If #BlackLivesMatter, we have to stop the discriminatory use of exclusion

More years ago than I care to remember, I was sitting on the warm, freshly cut grass of a school playing field watching the kids playing football when a colleague joined me. 

“Are you on duty?”

“Yes” (thinking that perhaps I should be standing up)

“Have you noticed the new lad – *Phillip?”

“No – where is he? What’s the problem?”

(nodding covertly) “He’s with that group of girls under the tree over there.”

“Oh right – yep, see him (getting up, reluctantly). Why do you ask? Is there a problem?”

“Well haven’t you noticed anything about him?”

(This was a test – and I was failing) 


“Really? You don’t notice anything at all suspicious about him?”

“Err, no. Sorry – you’re going to have to tell me.”

“Well he has a bag. See it? Most of the Year 11s don’t bother with bags. But he does and he always has it with him. Always. It’s never more than two feet away from him.”

(Looking at me to see if the penny has dropped. It hasn’t.)



“Absolutely! Nailed on.”

Within days, rumours were rife and Phillip’s bag was searched. A small plastic packet was found. It was empty save for what was described to me as a ‘couple of grains of something’ in the corner. The police were called and Phillip was permanently excluded – for possession.

Now I’m not going to dwell here on the need for fair and proportionate responses to drug-related incidents – except to signpost the DfE’s drugs advice, written with the Association of Chief Police Officers. which states in language as clear as it is widely ignored that:

Exclusion should not be the automatic response to a drug incident and permanent exclusion should only be used in serious cases.

I want to move on to the focus of this post, which is race. Readers will have guessed already that Phillip was black.

He was in fact one of only a small number of ethnic minority pupils in our school at that time; with us for just a few months before becoming another grim statistic. What I didn’t know back then, at the start of my career, was that the odds were stacked against him the minute he put on his school uniform.

It would be nice to think that there is more awareness now; that my colleague would be alive to the difficult parallels with stop and search policing; that I would call him out for stereotyping. But if we have moved on, if we are now a more enlightened society, then that has not translated into any progress whatsoever in relation to the disproportionate exclusion of Black Caribbean pupils.

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England’s rate of exclusion fluctuates between high and extremely high (relative to other countries), but the pernicious pattern captured in the table above, from the FFT Education Data Lab, is constant: Black Caribbean boys are three and a half times more likely to be permanently excluded than their white peers, also much more likely to be fixed term excluded, and it has been ever thus. We have made precisely zero progress in closing the exclusions gap. 

Indeed, recent research has shown that a black Caribbean boy, eligible for free school meals and who has SEND is 168 times more likely to be excluded than his white female counterpart, who is not eligible for FSM and who is not identified as having SEND.

Such “burning injustice” (May, 2016) – all too evident within the Cabinet Office’s Race Disparity Audit  that inspired the prime minister’s speech back then – was the very reason that Edward Timpson’s review of exclusions was commissioned. It is regrettable, therefore, that the recommendations relating to race are notable by their absence. Dr. Zubaida Haque, deputy director of the Runnymede Trust, comments here that “there was little attempt by the Timpson Review to engage and consult about the recommendations with the race equality sector.”

Instead of shining a light on institutional discrimination, Timpson fudges the issue by arguing that “the causes of exclusions – and therefore the action that should be taken – are complex and wider than just focused on ethnicity.”

Sure, Phillip was complex – there were other factors in his life that heightened his vulnerability. He was subject to an SGO and there was a tragic story behind that involving a house fire, the details of which I can’t recall accurately. He had experienced several school moves and his behaviour was less than impeccable (impact of trauma not understood at all back then, much less cultural trauma).

But ultimately, he was permanently excluded because of one huge great in-school factor; one ‘gotcha’ moment – rooted in racial stereotyping. How many more permanent exclusions would there have been if every single bag had been searched on the day that Phillip was caught? 

According to research from Runneymede, black pupils are typically singled out for more harsh treatment than their white peers; their disproportionate exclusion does not simply reflect worse behaviour in any simple way. The reality is much more complex, much more problematic. The evidence is overwhelming that unconscious bias seeps into every element of society and it would be naive to believe that our schools are immune.

Brian Richardson’s Tell it like it is  (2005) was one of the first texts to demonstrate that black children were being punished at higher rates than their peers.Screenshot 2020-06-07 at 02.18.01


A year later, the then DfES published ‘Getting It, Getting it Right’, which showed that:

‘Black pupils encounter both conscious and unconscious prejudice from teachers – for example, research has found that throughout their education Black pupils are disciplined more (both in terms of frequency and severity) and often for milder offences than those leading to their White peers being punished. 


The same message is reiterated in this 2017 report on Black Caribbean Underachievement in England and many will recall the ‘punishment for rolling eyes and ‘kissing teeth’ story’ that made headlines in 2019. It’s covered in this piece, on the rise of zero tolerance policies and their disproportionate impact on black pupils:

David Gillborn, professor of critical race studies at the University of Birmingham’s School of Education, said: “When you have zero-tolerance policies the idea is that we are not going to tolerate any infringements, we are going to be tough on everyone – but the problem is it is black students who are disproportionately hit by these policies. 

It is not every student in class who is accused of these things. It is black Caribbean students disproportionately,” he added.

The Runneymede Trust has long campaigned on these issues with Behaviour and Discipline in Schools (2010) focussing on the right to appeal unfair exclusion. At that time, ministers were concerned that the Independent Appeals Panel in some way undermined the Headteacher’s much vaunted ‘power to exclude’ – despite the fact that only 2% of all exclusions were overturned by Panel and that 90% of them were never even contested. 

Despite this and all of the evidence about the impact of exclusion on protected groups, the Appeal Panel lost its power to reinstate in 2012 to become the toothless “independent Review Panel’ that is is today. Much is made of this change politically, of course, and the fact that ‘backing Heads to use exclusion’ appeared as a populist manifesto pledge was a clear indication that those ‘burning injustices’ would not be informing policy making anytime soon.

The ‘strengthened power’ means that England’s exclusions law offers no checks or balances against discriminatory practice, despite a) the plethora of evidence that we have an enduring problem and b) the catastrophic impact of that problem on the life-chances of black children and young people (See, for example, school to prison pipeline).

Ironically, the DfE’s own review of the schools exclusions literature highlights this iniquitous state of affairs, but without recommending any discontinuation of same:

Some (parents) criticised the IRPs’ lack of powers.

Numerous recommendations were found within the literature, mainly focused on enhancing fairness.

It is not within our gift to change the law – though we can and must lobby parliament. But one thing is absolutely within our power as educators, and that is to examine our own unconscious biases, and to advocate for the marginalised – as I wish I had done as I sat on that warm grass, in all of my complacent white privilege and because of that very education that we were about to take away from Phillip. 

83519070_589616198345655_2546133734280219624_nToday’s inspiring, peaceful protest at Nottingham 


*name changed


Making the most of the adolescent brain to create safe school communities

Screenshot 2020-05-31 at 07.47.46

I scandalised book club recently by confessing that I walked the wrong away around the ASDA one way system. In my defence, this wasn’t an act of deliberate defiance so much as a reflection of my lack of visual awareness; there were arrows, yes, but no obvious movement of people one way as the store was quiet.

I didn’t enjoy the sharpness of the reminder I received, however, and I resolved never again to foray out of my preferred Lidl, where there are no one-way arrows and we are trusted to manoeuvre our trollies widely around each other, in suitably alert fashion. I just wish they’d stock Risotto.

The episode raised for me a couple of issues in relation to school settings, post lockdown. The first is that some pupils will inevitably break the rules, not out of malign intent but because old habits die hard and they’ll miss the arrows. The second is that this could give rise to conflict, depending on how the reminder is given and received.

I’m an adult and I’m pretty sure that my inhibiting pre-frontal cortex is fully developed, unlike that of the adolescent, yet still the ASDA episode was a just a bit activating and my store boycott is ongoing (it will be hurting them, I know) – even if does mean sometimes going without Risotto.

Of course, I might have reacted differently if my mood had been sunny when I entered the store, but I don’t like shopping – any more than the typical adolescent likes being told what to do by adults in school. We must remember that challenging adult authority is the work of adolescence; it’s one of the ways that independence is ultimately achieved.

Unfortunately, it also increases the adolescent’s risk of exclusion, as does risk-taking behaviour. We’ve moved onto ‘Inventing Ourselves’ at book club now – Sarah-Jayne Blackmore’s brilliant, iconoclastic take on the adolescent brain. She demonstrates that when adolescents are alone, they are actually no more likely than adults to take risks. It’s only when they are with peers that their propensity for risk-taking dramatically increases. That’s why car accidents are much more likely to occur when teenagers have passengers than when they are driving solo.

Our problem is that adolescents are with many peers, when in school, and therefore risk taking behaviour is a strong driver. How many young people smoke behind the bike shed (or equivalent) at home?

That’s your ‘typical’ teenager – acknowledging of course that not all are risk-takers. Throw into that mix heightened vulnerability, the adolescent who has marinated in a stressful, chaotic home for the past few months, and the imposition of stringent rules at school becomes an even more complex undertaking.

It’s going to take highly regulated adults, skill and, for me, a psychologically informed approach to pull this off, without high levels of exclusion (which is admittedly the easier option).

What we can’t do is loosen the rules; a shifting boundary is no boundary at all and the stakes here are high. Smoking behind the bike sheds is one thing; spreading infection, frightening others, risking life – that’s quite another.

These high stakes only add to the difficulty of this work, however; Blakemore is clear that adolescents are more likely to take risks in ‘hot’ contexts, when emotions are running high. The atmosphere within the country is febrile – we can’t allow that to infiltrate our school communities.

I’m certainly not against Tom Bennett’s call for clarity and the explicit teaching of new rules and routines.  We just need to be alive to its risks and ready to mitigate those. If there is too much heat around boundary-setting, then the climate created will be adolescent-unfriendly and vulnerable-adolescent-toxic. It will be counter-productive; escalating.

This is where I think Kim Golding’s ‘two hands’ of discipline becomes a no-brainer. We use both as good parents, after all, and we will need both in school – if the climate is not to feel draconian and punitive.

Screenshot 2020-05-31 at 09.15.06

Perhaps this is what is meant by the ‘warm-strict’ approach – but I’ve always felt that the warmth in that needs articulating – it lacks a clear pedagogy. For me, Golding’s  ‘connection before correction’ provides just that. You can read about its neurobiological evidence base here or listen to me translate it into a school context here. Put simply, it’s about validating a young person’s feelings, the inner self, whilst at the same time setting clear limits on behaviour. It’s not soft but it is kind and it’s for those most vulnerable young people whose needs ‘Just tell ’em’ can’t meet.

In addition, we could be thinking about using peer influence to our advantage, through, for example, peer mentoring schemes. Blakemore highlights the “remarkable impact” of a student-led anti-bullying programme undertaken by 56 schools across New Jersey. In each, a small number of trained students publicly opposed bullying and conflict by designing posters, their names and photographs included next to the slogans. Another activity involved their giving out orange wrist bands to those who they observed engaging in friendly behaviours. She concludes:

The study reveals the real-life power of peer influence in changing social norms of acceptable behaviour and conflict in schools.

The researchers measured the ‘social connectedness’ of the students involved in the project and found that the impact was greatest when a greater proportion of them were highly connected, or ‘popular’. Clearly, some students have more peer influence than others, which is something that we should discretely but strategically factor into our planning.

It doesn’t take much imagination to think about how this campaign could be used to promote safe school communities, in the context of Covid. Perhaps those who return first could be making the videos, designing the safety posters, training as mentors. After all, we’ve been clapping for the NHS, painting our rainbows, servicing food-banks, volunteering in a whole range of ways, like never before – with Covid-19 has come some real campaigning zeal, fuelled by compassion.

There is an abundance of that within our young people. If we can only harness it, if we can avoid simply dragooning them then I am certain that our school communities will be the richer and the safer for it.

(Comprehensive peer mentoring toolkit here.)

FOLLOW THE ARROWS! A guest post by @HLucas8 on healing school communities

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.

Towards a pastoral pedagogy fit for the pandemic age – a final reflection on The Boy who was Raised as a Dog

All of the children that make up the enthralling chapters of Boy Raised are, to varying degrees, misunderstood and marginalised within communities that are blinded by what Dr. Perry calls ‘child illiteracy’. This includes clinical, judicial, child protection, educational as well as social and family communities. Ostracised at school, Peter, the subject of the final chapter, is no exception.

Profoundly neglected as a Russian orphan for the first three years of his life, he was adopted by loving and devoted parents. However, nobody prepared them for the developmental challenges that lay ahead and by the time the couple reached out to Dr. Perry, their boy aged 6, they were desperate.

Two things are particularly interesting about this chapter. The first is the fact that Perry’s intervention involved enlisting the support of Peter’s classmates. The second is the sense in which all of Perry’s thinking about childhood trauma and recovery fell into place during his work with this family.

In essence, the golden threads of the neurosequential model were woven together. The main part of this post discusses those ‘Perry 3 Rs’ that translate the model into a way of working with vulnerable children and young people, or. rather a way of ‘being’ with them.

It’s concluded that Perry’s neurosequential, biologically respectful approach offers a low-cost blueprint for inclusive education; a post-pandemic antidote; a pastoral pedagogy that will allow even those most deeply impacted by the fallout of coronavirus to be safely held within their local schools  – for the good of all.

Peter’s Amazing Brain

With Peter’s permission, Dr. Perry told his class all about his traumatising early experiences in the orphanage and the impact of these on his ‘amazing brain’. This transformed their hostile attitudes (we fear what we don’t understand) such that they went on to become an enthusiastic and compassionate support team for Peter, quite transforming his experience of school.

The chapter is called ‘The kindness of children’ and it’s always been my belief that this is a resource we could do much more to tap within our schools. I wrote this assembly  having frequently observed in my SENCO role just how accepting of diversity children and young people can be, when educated about difference. Certainly, the impact of Dr. Perry’s intervention was enormous, highlighting the central role of peer support within a school’s provision for pastoral care:

Knowing that Peter’s immature behaviour came from a history of deprivation helped his classmates interpret it. When he grabbed something or talked out of turn, they no longer saw it as a personal affront or jarring oddity, but simply as a remnant from his past that they’d been taught to expect. The results were rapid: almost immediately he stopped having tantrums and outbursts, probably because what had prompted them was frustration, a sense of rejection and feeling misunderstood….What had been a downward spiral of rejection, confusion and frustration became instead a cascade of positive reinforcement, which fed on itself. The huge gaps in developmental age across emotional, social, motor and cognitive domains slowly filled in. By the time Peter reached high school he no longer stood out and he has continued to do well, both academically and socially.

No amount of clinic-based therapy could ever have matched what Peter gained from the kindness and friendship of classmates. This is the truth that leads us to the chapter’s great conclusion:

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The neurosequential model

As already suggested, it was through his work with Peter and his painstaking efforts to enable the boy’s parents to understand their son’s behaviour that all of Perry’s prior experience and learning crystallised into a coherent whole; the representation of of the brain as upside down triangle that he sketched out for the family is of course now recognised across the globe as the underpinning of his neurosequential model of therapeutics.

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He explains it thus:

The human brain develops sequentially in roughly the same order in which its regions evolved. The most primitive, central areas, starting with the brainstem, develop first. As a child grows, each successive brain region (moving out towards the cortex), in turn, undergoes important changes and growth. But in order to develop properly each area requires appropriate timed, patterned, repetitive experiences. The neurosequential approach to helping traumatised and maltreated children first examines which regions and functions are underdeveloped or poorly functioning and then works to provide the missing stimulation to help the brain resume a more normal development.

(The Boy who was Raised as a Dog – Appendix)

These interconnected regions of the brain are wired so as to ensure survival. All incoming sensory signals from the outside world and from the body (the inside world) are first processed in the brainstem. This lower region then passes that information up to higher areas for sorting, integration and interpretation.

If the incoming sensory material is familiar or felt from prior experience to be ‘safe’, the brainstem does not activate a stress response. However, if the incoming information is unfamiliar or previously associated with threat, pain, or fear, a stress response is activated – before the information can reach the higher, thinking part of the brain. This stress response interferes with accurate cortical processing by shutting down certain areas of the cortex, to a greater or lesser extent, depending on the height of arousal. 

Highly sensitised, traumatised children are frequently activated by apparently inconsequential stimuli and this is the root of their manifest difficulties in school.

Eye contact for too long may be perceived as a life-threatening signal. A friendly touch on the shoulder may remind one child of sexual abuse by a stepfather. A well-intentioned gentle tease to one may be a humiliating cut to another, similar to the endless sarcastic and degrading abuse he experiences at home. A request to solve a problem on the board may terrify the girl living in a home where she can never do well enough. A slightly raised voice may feel like a shout to the boy living in a violent home. (p298)

These children will at times be quite literally unable to consider the potential consequences of their actions because of the arousal state of their brains. There will be many more of them, post pandemic, and all educators will need training in how to ‘get to the cortex’ if these, the children who need us most, are to learn and grow.

Getting to the cortex involves moving from the bottom of the brain to the top through the Perry 3 Rs of Regulate, Relate and Reason.

Screen Shot 2020-02-02 at 13.39.36                                                           (From Beacon House)

Pastoral pedagogy fit for the pandemic age – applying the 3 Rs

It’s important to signpost here the full fifteen hours of training that is available for educators online at Neurosequential Model in Education. This can be accessed by groups or individuals and comprises Perry’s video-recorded guidance. This post doesn’t claim to cover the ground in any comprehensive way at all but sets out simply to illustrate each of the ‘Rs’ through reference to practical strategies that could be adopted by all staff.  Many of these were flagged by book club members last week, several of whom observe the power of the neurosequential approach daily, through their work with traumatised and vulnerable young people, both in special and mainstream schools. 


(Brainstem and midbrain – the sensory motor brain)

Help the child to regulate and calm their stress responses – fight, flight, freeze. Offer soothing comfort and reassurance.

(Dr. Bruce Perry)

Every adult within school, from site-manager to headteacher, should be ready and willing to ground and regulate a fellow human being in distress. It needn’t be difficult, though it does requires self-regulation. Perry is clear that, because of the mirroring neurobiology of our brains, one of the best ways to help another become calm and centred is simply to be present for them, calm and centred ourselves. Emotional contagion means that the reverse is also true of course – dysregulated adults dysregulate children. This is why staff wellbeing is such a high priority within the school that priorities high quality pastoral care.

However, we obviously want children to be able to develop strategies that they will be able to draw upon to regulate themselves, ultimately. Self-soothing techniques, if you like. These need to be introduced and practiced when children are calm, and emotionally intelligent school communities will share the learning with all pupils, not least so that they are in the best possible position to support their struggling peers.

This excellent resource suggests a number of grounding and regulating strategies, from deep breathing exercises to muscle relaxation. Every child is different and will benefit from a different approach, so it’s important to practice a range, possibly as brain breaks within lessons. I find it very helpful to watch demonstrations (never personally having been taught this stuff) and in this regard Dr. Karen Treisman’s relaxation and emotional regulation  videos are invaluable. She stresses the importance of repetition, if lasting and therapeutic change is to occur.

Walking is of course rhythmic, repetitive and grounding and it is worth noting here that the practice of requiring dysregulated children to stop walking and to stand still, perhaps against a wall, only succeeds in escalating the threat and shutting down the cortex. Furthermore, trauma is rooted in the experience of utter powerlessness and power-over adult behaviours are therefore dangerously retraumatizing. Many exclusions would have been avoided were this better understood. The adult who walks alongside, calming and connecting before expecting reason, is the adult we need leading behaviour in our schools, modelling the best practice and not the absolute worst.

Thought needs to be given to the school day itself and whether it is biologically respectful. I have felt myself become just a little less regulated when I haven’t found time for my mandated hour of exercise during lockdown. We are not designed to be still for long periods. There’s a strong case for continuing the Daily Mile activity that many schools have introduced as part of their current childcare offer, this summary of the research.  confirming its benefits, both wellbeing and academic related.

Not to be confused with discredited ‘brain gym’, stress-reducing classroom brain breaks are also strongly supported by the evidence, as proven here. These could also be utilised as the ten-minute distractor breaks that enable spaced learning, another biologically respectful approach. In addition, sensory circuits are now widely used in primary schools, the motor exercises setting children up for the day, or perhaps for next lesson when they are situated along corridors.


(Limbic brain – the emotional relational brain)

Connect with the child through attuned, sensitive relationship. Empathise and validate the child’s feelings so that they feel seen, heard and understood.

(Dr. Bruce Perry)

Articulated quite brilliantly by Kim Golding in this ‘journal paper‘, ‘connection before correction’ is another way of framing the ‘Relate’ stage of the bottom up process. Connection with a distressed child creates relational safety such that reason is possible. Here is psychologist Karen Young’s take on the process:

I know you’re a great human. I know that for certain. That decision you made didn’t end so well, but I imagine there was something that might have felt okay about it at the time. What made it feel like a good idea?’ Then, ‘I get that. I’ve felt that way myself. How do you think it went wrong?’ And finally, ‘What might be a better thing to do next time?’ Or, if needed, ‘Is there anything I can do to make it easier for you to do that?’. Or, ‘Things seem pretty upside down right now. What might you be able to do to put things right?’

Scripts are not difficult to imagine. Their key features are validation of feelings – a child needs to feel seen, heard and understood (“I see you are angry and frustrated and I can understand why”) and empathy (“It must be awful to feel overwhelmed like that.”)

Of course, within inclusive schools, adults understand the importance of making connections with vulnerable and insecure children throughout the day, not just at times of crisis. We saw that it was this ‘therapeutic dosing’ that enabled Peter’s rapid progress.

We are a deeply social species, our survival having once depended upon group membership. If we don’t relate to children, create within them a sense of belonging and acceptance, then our efforts to reason with them will always be futile because they will feel threatened and activated within a school environment that isn’t psychologically safe.


(Cortical brain – the great human thinking brain)

Now that the child is calm and connected they are able to fully engage in learning.

Heading straight for the reasoning part of the brain CANNOT work if the child is dysregulated and disconnected from others.

(Dr. Bruce Perry)

It is now possible to set limits on behaviour, which clearly we must do for the safety of both school community and child. The question is not whether but how to do this. Perry observes that ‘If we want our children to behave well, we have to treat them well’ (p273) suggesting that radical change is needed to the approach that is traditionally taken:

Troubled children are in some kind of pain – and pain makes people irritable, anxious and aggressive. Only patient, loving, consistent care works: there are no short-term miracle cures. This is as true of the child of three or four as it is for a teenager. Just because a child is older does not mean a punitive approach is more appropriate or effective. Unfortunately, again, the system doesn’t seem to recognise this. It tends to provide ‘quick fixes’ and when those fail, then there are long punishments. We need programs and resources that acknowledge that punishment, deprivation and force merely re-traumatize these children and exacerbate their difficulties. (p274)

This doesn’t mean that rules do not apply, it’s more a matter of how we teach vulnerable children to work within them and how we respond when they slip us, as they surely will. There will inevitably be occasions when it won’t be possible for them to remain in class, for example, and a reliable 3 R respecting plan is needed for such occasions. This would typically involve reporting to a safe base within school where thought is given to repair. For example, When you’re ready, let’s go and pick up your maths book and repair it with some Selloptape. We can then make a small apology card for Sir. Because Sir is trauma-informed, he will accept the apology graciously and ensure that the child knows that there is no rupture to the relationship.


It is important to emphasise that there is nothing suggested within this post that is not achievable if we are creative in our use of all the human and physical resource available within schools. Safe bases don’t need to be spare classrooms; perhaps it’s the clay-room for one  (thinking now about my youngest daughter) or an office for another (mine was always exactly this). 

What is needed if our schools are to rise to the challenges of this pandemic age is not new resources or new services but a new approach, rooted in the science. However, with the current policy focus on traditional behaviour management in mainstream alongside alternative provision for those who flounder, we do not seem to be grasping this. Segregation is not a solution and the evidence is stacked against it, for reasons that Perry explains in biological terms:

Another important implication of our mirrored biology is that concentrating children with aggressive or impulsive tendencies together is a bad idea, as they will tend to reflect and magnify this, rather than calm each other. (p275)

With so much scientific evidence at our disposal, so much that we haven’t even started to try yet, sector-wide, we stand on the brink of a huge, most costly missed opportunity. We know that the most vulnerable and disadvantaged children and young people can thrive within their community schools when the approach to behaviour and learning is biologically respectful. Trailblazing leaders are already proving that their schools are capable of holding, containing and healing children like Peter. We must hope that others follow them as they prepare to meet the huge societal challenges of this pandemic age.


The risk of misdiagnosing distress & three key questions that educators must ask – a reflection on Chapter 9 of ‘Boy Raised as a Dog’

This week at our ‘Boy Raised’ book club we met ‘James’, a six year old who was severely abused for almost all of his life by his adoptive mother. It transpired that she suffered from Munchausen syndrome by proxy, or Factitious Disorder Imposed on Another (FDIA), and all of her children were swiftly removed following Dr. Perry’s intervention.

The abuse – sustained, extreme, very near fatal – had been allowed to continue for so long in large part because the child’s distress had been explained through a diagnostic label, Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD). Admittedly, James’s mother had done some ‘doctor-shopping’ to secure this, but Perry maintains that misdiagnosis is a common problem: “Fortunately, RAD is rare”, he observes. “Unfortunately, many parents and mental health workers have latched onto it as an explanation for a wide range of misbehaviour, especially in adopted and foster children.”

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We know that this medicalisation of distress in children extends way beyond RAD with the chapters of ‘Boy Raised’ punctuated by a bewildering array of diagnostic labels, stuck by well-intentioned professionals onto childhood trauma, effectively mis-explaining and masking it.

This article from a 2014 issue of The Atlantic focuses on the over-identification of attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Dr. Nicole Brown was completing a residency at John Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore when she noticed that many of her low-income patients had been diagnosed with the heritable condition. They came from households where violence and relentless stress prevailed. Parents had found them hard to manage and teachers frequently described them as disruptive or inattentive.

When Brown looked closely, though, she saw something else. “Hyper-vigilance and dissociation, for example, could be mistaken for inattention. Impulsivity might be brought on by a stress response in overdrive.” Brown saw trauma.

Inattentive, hyperactive, and impulsive behavior may in fact mirror the effects of adversity, and many pediatricians, psychiatrists, and psychologists don’t know how—or don’t have the time—to tell the difference. (The Atlantic, 2014)

To test her hypothesis beyond Baltimore, she analysed the results of a national survey about the health and wellbeing of more than 65,000 children. This revealed that children with diagnosed ADHD also experienced significantly higher levels of poverty, divorce, violence, family substance misuse. Those who had experienced four or more ACEs were three times more likely to be medicated for ADHD.

“We need to think more carefully about screening for trauma and designing a more trauma-informed treatment plan,” Brown concluded.

This peer-reviewed study, published in the BMJ, confirms that diagnosis of ADHD has increased ‘substantially’ in the past decade, alongside a broadening of its definition in successive editions of the DSM-5. This is observed internationally, with a doubling of the rate in The Netherlands and the medication costs of inappropriately diagnosed ADHD estimated to run at between $320 and $500m in the US.

The need for clinicians and, much further upstream, families, childcare providers, SENCOs and others, to view dysregulated behaviour through a trauma-informed lens has never been more urgent than it is now, in the midst of a pandemic. What we can predict we can prevent.

It’s worth pausing for a moment to reflect on this graphical representation of the original ACES survey and to consider whether there is a single component that Lockdown will not have aggravated:

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For the avoidance of any doubt, and please do share this post with the complacent or the deluded, some really dire statistics are already making headlines:

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These headlines float on a sea of distress and we must expect a huge wave of diagnostic labels, EHCP plans, clinical referrals, Ritalin prescriptions to follow, if there is no change in the way that we respond to childhood adversity.

That’s if nothing changes. However, the trauma-informed movement that was slow to arrive here but which is gathering momentum, does represent a gleam of hope on the horizon. Moreover, it’s a democratising movement that educators can drive alongside mental health experts. Clearly, my reducing what can be done in schools down to ‘three questions that educators must ask’ was both a gross over-simplification and a flagrant attempt to encourage visitors to this post, but there are I think three lines of enquiry that we should prioritise through our pastoral work with children and families, in the fallout of this pandemic.

1. What are the symptoms, exactly?

This overview of the difference between ADHD and trauma symptoms is a really helpful reference point for conversations about problematic behaviour that are taking a medicalised turn.

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It’s taken from the NTCSN’s Guide for Clinicians, which repays reading in full. Clearly, introducing the concept of ‘trauma’ to parents can be problematic and we must tread respectfully and carefully, but equally we cannot protect the best interests of children if we are not curious about the roots of their distress and willing to talk about their life experiences, especially early ones which parents may not otherwise mention. Families should be advised that trauma is very common (I write as the mother of children with ACEs) and it should not be shaming to discuss its impact.

2. Who can help?

In addition, there is the problem of what Perry calls “child illiteracy” which we can address through gentle but well-informed conversations about the impact of stress on the developing brain. Such conversations also need to emphasise the great hope that is neural plasticity and, crucially,  the point that recovery is possible when children have access to a reliable supply of high quality relational support.

‘Behaviour meetings’ might be steered such that Mum agrees to have ten minutes after school talking about what went well today, understanding the importance of that; there might be a plan to visit Gran more, who is much-loved; to introduce a reliable routine for contact with Dad; to try scouts. School will also contribute to this web of therapeutic support. Children should be asked to identify trusted adults and accommodations agreed within the plan such that time is made for talking. A relational safety-net will need to be formulated for times of crisis or dysregulation. Who do I go to and how do I get there?

The day that a pastoral support plan looks like this, rather than an unattainable and  school-centric report card, is the day that trauma-informed practice has truly arrived in a setting. It is worth emphasising the importance of its reliability – few things are more damaging to the progress of a child who struggles to trust and to feel safe than wobbly plans that are not carried through, exactly as agreed. This involves ensuring they are understood and implemented by all staff.

3. Where is the crack in the problem?

This is Leonard Cohen’s phrase and it features in Dr. Geoff James’ great little solutions-focused workbook for educators How good are we at helping children and families find the exceptions, the crack in the problem, so that it can be mined for optimum light? How does the diagnostic route assist in this life-enhancing and hopeful process? Is there a risk that the label stops us even searching for the cracks, the light, because we have our genetically-rooted explanation and we must now just learn to live with the problem?

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Solutions-focused coaching guards against these risks. A simple but powerful process that involves asking children the right questions and really listening to their answers, it has much to offer the trauma-informed school and is, for me, a pastoral care essential. I see it as taking the relationship that heals and fitting it with super-boosters. As Geoff writes in his introduction:

We know that relationships are the heart of education. Be entering the solutions-focused conversation on hopes, resources and successes, strong relationships will develop, between the child and their best self and between them and the solutions-focused coach, the facilitator of their learning. This is solutions focused coaching.

Geoff’s guide (which Lincolnshire schools may request digital copies of at no cost) outlines the 7 simple elements of the approach with ‘exceptions finding’ at its heart:

  • When are the times that (the problem) doesn’t happen so much?
  • Tell me about a time when (the problem) happened but didn’t last as long?
  • When are the times when other people would notice you (e.g. behaving, working, being kind…) in a good way?
  • When are things a little bit better for you? What was different then?
  • Tell me about a time when (e.g. you stayed calm) in that difficult situation? 

(Workbook for Educators, p46)

Through simple scaling, the coach is able to re-imagine the traditional, behaviourist approach to target-setting  (which fails in the face of real difficulties), and harness instead the agency of the child, as expert in self:

  • On a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being in control of yourself in a good way and 1 being not in control of yourself, where would you say you are right now?
  • So what are you doing that means you are not at (….a lower number)?
  • Where on the scale do you hope to get to over the next (e.g. week)? What will you be doing then that’s different?

(Workbook for Educators, p49)

To conclude, we know that we must ask children and families ‘What happened to you?’ rather than ‘What’s wrong with you?’ to avoid misdiagnosing trauma. We know too the importance of asking children who helps them and of building a relational plan. But we must never forget the fact that all children are resourceful and capable of change and that the most compelling line of enquiry of all centres around this question:

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School recovery through PACE and a plea to policy makers – inspired by chapter 8 of Boy who was Raised as a Dog

Chapter 8 illustrates the impact of toxic stress on an adolescent more vividly than anything most of us at book club last week had ever read.  The aim of this post is to use Amber’s story as a reference point against which to consider the lockdown-fuelled stressors bearing down on vulnerable children right now and then to look at how schools might mitigate some of that toxicity through a focus on Kim Golding’s attitude of PACE.

I’ll suggest some of the things that I think need to change in schools, especially in relation to behaviour policy and practice, for PACE approaches to stabilise those children whose stress response systems will be in need of consistent regulating experiences after lockdown.

The post concludes with a call on Westminster to flip the narrative around school recovery such that it focuses squarely on pupil wellbeing, following the example set by Welsh Minister for Education, Kirsty Williams. If ministerial guidance for English schools creates the kind of pressure cooker that stems from focusing narrowly (and counter-productively) on academic progress alone, then the most vulnerable will pay the heaviest  price.

That’s fact, not alarmism – it’s what we know from a plethora of research such as this about the impact of disasters on the most disadvantaged. We can expect, if we are not biologically-informed in the way that we meet vulnerability, a sharp increase in ‘conduct disorders,’ emotional disturbance and exclusion. Let’s use all of the very good evidence that we have at our disposal to avoid that.

Amber’s Story

Amber was found unconscious in her high school toilets. Her condition worsened in ER when her heart suddenly stopped beating and Dr. Perry arrived on the scene just as she was being revived and stabilised. He spoke to Jill, Amber’s distraught mother, whilst numerous tests were being undertaken to identify the cause of the problem.

Noticing evidence of recent self-harm, Dr. Perry asked Jill whether anything had happened to distress her daughter. It transpired that Amber had answered the phone to an ex boyfriend who called unexpectedly the night before. ‘Duane’ had been thrown out eight years previously, when Jill discovered him in bed with her then 9 year old daughter, whom he had sexually abused for several years.

Dr. Perry explains to the reader that many ‘cutters’ have a history of trauma, the self-mutilation inducing a dissociative state, similar to the adaptive response of escaping somewhere safe in the mind to survive the experience of the traumatic event itself. Such dissociative states, from dreamlike absences at one end of the spectrum to loss of consciousness at the other, are linked with the release of high levels of opioids, the brain’s natural heroin-like substance that kills pain and produces a calming sense of distance.

Whilst medics were extremely skeptical about this explanation for Amber’s condition, they agreed to try naloxone just as if she had overdosed on heroine, and the results were indeed rapid. She was conscious within 90 seconds of receiving the injection and Dr. Perry’s work with her, once he had gained some trust (using elements of PACE), could begin.

It is important to note that those who respond to extreme, prolonged or uncontrollable stress like Amber, through freeze or dissociation, might not be visible to us as educators, unlike others whose survival strategies tend towards flight or fight. This is one of the many reasons that trauma-informed practice is a matter of whole school culture and practice, not merely targeted intervention for individuals. It’s a community commitment. It’s a way of being with children, many of whom struggle silently.

Why we should be very concerned about toxic stress

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The ACE study should have been a public-health game-changer and will need to be now. This animation from Public Health Wales is a quick but powerful summary of its key messages and here is an excellent free, one hour and certificated e-module from Barnardos and partner organisations. Leaders might want to consider sharing these resources with staff before schools reopen, as essential CPD if they are to prepare for the professional challenges ahead, when children return from stress-filled households profoundly impacted by the pandemic.

There are ten types of childhood trauma measured in the ACE Study. Five are personal — physical abuse, verbal abuse, sexual abuse, physical neglect, and emotional neglect. Five are related to other family members:

  • an alcoholic parent (read this in relation to the pandemic)
  • a mother who’s a victim of domestic violence (read this about our soaring rate of DV)
  • a family member in jail (lockdown currently distorting this data)
  • a family member diagnosed with a mental illness (alarming impact of Covid on mental health covered here)
  • the disappearance of a parent through divorce, death or abandonment (flagged in this research from the Lancet.)

Each type of trauma counts as one for the purpose of the ACE study. (Health warning – it’s a survey not an assessment and shouldn’t be used to ‘score’ pupils.) So a child who’s been physically abused, with one alcoholic parent, and a mother who has experienced DV has an ACE score of three. However, there are, of course, many other types of childhood traumas — racism, bullying, watching a sibling being abused, losing a caregiver (grandmother, mother, grandfather, etc.), homelessness, surviving and recovering from a serious accident, involvement with the juvenile justice system, and so on. Equally, the impact of one ACE might be just as devastating as the experience of ten, especially if it happened very early in life. However, the ACE study remains the most compelling data we have about the lifelong and indeed intergenerational impact of stressful events during childhood and it’s data that we cannot afford to ignore any longer.

We know then that ACEs are increasing at an exponential rate as this pandemic plays out. The graphic below, from Young Minds, refers to a population study undertaken in England before coronavirus. Even then, and linked with austerity, ACEs were very common.

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We know that, in the absence of buffering relationships, ACES lead to a multitude of illnesses in middle age and ultimately to premature death. The full report from Young Minds is worth reading.

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The pandemic is not only a current public health emergency, therefore, but one that will continue for generations to come if we don’t respond to it in an evidence-informed way. Schools are clearly key players, as communities that can wrap around and soothe children who return with toxic levels of stress coursing through the system. (Without getting bogged down in the neuroscience, and I am an educator, not a scientist, its cortisol that does the lasting damage) There is hope, therefore. There is an abundant supply of want children need to bounce-back – consistent and caring adults.  Research overwhelmingly shows that social buffering is the root of resilience. But this needs to be proactively created by leaders, because the young people who need us the most tend to push us away:

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PACE was developed as a way around this problem, within the therapeutic parenting field, but its potential for use in schools is, for me, enormous. I think the warmest, most nurturing school communities are already imbued with it and I’ve worked with some  individual teachers whose inclusive practice has been underpinned by an intuitive understanding of the need to regulate highly sensitised children through PACE. I think it can be traced in Mark Goodwin’s wonderful piece about school recovery here. So PACE principles are not revolutionary, necessarily, but they are paradigm shifting.

Playfulness, Acceptance, Curiosity, Empathy


This is described by the DDP Network (which I borrow heavily from in this section) as being about creating an atmosphere of lightness and interest when communicating with vulnerable children and young people. “It means learning how to use a light tone with your voice, rather than an irritated or lecturing tone. It’s about having fun, and expressing a sense of joy.”

It’s not suggesting that teachers need to become stand-up comedians, but rather that they should endeavour to adopt a playful stance. This can diffuse difficult situations and forge connections. In the pandemic age, with crushing worries, uncertainty and stressors so acutely felt at home by many, not to mention death and devastation on the news daily, children and young people will have felt the loss of those feel-good hormones that are released when we laugh. We know too that social bonds between humans are strengthened by social fun and laughter, so playfulness is a protective factor. It’s also highly rated by pupils: categorised as Fun and Funny in this YouGov poll from 2018, it’s topped only by Kindness, which is actually the essence of PACE.

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The strongest school communities make time for fun, inside and outside the classroom. Pudsey days, staff v pupil rounders, end of summer barbecues, trips to the panto, even the prom – they’re all about having fun together. Staff can relax, interact more informally with children, delight in them, forge bonds. The saddest thing in education is the barring of vulnerable pupils from such events as ‘consequences’  – thereby denying them the very experiences they need to thrive. This is the kind of medicine that kills the patient and it should be purged from the post-pandemic era. Consequences yes; vengeful, ostracising ones – no.


Unconditional acceptance is at the core of the child’s sense of safety. It is therefore also at the core of regulated behaviour – dysregulation being in essence a search for safety, driven by the brainstem and not the cortex which gives way when we feel threatened.

Creating acceptance within vulnerable children means actively communicating they we accept the wishes, feelings, thoughts, urges, motives and perceptions that are underneath any unwanted outward behaviour. It is about accepting, without judgment or evaluation, a person’s inner life. The child’s inner life simply is; it is not right or wrong.

(DDP Network)

Of course, the PACE-informed teacher may be very firm in limiting behaviour but will at the same time accept the motives for the behaviour. This way, the pupil learns that while behaviour may be criticised and limited, this is not the same as criticising the self and the relationship remains intact.

It is worth reflecting on behaviour policy at this point because some consequences deliver an intolerably heavy blow to a child’s sense of acceptance. A book club member reported that her school stopped issuing fixed term exclusions some years ago, when staff observed that it worsened children’s behaviour on return. This is entirely consistent with what we know about access to the regulating cortex when we feel threatened…and make no mistake, anything that pushes the human being out of the clan is registered by the ancient brain as a threat to life.

The repeated experience of fixed term exclusion, or isolation, is hugely detrimental to the wellbeing of children and young people with alternative strategies, around lowering demands such that the dysregulated pupil can build resilience over time, needed instead. In Lincolnshire, schools use a PSP in these situations with many more children and young people successfully included as a result of their solutions-focused flexibility.


Curiosity, without judgment, is how we help children become more aware of their inner life and able to reflect on the reasons for their behaviour. It is wondering about the meaning behind the behaviour, for the child. It links to a mantra within the trauma field, that we ask what happened to you, not what’s wrong with you.

In the school context, it is important to convey a sense of curiosity about what might have triggered an explosive incident, rather than just relationship-risking opprobrium. Kim Golding’s connection before correction is a superb step-by-step guide to this. Clearly, the approach requires the adult to be regulated. And it might feel clunky at first. Without doubt, it takes a few minutes longer than the swift direction to isolation that is the modus operandi of some secondary schools. But it is rooted in our understanding of the neurobiology of stress.

Connection* “Tyler, what I think happened there was that you felt really overwhelmed. I know there’s a lot going on at home at the moment – you’re worried about your mum and you’re arriving at school with your stress bucket pretty full. It doesn’t take much for it to spill over and I think that’s what we saw back then. Do you think that might be about right?”

Tyler might not reply, or he might think his teacher is completely wrong. But one thing is certain, he will have been soothed by these words because they communicate unconditional acceptance. More than that, they say to Tyler, here is an adult really trying to get me. Not condemning or judging me but curious, interested and seeking to understand.

*possible only when the child is out of crisis, with thinking brain online

Correction “But Tyler, it’s not ok for you to throw my books on the floor.”

And a consequence may then be needed, depending on the gravity of the incident, whether others were harmed. However, provided the experience is not shaming, a logical consequence will not overwhelm even the most highly-sensitised pupil if it is clear that the relationship remains intact and safe – stronger, even, for those moments of connection.


Tyler, it must be really scary to feel out of control like that. Trust me, it’ll get better and I’m always here to help you, but right now it’s hard for you and I just want you to know that I’m really sorry about that.

With empathy, the teacher is demonstrating that he or she knows how difficult an experience is for the pupil and that comfort and support is available. Empathy is indistinguishable from kindness: the quality that pupils rate twice as highly as any other. (Oftsed makes reference to ‘fairness’ in its Handbook – assuming that children interpret this in the crudest possible way, as treating everyone exactly the same despite the scale of their personal challenges. I would posit that they don’t, having worked with thousands of them, but look anyway at how low fairness ranks, next to kindness.)

If children are to heal, then staff will need to be empathic and another training resource, just as important as the ACES material, is this brilliant animation about empathy as driver of human connection from the great Brene Brown. It has the added advantage of being wonderfully playful.

Plea to policy-makers

Clearly, pressurised or burnt-out teachers cannot interact with PACE – it requires huge reserves of compassion and regulation within the adult. If we are to protect the wellbeing of children and young people, then we must prioritise the wellbeing of their teachers and TAs. Strong leaders will do their best to ameliorate the full impact of the ‘catching-up’ agenda, but it would be better if this were replaced altogether with priorities more humane.

In practical terms, this means slimming down GCSE content for the current Y10. Speaking at a ResearchEd event recently, Dylan Wiliam used the word ‘immoral’ to describe the mountain of GCSE content that casts its shadow over KS4. (Story here) Having seen this volume crush one of my own daughters, I am inclined to agree with him. She’s Year 11 so it’s over now but when I asked her how she felt she would have coped as a Year 10 learner faced with the challenge of catching-up post-lockdown, I saw her blood run cold. (I must emphasise here, the school have been fantastic – there is nothing leaders can do about the exam system, apart from allow pupils to drop GCSEs when they sink – which we did.)

Ofqual has already mooted the idea of slimmed down exams for the current Y11 to sit during the autumn if they are disappointed with their grades this summer. These need to be used in the 2021 exam series too – so that teachers can ‘pace’ their work, in the fullest sense of that word. The Welsh minister for education has already advised that performance tables and national testing will be suspended. That should be the case on this side of the border too.

Those who assume that very, very few children will return to school traumatised (quoting leader of a flagship MAT last week) – and are therefore not preparing for this eventuality – would be well advised to read the ACES research and every one of the articles I linked in this post about the tsunami of adversity that is gathering and how that will effect children and young people. There is a clear need, exposed by a lets not assume children will be impacted attitude, for the DfE to launch a nationwide trauma-informed workforce development programme.

Edward Timpson recommended this very thing in his Review of School Exclusion of course – but then the department went on to launch its 10m behaviour hubs project, branding it a “crackdown on bad behaviour.” Just this week, a further 1.5m was found for a school leadership programme, aimed exclusively at those leaders with a strong record of traditional ‘behaviour management’. It’s almost as if Timpson wasted his time, and that of a great number of contributors.

Whilst any expenditure of public money that will widen the disadvantage gap and drive exclusion (if it’s taken seriously) is a matter of deep regret, I want to conclude on a hopeful note. It’s that we are seeing a grassroots movement gather momentum as a result of this pandemic. Ideologically motivated DfE projects will come and go but I do believe that psychologically informed practice is here to stay.

Five ways to harness emotional contagion when schools reopen. (A reflection inspired by Chapter 7 of Boy who was Raised as a Dog)

Our book club arrived at Chapter 7 and with that a fascinating discussion about emotional contagion last week. This is clearly a topic of particular relevance in the context of Covid-19, with families confined to their homes and the impact of this on children largely dictated by the adults’ capacity to regulate their own emotional states. Some will be spreading their reassuring calm whilst the anxiety felt by others (remembering that disasters always impact the most disadvantaged families disproportionately) will be enormously detrimental to children’s wellbeing.

When schools reopen, emotional contagion will occur there too – and it will facilitate recovery or impede it, depending on the measures put in place and the extent to which these are enacted with authenticity and commitment by the whole school community. Clarity around the evidence-base for emotional contagion will be critical in this because culturally, it is way too easy for ‘Brits’ to dismiss important, psychologically informed practice as touchy-feely mumbo-jumbo. Our most vulnerable pupils in particular rely on us opening up to somewhat more enlightened thinking.

Suggested below, beneath a very brief summary of Chapter 7, are five components of what we might call an emotional contagion management strategy, but there will be many more. The underpinning principles relating to the primacy of connection and wellbeing are much more important than the nuts and bolts of the approaches suggested. First, though, a very brief glance at chapter 7.

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Chapter Summary 

I’m not going to attempt to tell the story of this chapter because it comprises multiple individual narratives and, as one of our book club members suggested, more than enough material for an entire Netflix series. Suffice to say, Dr. Perry describes the impact of very negative emotional contagion within a Texan community where it was believed that children were being ritually abused as victims of a Satanic cult. Testimony from them was coerced and many were removed from their families as a result. A judge eventually dropped all of the indictments, but many in Gilmer remained convinced, despite the lack of any evidence, that Satan worshippers had gathered there to abuse and kill children. Such is the danger of groupthink, a side effect of emotional contagion.

Defining emotional contagion

Emotional contagion is the phenomenon that individuals tend to express and feel emotions that are similar to those of others. If a friend tells us with a beaming smile that they passed an important test, we smile as well. If, on the other hand, we hear about a bereavement, we are saddened. Emotional contagion is the basis of empathy – where we ‘catch feelings’ from people around us, and its positive impact is to connect people. It is a form of social influence and, as such, a phenomenon of major relevance to school leaders; both a risk and an opportunity.

1. Prioritise staff well-being over performance tables

Literature on teacher contagion highlights the impact of increasing stress on teachers and the passing of this stress, or other emotions, onto pupils. Oberle and Schonert-Reichl (2016) measured salivary cortisol levels of pupils to assess the relationship between their stress and teacher burnout levels. Consistent with what we know about emotional contagion, pupils’ morning levels of cortisol were significantly higher if their teachers reported a higher level of burnout.

This underlines the importance of pacing the recovery phase of school reopening such that it is not experienced by teachers, and in turn their pupils, as stressful. Covid catch-up sessions, twilights, extra GCSE work  – all of these convey the message that children have fallen behind when in truth they are not behind anyone. They are all in the same place and anyway school is not supposed to be a race. The community will need to be reassured on this point, explicitly, as it is likely that some negative contagion around this thinking will already have set in.

Emotional contagion is transmitted through the links between individuals, nodes and ties, in the literature. Research shows that when the relationship is stronger, so is the contagion. It follows then that if teachers are given licence to work on their ties with pupils (or nodes), then they will be in a better position to generate positive emotional contagion; to share their calm, optimism, and hope. In so doing, they will help mitigate the stress that lockdown will have increased within some pupils and, in particular, the already disadvantaged.

There is an obvious link here with the key concept of social buffering. However, the bottom line is, adults can only provide this if their own wellbeing is protected. As Dr. Karen Treisman regularly observes, ‘Wellbeing leads to well-doing.’ Leaders will need to evaluate every element of their recovery planning in terms of its potential impact on staff wellbeing.

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2. Introduce a check-in strategy for staff

We learned from one member of our book club about a strategy their school introduced to facilitate virtual check-ins during lockdown. A simple wellbeing scale was recently added as part of this process which in turn identified a colleague who was really struggling. A sense of isolation the problem (a highly social species, we struggle on our own) he is now benefiting from additional relational support and a refreshed sense of belonging.

According to research from The Centre for Talent Innovation, employees are 3.5 times more likely to contribute to their fullest potential when they feel a sense of belonging. It makes every sense to actively promote this when schools reopen, therefore. We know that we must reach out to our most vulnerable learners so that they benefit from a sense of belonging as a protective factor, but again, the same principle applies to staff. Their wellbeing, and subsequently the emotional contagion that they transmit to pupils, will be enhanced if they feel a sense of the workplace as a second home.

This Harvard study suggests that the most powerful strategy to support staff wellbeing through a focus on belonging is simple and light-touch. Researchers found that the greatest sense of belonging was experienced by employees when their colleagues simply checked in with them, both personally and professionally. This was true across genders and age groups.

By reaching out and acknowledging their employees on a personal level, school leaders can significantly enhance the wellbeing of staff by making them feel valued and connected. Many, the best, already do this – but the process needs to be deliberate and strategic. In his YouTube series on trauma and Covid, Dr. Bruce Perry describes a relational tree whereby the leader routinely checks in with three ‘direct reports’ who do the same for three more each and so on.

Of course, the success of such a strategy will depend entirely upon the way it is implemented – a check-in doesn’t need to be long but it absolutely must be authentic. It would be worth sharing the evidence base with staff and then collaborating with volunteers on design and delivery, rather than imposing a poorly or only partially understood model for checking-in.

3. Introduce trauma-informed peer mentoring

Much of the research on emotional contagion within schools focuses on its negative manifestation in the form of detrimental peer influence. Studies of peer influence have identified a variety of negative adolescent behaviours, including smoking, drinking, and substance misuse (for a full review, see Brechwald & Prinstein, 2011). However, peer influence can be harnessed to spread positive behaviour and perhaps its potential in this regard is under-utilised. Research on peer mentoring (where peer leaders volunteer their time to help fellow pupils) demonstrates that structured peer interaction can have a huge impact on both sides of a peer partnership programme. (Tredinnick, Menzies, & Van Ryt, 2015).

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We are developing in Lincolnshire a specifically trauma-informed approach to this so that pupils learn through their training something about the brain and the way that it responds to prolonged, unpredictable or extreme stress; why emotional regulation is more difficult for some than others; the importance of safe relationships for recovery; grounding and regulating strategies; empathic listening and so on. All of this information is too important not to share with pupils, whether they are in need of regulating emotional support or providing it. And of course, if teachers are to act as role models for this important work, then they too must be trauma-informed and regulated.

4. Implement robust transition plans for the most vulnerable

“Growing up, I couldn’t have peace unless my mother was at peace,” writes Ariel Leve in ‘An Abbreviated Life’. “So, her peace was paramount.”

I had no choice but to exist in the sea that she swam in. It was a fragile ecosystem where the temperature changed without warning. My natural shape was dissolved and I became shapeless.

When somebody’s mood can shift quickly, you’re always on your toes and you’re always on guard, which means you can never really relax. And as a consequence, as an adult, I find that I absorb the mood and energy of other people very intensely, so I need a lot of time alone to decompress.

There will be children returning to school who will have been marinating in this kind of toxicity for months, without the respite normally provided by school and during a period of increased dysregulation and volatility at home. Their vulnerabilities will have been significantly increased through over-exposure to emotional contagion in its most destructive form. They will be highly sensitised, hyper-vigilant and settling to learn in anything but the safest classroom will be a huge ask; quite possibly not possible at all until safe, trusting relationships are re-established.

For children undergoing transitions, this will be harder still because the relationship will need to be built from scratch. Thought needs to be given to establishing these before schools reopen, as part of transition planning. The power of human connection over distance should never be under-estimated, as Lisa Barrett, Prof of Psychology, explains:

Humans are social animals. We are constantly regulating each other’s nervous systems. I can text someone halfway around the world. They don’t have to see my face or hear my voice, and I can affect their breathing, their heart rate, and the amount that they sweat. I can affect the functioning of their entire nervous system  and immune systems, for better or for worse, with a few words.

If we are able to reach out virtually to our most vulnerable children such that they feel  there are safe and open hands ready to greet them and hold them through transition, then they will be much more likely to navigate the challenge of new class or new school in a regulated way.  At least some of the negative emotional contagion experienced outside of school will be mitigated through access to a  consistent adult – or peer mentor – with this progress accelerated if the experience of school proper is therapeutic – that is, characterised by warm, unconditional and consistent relationships.

5. Understand that leaders are emotional contagion super-carriers

Because employees pay great attention to their leaders’ emotions, leaders can strongly influence the mood and thus performance of their staff through emotional contagion.

In this piece from Wharton Work, a case-study from Southwest Airlines is cited. Part of the company’s strategy was to attract positive people through ads such as ‘When we feel good, it’s contagious’ and by creating a culture of caring and compassion for employees. The business has seen profitable growth as a result, despite challenges facing the industry as a whole.

Leaders need to articulate the culture they seek to create and maintain as one in which positive emotions are not only allowed but encouraged. Making it clear that destructive negative emotions and the behaviors that come with them — such as bullying, back-stabbing, and incivility — will not be tolerated can help create an environment in which they are less likely to occur, take root, and spread. As school communities reassemble, there is a real opportunity to reassert the importance of these values and behaviours.

The Wharton piece serves as a useful reminder about the imortance of non-verbal behaviour, which leaders should heed:

As most emotional communication occurs through body language, facial expression, and tone (with less than 10% communicated through words), pay attention to your body language as you communicate your emotions. For example, you may be crossing your arms because you are cold, but the people observing you will likely believe you are defensive or angry, automatically mimic your arm crossing, and begin to feel that way.

This is also important information for teachers, every one of whom is of course a leader of children. Noting what has already been observed in relation to vulnerability and hyper-vigilance, there will be children in every classroom who are hyper-sensitised to non-verbal clues and who respond to tone of voice and body language before they hear verbal content.

For leaders at every level within the school community, the power of the meet and greet, the kind word or gesture, the regular check-in cannot be over-emphasised. Through such small acts, the ripple effect of positive emotional contagion will allow school communities to repair, in some cases stronger and more inclusive than they were before.

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The Problem of Child Illiteracy – a reflection on Chapter 6 of ‘The Boy who was Raised as a Dog’

Apart from the problem-focused ‘Scourge’ paragraph (mine), this is a guest post from friend and book study group member, Dr. Geoff James – ‘The Solutions Focused coach’.

The case-studies – Justin and Connor

This chapter carries the title of the book and tells us we’re entering a world of extreme trauma, maybe new to the reader and in language that goes beyond what we might expect from a measured medical professional. Dr. Perry explains in the introductory notes to the book, “… when we started, I didn’t really know what I was doing, at least as a writer. Unlike Maria, I had never written a book.” The two authors agreed to use the stories from Dr. Perry’s clinical practice to carry the narrative. They had to draw a fine balance. Dr. Perry ends his briefing with a warning that some readers could find the details distressing.

Bearing that in mind, this chapter tells the story of the upbringing of the Boy in the title, left at two months old by his fifteen year old mother, in the hands of her mother. Nine months later his loving grandmother died and he passed into the care of her boyfriend, a dog breeder. He was totally unprepared to cope with a baby and called social services who asked him to look after the Boy, Justin, until they found a permanent placement for him. The boyfriend, out of his depth, began keeping the baby as he did his dogs, in a cage, fed and watered, taken out for exercise but with little emotional care or social contact. This continued for five years.

At two years old Justin was taken to a clinic with pneumonia. There was no investigation so nothing known about his home life. He couldn’t walk or talk, and was diagnosed with severe, permanent brain damage. Subsequent clinical assessments and diagnoses confirmed the unlikelihood of any change. But what followed when Dr.Perry clinic became involved was a remarkable recovery.

The Boy received the concentrated support of physical, occupational and speech and language therapists and daily visits by Dr. Perry and a staff psychiatrist. The team started thinking in a novel way about the Boy’s limited but positive experiences, such as the “social stimulation and affection from the dogs he’d lived with; dogs are incredibly social animals and have a sophisticated social hierarchy ….. At times he responded to unfamiliar people like a scared dog….”

Given steady, multi-faceted support, within weeks Justin was out of hospital. Even with his history of trauma, the inherent plasticity of his brain together with his resources and strengths enabled him to capitalise on the stimuli offered through the recovery programme. In Dr. Perry’s words,

This was the most rapid recovery from severe neglect we had yet seen. It changed my perspective on the potential for change given early neglect. I became much more hopeful about the prognosis for neglected children.

In this chapter we also met Connor. From two weeks until eighteen months of age he was abandoned during the day by his childminder. She took a second job, leaving him alone in a crib and only returning briefly in her lunch-break to check him. When his mother discovered the neglect she left work and took over his full-time care, but the early trauma had long-lasting effects. As a teenager, Connor was barely able to function socially and emotionally.

Again, Dr. Perry’s clinic was able to offer a wide range of medical and therapeutic interventions, to aid Connor’s recovery from this profound trauma. Connor’s progress was, however, much slower and the contrasting case-studies underline the significance of the timing of childhood trauma:

The earlier it starts, the more difficult it is to treat and the greater the damage is likely to be. Justin had nearly a year of loving and nurturing care before he was put in the cage. That affection built the basis of so many important functions into his brain and, I believe, greatly aided his later recovery.

A foundational principle of Dr. Perry’s work is that neural systems organise and become functional in a sequential manner. If one system doesn’t get the stimulus is needs when it needs it, those that rely upon it may not function so well either, even if the stimuli for the later developing systems are provided appropriately. “The key to healthy development is getting the right experiences in the right amounts at the right time.” Connor’s painstaking therapy needed to focus on repair from the bottom of the brain up – the neurosequential approach – and moved from affectionate touch (massage) to music and movement to a carefully graduated socialization processes.

The Scourge of Child Illiteracy  

In reflecting on how these two children were failed for so long, Dr. Perry points out that public (state) education in the US includes no content on child development, caregiving, or the basics of brain development. Neither does this knowledge qualify as the ‘cultural capital’ that is important enough to be taught in English schools. “The result is a kind of child illiteracy.” This problem across both our cultures is aggravated by the fact that family units are smaller than they once were, more fragmented – reducing the infant’s opportunities for interaction with loving and responsive carers, beyond the primary.  In addition, strong anecdotal evidence suggests that the modern-day scourge of the screen reduces the number and quality of even this restricted range of relational experiences. 

Not only did Connor’s mother fail to recognise that the root of his difficulties lay in his year of near-daily neglect, but no-one in the school system, in special education, in occupational therapy, medicine, counselling or in any other field recognised the importance of exploring his history. Instead, presenting symptoms were matched with an alphabet soup of labels and disorders, such as psychotic disorder, ADHD and the strikingly descriptive ‘intermittent explosive disorder’…. a label that conveys a strong sense of Connor’s frustration and distress.

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Implications for practice 

A best hope for our reading group is to discover what insights the book could give us into our work with children who come to school with experiences ranging from the mildly distressful to the highly traumatic.

We had three main areas of discussion; the place for a focus on trauma awareness and practice in teacher standards; the relatively limited resources we have in schools in comparison with Dr. Perry’s clinic; in Initial Teacher Training (ITT), the need to raise awareness of the effects of trauma on children’s behaviour and engagement and to provide practical means to address and support children’s recovery and progress. All of these represent important opportunities to mitigate the problem of child illiteracy and to ensure that teachers are equipped with the knowledge and skills not simply to ‘manage’ behaviour, but to understand it.

The chapter gives a valuable insight into how to approach these issues from our educational, non-medical perspective. The antidote to relational trauma is not difficult to find:

Many of the truamatized children I’ve worked with who have made progress report having contact with at least one supportive adult: a teacher who took a special interest in them, a neighbour, an aunt, even a bus driver.

This means not leaving recovery to chance, but moving ahead of the most serious effects of trauma with predictable, respectful relationships:

From this nurturing ‘home-base’, maltreated children can begin to create a sense of competence and mastery. To recover they must feel safe and in control.

For myself I would sum this up as giving good grounds for the introduction of solutions focused coaching in ITT and in schools, promoting self-motivated learning through a child’s realisation of mastery, autonomy and purpose; Early Help for children’s mental  and wellbeing as a whole-school solutions focused approach.


Five ways to help children heal when schools reopen

We may not yet know when schools will reopen for all, but one thing is certain; they will need to be therapeutic. We are living a financial catastrophe; a public health emergency; a mass community trauma. And trauma always falls hardest on still-developing children. The notion that they are naturally resilient is supported by none of the research evidence. Such wishful thinking only hampers proactive attempts to promote healing and recovery. Being fit for purpose must now mean placing wellbeing front and centre and evaluating every element of school policy and practice through that lens.

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The good news is that the potential of schools to heal traumatised children, or to prevent an escalation of need, is huge. Moreover, it does not require the transformation of classrooms into CAMHS clinics or teachers into psychotherapists. The ‘treatment’ is the school community. If we can only harness its healing potential, through straightforward but in many ways paradigm-shifting measures, then a thing of value and strength will have been wrought from pandemic destruction. Adversarial growth will ensure that our schools are better than we were before; their communities more resilient. We will have made meaning.

In her letter to the chancellor, the children’s commissioner outlines a “cocktail of secondary risks” bearing down on vulnerable families, from poverty to homelessness to domestic violence. If closing the gaps means anything at all, it must now mean wrapping the right support around these children – really understanding how to support them – because they will not just bounce back. If the ACEs study  taught us anything, it taught us that.

The children most severely impacted by the pandemic will not find it easy to ‘settle to learn’ (Bomber, 2013) and we must expect their psychological distress to manifest in their behaviour. We know that chronic stress disrupts the nervous system. Many children will be jumpy, volatile, hyper-vigilant; still operating in survival mode and easily triggered into flight or fight reactions. Others may appear dazed or tuned-out. More likely to be girls, these will be the children whose survival strategy is to freeze or to dissociate – to retreat from a frightening and unpredictable outside world into one within the mind that feels more safe.

Never in the history of universal education has there been a more urgent need for our schools to contain and stabilise these children by becoming what Dr Karen Treisman calls the ‘brick parent, the secure base, the safe haven.’ And of course all children will benefit from immersion in the warmth of a relational culture after the deep rupture of Covid-19.

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So what might school leaders do to grow their settings as the brick parents our children need them to become? I’ve suggested five key elements of a wellbeing strategy below, but this is intended as a starting point for further reflection rather than an exhaustive list. Where these is a sense of mission about this work, a commitment to adversarial growth as the only possible way to draw meaning from chaos, then many more ideas will flow.

  1. Hold a formal act of remembrance as a community

We must tread carefully and children must not be re-traumatised, but there is actually a very strong argument for bringing a school community together for organised reflection.; for collective meaning-making. In this piece, Kalayjian writes:

Massive traumatic losses not only create a crisis in the community, they create opportunities for survivors to understand their obligations to one another …. it may well be a paradox that traumatic disasters which disrupt the way of life of a community may well lead to spiritual evolution as long as the community can learn from and find positive meaning in a communal crisis.

A remembrance event could take a wide range of forms. The whole school could clap for carers again and honour the NHS. Perhaps some of the things that pupils achieved when they were out of school could be shared and celebrated. Lots of these are coming through via schools’ social media accounts, but they could also be the basis for an assembly – a celebration of our resourcefulness as a community.

Some children will have lost family members. They might like to have their names read out, followed by a silence. We mustn’t allow bereavement to be a subject too difficult to talk about in school, a stigma, and the community must be given the opportunity to respect personal tragedies and to show compassionate solidarity with its members. We don’t generally invite parents and carers to secondary school assemblies but this might be a good opportunity to reach out to them, given that we have all been in this together. Alternatively, a Podcast of the event could be shared with families. 

        2. Place relationships front and centre and build social capital

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Teachers must be encouraged to be humans first in the wake of this crisis and to build positive relationships, especially with those children who struggle to form social bonds because of their experiences; their lack of trust in adults. These will be the children most in need of what Dr. Perry calls ‘social buffering’ and reaching out to them must be a deliberate strategy, not left to chance. In Dr. Karen Treisman’s memorable words, ‘Every interaction is an intervention.’

The more severely children are traumatised, the more repetition, the more positive relational experiences are needed for healing to occur. Dr. Perry’s calls this ‘therapeutic dosing’:

The good news is that anyone can help with this part of “therapy” – it merely requires being present in social setting and being, well, basically, kind….The more we can provide each other these moments of simple, human connection – even a brief nod or moment of eye-contact – the more we’ll be able to help heal those who have suffered traumatic experience. (From The Boy who was Raised as a Dog)

There will also be a need to deploy kind words and acts strategically, otherwise the Matthew Effect of sharing more of ourselves with children who are already relationally rich and less with the relationally poor will not be mitigated. Information sharing will be crucially important, so far as confidentially allows it. As teachers seeing over a hundred children and young people a day, we cannot target the resource that is our compassion at greatest need if we don’t know where we are needed most. Daily briefings will be key.

Trauma-training for all staff (non-teaching included) will be essential if they are to understand the difference they can make, through simple connection. Most staff will be encouraged by the knowledge that the small things they do and say have such healing potential. Pastoral leads in particular worry greatly about the finite supply of CAMHS therapists against the mountain of need that they see. Reassuring them that the most powerful therapy for trauma is actually in abundant supply all around them will allow them to manage their own anxiety in relation to not doing enough or not being up to the scale of the challenge. They just need the support of colleagues – everyone on the same page and playing their part.

      3. Identify and support children in most need of social buffering

If we value it, we measure it. A simple wellbeing rating scale completed by all pupils – 1 to 10 – and the question, ‘Name an adult in this school who you trust and can talk to’, will suffice. Some children will have expressed their need for additional support through their distressed behaviour. But if we rely on this feedback alone, then we may miss the dissociated children and those hiding through freeze who are equally distressed and in need of intervention.

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. We keep thinking about what happened and we keep telling and retelling the event to trusted friends or loved ones. This is because our brains know what to do – rather than locking pain away unprocessed, we are driven to habituate it through the act of talking. The pain of loss then becomes tolerable, not toxic.

Teachers and other adults who listen with empathy  perform an important therapeutic function, without being therapists. Some children will be carrying enormous emotional burdens and school might be their only place for talking about these.  When this is the case, then the one-to-one with the trusted adult might be more important than form time, or a lesson, and flexibility will be required. If we don’t create these opportunities for children who need them, then blocked grief can drive self-destructive, dysregulated behaviours and mental illness. Flexibility is a major way of demonstrating that wellbeing is our first priority.

All pupils and families will benefit from being reassured that this is a listening school. As well as screenings, worry boxes (or inboxes), a morning check-in as part of the daily routine, circles, drop-ins, all of these strategies and more are worth introducing if they are not already available for children and families. The message from school needs to be that we do get this and if you are struggling, we want to know.

The virtual check-ins that have been established with vulnerable families during lockdown should be maintained. Paradoxically, social distancing measures have brought some schools closer to their most vulnerable children and families – a tremendously positive consequence of Covid-19 that mustn’t be jettisoned through a return to business as usual.

      4. Reaffirm boundaries, rules and routines as safety measures

Prioritising wellbeing and sweating the small stuff are mutually exclusive; a sure way of inducing rather than reducing stress by turning school into a pressure cooker of exacting, and sometimes from the pupil perspective, arbitrary standards. However, children do need clearly demarcated boundaries to feel psychologically as well as physically safe and the importance of these will need to be emphasised, in safety terms, on pupil’s return.

Rejoining a community will be frightening for those children who have internalised the message that people outside the home are a threat to life. If we can’t make children feel safe, they will not be able to learn. It’s a basic need that must be met so this messaging will be hugely important. Consistency will be critical – if we are allowed to shake hands again, then it is because it is safe to do that. Any member of staff suggesting otherwise undermines the sense of security that it must be our shared mission to re-establish.

Rules, some of which may well be Covid-related and new, should be stated in a positive way (ie. Do…as opposed to Don’t) in simple, limited language and kept to a small number that can easily be remembered and recalled by all pupils and staff. (Jarlath O’Brien, 2020).

Routines also serve to create a sense of safety because they are predictable, allowing hyper-vigilant children to lower their guard. Contributing greatly to an atmosphere of order and calm, it is going to be important to reteach routines when pupils return and to provide visual as well as verbal reminders. It will be helpful to think of all pupils as new starters, in need of clear and reassuring instruction.

      5. Re-evaluate and reaffirm core values, recognising all

Many of us have been reflecting on what really matters to us during this period of community trauma – we have reassessed our values and vowed to make changes in our lives, rather than just reverting back to the old ways. We might have resolved to appreciate simple pleasures more, our loved ones, to prize our personal connections over our possessions, and so on. We have reflected in a wide range of ways and in so doing, we have fashioned something of value from the wreckage of the virus. We have experienced adversarial growth.

Leaders should engage in the same process when schools reopen, collectively. This is an opportunity like no other to engage the whole school community in thinking about what really matters. Are we the same or have we changed? What matters most to us now and how do we live that?

Jarlath O’Brien writes about the way he approached this as a new Headteacher in Leading Better Behaviour (2020). Parents, governors, pupils and staff were asked, ‘What should our children be able to do when they leave here?’ Assimilating responses, he arrived at ‘When students leave, they should be ambitious, articulate, caring, determined, independent, resilient, respectful, responsible and successful’ (p13).

It was then important to embed and celebrate the values by recognising pupils demonstrating them on a day to day basis. A culture of recognition was created. It has been established already that children will need opportunities to talk through what has been difficult for them when they return to their schools, but it is also our duty as educators to fill them with a sense of hope and of their resourcefulness.

Transformation through trauma

A psychological phenomenon that enables individuals to look forward in life instead of being stuck in the past, adversarial growth is the hope. It enables people to emerge from highly challenging life experiences with increased emotional strength and resilience, a heightened sense of appreciation and improved personal relationships.  Some studies have shown that almost 90% of  victims report at least one aspect of post-traumatic growth after the stressful experience. (Tedeschi, 1990) That is a lot of personal growth to work with, in the wake of a mass trauma, and when our school leaders are able to harness it within a shared mission to help our children heal, then that could be transformational.

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SEMH Provision – who is it really for? A reflection on Chapter 5 of ‘Boy who was Raised as a Dog’

It was really lovely to see familiar faces as well as a new one (good to finally meet you Mark Goodwin!) during this period of social distancing. The pleasing symmetry of Dr. Perry’s book, about the importance of human connection, being the inspiration for our get-together was not lost on any of us. It’s fair to say that the relational rewards of gathering as a like-minded group, albeit virtually, were felt more strongly than usual this time, so we made the decision to move to weekly book club meetings. They’ll be every Wednesday, 6.30 to 8.00pm, if anybody else wants to zoom in. (Just @ me for how)

The discussion was, as ever, fascinating and we over-ran. I’m not going to attempt to capture all of it here but will rather focus on one element, which is whether the segregation of children with behavioural difficulties into specialist settings is the right way to help them. With perspectives from mainstream and special ed colleagues, there was rich debate about this.

Leon’s story, summarised below, does raise some difficult questions with the DfE’s stated aim, to ‘remove the bias towards inclusion’ (Gove, 2010), very relevant to this discussion. We have seen the proportion of secondary pupils with EHCPs educated in mainstream secondary schools drop by a third since 2010 to barely over a fifth in 2018 (O’Brien, 2020), with no sign of this particular curve flattening and high needs blocks across England struggling to fund the demand for special school places.

Now more than ever, as we confront the abyss of deep pandemic-driven recession, we must demand very good evidence for any political choice to invest public money in specialist provision, be that alternative provision or SEMH Special, without first adequately resourcing mainstream inclusion. It is fair to say that there has been no deliberate focus on the latter in recent years, at least not from the top (DfE) down, with official DfE guidance on behaviour the cause of real dismay within the SEMH community. Quite clearly, a department that is capable of translating the Timpson review of exclusions, which recommends trauma-informed practice, into a 10m ‘crackdown’ on behaviour, is one that has no vision for inclusion. That needs to change.

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Leon’s Story

This is the most troubling of all of the case-studies in Boy Raised; the only one that has nothing to say about survivorship and recovery but everything about how much damage parental neglect can inflict.

In an alcohol-fuelled rage, 15 year old Leon sadistically murdered and then raped the dead bodies of two barely pubescent girls. Dr. Perry was engaged by Leon’s defence lawyer to determine, pre-sentencing, whether there were any mitigating circumstances, such as a history of mental health or abuse. Initially taken aback by Leon’s lack of remorse, his ‘breathtaking’ coldness, the psychiatrist found an explanation for his emotional deadness upon exploring his formative years.

The boy’s mother, Maria, was mentally impaired and relied heavily on the unstinting support of a large family when her first child, Frank, was born. However, she was forced to move to a new and very deprived neighbourhood when her husband changed jobs. Leon was born soon after the move and Maria found herself quite unable to cope with the new baby single-handed. Her daily routine involved leaving the apartment early in the morning with her three year old and returning at night. ‘He stopped crying so much’, she said – indicating that she thought that this strategy of systematic neglect had worked.

When Maria had taken Frank for walks. Leon had wailed in his crib at first. But he soon learned that crying would bring no aid, so he stopped. He lay there, alone and uncared for, with no-one to talk to him and no one to praise him for learning to turn over or crawl (and not much room to explore anyway). For most of the day he heard no language, saw no new sights, and received no attention.

Deprived of critical stimuli throughout a critical period of development, Leon never developed the normal associations between human contact and pleasure. “What he learned was that the only person he could rely on was himself.” As he grew older, he was indifferent to his parents, whether he hurt them or pleased them, and avoided physical contact. He was bright and leaned to mimic socially appropriate behaviour and to use flattery and other forms of manipulation to get what he wanted. But if he didn’t get what he wanted, then he took it anyway.

Trouble at school inevitably followed and the worse Leon behaved, the more he confirmed to those around him that he was ‘bad’ and didn’t deserve their attention. This vicious cycle ensured that behaviours escalated from bullying into crime. By the fifth grade, he was a regular in the juvenile justice system.

Of course, severely neglected children do not inevitably become sociopaths and indeed Dr. Perry’s book is a celebration of neuroplasticity and recovery through nurturing relationships. There are virtuous cycles too and these can completely change the trajectory. However, many decisions and events conspired against Leon, including but not limited to his experience of education, which we turn to now.

Leon was first placed in specialist provision as a pre-schooler but exposure to a group of other disturbed children only worsened his condition. According to Dr. Perry:

Research has repeatedly found that surrounding a child with other troubled peers only tends to escalate bad behaviour.

Leon’s school career from thereon was spent within these special settings and Dr. Perry posits that this only amplified the harm. His impulsivity was reinforced by a negative peer group who modelled to one another that the best way to solve problems was through violence.

Implications for policy and practice

Now we have no way of knowing whether or not Leon was ever placed in what we would refer to in the UK as high quality SEMH provision. In recent years, we have seen within the sector (and beyond it) the introduction of trauma informed practice and this approach might well have enabled Leon to learn to trust and to form the social bonds that would have saved him (and his victims). We also know that high quality SEMH settings are not characterised by violence, bullying and disorder. On the contrary, they are singularly calm, therapeutic places often much loved by families.

However, despite the nurturing and expert support that is available within such provision, it is highly unusual for children to make enough socio-emotional progress to ever return to mainstream. It is important to ask why this is the case, when the miraculous promise that is neuroplasticity should facilitate healing and recovery, at least for a good proportion. Is it because Dr. Perry remains right and that even the best, most trauma-informed specialists can never quite counteract the influence that troubled peers have on one another? Could the stigma associated with the special setting constitute another barrier? What impact does it have on self-esteem and how is that communicated through children’s behaviour?

Our SEMH book-club members acknowledged all of these challenges, citing the environment that young people are immersed in outside the school as another. If Dr. Perry’s book teaches us anything, it is just how sensitive to the environment the child’s developing brain is; how it is literally sculpted and shaped through interaction with the outside world. Which returns us to the central question. What is the optimal environment, from a schooling perspective, for growth and recovery? Is that to be found within special or mainstream sectors?

The answer is of course both simple – it depends – and complex – it depends on a multitude of interplaying factors, from how inclusive the mainstream setting to how complex the needs of the child. Ultimately, it has to be right that parents, as experts in their children, make the decision. It is not right, however, when such decisions are made with deep regret. For example, a child should not have to be educated in a special school to be protected from the ravages of undifferentiated  ‘behaviour management’ or because consistency means rigid inflexibility in their local school.

Of course, the choice between special and mainstream need not be binary. Resource-base provision within mainstream can be a very positive option when staff are appropriately trained (Mike Armiger’s regulation framework provides an excellent model) and pupils are also included within the wider school community, accessing those lessons they can manage – the range of which increases as social and emotional skills are learnt. We know that children impacted by trauma recover in the context of unconditional, nurturing relationships and resource base staff can offer those. In large secondary settings, where children are not generally so well known as they were in primary (and the movement out into special school accelerates) the resource base is a solution.

However, the conditions for their growth don’t currently exist with the haemorrhage of vulnerable children out of mainstream continuing unabated. Two things need to change for us to level this curve. First, cash-strapped schools need more funding for enhanced pastoral care and the recruitment of specialist staff, such as OTs. Second, the accountability framework needs to be reformed such that a headteacher’s moral purpose and a commitment to every child is no longer career-threatening but rather richly rewarded.

Until these things happen, then it seems to me that SEMH provision is not actually for vulnerable children at all, though it may serve them well. Segregated provision is much more about the maintenance of a narrowly defined mainstream sector that is simply not designed to tolerate diversity or to include all children.