Trauma Aware Practice

ETF Associate Polly Harrow considers trauma aware practice, looking at the neuroscience that underpins our understanding, the impact of trauma and adverse childhood experiences on teenage brain development, and the importance of the Emotional Available Adult.

Neuroscience is a fascinating subject and even more so, for those working in the FE and Skills Sector, when considering adolescent brain development. Given that both learner behaviour in general, and negative behaviour particularly, are raised frequently in post-16 settings as key areas of challenge, this is a topic which merits close attention.

‘Behaviour and Attitudes’ is now a graded aspect for Ofsted inspections and guidance refers to the requirement for a ‘safe, disciplined and positive environment within the provider’. Under ‘Personal Development’ we see terminology such as ‘confidence’, ‘resilience’ and ‘developing learners’ character’.

In considering how we equip practitioners in education to enable them to develop these positive and desirable traits across our learner bodies, we need to also consider how we ‘reach’ learners who are not as accessible as their peers; the ‘hard to reach’, the disengaged, those who find emotional regulation particularly difficult. Those whose ‘fear systems’ are on heightened alert and easily activated; in other words, where a stable and secure attachment/relationship has been missing in their lives. Positive relational connection is an essential aspect of working with young people to progress personal development and cultivate positive behaviour.

Some providers do recognise the importance of ensuring staff development is delivered in the area of teenage brain development, giving as it does such a profound insight into the adolescent emotional regulation system. Awareness and understanding of what makes a teenage brain ‘flip’ (negative thoughts leading to negative feelings leading to negative actions) is often a meaningful moment of insight and revelation and can have a deep impact on educational practice. ‘Flipping the Lid’ is one of the most effective staff development modules I have both received – whilst studying a Trauma Informed Practice Diploma – and subsequently delivered.

Neuroscience helps us to understand the impact of traumatic lived experience on the brain and therefore on the subsequent thoughts, feelings and often defensive behaviours. One of the most interesting concepts I have come across in my study in this area, was the notion that adults sometimes assume that being extremely kind to a young person will automatically make them feel safe and build trust. In fact, when dealing with trauma from adverse child experiences, feeling overwhelmed by kindness or attention can be a trigger for distrust and withdrawal. Sometimes compliments and praise can be quickly dismissed as inauthentic by a young person with little, if any, experience of receiving positive reinforcement. Equally, the precursor to assault and abuse might have been exaggerated ‘niceness’ or kindness, again triggering distrust and withdrawal. No one said this was easy.

There is however a simple and achievable approach based on relational connections. The term ‘emotional available adult’ (EEA) is key here and research shows the extraordinary impact an EAA (emotional available adult) can have on a young person (see Ian Wright’s YouTube film about his teacher Mr Pigden).

An EAA does not have to be a counsellor, on constant call, or a therapist with qualifications in psychology. An EAA can simply be respectful, caring, calm and understanding. An EAA recognises the young person as someone who might bring all sorts of painful lived experience into the classroom in their ‘emotional backpack’, and who needs to be treated in a way which avoids triggering a defensive response, e.g. fight, flight, freeze. ‘Blame and shame’ language is not helpful and can reinforce existing negative self-image. If the precursor to, say, domestic violence in the home is typically accusation and insult, then there is a high chance the learner will respond according to that previous experience. Hostility is a language all too readily understood and must be avoided at all costs.

When studying on my trauma diploma course, I learned about how we develop new pathways in our brains throughout our lives, right into very old age, and it takes only seven minutes of empathic connection for a new healthy and positive pathway to form. On the other hand, toxic stress corrosively eats away at our brain pathways. Feeling understood literally changes brain chemistry, and the art of positive listening alone can facilitate the young person in feeling that they are understood, which enables them to shift from an unsafe, untrusting state to an emotionally integrated place.

Young people who experience trauma outside education can often showcase their symptoms inside education; trauma can impact on behaviour in the classroom, on relationships with adults and peers, on self confidence and self respect. Dr Dan Hughes offers the useful approach of PACE (playfulness, acceptance, curiosity, empathy) in getting to know your learners and as a tool for de-escalation. One research study reports an activity where learners completed the sentence ‘I wish my teacher knew….’ which led to some unexpected and surprising insights into what the learners were thinking and feeling. Being mindful of the smallest interactions, like saying a friendly ‘hello’ while passing on the corridor, underpins the culture of the organisation; recognising that ‘every interaction is an intervention.’ The importance of simple meet and greet forms part of a positive whole organisation approach; making sure learners feel welcome and wanted is the mantra I use at my own college where our strapline is ‘Warmly welcomed and wanted; every learner, every day, by everyone’.

When we consider, through a safeguarding lens, the wide and diverse range of issues affecting our learners, including abuse, violence, bereavement, abandonment, neglect, poverty, mental health, bullying, divorce, and also the number of safeguarding referrals we typically deal with, we get a good sense of the scale of trauma affecting our learners. Add to that all the learners who fall outside specific safeguarding, but whose behaviour causes concern or who are isolated and disengaged, and we can begin to understand the alarming statistics quoted across a range of research; the two-year developmental delay compared to peers, 40–60% of all young people with at least one childhood traumatic event, 30% with multiple traumatic occurrences. These ‘occurrences’ are often referred to as ACES; adverse childhood experiences.

Since the coronavirus pandemic began, we know that the numbers of young people struggling with new mental health issues or exacerbated existing mental health issues has grown significantly, and in my blog about vulnerable cohorts I detailed some of the widespread implications of Covid on the overall wellbeing of young people.

Therefore, in light of this substantial scale of need, the importance of delivering high quality pastoral care in education is ever more clear, and appropriate levels of resource must be provided to achieve this. This approach can usefully underpin a comprehensive organisational response to trauma and indeed behaviour triggered by previous trauma, so that early intervention can be more readily facilitated, and issues met effectively at the point of occurrence.

Trauma aware practice and understanding the neuroscience of teenage development has a real and necessary place in both our staff development and learner development programmes. This not only equips staff with the skills to meet Ofsted requirements, but primarily enables education practitioners to understand and support the very real needs of our young people and indeed helps our learners to better understand themselves.

The ETF launched its completely revised and updated Safeguarding in FE and Training course and refreshed Prevent duty awareness raising modules in May 2021. Both have been developed in consultation with the profession. Find out more on the ETF website.

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