Creating nurturing educational environments by developing trauma-informed schools and hearing ‘pupil voice’.  

By: Elaine McIntosh

A commitment to hearing ‘pupil voice’ is etched in school mission statements, and is an indicator to be measured in every school improvement plan. However, what does ‘pupil voice’ mean to a child or young person affected by trauma, many of whom are ‘care-experienced’?

For these pupils, it can be a daily struggle just to ‘hold it together’. Do they really have the words, emotional literacy, and self-confidence required to explain to teachers what happened to them? And can they trust teachers to understand how these experiences now impact their school life; forming trusting relationships with peers and teachers, readiness to learn, engagement and ability to concentrate, self-regulating behaviour and intense emotions?

Care-experienced pupils often feel like they have no voice, but that does not mean they go ‘unheard’ in schools. Pain always finds a way to express itself. Some are highly visible, confrontational, and defensive; while others remain silent and internalised, but still detectable. However, whichever way they present, these behaviours can have a damaging effect on mental health and well-being.

Over the last decade educational outcomes of care-experienced pupils have improved but, as a group their outcomes remain far poorer than pupils who are not ‘care-experienced’. According to NSPCC statistics, care-experienced pupils are eight times more likely to be excluded from school. In 2016, overall 2% of Scottish school leavers left without any qualifications. Of this group, 14% were ‘care-experienced’.

In the face of this, there are many teachers who not only give the most vulnerable pupils a ‘voice’, but who listen to that voice; taking action to create a safe, nurturing learning environment where every child can thrive. These teachers, are on a journey towards making their schools ‘trauma-informed’.

So, what do ‘trauma-informed schools’ look like, and how do they make a difference?

Crucially, the whole school community acknowledges and demonstrates that any barriers to engagement, achievement, and attainment, are identified and overcome. Not only in policy but in practice. Vulnerable pupils are not one, big homogenous group. One-size-fits-all methods, especially in responding to challenging behaviour, do not exist.

Trauma-informed schools understand that challenging behaviour is an opportunity for learning, opting for ‘restorative justice’ rather than ‘exclusion’. They ask the question “what could we have done differently to help this young person make alternative, safer choices?”.

At Care Visions, we provide support to schools on the theoretical understanding of trauma and attachment. Together, we work to grow the capacity and confidence to apply ‘trauma-informed teaching and learning methodology’ in the classroom. This partnership approach does make a difference to the educational outcomes attained by ‘care-experienced’ pupils. As one Head Teacher recently commented:

‘Care Visions offered advice and strategies in the classroom setting. They have been a “listening ear” when challenging situations have arisen and have been instrumental in recognising when further advice is required by school staff. They are always at the end of a phone to offer advice and support when necessary. I cannot praise the support they offer us highly enough’.

By developing trauma-informed schools, we can be reassured that more care-experienced pupils will have access to compassionate, nurturing educational environments. Where healing can take place, alongside learning; and where pupils feel heard, understood, ready to learn, and above all, happy to be in school.