Trauma Through the School Gates: How to integrate learning and healing in education settings
I am a psychotherapist, not a teacher. The teachers I work with are not psychotherapists.
Yet, we achieve great things when we come together to support the most vulnerable families.
How? By utilising and recognising our respective strengths and limitations, listening to one another and being curious together. It is at this cross-road that we can co-create an effective trauma-informed practice.
Trauma healing and school settings
Like trauma itself results from relational disconnections, trauma healing is a social process and therefore needs to be based on connection.
A school setting holds infinite opportunities for this, with most social experiences being consistent and predictable. I strongly believe that this significant potential within schools to promote trauma healing, and that has its roots in the teacher-pupil relationship, remains under-rated and underutilized.
But before asking teachers to connect with their pupils, we, as therapists, must connect with teachers and their senior leadership team so socially engaged, safe and secure connections can be embedded at all levels.
Understanding the context
Schools are a key part of the systems around a child and it is therefore crucial for us to seek an understanding of the lived experiences of their staff. Just like a parent might feel relieved to finally be asked about their experience of being with their child or the relief of a young person when being asked about their suicidal ideation, teachers feel relieved to have clinicians (or any professional for that matter) ask them about their experience of pupils in their class.
Teachers’ exposure to trauma responses cannot be underestimated. They see that child in dirty clothes, the one who is always hungry, the one who arrives late every day as they catch a bus to school from the refuge further afield, for six hours, five times a week. That is a total of thirty hours, in comparison to the fifty minutes we, as therapists, spend with these children in the room each week.
Exposure to trauma responses involves intense projections. Each teacher is the main adult for pupils in their class, making them the most likely recipient of unwanted, persecutory feelings: a child who does not feel held in mind by their primary caregiver may tend to push the teacher away, in a desperate defence against the unbearable likelihood of feeling rejected.
Any such scenario can be multiplied by up to thirty in a classroom, with still the one teacher as the recipient.
Trauma does not happen in isolation: parents may experience a host of powerful feelings in the face of their child needing support, may this be fear, shame, doubt or guilt, amongst many others.
Their child’s teacher being their main point of contact, s/he is likely to unconsciously be given the role of the emotionally unavailable parent, the overwhelmed carer, the helpless or unbearably guilty adult.
If this was not enough, teachers will also be on the receiving end of a lack of curiosity and attunement on the part of professionals called in to support pupils. This can lead to one of the most common pitfalls where professionals offer suggestions that are unrealistic, unsuitable and that could consequently cause more harm to traumatised children. Each of us are one of several professionals coming in to either observe, assess or work with pupils, sometimes for several children in one same classroom, therefore exposing the one teacher to a string of unhelpful pitfalls. These consequently create unconscious dynamics, intensify existing ones and prevents rather than utilising the healing potential of teacher-pupil relationships.
When left unsupported by external professionals, teachers share feeling ‘helpless’, ‘worried about saying or doing something which would make the situation worse’, ‘struggling to manage the disruption in learning for the child and the rest of the class’ and that they are ‘letting the child down’.
All that I have described above can be summed-up by the idea that teachers deserve our reverie, whereby we use our experience of being able to step into the shoes of a child we work with, or those of their parent, to be curious about their lived experiences.
We would not claim to help a child without allowing space and time for reverie. So let’s do the same with teachers.
Utilising the context
Once we understand the context, we can start utilising its potential by:
• Being compassionately curious about the responses we observe: why does a teacher lose patience more easily with this pupil? why is the teaching assistant overwhelmed by this child’s needs?
• Naming and acknowledging best practice: when we observe a trauma-informed response, let’s tell the adult so the process becomes conscious.
A headteacher once handed me a pair of shoes, after a child had thrown them in their direction. They did not threaten the child with consequences, or run after them. After connecting and co-regulating with the child, I returned to the headteacher and acknowledged their containing response. The rupture could then be repaired; a crucial process for the development of healthy relationships.
• Being flexible in our approach: this is about stepping out of conformity and into flexibility. I always see myself as walking with one psychodynamic shoe with the theory and principles (i.e. boundaries of the room, of the time; the therapeutic alliance) and a school shoe, with flexibility and creativity (i.e. co-creating boundaries).
For example, as I walked through a corridor (as I often do in my schools when not in sessions, as to be approachable and available), a newly qualified teacher sought out my help. Three children had left the class, the teaching assistant was unavailable and the class rather heightened. Two of the three children I was asked to locate were in therapy with me. Theoretically, I should have said no, as to not blur the therapeutic boundaries. But I agreed and connected with these children until the teaching assistant returned, by which time the teacher had regulated both her classroom and herself. I did have to acknowledge this moment with the two children in subsequent sessions and we navigated this successfully within the boundaries of the room.
Embedding the above can help us move from directives and restrictive suggestions such as ‘this child needs brain breaks in the calm corner after each lesson’ to a curious and mutual conversation:
How do we each experience this child?
What does this tell us about their story? What might heighten or calm them? If the child does respond to brain breaks, are they able to self-regulate? Could asking a child to make eye contact be emotionally persecutory?
What can we each provide in our respective capacities?
What can realistically be provided? Consider staffing, location.
Who can realistically provide this? Can the teaching assistant tasked with facilitating breathing exercises tolerate this deep connection with their own bodies? A history of abuse could prevent this, rendering the task harmful.
Holding the context:
When working with developmental trauma, we become aware of difficulties such as misattunment, dysregulation and lack of containment; meaning that a child may not have experienced reverie. It will therefore take time for them to genuinely feel this with a teacher before they can internalise it, and eventually develop the key brain areas that allow us to be empathic towards others and ourselves.
Perseverance from teachers is crucial, yet extremely difficult to maintain when being regularly pushed away and attacked (whether physically or psychically). Just like the importance of negative transference in therapy, such projections onto teachers are meaningful. And just as we have it held in our supervisions, teachers need access to their own safe space. The word ‘supervision’ can however sound rather formal and at times even daunting, so I use ‘reflective space’ instead.
Perseverance on our part is crucial here, where connecting with teachers is often the premise of them attending supervision.
One must be mindful of not becoming what I call a ‘secretive expert’. Therapists are often experienced as withholding information by taking the child into a room, doing their ‘secret’ work and leaving with little or no communication with staff. Sharing my counter-transference feelings, as and when appropriate and within the boundaries of confidentiality, has always been extremely helpful, enabling fruitful discussions with teachers, where they come to recognise and make sense of their own counter-transference.
I once had a child run into the therapy room while I was in a session with someone else. The look on their face painfully illustrated the sudden realisation that they indeed had to share me and the space with other pupils. My counter-transference was extremely powerful, like a punch in the stomach, filled with guilt and a belief that I had betrayed this child. Sharing this with the teacher unveiled a host of similar feelings she had been battling with for some time, not knowing that part of it belonged to the child and their story. Exploring it together brought understanding, relief and a powerful sense of togetherness.
Such connection with staff can also take place in group reflective spaces, where multiple staff share their experiences, feelings and thoughts about pupils. It allows them to differentiate which of these belong to themselves, to the child or to the caregivers, while increasing their sense of feeling heard and understood.
A question I am often asked on this topic is around managing the boundary between reflective space and personal therapy. While I always make it very clear that I am not an adult therapist, discussing work never comes without discussing personal life. More often than not, exploring personal aspects helps us understand staff responses to pupils and colleagues. I do this by making initial links between the two, as to create some meaning and contain the most readily available projections and unconscious dynamics at play. Following this, staff are referred onto adult therapy if personal stories need further exploring, where the immediate impact on their work life has been managed in supervision.
It is important to note that some unconscious dynamics created by our presence in schools can become obstacles to developing a shared context.
This is especially relevant to schools where the level of trauma responses is high. Teachers usually work in these schools for personal reasons (concept of the wounded healer, Zerubavel and Wright, 2012), often rooted, just like therapists, in their own trauma and stories. However, teachers have not had access to personal therapy as part of their training and may therefore not have had an opportunity to process their own traumas. This can become acted out as staff wanting to be rescuers, fixing problems and being the catalyst for change. These teachers implement daily strategies to support their students, so the fifty minutes that we spend with these students each week can become unconsciously persecutory: what if we promote change where they cannot? This can threaten the very reason they wake up every morning, consequently leading to the potential of therapy to heal trauma becoming dismissed or downplayed, and the extent of our involvement unconsciously and unwittingly restricted.
Some teachers may also become paralysed, freezing in the face of the dynamics at play. Other may become persecutory, attacking back as a defence and punishing pupils as a response to their own counter-transference. This is often fuelled by the pressures placed upon them by the wider education system (attainment, outcomes, data).
We must therefore consider the wider culture: is the school part of a trust? Is it an academy? It is an independent school? Which local authority are they linked to? A lack of trauma-informed culture from higher up can trickle down to a school’s senior leadership team, and subsequently to the teacher-pupil relationship in a counter-productive way, preventing teachers from being active in their benevolent roles (Lieberman et al, 2005).
Lieberman AF, Padrón E, Van Horn P, Harris WW. Angels in the nursery: The intergenerational transmission of benevolent parental influences. Infant Ment Health J. 2005 Nov;26(6):504-520. doi: 10.1002/imhj.20071. PMID: 28682485.The emotional experience of learning and teaching
Zerubavel N, Wright MO. The dilemma of the wounded healer. Psychotherapy (Chic). 2012 Dec;49(4):482-91. doi: 10.1037/a0027824. Epub 2012 Sep 10. PMID: 22962968.
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