Post No.: 0577
In Post No.: 0569, we looked at how a developing brain adjusts to living in a traumatic environment in ways that are adaptive at the time but maladaptive in the bigger picture.
This all highlights how psychoeducation – or the provision of information and education regarding mental health conditions and services – isn’t just important for those seeking or receiving mental health services but also for those involved with anyone who is or might, like parents, teachers and foster carers. Everyone in school needs psychoeducation to be aware of what trauma looks like and what to expect at different developmental stages, in order to optimise every child’s educational attainment (e.g. a teacher who doesn’t understand that a child’s hypervigilance might be due to an early history of maltreatment may incorrectly believe that he/she has ADHD).
So we need to improve psychoeducation and mental health support in schools and for families. Mental health should be a part of the school curriculum. It also likely requires a holistic approach involving the children, carers, schools and the wider community, rather than taking a child in isolation and putting them in an alternative provision school without the goal of trying to get them to reintegrate back into and thrive in mainstream education and society. Children who have had more life difficulties are about seven times more likely to be excluded from school than their peers. But troubled children shouldn’t be ‘passed onto others in the hope they’ll never be seen again because they’re someone else’s problem now’ because that’d just multiply their neglect experiences!
Being torn away from one’s school and peers gives or reinforces the message that one is a failure, worthless and not wanted, which affects one’s self-esteem. After a violent outburst or verbal challenge – physically holding down and handling a child in a rough manner (in front of their peers) to get them out of a classroom/playground might remind them of their previous traumas. They may feel misunderstood, that everyone is against them, and subsequently distrust adults and peers in the future even more, which won’t help when they finally find a new school; which means we shouldn’t be surprised if they express further antisocial behaviours. Not being in school can also lead to committing petty crimes or being groomed by gangs. So without good psychoeducation for, and proper understanding and compassion from, everyone – the negative consequences tend to compound for a previously abused or neglected child.
Children who cannot attend, or are excluded from, a mainstream school because of their complex psychological needs and behaviours are also seven times more likely to have special educational needs (SEN), and are ten times more vulnerable to mental health concerns. (In the UK, the four areas of SEN are communication and interaction, cognition and learning, social, emotional and mental health, and sensory and physical needs. A pupil with SEN may be eligible for additional support in school e.g. speech therapy.)
An attainment-based curriculum that’s about standardised assessments and ‘teaching to the test’ mightn’t suit them. Strict and rigid rules and zero-tolerance discipline may just replicate the abuse they receive at home, and thus reinforce the idea that the world is a dangerous place and that everyone hates them and is out to harm them.
A school doesn’t want the education, or safety or mental health, of non-disruptive pupils being disrupted though thus they need to be considered too – although a more sinister reason to exclude pupils is because schools are ranked according to their grade averages thus a school effectively gets rewarded for giving up on their low-performing pupils. The unfortunate get sacrificed for the sake of chasing numbers.
Teachers may notice a quiet, subdued pupil who on some days seems okay but at other days seems withdrawn, and seems to have no friends and is difficult to draw into classroom discussions and hence reach. Teachers will definitely notice the erratic and volatile pupil. Some of these pupils could be the most academically competent pupils in the class hence it can be confusing when they behave disruptively amongst their peers and challenge the authority of their teachers. It can be like Jekyll and Hyde from one day to the next. But with psychoeducation, we will learn that it could’ve been triggered by something that actually happened a few days ago at home or elsewhere – triggers that initiate disruptive behaviours in the classroom are rarely about something that just happened there and then, except for like ‘the straw that broke the camel’s back’. A child can be affected by events outside of the classroom hence their attitude isn’t necessarily personal or wilful. A teacher might need to therefore enquire about the pupil’s life outside of school to try to understand the origin of this behaviour.
Schoolteachers thus need to be supported via psychoeducation and practical support. Teaching children who have experienced maltreatment can be challenging – it requires everyone involved to keep the child’s mind in mind. A metaphor is like good DJs who are highly sensitive to the mood of the entire room and adaptive to what’s getting everyone engaged on a moment-by-moment basis.
Perhaps empathically keeping in mind other people’s minds should be what everyone should do whenever we come across an individual who doesn’t seem ‘right’, such as by asking ‘was that unexpected eruption because this person is suffering from something in their private life?’ or ‘was that situation particularly triggering and reminiscent of past experiences of trauma for them?’ We should think about people’s minds rather than just their behaviours. We need to think beyond the surface symptoms and search for the hidden causes. Ask ‘what happened to them to make them behave like this now?’ instead of ‘what’s wrong with them?’ We need to take their perspective.
So modern teachers don’t just need to be qualified in the subjects they teach but qualified as people who teach – as in people who are knowledgeable about how brains learn – because stressed brains cannot effectively learn! If a child couldn’t sleep the night before because his/her parents were fighting all night and that’s all he/she can think about while in school, then he/she’s not going to be in a suitable state of mind to learn anything in school. Misbehaviour, or alternatively crippling diffidence, observed in the classroom might be a self-protective response to stress learned from an adverse experience.
The well-being of all pupils should be considered as a parallel goal with their academic progress – so prioritise mental well-being and resilience as part of what schools teach children from an early age. Ideally, every school would simply have the resources and staff to cope. A designated mental health leader in each school, and mental health teams in each district for schools to call upon if needed, would help; as would greater funding for child and adolescent mental health services (CAMHS) generally since prevention, or at least early intervention, will reduce the greater downstream social and financial costs. Ideally, a school counsellor with good links with CAMHS would identify such needs and facilitate a plan between carers and subject teachers. Pastoral support would perhaps be provided too.
Do consult colleagues who are in contact with specialist support for children in need. Work with other mental health professionals rather than intervene alone. It’s the responsibility of the collective community to care about the learning success and well-being of children who have experienced adversity. Parents might get defensive when professionals are discussing their children’s behaviour or parenting skills, so professionals need to empathise with the home situation and not be judgemental, and parents need to understand that even the best parents can learn more and improve.
Steps are going in the right direction regarding recognising that children who face adversity might also face problems with processing and remembering information, higher order cognition, emotional regulation and social skills.
The first thing a teacher needs to do is concentrate on building a relationship of trust with every pupil on a daily basis. So when a child erupts, we need to take a step back and understand what’s going on in their mind rather than get our own stress levels up and react in kind. A teacher’s threats of punishment and aggressive tones could escalate the situation and lead to a child’s exclusion, as well as add to their trauma. It’s metaphorically like understanding that a light bulb is glitching because of a loose connection, for which barking at it won’t help and whacking it would break it further. Psychoeducation teaches us that it’s best to stay composed and patient, to allow the child the time and dignity to cool down (this could take half an hour, or half a day), whilst understanding that it can and will be fixed later at a better moment when they’re calmer and more receptive to a learning experience.
Otherwise, once a teacher loses what trust was granted to them, it becomes even more difficult to (re)gain it. You really have to earn their trust on a day-by-day basis, and even then it can take time. Understanding and learning to cope with the experiences of adversity also takes time for the child. So instead of threatening them with punishments like detention, suspension or expulsion – it’s more fruitful to understand their mind better through psychoeducation rather than assumption, and to positively support their success in school. A calm teacher will also model a desirable behaviour that pupils can copy to de-escalate situations and regulate their own emotions.
If a child doesn’t trust his/her teachers, caregivers, counsellors or anyone else, then they’re not going to trust what they’re teaching either. ‘Epistemic trust’ (ET) is an individual’s willingness to consider new knowledge as trustworthy and relevant, and therefore worth integrating into their lives.
Along with psychoeducation, teachers also need to develop their own self-awareness, self-compassion, self-regulation when under stress, and resilience, first, before they can themselves successfully teach these things to others or manage pupils who might have traumatic backgrounds. Well if we cannot follow our own advice then we won’t be credible teachers!
Further research is required to ascertain the effectiveness of this technique, but whenever a child has done something praiseworthy, we could get them to ‘thank their brains’ to get them to recognise that they can have some control through their thinking. Create, recognise and savour any positive emotions and special moments in the classroom (e.g. celebrate any acts of kindness). Help the class pay attention to what it feels like to feel good. This all helps those who don’t get to feel these positive emotions much, as well as fosters a classroom community that bonds the pupils together, which helps maltreated children feel accepted and wanted. The best thing for maltreated children is for them to feel that there are people in the world who care about them. Books and stories can also inspire and teach them about resilience and compassion – they can help them to understand that they’re not alone in how they feel, open windows into how other people feel, and encourage them to imagine how they would feel if they were in another person’s shoes.
It’s sometimes difficult to spot those with traumatic backgrounds, hence teachers need to consider universal approaches that help everybody, such as these.
If the parent-child relationship is inconsistent, interrupted or otherwise unhealthy, it becomes difficult for a child to know if he/she can trust other adults. Whatever attachment patterns we have with our primary caregivers, we project onto others as our template. This doesn’t mean we cannot form secure attachments with others if we didn’t form one with our primary caregiver when young, but it governs the probability. We need to therefore break the cycle of treating one’s own children according to the example set by how one was raised as a maltreated child, if one was. And a knowledgeable (through psychoeducation), caring and kind teacher could create such a new and better template for a maltreated child.