School adopts a ‘curious instead of furious’ outlook

Learning about Adverse Childhood Experiences was a ‘lightblulb moment’ for Cork principal

Five years ago Nickie Egan was feeling the effects of being at the top of the "worry" scale as principal in a north Cork Deis primary school.

“You see on a daily basis intergenerational disadvantage, neglect, poverty and trauma. You see children in terrible circumstances; you hear stories that make your blood run cold; you deal with frightened, dirty, hungry children. You deal with migrant and marginalised families who have been through hell and back to get their children to a safe place.

“We take it on board, we deal with it but it has an impact. At times you can feel as if you are spending your life fighting fires.”

This has repercussions on the mental health and wellbeing of staff in schools such as ours that cannot be taken lightly, she says. “It can, at times leave staff feeling a sense of hopelessness and burnout.”


Teachers, attempting to find solutions to the problems of children and their families, look in turn to the principal for help, advice and answers. "We were all feeling the effects of it," says Egan, who was a pupil and then teacher at the North Presentation Primary School in the Blackpool suburb of Cork, before becoming its principal seven years ago. A turning point came during a summer course that she and five other staff members did with the organisation Relationships in Practice (then called Ag Eisteacht), during which they heard about Adverse Childhood Experiences (Aces).

“It was a ‘lightbulb’ moment in my life. It truly hit me that this was what I had been dealing with for the past 27 years. I was blown away,” she recalls in a testimonial about the work of Relationships in Practice.

“On that week my feelings seesawed from hope and elation at this realisation and an awful sense of guilt for all of those children who had passed through my classroom and school whom I could now see were so clearly suffering the effects of trauma and that we had dealt with in a way that was less effective, suitable and appropriate than was needed.”


She was determined that the rest of her staff would get to hear the Aces message too. The impact of this awareness and a screening of the Resilience documentary about the phenomenon “has been just transformational”, she says. It colours every interaction with pupils and parents, now that they have seen demonstrated so clearly the power of “one good adult” in children’s lives.

“We can make a difference in their lives, not just today but on into the future,” she asserts. “The sense of failure, hopelessness and futility is very quickly diminishing.”

Teachers need to understand that they cannot start teaching literacy, numeracy and other cognitive learning without first attending to the emotional and social needs these children may have. Priorities of the school now include identifying children in distress and being “curious instead of furious” when dealing with a child’s behaviour.

They recognise a child’s behaviour as a symptom of what is happening, or has happened, in their life and come at the problem from that perspective. Each child is being provided with a connected, trusted adult.

At the school, they try to ensure every single child who comes through the gate in the morning is greeted with love, enthusiasm, kindness and respect. “They need to know we are a safe space, a sanctuary. They need to know that no matter what else is happening in their lives that here, they are the top priority.

“The impact the whole-school approach has had on the wellbeing of pupils and staff and the effect it has had on behavioural incidences is outstanding,” Egan reports. “We listen, listen listen.”

This principal and her staff now believe “the best expert is the compassionate heart – all the rest will follow”.

Read: Wonder what happened instead of what’s wrong