Heather Lucas is an SEMH specialist working within primary and a school governor. She has been a huge source of wisdom throughout our journey through Boy Raised and here reflects on ‘Healing Communities’, the second of two chapters that Dr. Perry added to later editions of the book.
In the current Covid19 pandemic arrows and lines are popping up everywhere and it is still not always easy to follow the right way to go. In school communities we are looking for ways to navigate a return to what we love but within a quite different landscape and we are finding that this throws up opportunity as well as challenge. It is now more poignant than ever to be curious about the biological foundations to learning, which are physical, emotional and relational safety. One source of guidance can be found in the work of Dr Bruce Perry and as part of a ‘book group’ with fellow Tweeters, we have been discussing his work through the lens of his book of case studies about traumatised children (The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog, 2017). The chapter called ‘Healing Communities’ points us towards the often untapped, but not unprecedented, capacity of human relationships and has never been more relevant than now.
Schools are increasingly influential communities and they follow different arrows with varied clarity. Some schools will want to quickly return to the near obsessive focus ‘on cognitive development and almost completely ignore children’s emotional and physical needs.’ The aim here is to focus at the top of the iceberg and starts there. Perry provides an alternative direction however and this one points sequentially from ‘the bottom up’. Dr Perry’s vast experience and research has been distilled into a sequential model known as ‘The Three R’s’ of Regulate, Relate and Reason. Skipping over the first two is the reason that many coercive communities struggle to develop new learning behaviours and spend much of their energy and resources on constant enforcement and expulsion.
An alternative to a coercive community may at first appear to be a chaotic one. Dr Daniel Siegel helps avoid this with his visualisation of a river of ‘flexibility’, that travels between the two banks of ‘rigidity’ and ‘chaos’. A healing community is attuned and responsive to nuance. It understands that trauma is a wide continuum, which is largely invisible and can apply to anyone. Taking the helm and navigating flexibly therefore maximises the potential for wider success. It does not need to be a perfected skill, but it does require clarity of the direction of travel. Perry’s work suggests that a school’s direction should prioritise the foundations to academic learning from the ‘bottom-up’ (as summarised by The Three R’s model or, for the more advanced, his official Neuro-Sequential Model for Education).
‘…recovery from trauma and neglect is all about relationships – re-building trust, regaining confidence, returning to a sense of security and reconnecting to love.’ (Perry, 2017)
In our discussion we quickly established that in order to create a healing community for pupils the priority must be staff wellbeing. The elements in the quote above can be used by all SLT to assess their own level of strength and then that of their staff. Schools who navigate flexibly need a shared vision of the direction of travel and the priorities. SLT and staff need to agree on the balance of tolerable risk and reward and staff need to feel valued and supported in achieving this.
For example, a rigid approach to school safety might appear to be policies that include lots of tape, arrows, cross-hatching, rules and prohibition of all physical contact. On an opposite extreme Perry knows that ‘children need healthy touch … infants can literally die without it. Its part of our biology.’ So, between rigidity and chaos is the fact that sometimes we need to hug our children as part of protecting them. Similar dichotomies exist for staff, such as being isolated in small bubbles.
Flexibility does not negate the importance emphasised by Perry for routine and repetition, which he says are essential for healthy development. Routines are healthy when they are experienced as reassuring and they reduce cognitive load. Repetition in this context means manageable doses of attuned, relationally scaffolded support, rather than just repeated instructions to comply to a narrow doctrine. Flexibility is not chaos and routines and repetition does not need to mean rigidity either.
If navigating this feels overwhelming, keep going back to the basics of The Three Rs. Start every time with ‘Am I emotionally regulated enough’/ ‘Is my colleague or pupil(s) emotionally regulated enough?’ You will nearly always find the answer to this is not really (that’s why it feels overwhelming). So lose the objective and prioritise a reset. A dysregulated adult cannot regulate a child and is more likely to escalate a situation away from academic learning. Even in a counterculture this begins to look intuitive.