A primary school assembly on behaviour and fairness. Towards #traumainformed

As promised, a primary version of the secondary school assembly I posted last week. The content has been modified for a younger audience but the messages are broadly the same…designed to help pupils understand distressed behaviour and to have compassion for their struggling classmates, and to help those classmates begin to understand themselves. Also, to contribute towards an emotionally literate school climate in which it is recognised that Ross Greene was right; ‘kids do well if they can’ – meaning that the response to maladaptive behaviour must be educative, not punitive. This is something both pupils and teachers are capable of understanding, when the message is clearly articulated and modelled by staff.

As before, much of the trauma-informed material has been borrowed  from the brilliant Beacon House. This assembly draws heavily on Survival-in-School-PTSD

The assembly (or PSHE lesson)

Let’s start with a question. Is treating everyone exactly the same way fair, or unfair? Before you answer, have a think about this picture:


(Take feedback, pulling out the obvious point that one size doesn’t fit all and is therefore unfair)

It’s important to think about the stools in this picture in relation to behaviour – because behaviour always seems to raise questions about fairness. (Anecdote useful here – ideally one when as a child you wanted to see a punishment or some kind of retribution but were frustrated….)

I remember once having to take a walking-stick into secondary school for a drama lesson. Some older kids started messing about with it on the bus, so it was confiscated – by my own brother! (I always thought his bus-prefect role went to his head). Worse still, he refused to give it back to me, even when we were off the bus!  So I went on to get a drama detention for ‘forgetting’ my homework (the teacher didn’t accept what she called excuses). And THEN, when I got home and told my mum about all of this, she didn’t even punish my brother for his completely UNbrotherly and bullying behaviour! So, clearly, unfair brother, unfair teacher, unfair mother! I was beside myself.

Fairness still matters greatly to me – like it matters to all of us. But what I know now that I didn’t understand so well back then is that it’s rarely simple or straightforward. It can be a difficult call for the adults, to do the fairest thing. My mum might well have spoken to my brother in a way that made him feel sorry about what he did, so sorry he would never repeat it. She was kind and wise and would have known that in lots of ways, feeling bad is worse than being punished. Think about it, a punishment allows us to feel sorry for ourselves when really we should be feeling sorry for someone else. If he had been punished, my brother might even have thought that he was the unfairly treated one – after all, he was only doing his job as prefect by confiscating for the day an object that could have caused further trouble.

I don’t know. What I do know is that fairness isn’t a simple idea – it’s a complex one. Which is why we’re talking about it today.

Another thing that makes it complicated is this: when calm and considerate behaviour is something we don’t personally find difficult, it can be hard to understand why others struggle to be consistently calm and considerate. There is a good reason for that, though, which we’ll look at now.

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The brainstem in this diagram is the part of the brain that develops first. When babies are born, the rest of the brain – the higher parts – they aren’t wired up yet, there’s just the brainstem that’s fully developed. Its job is to keep us alive, to protect us from threats. The brainstem is a bit like an alarm bell inside our heads, warning us of danger and making us act very fast.

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Think about the last time you surprised someone. How did they react? Some people may turn away or back off – that’s flight. Others might might move towards you, even look angry – that’s a fight reaction. Others might just stand there speechless and shocked – that’s freeze.

These reactions are the brainstem doing its job of keeping us safe, even when we are not really facing a life-threatening danger. If the brainstem paused to think about whether a situation is really a risk to life, it might be too late! So the brainstem doesn’t think. In fact it literally stops us thinking. It’s job is only to push us into instant action…fight, flight or freeze.

The problem is, when we grow up in a world that feels unsafe or scary or really stressful  for lots of the time, then the brainstem is much too active. And the fact that it gets so much exercise means that it grows fast and becomes dominant, like a bully. The thinking part of the brain is then restricted. It doesn’t get wired up so well and that’s a big reason why we see people sometimes acting without thinking. They are in survival mode.

It’s not pleasant, to be triggered into flight or fight by your brainstem like this. In the next few slides, we hear the voice of a pupil who tries to explain how it feels to her teacher:

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These are overwhelming feelings that we would all rather avoid. When the survival brain switches on, it affects our bodies as well:

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The good news is that you all have incredible brains that are growing at amazing speed. Our brains continue firing and wiring all the way through life, as it happens, but never as fast as they do when we’re growing up. This means that we can and do strengthen different parts of our brains. For example, the more the thinking brain is used, the stronger it gets. The less often the survival brains is activated, the smaller the brainstem becomes and those horrible experiences described earlier don’t happen so much. This is because we literally sculpt and shape our brains – like plasticine.

So the survival brain that can make being cool, calm and collected difficult for some doesn’t have to stay a survival brain. Not when we start to feel really, really safe, so that the brainstem isn’t on guard, looking for threats….triggering us into flight or fight.  Our job as teachers is of course to grow your thinking brains, so the first thing we need to do is make sure school is a calm and safe place. That’s why we have our rules, for example.

Thinking about the pictures, can you suggest what else we have done to  make sure school is a safe place, especially for those children who are still having to grow their thinking brains because home-life has been stressful and they have bossy brainstems? (Include pictures of your school, discussing how each contributes to safety and security)

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As you can see then, your safety is our top priority, not just because we care so much about you – but also because that’s what helps your thinking brains to grow!

Of course, we all move into survival mode when  something shakes us up or we’re stressed out. Adults as well as children. Being late makes me feel stressed out and I then have to focus on breathing to keep my thinking brain online. We all need to learn how to calm ourselves down when necessary. There are lots of ideas on this slide about how to do that.  (Suggest pupils are taken through a breathing or stretching exercise as this point). Which one works for you? One-size doesn’t fit all, remember. Which one might you suggest for a friend? I expect you will have seen adults in school using some of these techniques alongside pupils, and now you know why. It’s all part of keeping the brainstem in its place – or putting it back after it’s been in control.

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So to sum our assembly up, being fair doesn’t mean treating everyone the same way, because we all have different needs, different brains. Being fair doesn’t have to mean punishing somebody either. It might mean helping them to calm down instead. And, finally, when life gets stressful, we all need to know how to do that.

If you recognise the difficult feelings and sensations that we’ve looked at today within yourself then make sure you tell us so that we can help you. If you’re someone who freezes, if may be that we haven’t noticed how much you’re really struggling inside.

Fairness means having an extra stool ready for whoever needs it – so that every member of our school community gets to see over the top of the fence.



Published by Mary Meredith

Working in schools for over 20 years, I've been a Head of English, a SENCO and a deputy headteacher. I'm currently Head of Inclusion at Lincolnshire County Council. I am a sucker for the underdog. Always have been, always will be.

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