• Brian Padden

A Level School Playing Field.

We are all familiar with the term and concept of a level playing field. It would be foolish to believe that in life we will never face challenges and upheaval. It is well argued that facing challenges is an unavoidable and necessary part of growing up. Overcoming challenges help us to develop a growth mind-set. After all "Most of the important things in the world have been accomplished by people who have kept on trying when there seemed no hope at all." - Dale Carnegie. In her book ‘Mindset’ Carol Dweck tells us that NASA, when recruiting astronauts “have rejected people with pure histories of success and instead selected people who have had significant failures and bounced back from them.”

Creating a level playing field for children in primary school

For some children, adversity is the norm, and recovery from adversity, without support, is impossible. Some children have to climb up a steep hill, without support and heavy baggage just to get to their playing field, only to discover that the wind and rain is in their face, the pitch is waterlogged and the match has been postponed.

Yet, they are expected to act, behave and achieve in primary schools in exactly the same way as children who live in a carefree world, cocooned in love and support. They are simply not capable of this.

When a child has suffered traumas such as witnessing domestic violence, alcoholic parents, neglect and abuse their brain releases the stress hormone cortisol, if they continue to suffer the adversities again and again and again, they are unable to regulate the release of cortisol and are hyper-vigilant to threat.

That becomes the brain’s default setting. So, when they hear a raised voice in school, or see a cross faced teacher, or someone picks up their pencil they react as if they are under attack. They will go into fight, flight or freeze mode. They are not being defiant, or ignorant, or sulky or showing off. They are keeping themselves alive in the only way they know how -in that moment. Too often there is a situation where the teachers do not know what the child needs – and the child is not able to give the teacher what they want. This is the epitome of a ‘lose-lose situation.’ Ultimately, the power lies with the school staff and they will be victorious in this mini battle, one which they, and their colleagues, may face time and time again.

Adverse Childhood Experiences can have a life-long detrimental effect on children, many reports have testified to this. Studies spanning twenty years and thousands upon thousands of people from a range of backgrounds, ethnicities, social groups and countries have all concluded that if children face hardship in life it can be devastating.

The saying ‘Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’ is so wrong and should be reworded as something like ‘Whatever doesn’t kill you can potentially have lifelong implications such as lower educational success, a higher risk of heart disease, cancers and strokes along with many other physical ailments and mental illnesses. It can also result in higher unemployment, more poverty, increase the likely hood of committing or being a victim of crime and ultimately being more likely to die early, possibly through suicide’ However, that isn’t quite as snappy or catchy, is it?

The more ACEs are looked into the more we are learning about protection against them. And that protection is all about relationships and being trauma-informed.

For the child in the primary school who communicates to perceived threats by anger or violence or fleeing or running or hiding or crying inconsolably the solution is a being surrounded by adults who understand that his emotional brain is stronger than his thinking brain. This is simply because it has been used more. His thinking brain is pruning neural connections which are not being used which affect his brain’s executive function, meaning his focus is low, he takes longer to process information, his memory is weak, he will struggle with self-control and problem solving. Meanwhile his emotional brain’s neurons are increasing in number and strength. This may result in outbursts, shutdowns or running. This isn’t poor behaviour choices; it is the actions of a boy who is scared of his world.

The debate on screening for ACES is heated, always passionate and ongoing. There are valid, well made and important points on both sides of the divide. Some feel we need to screen to understand what support is needed, while others feel it is an unnecessary point-scoring exercise which will place a glass ceiling on a child’s potential.

Both camps believe that a new approach is needed. What is not in doubt is the difference supportive relationships can make to help buffer against ACES. Professor Mark Bellis describes these as Always Available Adults. (AAAs) These adults help the child to regulate in times of stress, thus stemming the tide of cortisol. This allows the thinking brain to regain control, which strengthens its neural connections. This improves the executive function of the brain and enhances the child’s working memory, information processing, self-control and reaction to situations. In other words, it is tilting the playing field in their favour.

Training teachers and school staff in the effects of trauma and how to work with children with ACEs is not commonplace. In fact in a recent small scale survey into the knowledge of ACEs in primary schools, not one Teacher, Teaching Assistant or Senior Leader had heard of the term. But is should be! Having a school based trauma champion will benefit the children now and the economy later. A report on the economic viability of Place2Be showed that every pound spent in treatment in primary schools saved over £6 in increased tax and reduced cost to services later. An equally impressive report looked at the impact of Health Mentors provided by Evolve: Social Impact in primary schools. That study showed that improvements were not limited to emotional health, but physical and cognitive health too.

Not only does every child deserve a level playing field, but the Teachers, Teaching Assistants, Heads of Schools and Senior Leaders who work tirelessly and compassionately to support these children also deserve to be given all the support they need to help these children.

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