Opening the can of worms & fear of trauma informed practice

To open a can of worms is to attempt to solve a problem only to inadvertently complicate it and create even more trouble. The metaphor refers to fishing – the tendency of live bait to wriggle loose from any open container, creating a messy issue for the angler. The idiom is used to describe uncontrollable breakout, a situation aggravated, and there’s a link with the directive to ‘let sleeping dogs lie’.

Some school leaders (and a good many teachers) worry that trauma-informed practice (TIP) risks opening that can. These are the leaders who also believe that the teacher’s role is purely to ensure that children acquire knowledge; that the ‘change in long term memory’ occurs. Conditions in school must optimise the transmission of knowledge, which means keeping a tight lid on things.

The role of the educator is not to act like some kind of amateur psychologist, asking children about their private lives, their feelings, any experience of trauma. Delving into such places will only create messy breakouts, contributing nothing to the climate for learning, perhaps even causing psychological damage. School is for learning.

Some young people may benefit from access to a counsellor, that is acknowledged even within the most buttoned-up settings; pressure can build up in cans and they can then explode, which is even more messy than lifting the lid. But this kind of talk isn’t to be encouraged or actively promoted across the general school population, otherwise untrustworthy and attention-seeking adolescents, girls especially, will be queuing at the counsellor’s door as an escape from outside PE….regardless of what’s really going on inside them.

These are widely held views that I have heard versions of many times during my teaching career, notably when I introduced a key-worker scheme for distressed young people (the initiative I am most proud of, looking back – more about it later). Such views are regularly tweeted, often with the phrase ‘well intentioned’ to dismiss the case against whilst at the same time evoking wisdom, experience, sage-like perspective. ‘School is for learning’ – it has a seductive simplicity, a purity, a serious sense of mission, that idea.

When I’m confronted by such views now, I feel a mixture of dismay, frustration and ‘where do I start’ befuddlement. There are so many possible replies, including, I’m afraid, FFS (it’s not as if there isn’t readily available information about TIP that people could read before rejecting it) Perhaps I am writing this so that I can get the clearest, most constructive and (and socially appropriate) response straight in my head.

I think there are two essential points to make when we are defending TIP against the can of worms charge. First, that it’s based on a misconception about what the work actually means; people are inclined to hear the word ‘trauma’ and then go on to make erroneous assumptions about the practice (it must mean talking to children about their experience of trauma.)

Second, that when pupils do choose to open up to staff they trust, which is a privilege, then that can do no harm and a great deal of good. In the emotionally healthy school, there is nothing to be frightened of within the can and young people know that they don’t have to carry their burdens alone; they can open the lid and there is the relational capacity within the school to contain whatever comes out.

Point One: What trauma informed practice really means

There are whole tomes written about this. However, we cannot at once complain about misconceptions and then demand that those less invested in the trauma field read entire volumes to educate themselves. So here goes my shot at a summary, beginning with the neurobiological basics:

The infant’s brain develops from the bottom up. The lower parts that mature first are responsible for survival-related functions and responding to stress. The upper parts that develop throughout childhood, but exponentially in the first fifteen months, are responsible for executive functions….emotional regulation, reflection, memory, empathy, cognitive learning and so on.

Development of the upper regions, the cortical brain, depends upon prior development of lower parts. This means that when the stress response is repeatedly activated in the lower part of the brain (typically in the absence of safe, predictable, accessible relationships and through exposure to frightening experiences) then its sequential development is disturbed. Executive functioning in the upper, cortical brain is compromised by a level of stress that has become toxic.

However, the developing brain is highly malleable and with the right stimulus, for example immersion within a safe, relational, stress-reducing school environment, children and young people recover from what is properly called ‘relational and developmental trauma’, sometimes in miraculous ways.

Whilst this sounds very like attachment theory, and certainly the fields are intimately related, trauma-informed practice has a wider reach in that it acknowledges that the biological disturbance created by toxic stress can be rooted in a range of adverse experiences, not just disrupted attachment. These might include exposure to domestic violence, fractious divorce, complicated grief, a caregiver’s mental illness, addiction, violence, racism, bullying, poverty, war – and clearly the list could go on.

These experiences will have increased exponentially as a direct result of the pandemic, meaning that school cohorts will be containing higher levels of stress, on average.

TIP is about mitigating the impact of toxic stress such that children and young people can lower the guard, move out of their hyper-vigilant states, ‘settle to learn’ (Bomber). A key goal is to help those in survival mode expand over time their window of tolerance. A whole pedagogy is developing around this, much of it underpinned by Dr. Bruce Perry’s 3 Rs of Regulate, Relate, Reason.

Whilst there is an inherent challenge to some traditional approaches in all of this (hence perhaps the resistance), the practice does have a strong sense of common sense about it, as well as that biological evidence-base sketched out above. Think about a mistake you made when you were in an activated state; when you were full-up. A long story, but I messed up enormously and lost a job after my mum died. (There’s a reason why we take compassionate leave.)

The practice is emotional regulation, not encouraging children to tell us about their traumatic experiences. It’s about creating nurturing and relational school environments which are good for all children and young people, but essential for our most vulnerable. It’s about social buffering for young people who lack that and who are floundering as a result. It’s about all staff being regulated themselves and offering moments of simple human connection. It’s about understanding and embracing Dr Karen Treisman’s mantra:

It’s about stress reducing and not inducing school climate. It’s about understanding that for children to learn – and yes, school is for learning – we must first ‘get to the cortex’ (Dr. Bruce Perry) which means eliminating threat and creating a sense of belonging. Given the prevalence of childhood adversity, the deep recession we face and the impact that will have on our most marginalised families, it’s about the public duty.

Point two: Opening up is a good and necessary thing

Several safeguarding referrals resulted directly from my key-worker scheme. In that sense, the team did on occasion ‘open up a can of worms’, but thank goodness they did. Encouraging children to build trusting relationships with key staff and to talk is fundamental to keeping them safe. Ofsted inspectors routinely ask pupils if there is a member of staff they trust enough to talk to, for this very reason.

I was immensely proud of my key-worker team, which comprised TAs, a receptionist, the finance officer – my person specification was empathy and attunement, not a certificate in counselling. The provision was cherished by families, including our most marginalised, who had access to a friendly advocate in school; one who knew what was going on at home, who ‘got it’.

Adolescents in crisis had the opportunity to share their experiences and to make sense of them in the process and time was made for this, even if it meant missing some lessons, form-time or assemblies. It was a priority, a biologically respectful priority:

Dr. Perry talks about the human need to habituate difficult experiences by talking about them, by wrapping them up in language. When shaken by something, we pick up the phone, speak to our partners, a friend; we seek connection. The brain knows what it needs to do to prevent the tolerable stress that life inevitably throws up from becoming toxic.

A lot of the most dysregulated behaviour we see in school is driven by blocked grief, young people either not having access to that attuned and empathic other, or not having the self-awareness or perhaps even the language to articulate their distress and thereby reduce its toxicity. These are the young people who make up the numbers in our APs. Ask any PRU leader.

The school climate that discourages this kind of discourse can therefore never be a healing one for vulnerable children and young people who are relationally poor (Perry) and at greatly increased risk of poor outcomes, health and educational, because of that.

I want to finish with a reflection on Kate Clanchy’s wonderful ‘Some kids I taught and what they taught me’. She describes the journey she went on as an educator, from deep suspicion about the teacher as therapist role (not helped by her participation in a traumatising therapeutic writing workshop) to the most profound and moving realisation that her work is in reality deeply therapeutic, and that is the single most important thing about it. I think she charts the journey many teachers make, as simple ideas like ‘school is for learning’ are confounded by contact with complex young people who need something before that, and more than that.

Working with a poetry group comprising ‘disadvantaged but able’ learners, and studiously avoiding any psychological probing because of her firm beliefs about the English teacher’s role, Kate is struck by what her students choose to share. “Each week I show them a ‘real poem’ and they respond with screeds of their own about the hair-raising traumas of their every day lives: boyfriends in comas, deaths, physical and sexual abuse, abandonment. Then they share the results, and cry, buckets. I often cry too. They look forward to it all week, they say. And so do I…..we seem to have happened on a safe place, and a method of holding each other up. I seem to be getting better at this.”

Then the breakthrough comes, after the group has listened to an interview with performance poet Melissa Lee-Houghton, on the subject of poetry and mental health. Writing is not a cure, the poet explains, but it creates distance and control.

Control. This word has somehow never occurred to me before. My students are gaining control over a torrent of experience that has rendered them powerless. And if they dig deep, and find effective images, and make a good poem out of the truths of their lives, then that is not just control, but power. It’s different from being happy; it isn’t a cure for anything, but it is profoundly worth having.

And with confidence that this is helpful, vital, therapeutic – Kate asks her students about their lives, week in, week out, and they reply through the images they create.

So what does it feel like to lose your father to heroin, Amiee? Like being an out of control car, a broken branch on the ground, like rubbish that seagulls are picking, says Aimee. And when, after that, your sister leaves home? Like the moment the cloud goes over the sun and your room is full of shadow. And what does death look like? Like your mum’s addict boyfriend, coming to call with a can of Stella, like the stairwell you were too young to fling him down. And where is your mother, now? In my room. In the sunset. In her scent. In my poem, Miss, safe.

It seems when we worry less about losing control – opening the can of worms – we allow our most marginalised and vulnerable young people to gain it. We give them power over their experiences.

Pulling the two main points of this post together, though, it’s important to reiterate that TIP is not just ‘talking about trauma’. It is about creating the conditions which make such talk possible. Fundamentally, it’s about creating psychological safety within children who feel profoundly unsafe, such that they can learn, grow and thrive.

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.

2 thoughts on “Opening the can of worms & fear of trauma informed practice

  1. What a great article and I’m so reassured to hear of your views combined with the post that you occupy! It gives hope for a more Trauma Informed ethos for our schools here in Lincolnshire! As a humanistic psychotherapist, I am a firm believer that the relationship is the vehicle for deep therapeutic change and healing, so operating from a more relational perspective can only be a positive thing for all involved.

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    1. How lovely to hear from a local practitioner! And thank you – don’t want to name schools on here, but we have some well on the journey. Lots of people within the LA and across services reinforcing the key messages about relationships.

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