Last week our Think2Speak based book-study group met for the second time to discuss Chapter 2 of Dr. Perry’s ‘The Boy who was Raised as a Dog’. It was lovely to welcome new participants and it’s worth reiterating that people are free to join our conversation at any stage – either by coming along to Gainsborough or virtually, via a Zoom link. The purpose of this blog is to reflect some of the discussion and to share it with a wider audience of educators, many of Dr. Perry’s insights having such relevance to the way we do schooling and in particular ‘behaviour’. (The Chapter One reflection can be found here.)
Introducing Sandy – Chapter 2
Like all of the children featured, ‘Sandy’s’ is a heartbreaking story. She witnessed the rape and murder of her mother as a three-year-old and was left for dead after having her own throat cut. A protection programme meant that her history wasn’t shared with the series of foster carers that she was subsequently passed between or the many teachers she encountered.
Sandy’s therapy, when it was eventually provided, involved enabling her to re-enact elements of the traumatic experience, a process that she initiated and controlled throughout her many sessions with the psychiatrist. Dr. Perry’s role was essentially that of Sandy’s prop.
He explains the purpose of this approach: “To restore its equilibrium, the brain tries to quiet our sensitised, trauma-related memories by pushing us to have repetitive, small doses of recall. It seeks to make a sensitised system develop tolerance.” Sandy’s brain was providing the ‘dosing’ it needed to tolerate the events of that night.
Her progress was slow but steady. Over time she became less prone to fight, flight and freeze behaviours, less triggered, more self-regulated and she was able to cope with school. Indeed, we learn at the end of the chapter that she went on to achieve good grades and now lives a fulfilling life as a notably kind person.
One of the most uplifting features of this book is its joyous illustration of neural plasticity: with the right care, all children can recover from developmental trauma to thrive. That’s what makes the case for trauma-informed practice as standard in schools such a compelling one. The stakes are enormous.
Implications for educators
Whilst Sandy’s story is extreme, Dr. Perry is clear that the need to process painful events by revisiting them is universal. In the aftermath of a distressing or traumatic event, we have intrusive thoughts, he explains. We keep thinking about what happened and we keep telling and retelling the event to trusted friends or loved ones.
The vast majority of readers will know the truth of this. When my mum died, some fourteen years ago now, I talked and talked and talked to family members, especially the brother who was with me ‘at the scene’. I returned to work too early, with hindsight, and ran out of petrol on the A17 because of the daze that I was in. I remember knocking on the door of a very kind stranger and telling her my story too (as well as asking for petrol!). She gave me the longest hug and that helped. My boss, on the other hand, never checked in with me and I always thought less of her for that. A lot less, actually.
People who listen with empathy perform an important therapeutic function, without being therapists. We know that many children experience bereavement and loss, they carry enormous emotional burdens, but do we create opportunities for them to talk about these in school? They don’t benefit from the option of compassionate leave – they are expected, by and large, to go with the programme despite the fractious divorce or whatever it may be that plays out at home. How easy do we make this for them, really? Do we encourage them to share their worries and ensure that each has access to a trusted adult? Belonging to a form group simply doesn’t tick that box – especially in settings where the form tutor role has been reduced to checking uniform and equipment.
We have a wealth of scientific research that says ‘social buffering’ (having someone at the time of the painful life experience, to listen, empathise and understand) can prevent painful experiences transitioning into toxic stress, or trauma. This buffering is something that needs to be planned as part of a school’s mental health provision. Dr. Perry repeats time and again that the most accurate predictor of positive mental health outcomes is the number and quality of a child’s relationships. ‘Relational poverty’ greatly increases risk, therefore. Resilience is not created within the child but is cultivated in the web of relationships around the child. Something the DfE completely fails to understand in its ill-informed framing of ‘character education’, of course.
I was privileged to speak to two CAMHS peer support workers recently – young people, that is, who have accessed the service in the past and now support new entrants. I asked the boy whether school could have done anything more to meet his emotional needs early. His reply was instant. “Yes, they could have given me someone I could talk to.” The girl remarked that there was a TA in school that she did trust enough to talk to – in fact, he was the single reason she didn’t school-refuse, so important to her was access to this empathic adult. However, their discussion was limited to 5 minutes at the start of the day, because it wasn’t possible to be excused from form-time. Stories like this highlight an inflexibility and lack of understanding that we need to address if young people are to access the psychological support they need within school. The answer is rarely as simply as a referral out into services and the strong message from these young people was that this was not what they wanted.
There is, of course, much really good practice too. For example, key worker schemes through which all adults in a school are utilised – from receptionist to site manager to headteacher – to offer an empathic ear. I operated such a system at my last school and can verify that an option to self-refer did not open the floodgates. The provision was used responsibly by pupils and much loved by our local CAMHS team, who provided a level of supervision. The coaching circle model developed at Carr Manor (website strap-line – ‘we know our children well’) in Leeds is very exciting. Here, pupils don’t meet as large form groups but rather split into small vertical coaching circles three times a week. Pupils are very well known, cared about and talk to any one of them and they will confirm that their coaching circle feels like family. Worry boxes, I wish my teacher knew schemes – all of these enable young people to feel safe in the knowledge that school is a place that understands and that there are people ready to listen when needed.
Our next book study discussion is on January 22nd 2020, 6.30 – 8.00pm, Think2Speak, Marshall’s Yard, Gainsborough.
We’ll be discussing Chapter 3. Join us if you can!