We all know from our own childhood that teachers are not ‘just teachers’ they are key adults that shape our lives and often our love or hate of maths (or physics in my case)! This can be even more the case when other adults in a child’s life aren’t safe, change a lot, or are inconsistent and a child’s life might just be in turmoil. Turning up to school each day and knowing school is a safe place and the same thing happens each day can be huge for our children in care. If you are a teacher reading this, you are probably thinking, ‘we know this!’, and we know you do, however as carers and advocate for our children, we want you to know this!
During the training to become a carer, most of us did the ‘string exercise’ when someone sits in the middle holding a ball of string and everyone stands around them holding a piece of string connected to the ball. We think about all the broken relationships our children have and each piece of string is cut, it is a powerful demonstration. Our children enter care having lost relationship with their biological parents, maybe siblings, grandparents, other extended family, next door neighbours, school friends, childcare workers, teachers, pets, smells, familiar routines and so much more. Research shows that one of the ways to heal from these breaks is through relationship and love. Teachers, principals, office staff, PE teachers, music teachers, groundspeople – are all potentially healing relationships for our kids. Each one can accept my child and show them the world is a safe place.
Here are some great practical tips for teaching and supporting our children.
Teach to the emotional age, not the chronological age. Meet the student where they are at in that moment in time.
Have ideas of tasks you can offer a child going into heightened mode before they get there. Tasks that use big muscles or allow them to visit a safe person are great – take books to the library, give a message to the principal, take some paperwork to the office etc.
Have a ‘safe’ place in the classroom that is quiet and unstimulating, it could be a tepee, a beanie next to the books, something that can either be designated for the child who needs it or known by everyone as the zone out space.
Offer opportunities to drink water and stay hydrated.
Check our children have eaten, they often will not eat during ‘eating time’ (we know this is frustrating!) and you don’t need to add ‘hangry’ to their needs. If there is a way they can ‘graze’ through the day or have an older student sit with them during eating time who encourages them to eat, that could work.
Consider all extreme behaviour within the context of survival to better understand ‘why he keeps doing that?’
Repetition and routine are important because with every positive experience the impact on the brain grows.
Traumatised children expect the worst and focus on the negative. If you understand this, you will be better prepared for it.
Childhood neglect is the most damaging trauma. The child must not have basic needs threatened in any way or survival will be all they think about.
At the point the child was abused, the brain was focused on survival not learning. The development the child missed due to abuse will need extra attention.
Traumatised children will often score lower on tests than their true ability. Retest when their environment is helping them heal and watch the scores go up.
Many children struggle with emotional regulation and will need adults to ‘co-regulate’ with them to teach them the skills they need. The more you do this, the more quickly a child will learn the skills.
Promote play with traumatised children. Play is very healing to the brain and the emotions.
Be curious about behaviour – what could be going on behind the behaviour? Our children are often more attune to their senses (to keep them safe) so is there a different smell, did you wear a different perfume, is noise louder or softer in the classroom, are tables moved around?
Allow our child to sit in the same spot, often in a corner with view of the exits, this can offer them safety and security.
Thinking about Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is helpful – if our children aren’t feeling safe, their ability to learn is totally compromised, so how can we work together to create a safe and predictable place so learning can happen.
Don't give up hope! The human brain is capable of healing in ways we do not yet understand. It may be a long road to healing and the child may not get there while still in your classroom, but every situation makes a difference.