Nurturing Resilience in Schools

Sara Spinks 30 November 2023 3 min read
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Understanding Adverse Childhood Experiences & Trauma Informed Practices

In education, the profound impact of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) on children and young people has prompted a critical examination of Trauma-Informed Practices. In this article, we delve into the definitions of trauma and ACEs, exploring how these experiences can leave lasting effects on a child's mental, physical, and emotional well-being and the importance of nurturing resilience in schools.

Trauma arises from events or circumstances that are physically or emotionally harmful, with lasting adverse effects on an individual's overall well-being. Examples include violence, neglect, war, and abuse, affecting individuals across age, gender, socio-economic status, and ethnicity, and such traumatic events can create high levels of toxic stress, which, if prolonged and persistent, can impact brain development and functioning. Staggering statistics reveal that one in three children and young people experiences at least one potentially traumatic event by age 18.

The Adverse Childhood Experiences study highlights the prevalence of childhood trauma, with statistics revealing alarming rates of substance use, physical and sexual abuse, emotional neglect, and exposure to domestic violence. ACEs profoundly impact a child's development, influencing mental health, physical health, academic attainment, cognitive development, and behaviour.

Children and young people with higher ACE scores face increased risks of alcoholism, drug misuse, heart disease, mental health problems, and poor academic achievement. Furthermore, ACEs can impede healthy attachment in future relationships, affecting behaviour and emotional regulation while increasing the likelihood of risky behaviours and vulnerability. ACEs can have an incredibly damaging long-term impact on children's future prospects and mental and physical health.

Educational settings play a pivotal role in safeguarding children from the impact of ACEs. Recognising the statutory obligation, schools are crucial in identifying and supporting children affected by trauma. Strategies include:

  • Working with parents and carers to help them understand about mental health, what ACEs are and how they can affect children, as well as helping them to know how to support their children in managing stressful situations and how to recognise the signs;
  • Focusing on the prevention of ACEs by improving the well-being of children & families by educating and informing them how to live healthier lifestyles, refocusing attention to what behaviour is saying about a child's life, reviewing provisions and making adaptations;
  • Working with other agencies or services, such as CAMHS;
  • Ensuring the professional development of all staff in widening knowledge of ACEs and the consideration of whole school strategies.

Trauma-Informed Practices (TIP) is a model grounded in understanding how trauma exposure affects individuals at neurological, biological, psychological, and social levels. TIP comprises three key aspects:

  • Realising that trauma can affect individuals, groups and communities - TIP is an approach to interventions grounded in the understanding that trauma exposure can impact an individual's neurological, biological, psychological and social development;
  • Recognising the signs, symptoms and widespread impact of trauma - TIP aims to increase a practitioner's awareness of how trauma can negatively impact individuals and communities. It affects their ability to feel safe and develop trusting relationships with professionals such as education, health and care services, and staff. TIP shifts practitioners into seeing beyond an individual's presenting behaviours from, 'What is wrong with this person?' to 'What does this person need?';
  • Preventing re-traumatisation - TIP aims to avoid re-experiencing thoughts, feelings or sensations experienced during a traumatic event or circumstances in an individual's past.

Six key principles guide trauma-informed approaches in schools: safety, trustworthiness, choice, collaboration, empowerment, and cultural consideration. These principles create an environment that supports children in overcoming barriers to learning and promotes positive well-being.

Trauma-informed schools prioritise creating safe spaces, regulating the nervous system, building connected relationships, supporting coherent narratives, practising 'power-with' strategies, and considering cultural diversity. These schools focus on fostering social, emotional, and resiliency strategies and encouraging post-traumatic growth.

A trauma-informed classroom emphasises creating a safe space, establishing predictability, building trust, offering choices, and staying regulated. Notably, it refrains from punishing children for behaviours that may be symptomatic of trauma.

Supportive adults play a vital role in helping young people manage their emotions and behaviours. This can be referred to as 'The Three R's':

help the child to regulate & calm their flight/fight/freeze responses. Do this by using soothing but limited language, a safe space to go, stepping back and allowing them time to process. Don't add to the feelings by shouting or 'adding fuel to the fire'.
we need to connect with and relate to the child. Do this by developing a calm, sensitive dialogue, acknowledging how they feel and how that is hard for them. 'Wow, you must have felt really angry then. That must have been hard for you...'
We can support the child in reflecting, learning, remembering, articulating, and self-regulating their emotions. Do this by teaching them the language of emotions, strategies for regulating them, using stories to explore emotions and reminding them of their safe places and safe people.

It's also important to note that staff working in schools may also have experienced trauma in their lives, so using trauma-informed approaches amongst colleagues should also be encouraged and could make a difference to individuals.

Trauma-informed practice provides a framework for creating environments that nurture resilience and promote positive mental health outcomes. Recognising and addressing Adverse Childhood Experiences through Trauma-Informed Practices is essential for nurturing resilience in schools.

As schools play a pivotal role in the lives of children, training to understand and implement these practices will contribute significantly to positive mental health outcomes.

Sara Spinks

SSS Author & Former Headteacher

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