Trauma Informed and Attachment Aware Schools: Working with Care Experienced Young People

Amanda Savage, Head of Education for TACT, offers some advice for educational professionals on ways in which to support care experienced young people to access learning, while feeling safe and secure. Click here for more information about TACT.

Amanda will be hosting a breakout session on integrating the voices of young people in Pupil Education Plans at the Looked After Children and Care Leavers Forum. This session will allow schools to better support care experienced young people by taking their views into account in creating a supportive school environment.

Understand the philosophy:

We are living in an age where schools are developing an understanding of what it is to support young people who have experienced trauma, how to offer nurture and trauma informed care, and be attachment aware.  This is all excellent and it is wonderful to witness these steps forward in school communities seeking to understand and meet the needs of young people who have experienced adverse early life events. 

However, in my work with schools I have come to realise that these terms mean something different to various professionals, organisations or settings. The difference in viewpoints can lead to misunderstanding, inconsistency and a fragmented approach, all of which can be triggering for care experienced young people. 

It is important that schools seeking to develop their informed practices have an understanding of the philosophy and research in the field by eminent professionals so that policies and practice align. Developing a shared understanding of the informed approach is important but it is difficult to achieve this when each individual is on their own awareness journey, informed by their individual experiences and way of relating to others. 

The work of Bowlby explains the theory of attachment to a primary care giver. However, the insights of more contemporary authors such as Bomber helps schools to understand why it can be useful to apply the principles to developmentally attuned attachment aware practice in the classroom. 

I often hear schools stating they have completed a Boxall profile, which is an important diagnostic tool but if this is disconnected from understanding what a nurture class aims to achieve then the work ends up being a bureaucratic, rather than a transformative or practice driven task. The work of Marjorie Boxall but also Melanie Klein helps us to make sense of the approach without putting a toaster or sofa in classrooms without grasping the atmospheres these items are meant to help create. 

Equally, understanding what trauma is and can mean to an individual child is vital in schools accurately identifying triggers. Approaches or even terminology can vary but the core belief that schools can aid a young person on their healing journey permeates the work of Van Der Kohl, Margot Sunderland and Karen Treisman, each with vast knowledge in the field with differing qualifications, professional views and contributions to the body of work.

looked-after-children-conf

Positive intention: 

If school staff can retain a positive intention and hold the young person with unconditional positive regard then that is a great starting point, even before understanding reading or training in the area of trauma and attachment. The vast majority, if not all, young people who are care experienced have experienced traumatic experiences and need time, space and support to make sense of these experiences. Schools do not have to feel they have to perform the function of a therapist, in fact that could be damaging but school can work on reduce trauma triggers and try not avoid the young person being retraumatised.

Ensuring the behaviour policies are relational, that they are not rigid, or that sanctions are not shame based or punitive is an excellent way of being a trauma informed school. Schools may welcome support to reflect on their traditional practice and be open to advice for professionals with an expertise in the field to consider how they can amend policies to be trauma informed and promote ‘healing’ and avoid ‘harming’.

Sitting in isolation facing a wall in silence can not only evoke feelings of shame (i.e. facing the wall in disgrace so that the staff and peers cannot see the student’s face) but the act of enforced periods of silence can lead a young person who is care experienced to fall into a trauma trance or enter a trauma tunnel. This means that they replay abusive, scary, and traumatic events in their mind, which can feel as vivid as if they were happening to them in real time. 

Young people who are care experienced benefit from support to learn about their own behavioural impulses and develop strategies on how to respond in a helpful way, just as a teacher would break down the stages of learning to read or learn a mathematical concept. 

Sometimes young people are given detentions, are isolated or given an exclusion, all of which can remind them of past rejection, just for communicating and managing their trauma in the only way they know how. This can be by using self-regulation techniques such as moving, covering the memory with noise or by having a fight, flight or freeze impulse.  

So what can schools do to help?   

Schools cannot expect themselves to take all of the young person’s pain away but they can seek to understand it. By knowing about key events in the young person’s past, staff can seek support from Educational Psychologists, Virtual Schools and Social Workers to understand what the young person’s individual triggers may be. 

At TACT we employ an approach where we seek to use the young person’s history as a map to lead the way to avoid the potholes and lead them onto stable ground. For one young person a trigger may be more obvious and avoidable such as hearing someone talk about their birth family and use terms such as ‘mum’ and ‘dad’. For others it may be quite subtle and more challenging to avoid, such as a smell or a memory triggered by a familiar sound or taste. 

Schools can work by holding the young person in mind with compassion and making decisions that are caring, attuned and supportive. Over applying a strategy or policy that is clearly not working for the young person and is causing distress can and should be avoided.

Being as well informed as possible is something all schools can do. Having time allocated to think and discuss the approach for individuals who may be experiencing a period of instability or crisis is helpful. Avoiding action that will make the young person feel worthless, unimportant or neglected but promoting opportunities for self-expression and positive mindset through praise and encouragement can make a difference to a young person whose resilience may be low. 

As individual teachers, managers, and support staff we can and do make a positive impact on the lives of care experienced young people.  We are part of their journey and it is certainly my honour and privilege to do what I can in my professional role to help a young person to experience education that is empowering, kind and strengthening in some small way each day.

Later this year we'll be taking a more focused look on how to better support children and young people at the Looked After Children and Care Leavers Forum 2021. Insights and expertise will be shared by the Louise Bomber, Adoption UK, The Anna Freud Centre and many more key leaders and organisations. View the agenda here