Behaviour: Inclusion using a trauma-informed approach

Written by: Dr Pooky Knightsmith | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Some challenging behaviour in schools will be due to learned trauma responses. Dr Pooky Knightsmith offers some pointers for a more inclusive, trauma-informed approach


Some of the children who may struggle to engage in class or whose behaviour presents us with challenge are exhibiting a learned trauma response. Using a trauma-informed approach will support these children (and their peers as well).


Trauma rewires the brain; but brains are plastic

Trauma rewires the brain. When we are in danger our thinking, speaking brains shut down and we go into fight, flight, freeze or faint mode. When that happens repeatedly or continuously this can end up as a default response, with these pathways strengthened through repeated use while other pathways go neglected.

The good news is that brains are plastic and every single time a child has a positive experience or interaction a little bit more work is being done to move towards a brain whose default wiring is not a fear response. Remember:

  • A trauma/fear response can take many forms – it is as likely to look like anger as fear.
  • When we are in a state of high alert, higher thinking and language is shut down.
  • This is not the time for reasoning – in this moment calming is the number one priority.
  • Trauma can take many forms. Attributing blame is not helpful, our focus is on the child.
  • We can be more forgiving when we view a child’s responses as if they were those of a younger child (due to a brain development delay caused by trauma).


First, keep them safe

Our first and most important job in supporting children who have experienced trauma is to keep them safe. Our second job is to make sure that they “feel” safe. It is one thing meeting their needs, but another successfully communicating this with them (and their care-givers). A child who has repeatedly been hurt, neglected or who is fearful can come to expect to be hurt, neglected, rejected or otherwise unseen or unheard. Remember:

  • Physical safety first, but we also need to create social, emotional and cognitive safety.
  • Step into their shoes and practise empathy and curiosity.
  • When you see a fight-flight-freeze response try to understand what might have triggered it.
  • Note spaces and faces that make a child feel safe. Can these be accessed in times of need?
  • Is school triggering or retraumatising? How could this change?


Work with families for long-term change

There are often intergenerational issues at play and while supporting the child and taking a trauma-informed approach to our work with them will be beneficial, the real prize will come when we are able to work with families to educate, inform or inspire them to replicate some of this practice at home.

When we work in partnership with families, signposting support as needed, sharing advice and ideas and building trust and safety in the relationship between the school and the family, the child always wins. This is by no means a quick win, but when you succeed you are sometimes breaking the cycle of multiple generations. Remember:

  • Aim to move from “us and them” to a genuine team-around-the-child approach.
  • Consider how school may trigger or retraumatise adults too.
  • Adults who have experienced trauma may still have a trauma-wired brain which quickly moves to fight-flight-freeze – but remember, brains are plastic.
  • Teaching families some strategies for supporting a child’s emotional regulation can also provide them with important tools they can use themselves.
  • Do not underestimate how useful some of your everyday skills and ideas might be to families.
  • Seek to learn from families – this should be a genuine collaboration.


When the adults change…

Trauma-informed practice works best when it is a school-wide approach and it starts with the adults. As adults, we need to consider what our role is in promoting positive behaviour and responding to challenge as it arises.

In his book When The Adults Change, Everything Changes (2017), Paul Dix shows us how adults who are kind, caring and curious can help to influence a long-term change in behaviour. Again and again I see this in the exemplary work in alternative provision settings where children who often arrive feeling lost and abandoned, flourish in response to a radically different approach to behaviour. Remember:

  • Emotionally regulated adults result in emotionally regulated children.
  • Calming strategies or a simple script can buy time as well as creating calm.
  • Know your triggers and your limits. Have strategies for creating moments for “mini-resets” for yourself.
  • Seeking the help and support of colleagues is not a sign of weakness.
  • If you feel that your hope for a child is fading, consider who can take on the “hope-baton”.
  • Learn from each other – look to your support staff for how to build trust and connection.
  • The stories we tell about children are the stories children will, in turn, tell about themselves.


Be curious, not furious

In my discussions with inspiring practitioners who are getting this right, the word that comes up more often than any other is “curious”. When a child is not behaving as we want or need them to, one way to respond is with anger. Another way is to respond with calmness and curiosity. This takes confidence as it may not be the societally expected response.

When we are calm (and in turn help a child to calm), and we become curious about what the child is experiencing, we begin the process of making sustainable change for that child and helping them build the skills, understanding and neural pathways that will help them to thrive at school and in life. Remember:

  • Be curious about the child: “I wonder why they’re behaving that way?”
  • Be curious about yourself: “I wonder why this is making me feel so agitated?”
  • Be curious about the situation: “I wonder what we can learn from this?”
  • Be curious about the future: “I wonder what we can do differently next time?”


When things go wrong

Things will go wrong. Tempers will flare – sometimes the child’s, sometimes yours. Prevention is always better than cure and learning to pick up early warning signs, diffuse situations and support a child to emotionally regulate or move to a place of safety is optimal. However, if it all falls apart then our primary concern is keeping a child safe (in every sense of the word) and keeping the rest of the class safe as well, followed by moving towards a state of emotional regulation and calm. The thing most likely to derail this will be if we become distressed ourselves and/or if we begin to respond to secondary behaviours. Remember:

  • Intervene early with a reminder of a recent positive.
  • Run towards distress and remember that anger needs to feel heard.
  • Have some calming stock phrases you can return to in difficult moments.
  • Role-model forgiveness and moving on.


Conclusion

How we restore calm and how we later respond – by repairing the rupture – is an important part of the learning journey and the building of positive neural pathways for the child. If you can find it within yourself, role modelling responding to distress and practising forgiveness might be the first time a child has been exposed to these important lessons.


  • Dr Pooky Knightsmith is a passionate ambassador for mental health, wellbeing and PSHE. Her work is backed up both by a PhD in child and adolescent mental health and her own lived experience of PTSD, anorexia, self-harm, anxiety and depression. You can contact Pooky via www.pookyknightsmith.com and for her previous articles in Headteacher Update visit https://bit.ly/33ma5xY


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