‘Social skills, turn-taking, playing games. They missed it all’

Covid amplified anxiety among children, but 'trauma informed' schools are responding

Friday mornings at St Audoen's National School in Dublin's south inner city used to be about spelling tests. These days, however, it's all about making connections – not corrections.

"There might be meditation, yoga, an art activity, gardening or even making hot chocolate, " says principal, Eilish Meagher. "We call it connection time."

Each class in the school is allotted a 45-minute slot where the teacher, special needs assistant (SNA) and special education teacher’s sole objective is to get to know their students.

“It makes such a difference to a student when a teacher knows what football team they support or when they know their siblings,” says Meagher. “Fundamentally, it’s about building trust.”

The school-wide focus on building connections began when staff at St Audoen’s commenced training to become a trauma-informed school.

'We have a nurture room, a number of sensory areas and care spots throughout the school where children can go in the company of someone they trust'

“In our school context we are working in what is deemed to be a marginalised community and unfortunately adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) and traumatic events, while not exclusive to, are disproportionate in communities like ours.”

The staff were concerned about the impact the pandemic was having on the wellbeing of the children and their ability to access their education.

“We expected it to be challenging after the first lockdown but the most challenging time for our school was this September, when there was an expectation of normality,” says Meagher.

A report published by the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI), The Implications of the Covid-19 Pandemic on Policy in Relation to Children and Young People, says levels of anxiety and depression in adults are “likely to be mirrored, if not amplified, among children and young people”.

It recommends developing “flexible and innovative approaches to promoting socio-emotional wellbeing through schools and youth services”.

The report also advocates increasing access to psychological and therapeutic services through National Educational Psychological Service, but long waiting lists for access to these services mean some schools, like St Audoen’s, are choosing to adopt a more proactive approach to wellbeing.

Dr Catriona O'Toole, assistant professor of education at Maynooth University, says that childhood adversity can have a devastating impact.

“The prevalence of childhood adversity is that shadow pandemic that people talk about,” says Prof O’Toole.“It warrants international coverage and policy around it.”

Every teacher that I talk to, it's a child's wellbeing they're worried about, and very rarely, actually, is it academic

According to Prof O’Toole, while definitions of trauma are expansive and include abuse, neglect and violence in the home, smaller adversities can also have a negative impact.

“When children experience a negative event, but they don’t have a significant person to support them through that adversity, it can really inflict a lot of damage.”

Prof O’Toole says ACEs can have a detrimental influence on a child’s educational outcome. “It can have a physical effect on brain development and that has a knock-on effect in terms of how children are in the classroom and their capacity to learn.”

She also says traumatic experiences can often impact a child’s ability to form relationships and the pervasiveness of stress in their lives can result in more outbursts in the classroom.

“They have a narrower window of tolerance, so they can be triggered more easily into that fight, flight or freeze response. That might look like an outburst. It could be anger; it could even be rage.”

Becoming a trauma-informed school has meant the staff at St Audoen’s changed how they respond to these outbursts.

“When you respond to behaviour, traditionally, it is a punitive response, in a way that we would have deemed appropriate maybe 20 years ago,” says Meagher.

“We are framing our language and the way we look at things in a different way to see what we can to help the child.”

Meagher says it is important to be non-judgemental when responding to behaviour and to recognise that it is not personal.

“We have to try not to personalise the behaviour, because very often what is happening is not meant for us.”

The staff at St Audoen’s give students time to regulate before engaging the students in discussion about the behaviour.

“If you want to safely go into crisis mode here that is fine, we can facilitate that here and then in 90 minutes we have a talk about it, it is very restorative,” says Meagher.

The school has a number of options in place for students who may need to avail of a calm space outside of the classroom.

“We have a nurture room, a number of sensory areas and care spots throughout the school where children can go in the company of someone they trust.”

Meagher believes it is important to give the children a choice. “It’s about empowering children,” she says.

“The children become very good at knowing themselves when they need a break and that choice helps them to reflect on what has happened and to come back down.”

Meagher stresses that it takes time to become a trauma-informed school. “It’s a journey it doesn’t happen overnight, it is an investment and every investment takes time to reap rewards.”

While some educators don’t believe that schools should use an awareness of trauma to inform their teaching, Meagher believes that schools do have a role to play.

“I can only speak for primary schools, but they are such nurturing and caring places,” says Meagher. “Education is holistic, we are educating to create lifetime opportunities and if children experience poor health or emotional disturbance, negative behaviour or school exclusion that is our business it is our job to address that.”

Trauma-sensitive city

St Mary's on the Hill, in Knocknaheeny, Co Cork, began that journey this year as part of a city-wide project aiming to make Cork a "trauma-sensitive" city. The project offered training to schools, youth organisations, homeless services and family support services in Cork city.

Maura Fennessy, principal at St Mary's, says they observed an increase in the level of need when they returned to school this September.

“We noticed that children were finding it very hard to settle back down again to school and to school life,” says Fennessy. “Every teacher that I talk to, it’s a child’s wellbeing they’re worried about, and very rarely, actually, is it academic.”

Teachers at the school say the impact is most apparent in the junior classes. “It’s the simplest of things, it’s their socialisation skills, it’s their turn-taking, their knowledge of how to play a game, they just missed all of this,” says Fennessy.

While she says a shift in mindset is required when becoming a trauma-informed school, that shift may only be small.

St Mary’s on the Hill began by placing their focus on language and connections and are already seeing a positive impact, especially as a result of their new morning routine.

Each child is greeted in the morning by up to three teachers before they reach their classroom.

Wouldn't it be fantastic if the children were actually feeling that they had a school community that was empowering them?

“It’s fantastic from the point of view that every single child that comes to our school now in the morning has been greeted at the door, when we meet them in the morning we try and connect with them,” says Fennessy. “It’s just something that these children would never have had before.”

The training offered to the school allowed five members of staff to avail of the training. A representative from all cohorts of the staff participated, from principal to teachers and SNA.

“The SNAs are vital in our school, so it’s great. We have an SNA who’s doing the course and we’re hoping is that that’ll spread out towards the rest of the SNAs as well,” says Fennessy.

Although Fennessy believes the key to successful implementation of the training lies in making small changes, she hopes the long-term impact on the children will be greater.

“Some of these children have suffered huge trauma, they feel alone, and they feel like they’re not listened to,” says Fennessy.

“Wouldn’t it be fantastic if the children were actually feeling that they had a school community that was empowering them? That’s where I really want to get to, where every child actually feels that they’re being listened to.”

Trauma Responsive Education (trauma-ed.com) runs a five-day online training course. It also offers whole school training which can be delivered during Croke Park hours. For more information email Marie Delaney at: info@trauma-ed.com

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