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In schools, take a risk!

As people who work in schools, we often say that keeping children safe is our number one priority. Often when we say this we are thinking about keeping physically safe-making sure that we plan for our spaces to be child-friendly, making sure that sharp areas are smoothed, that dangerous substances are out of sight and mind or that there are no trip hazards. We do this out of our duty of care, ensuring that the right protocols and policies are in place to ensure that there is follow up, that parents are informed where necessary and that everyone in our setting takes the appropriate action. We mitigate risk.

However, it’s also important NOT to remove ALL risk from our children’s spaces. Post war, Lady Allen of Hurtwood (1897-1976) founded the adventure playground movement in the UK. Lady Allen’s immediate post-war experiences of travelling in Europe and watching children use bomb-ruined areas as play sites inspired her. The children used what they found to create imaginative areas. There was risk, and the children’s handling of this risk grew resilience. But there are other ‘unseen’ hazards, that we can mitigate against. Our classes comprise of a library of previous experiences, including those of the staff. Previous experiences determine how our bodies respond to the situations we find ourselves in in the present. Usually, the children that are before us have lived lives that have presented manageable difficulties to overcome, and the management of these difficulties have been supported by a trusted and caring adult. For some though, and according to NHS statistics (Mental Health of Children and Young People Nov 2022) this is approximately 5 children in every 30, it is clear that they have some kind of mental health disorder (up from 1 in 9 in 2017). These instances may be due to susceptibility due to genetics, a special educational need or disability, or one or more adverse childhood experiences (ACES, causing trauma). Regardless of the cause, it is likely that these children will have a heightened need to find safety, because their bodies will respond to hidden or obvious dysregulators, often known as ‘triggers’ which are ever-present.

What are the implications?

If we start by looking at the individual needs of one child, we can begin to see some of the challenges that often lie beneath the behaviour that we observe. School staff (SENDCo’s and Designated Safeguarding Leads in particular) will be able to bring to mind countless individual stories of children who have struggled with school even before they get through the door, or who display behaviours that disrupt their learning. We know that behaviour communicates a need, so knowing what it is that dysregulates, causing these behaviours, can guide us on how to address those needs. The behaviour that we observe is dependant on how our body responds to feeling unsafe, and it will either force us to confront the feeling of being unsafe (fight), to escape (flight) to shut down our body (freeze) or to enter a state of complete collapse (flop). These responses are addressed in Polyvagal Theory (Stephen Porges, 1994) which supports the idea that the vagus nerve is a key player in emotional regulation, social connection and fear response. This is important to know, because the vagus nerve is activated via the amygdala (the primitive part of the brain) and the response is automatic and immediate (not controlled). Once we are in a state of fight, flight, freeze or flop, we cannot access the frontal part of the brain (pre-frontal cortex) effectively, and executive function is impaired. This part of the brain is responsible for attention, inhibition, working memory, planning, reasoning and problem solving, which explains why our judgement and our actions are impaired when we are dysregulated.

What can we do?

We need to find out what, in our learning spaces, causes these behaviours, these ‘harmful’ things that instigate such an exaggerated response, without trying to guess. Guessing means that we are making assumptions about who our children are and what their previous experiences have been. Let’s encourage them to ‘use their words’ without fear of punishment or shame.

  1. The first step, is to explain to children that you are going to ask them a question, and that there are no right or wrong answers, and that no-one will be ‘in trouble’ and no-one will be ‘told off’ (*I choose these words because children and adults understand what I mean by them) The language we use as educators is everything, and changing our classroom vocabulary can, in itself, create a feeling of safety. Instead of ‘in trouble’ or ‘told off’, explain that you are going to ‘prompt’, ‘remind’ and ‘encourage’ them, (PRE teaching), after all THEY are children who are learning, shouldn’t we then allow for mistakes and for testing? These are an expected part of child development. WE are professional teachers, shouldn’t we use a business-like tone and regulate our own emotional responses when we talk with children, if we want an honest answer?

  2. So we ask our children what they like about coming into the classroom/learning space (the hall is a good one to start with-many children hate going into the hall), followed by what they don’t like.

  3. Listen. Carefully.

  4. What can you do to make things better for the majority of childre, not just one?

Here’s an example of something we did as a senior leadership team. It’s just one example of how we can change the culture within a school. It is an example of what is popularly known as ‘trauma-informed’ which means that we set up systems and strategies within our schools that reduce anxiety for ALL members of the school community, at all levels.

Case Study

XXXX is observed by their class teacher over several days, to cover their ears on entering the hall at lunchtime. They would then sit down and put their head on the table and pull their jumper over their nose. They refused to collect a tray and get their lunch when asked, and having been asked several times, would run out of the hall back to the classroom and hide under the their table.

The class teacher had recognised the that the hall was probably too loud for XXXX and asked the SENDCo for some ear defenders, which XXXX wore the next day. There was some improvement, but over weeks it was noted that XXXX always sat on their own, and would not go into the hall at all on a Friday. Teamwork was needed.

I spoke with XXXX (child) and asked what they liked about school, they responded with a whole list of things. I asked what they didn’t like and said they would not be in trouble and they would not be told off. XXXX said that they didn’t like going into the hall because it was too loud. The ear defenders had helped but meant that they couldn’t hear people when they talked to XXXX. XXXX said that they didn’t like lots of people all moving around all over the place, they didn’t like it when things were spilled. I asked why they didn’t like going into the hall on a Friday. XXXX said that they didn’t like the smell of vinegar. Friday was fish and chip day.

So what did we do? Rather than fixing one thing for one child we considered the idea that lots of children must feel like this, but that most are able to self-regulate and so it’s not such an issue for them. We knew that we were looking at sensory processing difficulties: hearing, sight and smell. So we came up with key questions:

• How could the hall be quieter, so that all children felt safer? We taught social propriety. A member of SLT was on duty every day to maintain a moderate volume. It was explained in a variety of settings (assembly, classroom, outside during PE) that we use different voices in different settings: it was ok for children to speak sociably while they ate their lunch, but it needed to be at a moderate volume, like they would at a family meal or in a restaurant (we needed to teach this idea to children who had no experience of sitting at a table to eat with a family nor going out to a restaurant). We used scales of noise to demonstrate what was ok for each setting. We spoke often in a range of settings about the impact that we have on other people, about the types of things that other people might not like and about being considerate of other people’s feelings. We taught these explicit skills for 10 minutes every morning after register. Some classes walked through the hall before going out to break so they had practise. Skill practise is crucial, and doesnt just apply to academic subjects, but also to social skills.

Did it work? YES! Children from across the school commented that they much preferred lunchtimes now that they were quieter. They said they felt safer.

• How could we make sure that children moved around in an ordered way with space between them so that spills were avoided? We taught systems. We taught children how to line up in such a way as there was a gap between them, we used a physical model of a cake in a glass cloche to explain that if the cake gets knocked then it will get damaged. We are the same, we need our personal space, a full arms’ length unless the person invites you closer, and never closer than a bent elbow. We organised tables into groups of 14 with 2 children from each year group, so that the older children supported the younger children. We taught children the routes to take in order to collect their food and return their trays, including scraping food into the bin and putting cutlery and trays in the correct place.

Did it work? YES! Children said they liked helping out the younger children, and they also increased their friendship groups across the year groups. They said that people bumped into each other less often.

• How could we manage the smell situation? We adapted. We provided different from/additional to. There are some things that are not easily fixed for everyone and on those occasions, it’s necessary to provide something ‘different from or additional to’ what the majority can manage, so we spoke to XXXX’s parent about the possibility of either bringing a packed lunch on a Friday, or having a packed lunch from the kitchen to share in a picnic with a small group in a space separate from the hall-we chose outside in the Spring Summer and Autumn and on cold days in the Winter, we set up a space in the library, with an adult. The adult steered the conversation towards understanding and empathy: being able to understand how other people might feel and how things might affect them. Over several weeks we talked about the power of ‘trying’, and ‘resilience’, about the fact that by forging neural connections we can overcome anything. We talked about considering the idea of seeing if we could possibly tolerate the smell of vinegar, with friends supporting, in this safe space. We talked about practising things that we find difficult.

Did It Work? Partly! XXXX had a try, but still did not like (and in fact could not tolerate) the smell of vinegar! It’s important that as adults, we recognise that there are times when the children we serve just need something different, but there is ALWAYS the possibility to change the way we think and behave, they can choose this too-such a powerful thing to know!

At New Leaf Learning, we use The TRUST Programme which focuses on the key skills of TRYING, RESILIENCE, UNDERSTANDING and empathy, SELF_REGULATION and TEAMWORK. Hopefully you can see how all of these skills can be taught together at all stages of the school day, and that the results can be life-changing and community changing.

For information about training and facilitation for school staff please visit our services page or contact or for a conversation 07510 075644.

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