure of the girl’s day. For instance, she might start by spending some time in the school’s “learning hub”. This facility is, in more traditional terminology, a support-for-learning unit, with cosy nooks and crannies and a calming “sensory room” of lights and mirrors. But where it differs is that it is open to anyone in the 1,000-pupil school.

It’s here where she goes when she starts to experience the warning signs of growing anxiety that she has now learned to recognise herself. She goes into the sensory garden to one side of the school and, amid the waft of rosemary and lavender, sings songs from The Lion King. This is what works for her.

And the jolting experience of secondary school, where pupils must forget the comfort of having a single primary teacher, is no longer as unsettling to her, because every teacher she encounters is well informed about how to help her stay calm and ready to learn. Remarkably, when another pupil tried to antagonise her the day before my visit, she simply walked away. “The change, you really have to see it – it’s absolutely incredible,” says Dodds. “It sounds off the wall what we’re doing, but it absolutely works.”

Knowing your own mind

Clackmannanshire has high rates of child poverty and pupils with additional support needs – particularly social, emotional and behavioural difficulties – as well as double the Scottish average rate for teenage pregnancies and double the weekly rate of alcohol consumption for young people. It is one of nine councils funded through the Scottish government’s Attainment Challenge, aimed at reducing the attainment gap between the wealthy and poor in authorities with the highest deprivation. This funding has fuelled R4L and helped to bring decades of work on trauma in Clackmannanshire – including support for people affected by the 1996 mass school shooting in nearby Dunblane – up to another level.

Pupils are taught from a young age about how their brain works, how this relates to their feelings and – with help from teachers – what they can do about these feelings: the tingling of aggression some might feel in their fingertips, the waves of despair that can engulf some children or the inability to focus on anything the teacher is saying. Rather than school staff simply reacting to visible and sometimes violent changes in a pupil’s mood, the emphasis is on taking control before these changes happen.

In Lornshill Academy, for example, each faculty has a “fidget box” with trinkets that might help pupils settle – patches of material, mini-lava lamps, squashy coloured balls – while a shop set up by the school’s Young Enterprise group sells stress balls. Some pupils find that a certain part of the school helps them to get in the right frame of mind, such as the coffee shop run by senior pupils, where a huge window affords a spectacular view of the heather-clad Ochil Hills.

The school has also invested in heart-rate monitors, so that pupils can take their own readings and find out for certain what literally makes their heart race, and then do something about it.

Back at Park Primary, a short drive from Lornshill Academy, headteacher Adrienne Aitken explains why the school’s P1 classrooms no longer look like you might expect. They are “not overly stimulating”, with their muted colours; harsh strip lights have been turned off; they have a minimum of signs and simple, hessian-backed wall displays that are less busy than is common in primary schools. Where once there was a play area that felt like an afterthought, the whole room is now set up for play, with water, sand, Play-Doh and glitter-covered oven trays dotted around the room.

Nursery-type play, says Aitken, helps pupils to get ready for the more advanced learning of primary. The school has also tried to learn how nurseries help children to settle – by, for example, making snack times an enjoyable, communal experience, rather than a hurried attempt to munch through a bag of a crisps and run to the toilet before lessons resume.

When the P1s arrive each day, they pick up a stone and put it in a basket marked “happy” or “sad”, and can move it at any time. This helps staff to see who might need some extra attention. This involves different things for different pupils. One boy likes to hide under a sofa, and staff leave him there until he is ready to come out.

After lunch, a time when pupils are often over-excited, staff help them to relax by getting them to lie back with a cosy blanket and a plastic duck on their chest. This helps them to understand their bodies and minds better by seeing how their breathing changes. At other times, they use “disco dough” – Play-Doh that they shape in time to music.

“One of the most powerful things, which the children really latched on to, was when they created their ‘brain bottles’ – a bottle with water and glitter,” says Aitken. “When they shake it, they have something tangible that they can hook on to.” This has led to five-year-olds peering at their bottles and coming up with wise observations like, “You need to calm your brain.”

However, Aitken warns against focusing too much on how certain objects or activities help. “It all hinges on the quality of the relationship between the teacher and the child. If that’s not in the right place, none of this will work,” she says. “That child has to know that there’s understanding, compassion and support from that adult – and that they’ll be accepted even if it goes a bit wrong, even if they are upset, even if something happens that’s destructive.”

R4L draws heavily on the work of the US psychiatrist Bruce Perry, who developed the Neurosequential Model in Education (NME) and is a senior fellow at the Child Trauma Academy. He emphasises that the number and quality of relationships that a child has is a better predictor of health outcomes than the number of “adverse experiences”.

“There’s been a real hearts and minds shift, a real culture shift from very behaviourist models,” says Taylor, who recently became Europe’s first education fellow of the Child Trauma Academy, and is one of only about 10 in the world. Where once there was more talk in schools of “bad” behaviour and how it should be punished, now staff are more likely to look for a way to help pupils “regulate their behaviour”.

“All behaviour is communication,” she says, using a phrase that is scorned online by those with a more traditionalist view of education. Taylor holds no truck with their insistence that some misbehaving pupils are simply acting up. “I would disagree with anybody who said, ‘They’re just bad and they’re just behaving like that,’” she says. There’s always something behind it, she explains, whether this is deep-seated trauma or more transient stress caused by exams, for example.

R4L calls for a rethink of systems that are entrenched, according to Taylor. Rewards systems using charts and stickers to record good behaviour, for example, “probably do no harm” to pupils who are in a good place, but, when young children are stressed, she says that the part of their brain that understands this sort of system “shuts down”. So when they are punished with the loss of house or Dojo points, not only does this exacerbate their stress and sense of uselessness, but they also do not understand why they are no longer allowed to go on a school trip or enjoy some other class treat.

A classic example, says Barrett, is when a child loses points or is moved down a traffic-lights system for rocking on their chair. This, she says, ignores the fact that this motion is a sign of “unmet sensory needs”. Rather than being punished, that child should be given a “fidget toy” to help them regulate their feelings and feel better able to learn. The craze for fidget spinners was not a source of annoyance for Barrett like it was for many educators – she sees them as a useful tool.

Cutting exclusions

Clackmannanshire senior education manager Lorraine Sanda recalls one “quite remarkable incident” that sums up the impact of R4L. On a school visit with a prominent New York educator who was interested in seeing Clackmannanshire’s approach, they saw a boy aged about 6 or 7 violently kicking walls and teachers. The headteacher knew from her training and experience of previous such outbursts what would help him. She calmly waited for the right moment, put her hand on the boy’s shoulder and they decided together to check his heart rate. After he had calmed down, the boy asked her: “Will you come back [to the classroom] with me?”

“Normally, that wee lad would have been marched off to the headteacher’s office and his parents would have been called, or he’d have been excluded at worst,” says Sanda.

Over at Lornshill Academy, depute headteacher Hayley McMaihin says there were only two exclusions in 2017-18, compared with several dozen the year before. A big factor, she believes, is the pilot R4L that ran last year with 120 S1-2 pupils, and the training that staff have undergone. This has helped them to see the impact of ideas that might otherwise have been dismissed as kooky indulgences, such as, between classes, playing music with a beat that matches a resting heart rate, which has helped pupils to settle more quickly into their next lesson.

Importantly, each school is free to adapt the principles of R4L and NME to its own needs, and the approach builds on Clackmannanshire’s long-developing understanding of trauma and education, rather than imposing a single system of interventions that dismisses all that has gone before. McMaihin does not want to rush ahead, so, after last year’s pilot, R4L is likely to be trialled again in a single faculty and, if successful, rolled out across the whole school – although the principles of R4L are already infused in much of the life of the school.

Outside observers have been impressed with progress in Clackmannanshire. The philosophy certainly sits comfortably with the onus on early intervention that has characterised Scotland’s approach to education in the past decade or so; most famously through the national Violence Reduction Unit and its success in reducing knife attacks by taking a pre-emptive rather than punitive approach to crime. At first sight, Clackmannanshire’s work would also seem to echo the growing movement to make Scotland the world’s “first ACE (adverse childhood experiences)-aware nation”, although the authority’s educational psychologists distance themselves from that cause, because, although “well-intentioned”, they feel it has some aspects that “fail to understand the complexities around trauma”.

Lornshill Academy’s most recent Education Scotland inspection report, published in February, said that staff training in NME had led to pupils “experiencing strong, caring relationships with staff who understand their needs better and can help them to flourish and achieve in school more effectively”.

Dr Warren Larkin, a consultant clinical psychologist and visiting professor at the University of Sunderland, has visited the area to look at what schools are doing. “The work I observed in Clackmannanshire is a wonderful example of how translating the science of childhood trauma and neuroscience into the classroom can have multiple benefits for children, their families and for their communities,” he says.

“Having an evidence-based and consistent approach across educational settings which teaches children to manage their emotions and to self-regulate their stress response is really about helping all children to learn effectively and to reach their full potential.”

At Park Primary, staff say P1s now show more empathy than they did when starting. They are also far better at playing than at that time, when Aitken recalls a lot more “really destructive play” – things being broken and torn apart – while fewer children need to attend a nurture class this year. In 15 months there have been big gains in expressive vocabulary – of up to 39 months – and, while 17 per cent had age-equivalent vocabulary at that time, now 39 per cent do, a rate of improvement outstripping typical schools that have not used R4L approaches.

Aitken says that P1 teacher Sheena Waldron, who has many years of classroom experience, feels she has been given “permission to do what in her gut she felt was right”. Waldron herself says that the first three weeks of the new approach were hard – and she expects the same again this year. The classroom can feel “messy and chaotic” and “you don’t always feel on top of everything”, but soon things “just clicked into place”, she says. Now, the improvement in pupils’ behaviour is “night and day” and their ability to listen has progressed markedly.

“My brain’s all shaky,” observed one troubled P1 last year. It’s a phrase that has become something of a catchphrase at Park Primary, where staff and children alike have become attuned to the effect of stress on the brain and what they can do about it.

“We’re understanding way more about the development of the brain,” says Waldron. “We’re looking at behaviour in a completely different way.”

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