- Children's trauma can "infect" practitioners, curtailing their ability to form strong relationships with a child
- A year after being introduced, pupil outcomes have improved and staff absence decreased
Most teachers have felt it; that creeping, embodied sense of fear or dread when a certain pupil enters the classroom. It might even have begun before they got out of bed that morning, in anticipation of that lesson. This sensation isn't only experienced by teachers, however; it can be suffered by any professional working with young people who really struggle with behaviour and emotional wellbeing.
In fact, they may be suffering from secondary traumatic stress. This is when supporting a traumatised person becomes traumatic in itself. People can be slow to recognise this, perhaps out of concern it will be taken as a sign of weakness or incompetence. But secondary trauma is real, and it can damage a practitioner's health and shorten their career. Symptoms are wide-ranging but can include cognitive or emotional disfunction, eating or sleep disorders and depression.
When a child has experienced abuse, neglect or other significant trauma, the emotional injury can profoundly affect their behaviour, particularly when they're challenged themselves. They might become openly abusive or find more subtle ways to undermine the practitioner. Understandably distrustful of adults, they expect to be rejected and so feel that it's safer to reject those there to help.
When a child is lashing out on a daily basis, it naturally takes its toll. They project this "toxic stress" toward the worker, who can unwittingly start to reflect it back in negative signals which then exacerbates the situation.
The Key Education Centre in Hampshire is a pupil referral unit for children who have been permanently excluded or are at risk of exclusion, as well as those referred for emotional vulnerabilities. Staff recognised the dangers of secondary trauma and introduced a trauma-informed supervision model that has helped them better support themselves, each other, and their students.
Staff are trained in attachment and trauma-informed practice. They learn how to spot the signs of secondary traumatic stress, and how to respond. Training is provided in emotionally intelligent behavioural intervention strategies such as "emotion coaching".
This understanding is then embedded through regular group supervision sessions, each led by a designated, trained staff member. These sessions are conducted in a "solution circle" style, where challenging or upsetting experiences can be discussed openly and without fear of judgment. This is a safe space for colleagues to reflect, "co-regulate" their emotions, share good practice and offer helpful suggestions.
The sessions effectively become a form of training as well as peer-to-peer support. It's essential that all staff are fully invested in the process, so attendance at these sessions is mandatory.
Head teacher Leanne Forde-Nassey recognises the importance of educating staff in avoiding vicious cycles developing in the pupil-teacher relationship, by giving a fresh start to "every single pupil, every single day". This isn't always easy, of course, hence the need for high levels of support.
Forde-Nassey says it takes a lot of time, persistence and repetition of the right techniques to modify the behaviour of the most traumatised pupils, due to behaviour that has been hard wired for a long time. Persistence, flexibility and honest self-reflection are critical.
"If you're getting down about lack of progress, reflect on what you've tried, update it and keep trying," she adds.
When considering secondary trauma, an analogy is often made with the safety advice on aircraft; put your own oxygen mask on first, then you can help others.
In the year since the approach was introduced in April 2018 staff absence fell by 70 per cent, there were no absences for metal health-related illness and pupil exclusions fell by 81 per cent.
Forde-Nassey says the value of this approach has been reflected in positive feedback: "We review our curriculum and provision every term, as we have such a transient student population. When we ask staff what went well in the past term, "supervision" has come up every time for the last three terms.
"Now, other staff are asking to be trained to lead sessions, and we're working with two primary schools who want to try it with their teachers."