How can we support traumatised refugees in school?

Whilst the plight of Ukraine children has inspired a groundswell of compassion and school leaders are absolutely committed to welcoming refugees into the sanctuary of their schools, many are expressing concern about whether they will have the resources required to adequately meet the needs of those traumatised by their experiences. With CAMHS waiting times an issue in many areas, thresholds high, a language barrier in the mix too, this apprehension is understandable.

I wanted to highlight a chapter from Dr. Bruce Perry’s ‘The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog’ by way of what I hope is a reassuring perspective on this. It describes the experience of twenty-one child survivors of the infamous Waco Seige, which saw most members of a religious cult perish in flames upon the arrest of their leader. There are clear parallels with the refugee crisis: released by negotiators before the catastrophic final raid, the children of the ‘Davidian’ cult had no idea whether family members left behind would live or die; everything that had been familiar was now gone; they had witnessed a deadly assault on their home; their futures were profoundly uncertain.

Originally, Texan child protection services had planned to place the children in foster homes, indiviudally, but these were not available quickly enough so they were instead taken to a children’s home where they were cared for by two rotating live-in couples, the ‘house mothers’ and ‘house fathers’. This proved to be by far the better option: “Keeping them together turned out to be one of the most therapeutic decisions made…these children would need each other.”

Perry observed and then encouraged the development of a therapeutic web of relationships around each child within the home, the impact of which led to a paradigm shift in his thinking about how to heal traumatised children. “At this point in my work, I’d only just started to discover how important relationships are to the healing process.” A mantra well established in the trauma field, that “People, not programs, change people” is in fact a quotation from this chapter.

Throughout Boy Raised, Perry reminds us that we are a deeply social species. Individual humans are incapable of surviving for long in nature without the support of others: a lone human being in the world of our ancestors would soon be a dead one. The presence of people we trust is associated with safety and comfort and there’s a soothing biological reaction to warmly relational experiences; “our heart rates and blood pressure are lower, our stress response systems are quiet.”

However, it is equally true that the major predators of human beings are other human beings, as any refugee will be all too painfully aware. Our survival therefore also depended upon being highly sensitive to the mood, gestures and expressions of others, interpreting threat and working out, albeit mostly at a sub-awareness level, whether we were confronting friend or foe. Hyper-vigilance intensifies and distorts this process such that a harmless nudge might trigger a brainstem reaction.

It is interesting to note how often Perry describes approaching highly traumatised children on his knees in the book, minimising any physical threat represented by the bigger and stronger adult. Whilst this is not a strategy that would translate easily into the average mainstream classroom, staff do need to understand the importance of relational safety cues – a warm tone of voice, welcoming body language, perhaps a playful attitude and certainly smiles.

Perry’s ‘therapy’ for the Davidian children foregrounded the power of proximal relationships to move them out of their frightened hyper-vigilant (or dissociative) survival brain states to psychological safety. He made no use of any kind of formal counselling, which the state did arrange but which proved counter-productive since it only meant the introduction of strangers. The work was child-led:

I thought these children needed the opportunity to process what had happened at their own pace and in their own ways. If they wanted to talk, they could come to a staff member that they felt comfortable with: if not, they could play safely and develop new childhood memories and experiences to begin off-setting their earlier, fearful ones. We wanted to offer structure, but not rigidity; nurturance but not forced affection.

It is not difficult to imagine how a nurturing school community would enable what is known in the trauma field as relational repair of just this kind. Indeed, we can be sure that relational repair is happening daily in our schools, probably in most cases without staff even recognising the brain-changing difference they make through their moments of connection with distressed children. Think Mr. Pigden.

However, whether relationship building is prioritised strategically is another matter. The single most powerful thing a school leader can do, to meet the needs of a refugee or indeed any vulnerable child, is invest in relational practice. The principle of holding on, not referring on, is critical. Workforce development needs to ensure that all staff understand that they have a part to play, regardless of their role, and permission to be human first and teacher second. Therapeutic dosing, the cumulative impact of the kind word and the personal connection, has infinitely more to offer troubled children than any intervention that is confined to Student Support or the ELSA room.

Each night after the children went to bed our team would meet to review the day and discuss each child. This ‘staffing’ process began to reveal patterns that suggested therapeutic experiences were taking place in short, minutes-long interactions. As we charted these contacts, we found that despite having no formal therapy sessions, each child was actually getting hours of intimate, nurturing, therapeutic connections each day. The child controlled when, with whom, and how she interacted with the child-sensitive adults around her. Because our staff had a variety of strengths – some were very touchy-feely and nurturing, others were humorous, still others good listeners or sources of information – the children could seek out what they needed, when they needed it. This created a powerful therapeutic web.

The sense of control that children gain when their access to relational support is not prescribed so much as facilitated through the creation of a relational milieu matters greatly. Trauma is at root the experience of utter powerlessness and victims may well reject formal counselling because it is not respectful of the sometimes acute need for control. There can be a kind of self-defeating independence that dooms any such formalised arrangement to failure, even if it begins.

In a trauma-informed setting, everyday interactions enable healing and staff trust in the process, contributing to it whenever opportunities arise. As Dr. Karen Treisman puts it so well, every interaction is an intervention, or can be.

Reflecting on his experience with the Davidian children, Perry concludes, “The seeds of a new way of working with traumatised children were sown in the ashes of Waco.” We must hope that they take root in every school, regardless of a policy context which does not provide the most fertile soil. When social capital enjoys parity of esteem with cultural capital in the way that education is conceived, the life chances of our most vulnerable children will be greatly enhanced. Many schools are demonstrating that now, and they will be places of belonging and recovery for refugee children.

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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