As a society, we have a better understanding of the effects of early childhood trauma. More recently, many education settings are training staff to be ’trauma-informed’ and adopting strategies to support children and young people to overcome some of their early trauma and have the best possible life chances.
At North Hertfordshire College like so many other settings, we’ve seen an increase in more vulnerable students. Then there’s the impact of Covid and working with the virtual school, we’ve seen an increase in the numbers of care-experienced students on our roll too.
Hence, we’ve taken positive steps on a journey to become a trauma-informed setting.
The term ‘trauma-informed’ means to understand how trauma in a child’s early life impacts their overall development. Examples of early trauma are abuse, neglect, bereavement, incarceration of a parent and being placed in care. These traumatic events in a child’s early start in life are collectively known as ‘adverse childhood experiences’ or ACEs.
We have three ‘systems’ in our brains: the threat system (how we deal with danger/protection), the soothing system (how we manage distress/promote bonding) and the drive system (motivation/achievement). ACEs affect how these systems develop.
For example, a child who has suffered abuse and has spent much of their life in a constant state of fear will have an overdeveloped threat system. This can often present in different types of behaviour, such as anger, defiance, tearfulness, becoming withdrawn and/or being confrontational. Typically, children with this experience will also have an under-developed soothing system and find it difficult to self-regulate.
At North Herts, we know the key to good support is to develop a good understanding of our young people: their behaviours, their triggers, what de-escalation strategies they respond to and how to help them recover.
Our Health and Social Care teacher, Taylor Smith, has a group of 18 students of which five have experienced ACEs. Two have been out of mainstream education, two are care-experienced and one suffers with severe mental health issues.
The typical behaviours Taylor was seeing in class at the start of the year included the inability to engage in formal learning, aggression, ignoring instruction, attendance issues, outbursts, anger and lashing out at peers. Taylor was spending a lot of time dealing with challenging behaviour which was disrupting learning, and this hugely affected the rest of the class in other ways too.
Becoming trauma-informed gave Taylor the strategies to support her students. Her approaches include a ‘roots and fruits’ activity to look at the behaviours and explore the feelings behind them and the reasons for those feelings.
Taylor also works with the students to understand the behaviours themselves, which involves a risk reduction plan, breaking down triggers, understanding needs, and post-incident recovery. As trauma-informed practitioners, we understand how a student processes their trauma and how they best recover. This will include how a student likes to calm down, how they move on and how to move back into learning mode.
The impact for our students is significant. Taylor reports fewer dangerous and difficult behaviour incidents. Students are completing higher quality work. They are all achieving minimum grades and four achieved stretch grades. And general behaviour has improved in class too; all students can sit and engage in their lessons and all have engaged in a full year of formal education.
We are still on our journey, but the impact this evidence-informed work is having is already transformational. We work with an external partner, Beyond Psychology, which is supporting a core team of staff to lead this work across all parts of our organisation. So more of us are learning the theory behind this approach and developing the tools to make a difference.
We know from this that working with students with ACEs during the teenage years can significantly reverse some of the effects of early trauma. Our students deserve the best chance in life, and we are excited to continue this work and to see what more they can achieve.