Professional Hugs – A reflection on Chapter 4 of Boy Raised as a Dog

Those following this blog will know about our book-study group; a number of us meet monthly to discuss a chapter from Dr. Perry’s iconoclastic The Boy Raised as a Dog and I try to convey a sense of the chapter and our discussion afterwards.

Our most recent get-together focused mainly on the issue of physical contact with pupils. There wasn’t a single mention of coronavirus, that’s how rapidly the crisis has escalated here. But was it ever a good idea for teachers to hug children, even in those carefree pre-Covid days?

Clearly, there is a risk that touch makes teachers vulnerable to allegations, should their actions be misconstrued. And there are children who definitely don’t want to be touched, for a range of very good reasons. But when a warm hug is quite obviously what a child needs, especially a young child, a no-touch policy can feel counter-intuitive, inhuman even.

In the fourth chapter of The Boy who was Raised as a Dog, Dr. Perry underlines the importance of physical contact through Laura’s story. I summarise the chapter below and then go onto consider some of the implications for practice. I’ve linked a school policy which leaders grappling with this tricky area of work may well find useful.

We do of course have access to departmental guidance on physical contact in the form of Use of Reasonable Force in Schools but nothing, somewhat sadly in my view, to steer us in the use of kind, emotionally regulating touch. Model policies are therefore helpful. The example shared (from an Outstanding school, for what it’s worth) usefully frames the approach taken in child-development and trauma-informed terms.

Laura’s Story

When Dr. Perry first met Laura as a four year old, she weighed just twenty-six pounds and was being fed a high-calorie diet via a tube. Since birth, she had puzzled medics with no-one able to explain her inability to gain weight. The theory at the point of Dr. Perry’s intervention was that Laura had a rare case of ‘infantile anorexia.’

Beginning with a focus on family history, Dr. Perry found that Virginia – Laura’s single mother – was a child of the foster care system at a time when it was common to move children to new foster carers every six months. The rationale for this was that it would prevent them from becoming too attached to one particular carer.

Consequently, as an adult, Virginia had no idea what to do with her baby. “Having had her own early attachments abruptly and brutally terminated, she didn’t have what some might call ‘maternal instinct” (p94). The result was that whilst Laura’s physical needs were met – Virginia had been taught and understood from foster carers the importance of personal responsibility – her emotional needs were neglected.

‘Failure to thrive’ is a condition that has been documented for centuries. Dr. Perry draws our attention to the suffering of children in orphanages and other institutions where there is not enough attention to go around. For Laura, the lack of nurturing interaction with her mother had been devastating. Her body responded with a hormonal dysregulation that impeded natural growth, despite any amount of nutrition. Dr. Perry’s prescription for Laura, and her mother, was therefore human touch.

This came in the form of a confident, highly experienced foster carer known as ‘Mama P’. The first time Dr. Perry met her, she was caring for ‘Robert’ – a boy who had lived in six foster homes, three shelters and who carried a dozen diagnostic labels, from ADHD and ODD, to bipolar, to schizoaffective disorder.

Robert presented in clinic because his episodic rages were causing problems at school and Mama P was refusing medication: “No doctor is going to drug up my baby.” Asked how she managed Robert’s rages at home, Mama P advised Dr. Perry:

I just hold him and rock him. I just love him…..I just put everything down and hold him and rock in the chair. Doesn’t take too long, poor thing. (p102)

Mama P knew long before the medical world that many young victims of abuse and neglect need physical stimulation, like being rocked and gently held. She understood intuitively that our interactions with children must be based on what they need, not on their age. (“Robert has been a baby for seven years.”) Dr. Perry observes that all of the children sent to her had “a tremendous need to be held and touched.”

They had never received the repeated, patterned, physical nurturing needed to develop a well-regulated and responsive stress response system. They had never learned that they were loved and safe; they didn’t have the internal security needed to safely explore the world and grow without fear. They were starving for touch – and Mama P gave it to them. (p103)

The doctor’s prescription, then, was for Laura and her mother to move in with Mama P and there they remained for about a year. Both benefited immeasurably – Virginia got some of the mothering she had missed, as well as learning how to parent by following Mama P’s cues. Laura gained ten pounds in the first month of her stay and her growth continued, both emotionally and physically. She went onto college and both of her own children did well in school. Virginia had a second child who suffered no growth problems. The three remain tight friends.

Implications for Practice

At Ashleigh Primary School and Nursery, we have adopted an informed, evidence based decision to allow safe touch as a developmentally appropriate intervention that will aid healthy growth and learning.

Clearly, there is much to be said for policies like the one cited above, from Ashleigh Primary School. It can read in full here.

The document makes reference to the neurobiological research evidence for physical contact before outlining the range of forms that touch may take within school, namely:

  • Casual/informal/incidental touch
  • General reparative touch
  • Contact play
  • Interactive play
  • Positive handling/restrictive intervention

The practice wisely enshrined within this policy is perhaps more commonly found within special schools. Indeed, one of our book-club members described a beautiful example of physical contact that she had deployed to ground and regulate a distressed pupil in her MLD setting that very day.

Many Lincolnshire have accessed the LA’s (free) two-hour introduction to trauma-informed practice. This includes some thinking about Dan Siegel’s  window of tolerance and the strategies we might use to co-regulate dysregulated children back into their thinking brains. We’ve found that special school colleagues are generally quick to share a range of strategies at this point in the training. Many of these are tactile, and all well established within everyday practice.

If we are to respond in an evidence-informed way to the exponential increase in the number of young children now being identified as having SEMH needs within mainstream, maybe this is special school practice that needs mainstreaming. Without doubt, as increasing numbers of children arrive in our schools with significant social and emotional gaps, responding to their stage and not their age has become imperative.

That said, there are many schools that have accepted this challenge already and trauma-informed practice is growing as a grassroots movement. Because it’s about human connection, providing psychological safety through authentic relationship, it’s exacting emotional work though. Much easier to deliver the academic curriculum.

It seems appropriate to end by acknowledging the many teachers and pastoral staff who engage in this emotional labour. Especially now, in the context of coronavirus lockdown, when they will be worried about all of those in their care who aren’t hugged enough at home, or who weren’t at a critical stage of development. The Lauras.

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What secondary schools can learn from primary about changing behaviour: a reflection on chapter 3 of ‘Boy Raised as a Dog’

This is the third in a series of what will be ten posts inspired by Dr. Perry’s case-studies. It was a small (but perfectly formed) group that met for Chapter 3 and this post captures an element of the discussion that has haunted me since, as a secondary teacher and SENCo reflecting on what I could have done better.

Beginning with a brief outline of the case-study, Chapter 3 focuses on Dr. Perry’s work with the child victims of the Waco siege of 1993, when a 51 day stand-off between US federal agents and the Davidian cult ended with the destruction by fire of the cult’s compound and 80 fatalities.

Dr Perry’s ‘rapid response’ trauma assessment team was brought in to support the children through this crisis. He had formed the team in part to research why children are impacted by traumatic events in such a wide range of ways – some seemingly unscathed while others develop serious mental illnesses and behaviour problems:

No one knew where the devastating symptoms of conditions like post-traumatic stress came from, and why some children would develop, say, primarily dissociative symptoms, while others would be mainly hyper-vigilant. (p61)

To explore this, it was necessary to work with children immediately after a traumatic event rather than years later, which tended to be when children were brought to him. There was indeed rich learning: “The seeds of a new way of working with traumatised children were sown in the ashes of Waco.” (p85)

The Davidian children had experienced severe abuse at the hands of their mercurial cult leader, David Koresh. He believed that the will of children needed to be broken with strict physical discipline if they were to stay ‘in the light.’ Maintaining an iron grip, he separated husband from wife, child from parent, friend from friend – undermining any relationship that could challenge his rule of terror. Children lived in constant fear of the physical attack and public humiliation that could result from the tiniest error, “like spilling milk.” (p60). Children were starved, beaten with a wooden paddle and for the girls there was the sure knowledge that many would be groomed to become ‘Brides of David’, as young as ten.

On top of this appalling context, the children were facing the real and present terror of the siege itself when Dr Perry met them. They had witnessed a deadly raid on their home, been driven away from their parents in tank-like vehicles, interrogated by FBI and Texas Rangers, often for hours, and placed temporarily in a strange children’s home, their future destination unknown. The children did not feel like they had just been liberated. They felt like hostages.

We immediately recognised that we had a group of children that had essentially been marinated in fear. The only way we could get them the help they needed was to apply our understanding of how fear affects the brain and then consequently changes behaviour. (p67)

Perry reminds us that the brain evolved from the inside out and that it develops in much the same order. The brainstem completes much of its development in utero and in early infancy. The midbrain and limbic systems develop next and the frontal lobes of the cortex, which regulate planning, self-control, and abstract thought do not complete their development until late adolescence.

This sequential development explains why very young children are at great risk of suffering lasting effects of trauma: their brains are still developing.

The same miraculous plasticity that allows young brains to quickly learn love and language, unfortunately, also makes them highly susceptible to negative experiences as well. (p68)

Fear, our most primal emotion, arises from the brainstem and shuts down the highest cortical regions first. We subsequently lose the capacity to think, plan, even sometimes to speak. We just react. With prolonged fear, there can be chronic or near permanent changes in the brain. Terror, especially early in life, may cause an enduring shift to a more impulsive, more aggressive, less thoughtful and compassionate way of responding to the world. This is because the brain is use-dependent. The more a system like the stress response system is fired, the more it changes and the greater the risk of altered functioning. Similarly, the less the cortical regions are used, the smaller and weaker they become:

Exposing a person to chronic fear and stress is like weakening the breaking power of a car while adding a more powerful engine: you’re altering the safety mechanisms that keep the ‘machine’ from going dangerously out of control. (p69)

Dr. Perry explains how understanding the importance of use-dependent development was vital to his work in treating the traumatized children of Waco.

He found that they needed the opportunity to process what had happened at their own pace and in their own ways. They didn’t need traditional ‘therapy’ from a stranger. The children were able to control when, with whom and how they interacted with the nurturing adults around them. Soothing connections were made according to compatible personality types and a powerful therapeutic web was observed to develop around the children. Staff meetings charted these interactions and it emerged that therapeutic experiences were taking place in short, minutes-long interactions.

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To experience the psychological safety essential for recovery and growth, the children also needed predictable routines and clearly demarcated boundaries, enforced through an empathic, relational approach to discipline. Staff were fully aware that the children’s permanently aroused, fearful state would make them prone to mistakes – impulsive or aggressive behaviour. It was important not to punish them for these natural responses but to redirect their behaviour until they calmed down and were able to reflect. It was vital that discipline did not undermine relationships, because:

Relationships matter: the currency for systemic change was trust, and trust comes from forming healthy working relationships. People, not programmes, change people. (p85)

Longer term, outcomes varied enormously. Some of the Davidian children went on to study at college, have families and careers. Others led profoundly troubled and chaotic lives. Dr. Perry is clear about what made the difference:

The children who did the best after the Davidian apocalypse were not those who experienced the least stress or those who participated most enthusiastically with us at the cottage. They were the ones who were released afterwards into the healthiest and most loving worlds. In fact, the research on the most effective treatments to help child trauma victims might be accurately summed up in this way: what works best is anything that increases the quality and number of relationships in the child’s life.

We can only speculate about the extent to which experience of school impacted on outcomes for these children, but the evidence would suggest substantially – because school is potentially a huge contributor of high quality relationships. It is one of the most important protective factors that children can access. A teacher making a connection with a child can change a life. We know this. Not only do neuroscientists like Dr. Perry tell us it is so, but we have the powerful personal testimony of survivors like Ian Wright and Jaz Ampaw-Farr. (If you haven’t watched her “Power of Everyday Heroes’ on YouTube, you really must).

But the experience of school can also be harmful; stress and fear inducing rather than reducing. We have seen that children impacted by trauma are often hyper-vigilant and volatile – they will make mistakes. If we are not trauma-informed in the way that we respond to these, then we can expect distress and with that dysregulation to intensify. We are in effect fuelling the brainstream and at the same time restricting cortical growth when ‘consequences’ are all we’ve got; when we are doggedly ‘consistent’ in the administration of these.

Two questions of critical importance then:

1. Do we know our children and young people well enough to ensure we ‘First, do no harm’ when we respond to their distressed behaviour?

2. Do our systems allow us to respond in flexible and helpful ways?

The case-study below illustrates that we can and do, as educators, change lives when the answer to these questions is yes. The work described below is beautiful, but I think relatively uncommon in secondary schools – including all of those that I have worked at. That’s why the anecdote haunts me. I think many of us, as we immerse ourselves in the world of trauma-informed practice, would respond differently to some of our most ‘challenging’ young people if we could only go back. We can all, I’m certain, bring a ‘Sam’ to mind.

A Case Study

‘Sam’ began at a new school as a Year 5 (?) pupil having been permanently excluded from another setting for ‘persistent disruptive behaviour’. Professionals counted nine adverse childhood experiences (ACES) from scrutiny of his social care file and discussions with his very young single mum on admission. Domestic violence, arson, prison, pedophilia, bereavement and mental illness all featured in his troubled and complex history.

It was anticipated that he would need a high level of support, at least through transition, and a key adult was assigned this role. As she approached the Y5 class with him,  his fear and anxiety increased visibly and by time they reached the door he was punching and kicking her.

Recognising this as the survival behaviour of an extremely anxious boy, the key adult resolved to get to know him away from the classroom. The next week, a table was provided for him outside the class and they worked there. Later, another pupil joined Sam to work outside the classroom and gradually a small group was formed. Whilst class 5 were in assembly, Sam and his key adult would thoroughly explore the classroom.

Eventually, he felt safe enough to join the classroom to learn alongside his peers. Progress continued such that, as a Y6 child, all he needed from his key adult was a daily check-in and the chance to talk about home. She was by now working with another highly vulnerable new starter and Sam was proud to have been asked to mentor him. He was able to offer the assurance that things do get better, people are kind and school is safe.

Sam’s behavior deteriorated towards the end of Y6 as he became anxious about transition into a large high school. As it turned out, with good reason. He appeared back at his primary school one cold afternoon with the news, “I’ve been kicked out.” He never returned to mainstream.









“Give me someone I can talk to” Reflecting on Chapter 2 of Boy who was Raised as a Dog

Last week our Think2Speak based book-study group met for the second time to discuss Chapter 2 of Dr. Perry’s ‘The Boy who was Raised as a Dog’. It was lovely to welcome new participants and it’s worth reiterating that people are free to join our conversation at any stage – either by coming along to Gainsborough or virtually, via a Zoom link. The purpose of this blog is to reflect some of the discussion and to share it with a wider audience of educators, many of Dr. Perry’s insights having such relevance to the way we do schooling and in particular ‘behaviour’. (The Chapter One reflection can be found here.)

Introducing Sandy – Chapter 2

Like all of the children featured, ‘Sandy’s’ is a heartbreaking story. She witnessed the rape and murder of her mother as a three-year-old and was left for dead after having her own throat cut.  A protection programme meant that her history wasn’t shared with the series of foster carers that she was subsequently passed between or the many teachers she encountered.

Sandy’s therapy, when it was eventually provided, involved enabling her to re-enact elements of the traumatic experience, a process that she initiated and controlled throughout her many sessions with the psychiatrist. Dr. Perry’s role was essentially that of Sandy’s prop.

He explains the purpose of this approach: “To restore its equilibrium, the brain tries to quiet our sensitised, trauma-related memories by pushing us to have repetitive, small doses of recall. It seeks to make a sensitised system develop tolerance.” Sandy’s brain was providing the ‘dosing’ it needed to tolerate the events of that night.

Her progress was slow but steady. Over time she became less prone to fight, flight and freeze behaviours, less triggered, more self-regulated and she was able to cope with school.  Indeed, we learn at the end of the chapter that she went on to achieve good grades and now lives a fulfilling life as a notably kind person.

One of the most uplifting features of this book is its joyous illustration of neural plasticity: with the right care, all children can recover from developmental trauma to thrive. That’s what makes the case for trauma-informed practice as standard in schools such a compelling one. The stakes are enormous.

Implications for educators

Whilst Sandy’s story is extreme, Dr. Perry is clear that the need to process painful events by revisiting them is universal. In the aftermath of a distressing or traumatic event, we have intrusive thoughts, he explains. We keep thinking about what happened and we keep telling and retelling the event to trusted friends or loved ones.

The vast majority of readers will know the truth of this. When my mum died, some fourteen years ago now, I talked and talked and talked to family members, especially the brother who was with me ‘at the scene’. I returned to work too early, with hindsight, and ran out of petrol on the A17 because of the daze that I was in. I remember knocking on the door of a very kind stranger and telling her my story too (as well as asking for petrol!). She gave me the longest hug and that helped. My boss, on the other hand, never checked in with me and I always thought less of her for that. A lot less, actually.

People who listen with empathy  perform an important therapeutic function, without being therapists. We know that many children experience bereavement and loss, they carry enormous emotional burdens, but do we create opportunities for them to talk about these in school? They don’t benefit from the option of compassionate leave – they are expected, by and large, to go with the programme despite the fractious divorce or whatever it may be that plays out at home. How easy do we make this for them, really? Do we encourage them to share their worries and ensure that each has access to a trusted adult?  Belonging to a form group simply doesn’t tick that box – especially in settings where the form tutor role has been reduced to checking uniform and equipment.

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We have a wealth of scientific research that says ‘social buffering’ (having someone at the time of the painful life experience, to listen, empathise and understand) can prevent painful experiences transitioning into toxic stress, or trauma. This buffering is something that needs to be planned as part of a school’s mental health provision. Dr. Perry repeats time and again that the most accurate predictor of positive mental health outcomes is the number and quality of a child’s relationships. ‘Relational poverty’ greatly increases risk, therefore. Resilience is not created within the child but is cultivated in the web of relationships around the child. Something the DfE completely fails to understand in its ill-informed framing of ‘character education’, of course.

I was privileged to speak to two CAMHS peer support workers recently – young people, that is, who have accessed the service in the past and now support new entrants. I asked the boy whether school could have done anything more to meet his emotional needs early. His reply was instant. “Yes, they could have given me someone I could talk to.” The girl remarked that there was a TA in school that she did trust enough to talk to – in fact, he was the single reason she didn’t school-refuse, so important to her was access to this empathic adult. However, their discussion was limited to 5 minutes at the start of the day, because it wasn’t possible to be excused from form-time. Stories like this highlight an inflexibility and lack of understanding that we need to address if young people are to access the psychological support they need within school. The answer is rarely as simply as a referral out into services and the strong message from these young people was that this was not what they wanted.

There is, of course, much really good practice too. For example, key worker schemes through which all adults in a school are utilised – from receptionist to site manager to headteacher – to offer an empathic ear.  I operated such a system at my last school and can verify that an option to self-refer did not open the floodgates. The provision was used responsibly by pupils and much loved by our local CAMHS team, who provided a level of supervision. The coaching circle model developed at Carr Manor (website strap-line – ‘we know our children well’) in Leeds is very exciting. Here, pupils don’t meet as large form groups but rather split into small vertical coaching circles three times a week. Pupils are very well known, cared about and talk to any one of them and they will confirm that their coaching circle feels like family. Worry boxes, I wish my teacher knew schemes – all of these enable young people to feel safe in the knowledge that school is a place that understands and that there are people ready to listen when needed.

Our next book study discussion is on January 22nd 2020, 6.30 – 8.00pm, Think2Speak, Marshall’s Yard, Gainsborough.

We’ll be discussing Chapter 3. Join us if you can!



Chapter 1 of ‘The Boy who was Raised as a Dog’ & key messages for educators

Our book-study group

I read ‘The Boy who was Raised as a Dog’ (TBWWRAAD) on a family holiday this year and I found that I really wanted to talk about it. Strangely though, apart from one animated discussion about the fact that people will always speak English with a foriegn accent if they learn it after puberty, I was unable to generate much enthusiasm for Dr Perry’s insights.

I can understand a reluctance to talk about childhood adversity and trauma whilst unwinding on holiday, of course, but this isn’t a depressing read. (I also refute the charge that it was ‘a work book’.) It is actually about the extraordinary courage, the survivorship and ultimately the recovery of traumatised children, when they are held by attuned adults.

TBWWRAAD urges readers to reach out to vulnerable children in the sure knowledge that small acts of kindness make a difference. It’s about relationships over referrals, love over diagnostic labels.  The key message is a galvanizing, a democratizing one because it is essentially that we can all help children recover from trauma, through simple human connection and kindness. The implications of this are massive – for schools, for service design and delivery, for families. It’s something all of those who come into contact with children need to be talking about.

Undeterred by the family fail, I therefore tweeted that it would be great to start a conversation with interested readers and from that our book-study group was born.   We met for the first time last week at the HQ of Think2Speak in Gainsborough. A social enterprise that aims to enable helpful conversations, this provided the perfect context and it’s where the group will continue to meet monthly.

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Mostly, we wanted to get to know each other a bit and talk about ‘Tina’ (Chapter One) but we also needed to agree how best to share any implications for practice: Dr. Perry is clear that school has the potential not only to heal but also to further harm traumatised children. There is a strong moral imperative, therefore, to share the knowledge. Especially as we are in the realm of biological fact here.

We agreed that we would blog about each of Perry’s patients (this is the first attempt), produce an info-graphic of the key messages (good luck with that one Mel) and design a model PSP for each school-aged child. The PSP will be co-constructed each time we meet; a way of sharing best inclusive practice between us and also of translating some of Dr Perry’s insight into a practical resource for educators.  Future posts will follow the format below and there will be ten of these, one for each of Dr. Perry’s subjects. The aim of the posts is not to cover each chapter comprehensively but to pull out those elements that have clear implications for school policy and practice.

Introducing Tina – Chapter One

Just seven years old when he started working with her, ‘Tina’ was Dr. Perry’s first child patient and he describes the panic of feeling inexperienced and out of his depth on their first encounter.  Tina had been sexually abused by a babysitter over a two year period. A year later, she was presenting in school as disruptive, aggressive and inappropriately sexualised and had been referred to the clinic by her mother, Sara.

Dr. Perry worked with Tina for a period of three years, beginning by simply lying next to her on the floor and colouring with her. Through the child-directed games that they played in the weekly sessions that followed, Tina learned new concepts, like waiting, taking turns and thinking before deciding what to do next.

Dr.Perry was delighted by her apparent progress: over time, reports of inappropriate behaviour at school stopped, she was no longer fighting with other children, her speech and language improved, she developed impulse control and was able to pay attention for sustained periods. However, after the therapy ended, Dr. Perry received the devastating news that Tina, now ten, had been discovered performing fellatio on an older boy at school.

He concluded from this that whilst he had helped Tina learn appropriate behaviours to avoid getting into trouble, he had not succeeded in addressing the trauma that was at the root of her difficulties. His examination of the neuroscience of developmental trauma, through which he developed better tools than he had at his disposal for Tina, is in essence the subject of TBWWRAAG.

Take-aways for Educators

  • School punishments can be harmful

It is fitting that one of our group is Callum Wetherill because he leads the Lose the Booths  campaign. Tina’s story and tens of thousands like it raise grave concerns about the undifferentiated use of punishment, or ‘consequences,’ in our schools. It doesn’t need a child psychologist to work out that punishment – the use of power to do something unpleasant to another human being – can re-traumatise survivors of abuse.  Tina avoided this as a primary aged pupil but we will never know how many older victims, acting out their distress and their profound mistrust of adults in secondary schools, spend hours in isolation booths. We do know that sexual abuse is very common and mostly never reported. We must hold in mind then that behavioural difficulties (I prefer ‘distress’) are a reason to be curious and compassionate, not judgemental and punitive.

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  • Children need to be taught self-regulation, not ‘managed’

The book is in many ways a celebration of neural plasticity. The brain fires and wires throughout the lifespan but the rate of change during childhood is little short of miraculous. That’s why, with the right stimulus from Dr. Perry, Tina very quickly developed skills that were lagging as a result of her developmental trauma. (The impact of trauma on executive functioning will be covered later, as one of the book’s key themes.)

However, too often, when the response to distressed behaviour is rigidly behaviourist, children are not given the necessary stimulus for new neural connections to be made. Rather, pressure is applied in the form of rewards and sanctions aimed at encouraging ‘better choices’. This futile, stress-inducing manipulation only results in school discipline becoming a traumatic experience for children who need help to grow skills, not sanctions for lacking them.

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  • Diagnostic labels can get in the way of recovery

Dr. Perry describes two very different experiences of supervision in this chapter. ‘Dr. Stine was a complacent traditionalist and his advice about Tina went as follows: “She is inattentive, a discipline problem, impulsive, non-compliant, defiant, oppositional, and has problems with her peers. She meets diagnostic criteria for Attention Deficit Disorder and oppositional defiance disorder.” Dr. Perry wondered how a Ritalin prescription could possibly solve Tina’s problems and left feeling confused and disappointed. In his other supervisor of that time, however, he found a liberating mentor; one who encouraged him to challenge traditional disorder-thinking and to ask what had happened inside Tina’s rapidly developing toddler brain during the period of horrific sexual abuse. Dr. Dyrud’s focus was never on medicalising ‘symptoms’ but on identifying their roots.

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SENCOs and families might be inclined to believe that referrals to paediatricians for diagnostic assessment are in the best interests of children, but this is clearly not always the case. As one of our book-study members has witnessed on many occasions,  accompanying families for assessment, diagnosis never takes into account environmental factors, it is undertaken by a stranger to child and family, and it is very quick. Substantial evidence about the widespread misdiagnosis of trauma as psychiatric disorder is now available. It represents a therapeutic catastrophe for children because it locates the problems ‘within child’ and the solution in drugs. No amount of medication is going to heal trauma. Only relationships can do that.

  • Relationships are the best therapy

As already suggested, the great theme of this book is relationships. Every chapter can be viewed as a take on this biologically incontrovertible conclusion:

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Schools are huge sources of what Dr. Perry refers to as ‘relational wealth’ – and therefore huge sources of healing, when that potential is harnessed. Clearly, in his early work with Tina, he hadn’t made this  breakthrough in understanding and invested too much hope in one-to-one clinical intervention. Whilst Tina gained much from the sessions, there was certainly growth, they were not up to the task of freeing her from the powerful grip of early trauma.

Only in retrospect did Dr. Perry understand the essential role of ‘therapeutic dosing’ in recovery. Here is how he explains that phenomenon:

Just as a traumatic experience can alter a life in an instant, so too can a therapeutic encounter. Unfortunately, in order for positive ‘doses’ of interaction to lead to long term change, much more repetition is needed. Consequently, the pattern and spacing required to ensure long term maintenance of any therapeutic change is going to require a density of therapeutic interactions that our current mental health model of fifty minutes once a week cannot provide. For children like Tina to truly benefit from therapy, it needs to be embedded in a context of safe and positive interactions.

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….For people who have been sexually abused, like Tina, just being acknowledged in a supportive, respectful and non-threatening way aids healing. 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.

The implications of this for school policy and practice are enormous. A population study found that half of children in England have experienced one childhood trauma and one in ten have suffered four or more. These are our ‘high risk’ children – high risk of permanent exclusion, of poor mental and physical health in later life, of addiction, of suicide, of stunted lives. (For an excellent public health animation about the impact of trauma on outcomes, see here.) Sometimes as educators we are aware of children’s adverse experiences out of school but often we are not.  So we need to ensure that our schools develop as caring communities in which all children can flourish. We should be prepared to target support when we can – for me, reminders that Pupil X is in need of compassion are entirely appropriate – as a classroom teacher, I know that I would have gone out of my way to offer my own form of ‘therapeutic dosing’. Some pupils may need additional time with a key-adult, a daily meet and greet, more relational opportunity than is generally available during a busy school day, without adjustments. But kindness needs to be standard, so that no child slips through the compassion net simply because their struggle is hidden. This needs modelling by SLT and pupils themselves also need to be taught about the transformative impact they can have on one another. (For ideas about how to create social capital, there is no better source than Paul Dix’ When the Adults Change. )

Consequences may be necessary because of course boundaries must be enforced to keep everyone safe. But when these consequences are arbitrary and puntive rather than logical – when they take away the very stuff that children need to bounce back  from adversity – then they become unethical. We need to move in closer to distressed children  – not marginalise them through exclusion or through the withdrawal of relational experiences, such as playing for the school team, going on the trip, attending the prom. We must at all costs avoid the Matthew Effect of sharing more of ourselves with children who are already relationally rich and shunning the relationally poor because they seem hostile, having not yet learned to trust adults. Tenacity is required, perseverance, deliberate effort – and love, never forgetting that ‘the children who need the most love ask for it in the most unloving ways’.

Next book-study meeting

November 13th 2019, Think2Speak, Marshall’s Yard, Gainsborough. 6.30pm to 8.00pm.

All welcome – either virtually, via a Zoom link, or in person. We will be discussing Chapter Two.

Those attending the inaugural gathering (and thank you so much for doing that) please do use Comments below to note anything that I may have missed from our discussion. I know I haven’t covered it all!





A behaviour problem is just a new skill to learn.

Dr Ben Furman recently led Kids’ Skills training in Lincolnshire, as part of the Local Authority’s strategy to promote inclusion through relational, strengths-based and solutions-focused support for pupils. This redacted child’s plan, from Brant Broughton Primary, was written soon after the training. With guidance notes beneath it, also produced by the school, it needs no explaining. Shared with the school’s permission, we love it!

Kids Skills Plan for ‘Ben’

Skills to be developed
Ben struggles with sharing during a game at playtime or lunchtime – it could be choosing who will do the throw-in during football or sharing a set of scales to weigh things in maths.
Name the skill
Taking it in turns
Benefits of the skill
Being able to play with others and others being more willing to play with him. Avoiding conflicts that end the game or activity. Developing friendships.
Supporters (adults’ real names)
‘Ben’ named Mrs. Jackson (TA), Mrs. Bedford ((HT), Mrs. Botham (classteacher). Ronan (Life mentor) Also ‘Jake, Bailey, Kyle, Brad’.
How confident are we that the skill will be achieved?
We discussed Ben’s successes to date. His improved attitude to school in general; his willingness to persevere when he finds some aspects of learning hard; his ability to walk away when he has lost his temper; his quicker periods of calming down and being willing to apologise.
Ben chose a chocolate cake with chocolate sponge and icing!
Demonstrate the skill
Ben went outside to join his class playing rounders and was able to take turns doing this.
Go public
We went and found the children who are his supporters & Ben told them what his skill is & how they can support him & be part of his celebration.
Practice the skill
See notes below
What to do if you forget the skill
Ben asked his supporters to whisper his skill in his ear to remind him of what it is.
Teach it
Next skill to learn:

Guidance Notes
1. If the child has problems, convert them into skills the child can learn. Remember that a skill is not the ability to NOT DO the wrong thing but the ability to do the right thing instead.

2. Let the child participate in the discussion about the skill to learn and agree this together. Children are often well aware of what skill they should improve.

3. Let the child give the skill a cool name. If necessary, help the child in finding a name for his skill or have him ask his peers to come up with a suitable name.

4. Let the child come up with a power animal or another creature that will help him to learn that skill. Ask him to draw or get hold of a picture of it and let him tell you how it will help him in learning the skill.

5. Explain to the child, and ask others to explain too, what benefits there are for the child and to other people of him mastering the skill. When he has heard what other people have to say about the benefits of the skill, let him add what he himself considers to be the main benefits of the skill.

6. Help the child recruit a number of supporters, adults as well as other children. When pupils accept to become supporters, they can show this by writing their names onto the child’s poster or into his skills book. Supporting the child means that the supporter observes the child’s progress, showing admiration for success and writing notes about the child’s proficiency onto his poster or into his skills book.

7. Tell the child what makes you confident that he will learn the skills and ask others to do this too. When the child has heard what others have said, let him tell you why he himself is confident he will learn the skill.

8. Plan in advance with the child how you will celebrate when he has learned the skill.

9. In order for the child to practice the skill, you will need to find a way in which he can demonstrate how skillful he already is. Talk with the child about how a person who masters that skill well behaves in various situations and let him show you in a role-play what that means in practice. This way you and the child will develop ideas of how he will be able to rehearse his skill in practice.

10. Help the child go public about his skill. You can ask him to tell everyone about the skill he is learning but the best way to go public is to let the child put a poster on the wall which, in addition to his name, says who his supporters are and what skill he is learning. The poster can also have a picture of his power animal as well as a list of the central benefits of the skill. In addition to the poster, the child should also have a skills book, a notebook about his project that he can show to his supporters and into which his supporters can write notes about their observations of his skillfulness.

11. Have the child practice his skills, preferably on a daily basis, by giving him opportunities to show other people how good he already is at doing his skill while others respond by showing him their appreciation. For this you may need to create a role-play of some kind through which the child can demonstrate his skillfulness. Another alternative is that you agree with the child that his supporters will pay attention to his behaviour and take notes of the times he spontaneously shows mastery of his skill.

12. It is easier to learn new skills than try to get rid of problems, but it is still not all that easy. Therefore talk to the child about what should happen if he sometimes forgets the skills he is learning and behaves in the very way he is learning not to behave. The best way to prepare for these situations is to let the child tell his supporters how he wants them to remind him or help him in such a case.

13. When it is time to celebrate, the child is publicly awarded for having learned the skill or for having made substantial progress in learning it. At this stage you ask the child how other people have helped him to learn the skill and let the child tell you in what way each of his supporters has been helpful. Help the child to find a way to deliver his thanks also to those supporters who are not present at the celebration.

14. Encourage the child to teach the skill to another child who also needs to learn the skill.

15. Discuss with the child what skill he will learn next.

A primary school assembly on behaviour and fairness. Towards #traumainformed

As promised, a primary version of the secondary school assembly I posted last week. The content has been modified for a younger audience but the messages are broadly the same…designed to help pupils understand distressed behaviour and to have compassion for their struggling classmates, and to help those classmates begin to understand themselves. Also, to contribute towards an emotionally literate school climate in which it is recognised that Ross Greene was right; ‘kids do well if they can’ – meaning that the response to maladaptive behaviour must be educative, not punitive. This is something both pupils and teachers are capable of understanding, when the message is clearly articulated and modelled by staff.

As before, much of the trauma-informed material has been borrowed  from the brilliant Beacon House. This assembly draws heavily on Survival-in-School-PTSD

The assembly (or PSHE lesson)

Let’s start with a question. Is treating everyone exactly the same way fair, or unfair? Before you answer, have a think about this picture:


(Take feedback, pulling out the obvious point that one size doesn’t fit all and is therefore unfair)

It’s important to think about the stools in this picture in relation to behaviour – because behaviour always seems to raise questions about fairness. (Anecdote useful here – ideally one when as a child you wanted to see a punishment or some kind of retribution but were frustrated….)

I remember once having to take a walking-stick into secondary school for a drama lesson. Some older kids started messing about with it on the bus, so it was confiscated – by my own brother! (I always thought his bus-prefect role went to his head). Worse still, he refused to give it back to me, even when we were off the bus!  So I went on to get a drama detention for ‘forgetting’ my homework (the teacher didn’t accept what she called excuses). And THEN, when I got home and told my mum about all of this, she didn’t even punish my brother for his completely UNbrotherly and bullying behaviour! So, clearly, unfair brother, unfair teacher, unfair mother! I was beside myself.

Fairness still matters greatly to me – like it matters to all of us. But what I know now that I didn’t understand so well back then is that it’s rarely simple or straightforward. It can be a difficult call for the adults, to do the fairest thing. My mum might well have spoken to my brother in a way that made him feel sorry about what he did, so sorry he would never repeat it. She was kind and wise and would have known that in lots of ways, feeling bad is worse than being punished. Think about it, a punishment allows us to feel sorry for ourselves when really we should be feeling sorry for someone else. If he had been punished, my brother might even have thought that he was the unfairly treated one – after all, he was only doing his job as prefect by confiscating for the day an object that could have caused further trouble.

I don’t know. What I do know is that fairness isn’t a simple idea – it’s a complex one. Which is why we’re talking about it today.

Another thing that makes it complicated is this: when calm and considerate behaviour is something we don’t personally find difficult, it can be hard to understand why others struggle to be consistently calm and considerate. There is a good reason for that, though, which we’ll look at now.

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The brainstem in this diagram is the part of the brain that develops first. When babies are born, the rest of the brain – the higher parts – they aren’t wired up yet, there’s just the brainstem that’s fully developed. Its job is to keep us alive, to protect us from threats. The brainstem is a bit like an alarm bell inside our heads, warning us of danger and making us act very fast.

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Think about the last time you surprised someone. How did they react? Some people may turn away or back off – that’s flight. Others might might move towards you, even look angry – that’s a fight reaction. Others might just stand there speechless and shocked – that’s freeze.

These reactions are the brainstem doing its job of keeping us safe, even when we are not really facing a life-threatening danger. If the brainstem paused to think about whether a situation is really a risk to life, it might be too late! So the brainstem doesn’t think. In fact it literally stops us thinking. It’s job is only to push us into instant action…fight, flight or freeze.

The problem is, when we grow up in a world that feels unsafe or scary or really stressful  for lots of the time, then the brainstem is much too active. And the fact that it gets so much exercise means that it grows fast and becomes dominant, like a bully. The thinking part of the brain is then restricted. It doesn’t get wired up so well and that’s a big reason why we see people sometimes acting without thinking. They are in survival mode.

It’s not pleasant, to be triggered into flight or fight by your brainstem like this. In the next few slides, we hear the voice of a pupil who tries to explain how it feels to her teacher:

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These are overwhelming feelings that we would all rather avoid. When the survival brain switches on, it affects our bodies as well:

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The good news is that you all have incredible brains that are growing at amazing speed. Our brains continue firing and wiring all the way through life, as it happens, but never as fast as they do when we’re growing up. This means that we can and do strengthen different parts of our brains. For example, the more the thinking brain is used, the stronger it gets. The less often the survival brains is activated, the smaller the brainstem becomes and those horrible experiences described earlier don’t happen so much. This is because we literally sculpt and shape our brains – like plasticine.

So the survival brain that can make being cool, calm and collected difficult for some doesn’t have to stay a survival brain. Not when we start to feel really, really safe, so that the brainstem isn’t on guard, looking for threats….triggering us into flight or fight.  Our job as teachers is of course to grow your thinking brains, so the first thing we need to do is make sure school is a calm and safe place. That’s why we have our rules, for example.

Thinking about the pictures, can you suggest what else we have done to  make sure school is a safe place, especially for those children who are still having to grow their thinking brains because home-life has been stressful and they have bossy brainstems? (Include pictures of your school, discussing how each contributes to safety and security)

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As you can see then, your safety is our top priority, not just because we care so much about you – but also because that’s what helps your thinking brains to grow!

Of course, we all move into survival mode when  something shakes us up or we’re stressed out. Adults as well as children. Being late makes me feel stressed out and I then have to focus on breathing to keep my thinking brain online. We all need to learn how to calm ourselves down when necessary. There are lots of ideas on this slide about how to do that.  (Suggest pupils are taken through a breathing or stretching exercise as this point). Which one works for you? One-size doesn’t fit all, remember. Which one might you suggest for a friend? I expect you will have seen adults in school using some of these techniques alongside pupils, and now you know why. It’s all part of keeping the brainstem in its place – or putting it back after it’s been in control.

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So to sum our assembly up, being fair doesn’t mean treating everyone the same way, because we all have different needs, different brains. Being fair doesn’t have to mean punishing somebody either. It might mean helping them to calm down instead. And, finally, when life gets stressful, we all need to know how to do that.

If you recognise the difficult feelings and sensations that we’ve looked at today within yourself then make sure you tell us so that we can help you. If you’re someone who freezes, if may be that we haven’t noticed how much you’re really struggling inside.

Fairness means having an extra stool ready for whoever needs it – so that every member of our school community gets to see over the top of the fence.


An assembly about behaviour and fairness #trauma-informed

Why an assembly on behaviour, fairness and trauma?

Lincolnshire is one of a growing number of LAs promoting trauma-informed practice in schools, and leaders – some already well well ahead on this agenda – are extremely receptive to the conversation. However, a concern that is often articulated relates to ‘consistency’. How can we be both trauma-informed and consistent? If there is not a consistent application of consequences, as per the behaviour policy, then pupils will surely be confused by mixed messages, resentful of the perceived unfairness, parents may complain and a view that the school has gone soft on behaviour could cause reputational damage.

My personal view is that we tend to underestimate the emotional intelligence of our young people, their acceptance of diversity and their capacity for compassionate understanding when we make these assumptions. We must also model acceptance of diversity, emotional intelligence and compassion, as adults, and the crudest application of consistency doesn’t allow us to do that. In relation to children with a disability recognised by the DDA, such as ADHD, reasonable adjustment is of course a legal requirement anyway – so we are merely extending that established practice to include  those who may not have a diagnostic label but who are equally if not more disadvantaged. However, setting those observations to one side, I do see the need for including pupils as well as staff in awareness-raising work around trauma and the assembly (or PSHE lesson) that I’ve scripted below is a stab at that. It’s aimed at secondary-aged pupils because the consistency question is most often raised by secondary colleagues; there’s a modified primary version here.

The assembly is also an attempt to help those impacted by trauma (in every school, a significant proportion) to feel less shame, less confusion and to move towards a place of hope, self-understanding and acceptance. (Not that a single assembly or lesson will ever do that, but it’s at least a start if pupils have never had the opportunity to learn about these things.) I am grateful to Beacon House for much of the content. Survival-In-Secondary-School

The assembly  – what fairness means to us


Today’s assembly is about fairness, or equity, as it’s called in this image. You will know how it feels to be treated unfairly because it happens to us all sometimes. It’s one of the worst feelings in the world and I personally hate it. That’s why at this school we do try very hard to treat you all fairly, even though it might not always seem that way.

Fairness is rarely a straightforward thing, that’s the problem. It sounds simple but it’s not. Look at the picture. The girl on the left only has one low stool whereas the girl on the right has three piled on top of each other. Unfair, surely! Why should she have more stool than her friend? Well of course you can see as well as I that it’s not actually unfair at all because all of the children need to see over the fence and the one on the right couldn’t do that without the extra help. It’s not her fault she’s short and the fair thing to do is clearly to give her some additional uplift.

Now we need to think about this in relation to behaviour because the way we deal with incidents here does sometimes raise the fairness question. It’s only fair that we talk about that.

It’s perfectly obvious that most of you need very little help with your behaviour at all. You can stay calm and focused on learning without the need for an extra stool. For others, it’s equally clear that staying calm and focused is harder. We all feel stressed out sometimes of course, and we might say and do things we regret – put someone down, lash out, storm off, argue, shout. But when it’s a lot of the time that we feel overwhelmed and out of control like this, then something is not right. After all, nobody wants to be upsetting people and in trouble all of the time – there’s nothing to gain from it and lots to lose. Nobody would choose to spend hours and hours in detention – there are so many more things you could be doing with that time. So we must take excessive acting out as a sign that an extra stool or two is needed.

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You may have noticed that the extra school comes in lots of shapes and sizes at this school, because fairness and safety are big values for us here. Sometimes it is one-to-one time outside the lesson with a mentor, sometimes it’s a reduced timetable, sometimes it’s a morning meet and greet, sometimes it’s leaving class a bit early to avoid the busy corridor, sometimes it’s permission for a brain-break, or a homework holiday, sometimes it’s just being able to have a walk around outside and breathe deeply. These things and more are needed to help some individuals to see the view over the fence, to stay calm and regulated.

You may be wondering why it is that some people need so much more support to stay emotionally regulated than others. It’s hard to understand when you have no such difficulty yourself. There are actually many reasons for this – thousands of books written on the subject – but I want to share one key reason with you.

It starts with understanding the brainstem. This is the part of the brain that grows first. When babies are born, the rest of the brain – the higher parts – they aren’t wired up yet.

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The job of the brainstem is to protect us from danger  – keep us alive. So we never lose it, even when we’re older and the higher parts of the brain have fully matured. The brainstem is a bit like an alarm inside our heads. It tells us when to run away from danger, to fight or to freeze when we think we may be under attack. Think about the last time you surprised someone. How did they react? Some people may turn away or back off – that’s flight. Others might might move towards you, even look angry – that’s a fight response. Others might just stand there speechless and shocked – that’s freeze. These reactions are the brainstem doing its job of keeping us safe, even when we are not really facing a life-threatening danger.

The problem is, when we grow up in a situation that feels unsafe or scary or really stressful  for a lot of the time, then the brainstem is constantly activated. This is our brain making sure we survive threats – but is also means that the lower part becomes dominant and the wiring up with the higher parts of the brain is delayed. That does change with the right help – the brain has an amazing capacity to rewire, throughout our whole lives. It’s never too late to recover from what we call relational and developmental trauma. But until that recovery process is complete, young people will be much more prone to survival flight, fight or freeze responses.

You will all be able to think of occasions when someone has kicked off over what seems to you a really small thing, like an accidental push or a look. That’s the brainstem at work. Young people with survival brains can’t just leave them at home and plug in the thinking one at school. It’s not biologically possible. So we must expect to see survival behaviours, until the person has learned that school is actually a really, really safe place full of people who can be trusted and who pose no threat.

That takes time  – brains don’t reshape overnight. So while the process is underway, we have all of those stools that I talked about – and we have you, as kind and understanding people. You can be part of someone’s recovery, just by being there, even after a setback. (There will be setbacks)

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We should all try to help if we have the personal skills to do that because a life lived in survival mode is much more distressing to experience than it is to observe from the outside. The next few slides explain what it feels like from the point of view of a student:

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A painful place to live then.

If you recognise any of those feelings in yourself or if anything that you’ve heard today has made you feel like you want to talk to somebody then you must do that – and you know that we will listen. We can talk to parents and carers about this stuff too – because it’s really important.

Lets finish on fairness though. It really isn’t fair that some children have to grow up feeling frightened or deeply insecure or unloved.  It’s not fair that their survival brains make it hard for them to regulate their emotions. We have to have rules here to keep you all safe. We have to tell you when behaviour is not ok. And when behaviour is not ok, when it’s unsafe or hurtful, then we have to intervene. But that intervention will take many different forms because you are all different, your needs are all different. So don’t worry about comparing, trust us with our decisions and we will trust you to really think about today’s assembly, to avoid judging others and to be curious and compassionate instead.

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Why exclusion worsens behaviour

Exclusion is our sanction of choice in England. When a pupil’s behaviour is deemed unacceptable, he or she is separated from the community;  internally or externally, for a fixed period or permanently. It’s standard practice, normalised here, accepted uncritically by most as the way to discipline pupils when they cross those ‘lines in the sand’ that our behaviour policies define so sharply.

But there is very good evidence that exclusion is counter-productive – we see this day in and day out, every time a pupil ‘just doesn’t learn’ or persists in making ‘all the wrong choices,’ despite having experienced sometimes multiple exclusions.  It’s clear that we don’t help pupils change their behaviour simply by excluding them. In fact, we are more likely to make it worse.

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Research in the field of ostracism offers some clues as to why. Some twenty years ago now, researchers at the University of Toledo conducted an experiment in which for five days, a scarlet “O” was randomly hung over someone’s office door. This indicated to others in the group that they must ignore the branded colleague for the day—no talking, no eye contact, no recognition of any kind.

Interestingly, the experiment made all participants miserable, not just the ostracised, as well as powerfully demonstrating how sensitive people are to being socially rejected. From an evolutionary perspective, this makes perfect sense. We evolved in social groups and, like other social animals, from apes to bees, our survival depends upon our being included and accepted.

It seems the term “hurt feelings” is more accurate term than we knew. Research by leader in the ostracism field Kip Williams demonstrates that exclusion triggers the same area of the brain that activates when we feel physical pain.  When humans feel excluded the brain’s dorsal anterior cingulate cortex lights up, just as it does when we are physically hurt.  We are hard wired to experience exclusion from the group as excruciatingly painful, as life-threatening as physical attack, because our distant ancestors used ostracism to weed out unproductive or disruptive members.

Quite how we react to the pain of ostracism and social rejection varies. We might become servile and compliant. We might withdraw. Or we might become angry and aggressive, as is the case when students return to school following an exclusion with an attitude of heightened hostility. Williams explains why this is so often the case: “When a person feels ostracized they feel out of control, and aggressive behaviour is one way to restore that control.”

In a school context, such aggression is likely to trigger a repeat ‘consequence’ or exclusion – and another after that. This is deeply problematic with the individual now at risk of reaching what Williams calls the ‘resignation stage’ of ostracism. Having given up on belonging,  such a pupil pupil will experience “increases in anger and sadness … alienation, depression, helplessness and feelings of unworthiness.”

In light of this, of all the cautionary words in the DfE’s statutory exclusions guidance (2017), perhaps these are the most inadequate:

20. Where a pupil has received multiple exclusions or is approaching the legal limit of 45 school days of fixed-period exclusion in an academic year, the head teacher should consider whether exclusion is providing an effective sanction.

The need to belong

In a seminal 1995 article published in Psychological Bulletin, social psychologist Roy Baumeister made the case that humans are motivated by a basic need to belong.  When this need is thwarted, people pay a psychological price…. “There seems to be a failure of self-regulation in people who feel rejected,” says Baumeister. “And this allows a shift toward anti-social and aggressive behaviour.” Even when there’s a time-limit on the rejection—as with “time-outs” for pupil discipline — unintended consequences must be expected, specifically a decreased capacity for self regulation afterwards.


As established already, ostracism was used by our distant ancestors to cull out those perceived to be misfits and it shaped others’ behaviour to suit society’s needs. In this regard, as the sanction of choice in UK schools, exclusion is a highly effective instrument. It does indeed cull out those who don’t fit because it undermines their socio-emotional development, ignoring the fact that ‘kids do well if they can’, to quote Dr. Ross Greene. It offers no help – unless we are to accept the ‘reflection’ sheet or even the ‘restorative conversation’ that can occur after an exclusion as that. These don’t teach skills. When children are misfiring, we need to act, as early as possible, not merely react. Especially if the nature of that reaction is only going to exacerbate the difficulties.

But what about ‘the good pupils’?

Exclusion is frequently cited as a necessary measure to protect potential ‘victims’. (The language of crime and punishment dominates this discourse, tending to make it much less rational than it needs to become.)  However, it actually makes our schools less safe, less harmonious, less happy (remembering the ‘O’ study) because exclusion creates not only angry, alienated individuals but also disaffected sub-groups. Williams’ demonstrated how marginalised individuals tend to seek each other out, with negative consequences for community when this happens.

“These groups provide members with a sense of belonging, self-worth and control, but they can fuel narrowness, radicalism and intolerance, and perhaps a propensity toward hostility and violence toward others.”

We could exclude all members of such groups, as now, or we could try something different – like preventing them from forming in the first place. We could act on the overwhelming evidence about how to support children who are unable to respond adaptively to the social and emotional challenges of schooling. (Note to excluders – this does not mean simply allowing them to run amok. It does mean teaching lagging socio-emotional skills – as happens in more advanced systems than the English). With pupils increasingly in need of such support, according to all of the evidence, then truly it is time to rethink a primitive approach that has its roots in survival of the fittest.

We need to move in closer to children who challenge, not push them away. That’s if we really want to address the difficulties rather than just move them on.


Consequences not working? Try this.

Dr Greene maintains throughout Lost in School that “kids do well if they can; if a kid could do well, he would do well.” (p54) Challenging behaviour occurs when the demands placed on a pupil outstrip her skills to respond adaptively. To enable the precise identification of lagging skills, Greene recommends his ALSUP (Assessment of Learning Skills and Unsolved Problems). Once analysed in this way, challenging behaviour becomes highly predictable, which means that problems can be solved proactively.

If we adopt a traditional approach to challenging behaviour, we pursue what Greene dubs Plan A – as adults, we attempt to solve the problem unilaterally, by imposing our will. Plan B is Collaborative & Proactive Solutions – CPS – which allows pupil and teacher to work as partners towards mutually satisfactory solutions so that both parties’ concerns can be addressed, the problem gets solved, and lagging skills are taught.

CPS has three steps:

  1. Empathy
  2. Define adult concerns
  3. Invitation

The goal of the empathy step is to gain the best possible understanding of a pupil’s concern or perspective related to a given problem. These might be hunger, fear, fatigue,  a desire for approval, a tendency to avoid things they’re not good at, a need not to be embarrassed or humiliated, and so on. “You don’t lose any authority by gathering information and understanding a kids’ concern. You gain a problem-solving team-mate.” (Greene, p79)

You get the empathy step rolling by introducing the unsolved problem, beginning with the words, “I’ve noticed that…” and ending with the words, “What’s up?”  In between, you’re inserting the problem you want to solve. There are five possible responses to this, as follows:

  1. The pupils says something:

That’s positive! However, the initial response is unlikely to provide you with the clearest possible understanding of the concern or perspective on the unsolved problem you’re discussing, so you’ll need to probe. Greene’s eight drilling strategies are illustrated in this helpful Drilling Cheat Sheet.

2. The pupil says nothing or I don’t know:

There could be several reasons for this. Perhaps the pupil doesn’t yet trust you enough, or you have not been specific in your description of the problem, there is a communication difficulty, perhaps the pupil genuinely doesn’t know. If such possibilities have been considered and the pupil still isn’t talking, then some educated guessing can follow. However, this must be a last resort – you really want to hear about the concerns straight from the horse’s mouth.

3. The pupil says, I don’t have a problem with that:

Actually, the pupil doesn’t have to care about the problem to provide information. Drilling and reflective listening should be deployed to move beyond this.

4. The pupils says, I don’t want to talk about it right now:

In a helping relationship, the person being helped needs to feel comfortable about talking and this often doesn’t happen on demand. There’s always tomorrow. Often the best thing to say is, “You don’t have to talk about it right now.” Many pupils will start talking straight after this. Or they may explain why they don’t want to talk right now, and that can be enough to make them feel comfortable enough to start talking about what they didn’t want to talk about.

5. The pupil becomes defensive and says something like, I don’t have to talk to you (or worse):

The honest answer here would be, I can’t make you talk. Some pupils are so disarmed by adult honesty that they then start talking. But you may also want to reassure the pupil that you’re not using Plan A. “I’m not telling you what to do…I’m not angry with you…I just want to understand.” Greene reminds that helpers aren’t defensive – they have thick skin – and any subjective response that might be felt is kept in check so that it doesn’t interfere with the business of helping.

The Define Adult Concern step usually begins with the words, The thing is … or My concern is … These concerns will fall into one of two categories: How the unsolved problem is affecting the pupil and how the unsolved problem is affecting other people.

Once you reach the Invitation Step, you are ready to brainstorm potential solutions that will address these concerns. The invitation lets the pupil know that solving the problem is something you’re doing with them, rather than to them. The step begins with a restatement of the concerns that were identified in the first two steps, usually starting with the words, ‘I wonder if there’s a way for us to do something about your… and ends – Do you have any ideas?

Giving the pupil the first opportunity to think of solutions is a good strategy, especially for those who are used to having an adult’s will imposed on them, because it is a clear sign that you are interested in his ideas. Since many adults are absolutely certain they know exactly how a problem should be solved, this may take some getting used to, but using Plan B must mean understanding that the solution isn’t predetermined. Solving a difficult problem durably requires a willingness to let the process of exploring solutions unfold without the adult’s solution being prematurely invoked.

Good solutions meet two criteria; they must be realistic (meaning both parties can deliver their part of the solution) and mutually satisfactory (meaning the concerns of both parties are truly and logically addressed.) So avoid signing off a solution before giving it proper consideration against these criteria.

Over time, using this approach consistently, the pupil will learn that her concerns will be heard and addressed and skills, crucial for handling life’s social and emotional challenges, will be developed. The research evidence  supporting the efficacy of CPS across a range of settings is compelling. Here it is again, illustrated on a single cheat sheet.













The consequence of consequences

is unfairness. It’s as simple as that. But I will elaborate for the benefit of those who stuggle with an idea that for inclusive educators has always been blindingly obvious.

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Consequences are great when they work, but less great when they don’t work. And they often don’t work for the very children to whom they are most frequently applied. Adopted children, for example. Excluded at a rate twenty times greater than their peers, this cohort is clearly failing to thrive on a trad diet of rewards and sanctions, courtesy of Skinner (1950s, folks – we’ve had brain scanning technology since then. It should have been a game-changer).

All consequences do is remind children of the rules. Which I think they already know. Pupils understand that they should follow instructions, listen, not hit out or run away when embarrased etc etc. It’s not hard. When they fall short, it’s not because there is any degree of confusion about the rules ….. something different is going on.

Inclusive educators understand that children with chronic behavioural challenges lack some important thinking skills. Not in the traditional academic domains, necesssarily, but rather in domains such as regulating the emotions, responding to changes in plan, seeing from another’s point of view, having the language to communciate something is wrong, and so on. In the same way that some children are delayed in reading, challenging children experience difficulties mastering the skills required for proficiency in handing social and emotional challenges.

When a child has a reading delay, we teach them the lacking skills in increments they can handle. Inclusive educators meet behavioural challenges with the same compassion and specialised, steadfast support, such that struggling children develop over time those socioemotional skills that are lacking.

Rethink how to support children who are developmentally delayed, enshrine the notion of differentiation (‘inconsistency’, in its crudest, no excuses form) in behaviour policy, and we may just begin to address our enduring exclusions problem – a peculiarly English inequality that shames our system because it targets the most disadvantaged.

Chaos will not ensue. The truth is, well behaved children comply because they already have the skills to handle life’s challenges in an adaptive fashion. Their co-operation has precious little to do with consequences and an inordinate amount of time is wasted agonising over these. As Ross Greene puts it in ‘Lost at School’,  the trad behaviour policy “isn’t working for the kids who aren’t doing well and isn’t needed by the kids who are.” Flex it, and the pupils who don’t need it will not seize upon the opportunity to run amok. Their understanding of fairness, a value they hold dear, is much more subtle than our crudest, no excuses policies acknowledge.

So the next time your behaviour policy is reviewed, consider it as you would, say a literacy policy – in terms of support for catch-up rather than consequence for being behind. Don’t let it compound disadvantage.