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Trauma informed insights: How to transform relationships through creating psychological safety

Updated: Nov 30, 2022

We had an incredible response from inside and outside our community to our last trauma informed insights blog on placing ‘Relationships at the heart of Physical Education’.


We wanted to follow up by giving you some really simple actionable techniques that can make a difference incredibly quickly to help you have high impact when supporting young people suffering from trauma in Physical Education..

Our founder, Neil Moggan has been roadtesting trauma informed practice in Physical Education in his secondary school since September 2022.


In this blog, Neil will explore how relationships, mental well-being and learning can be transformed through a teacher's body language. Neil takes up the story here:


Does each child you teach feel SAFE or UNDER THREAT?

All of us as human beings have a need to feel safe and be safe. Our amygdala is constantly looking for cues around us to check that we are safe.


This is no different for our children within our classrooms. When they do not feel safe they cannot learn as an over stimulated amygdala prevents the brain from being integrated.


When the brain is integrated the executive functions in the frontal lobe increase our children’s: ability to learn and concentrate, emotional and social intelligence, ability to inhibit impulsive behaviour, good stress regulation, empathy, the ability to reflect and problem solving.


All key skills if we want our children to thrive in Physical Education and beyond.

As teachers we can protect our young people and help them feel psychologically safe through our body language and increasing our safety cues.


When we do this we trigger their social engagement system rather than their social defence system. This leads to: happier children who are more capable of learning, and less time managing behaviour and stress for the teacher.


Polyvagel theory

According to Polyvagel theory, when we trigger their social defence system, our children go into fight/flight response which can lead to rage, anger, irritation, frustration or panic, fear and anxiety and this is where many of us have seen an increase in behavioural issues in our classrooms since Covid.


If they go past the fight/flight response into the freeze response they may demonstrate dissociation, numbness, depression, raised pain threshold, helplessness, shame, shut -down, hopelessness, and feeling trapped.


Sadly, I am sure many of us teachers can think of a few children who we have taught since lockdown with these characteristics.

Children who have suffered from trauma in the past are more susceptible to perceiving trauma/danger even if they aren’t in danger.


In my previous blog on trauma informed insights I talked about some of the challenges I faced last summer term in my school.


Sometimes even the simplest, non threatening instruction was perceived as a threat to their safety and an opportunity for conflict.


For the first time in my teaching career, I had children challenging me on why they had to answer the register ‘Yes sir’.


I was pulling my hair out with frustration at the situation, I had never been so committed to improving mental wellbeing but all I was doing was making the situation worse! As teachers we need to be so mindful of unintentional signals we are sending out to our children.


We want our students to be calm and connected, settled, grounded, curious and open to new ways, compassionate, mindful and being in the present.


To achieve this we need to trigger their social engagement system in order that all our young people feel psychologically safe, so how do we do that?


Face + Voice + Body = Psychological Safety

Our face, voice and body are of upmost importance when sending the right signals to create psychological safety in our classrooms.


Meeting and greeting our students on entry at the start of the lesson becomes crucial. Welcoming our students with a smile, a fist bump or high 5 and a friendly question or comment to let them know that you see them and notice them is transformational.


In the panic and uncertainty of teaching in a post lockdown world many of us became fearful of human touch and for many teachers this has led to greater distance in our relationships with our students.


If you are struggling with getting your relationships back to prepandemic levels try a positive meet & greet.


I now say morning or afternoon and the children’s name in the register to continue to create that culture of psychological safety.


Every interaction is an intervention and you never know I may have been the only person that week to welcome them to a classroom.

The meet and greet has now been part of my start of lesson routines for a considerable period of time but I was getting it all wrong in the summer term.


Unnecessary rules

We had a rule that children had to take their school shoes off to keep the dance floor clean. This meant my meet and greet would involve looking at children’s feet and challenging those who refused to take their shoes off.


It was an unnecessary rule that triggered their social defence system. I was getting fed up and annoyed with the constant whinging about why they had to take their shoes off and it was getting the lessons off to a bad start on a regular basis.


In September we culled the rule so we could get PE lessons off to a better start. It has made a significant difference to us.


Are there any unnecessary rules that your department has that you could cull to reduce the potential for conflict?


I have fist bumped and high fived more children in the last 3 months than the rest of my life combined and this simple technique has been transformational.


I am now fist bumping on entry, exit, during lessons and when I walk around school to reassure my young people that they are psychologically safe with me. Give it a try!


Watch your face

One of the most impactful lessons I have learnt from my Diploma in trauma informed practice is that children who have suffered trauma in the past perceive a neutral face as someone who is angry.


We all know that the pressures of teaching can be high with the relentless workload, pressure to achieve exam results, Ofsted judgements, and the desire from every teacher to help young people thrive so I appreciate that it is not always the first thing on your mind to walk around school smiling but children pick up on it and are making judgements about your mood.


The summer term was incredibly difficult for me personally. There was a lot of instability and disruption in my school, I was highly stressed and barely smiled all term.


No wonder this was triggering my children's social defence system leading to further conflict creating additional stress and we just couldn’t break the cycle until the adult changed.


The knowledge of the impact of a neutral face on the social defence system has led me to try and walk around the school smiling like a Cheshire cat.


The response has been incredibly positive from our children.


Practising smiling!

It sounds crazy but on my walk to and from school over the last few months I practise smiling! I smile at pets, nothing in particular or at strangers.


People must think I’m a massive weirdo if they walked past me but I want to trigger people’s social engagement system to reassure them that they are psychologically safe with me.


I even encourage my year 10 exam group to remind me to smile during lessons. We have a joke about it when the smile slips and they remind me.


It creates a lovely atmosphere in the class and one in which they are all flourishing.


A checklist

As your lesson progresses it is worth going through a quick checklist to keep that feeling of psychological safety.

  1. Be mindful of your face – are you still smiling?

  2. Are you still engaged?

  3. Are you emotionally available to your children?

  4. Is your voice in tune with the needs of the class?

  5. Are you within your window of tolerance and regulated?

  6. Is your body language open and nonthreatening?

In the last week we have had a visit from Ofsted. I was teaching 5 lessons that day, meeting one of the inspectors and trying to sort out cover for an absent colleague at the last minute.


My stress levels were higher than at any point this term. Some of my children started to misbehave, the challenge and defiance from the summer term was back!


In my mind I was angry and thinking ‘not today of all days to mess around’ but I had to quickly take a step back and notice that I wasn’t as regulated as normal, my face, voice and body language had dropped and I needed to respond to get the outcomes I wanted.


Psychological safety for your most challenging children

For your most needy young people who might be struggling to access the classroom ask them where they feel is safest and that will help them build trust in your relationship.


Bear in mind that this is a long term journey and sitting at the back in silence may be the first step they need.


Often as teachers we do not know what is going on in our children's lives behind the scenes and just turning up for school in the first place might be a massive win in itself for that young person.


John’s journey

I am really proud of one of my students in Year 9 called John who struggles massively with shame, dissociation and rage. He is frequently being removed from lessons for his behaviour in the wider school and is one of those children who you really worry about.


One Monday morning John arrived in my class in a very wobbly way intent on getting sent out of the lesson.


By simply asking him in a calm and quiet tone where he felt psychologically safe in my classroom and reassuring him that I would not be asking him any questions that lesson, it was the first step to his recovery.


He has made huge strides in the last 2 months, he is engaged in his learning, we work out together in the fitness suite to push away his stress and anger and he even smiled last week! When John said ‘I have used muscles I never knew I had sir and I feel so much calmer’ it gave me that special buzz that lets you know you are in the right job.


I was on duty a month ago and John was truanting refusing to enter his science lesson. I asked him where he would feel psychologically safe in the class and after some quick negotiations with his science teacher we got him back in the room.


I asked John about how science was going this week while we were working out and I was delighted when he told me ‘I sit in my normal place now sir, it’s been going much better and I’m not getting sent out anymore’.


Invest

When we invest in our most challenging relationships as teachers it not only helps everyone else in the class benefit but it could also break the cycle of trauma, the associated illnesses and early death of a young person.


Remember that just one emotionally available adult can make the difference to a young person suffering from trauma. Often that emotionally available adult is found in schools.


When we can make our young people feel psychologically safe we can get them to thrive and help them achieve their undoubted potential.


Thank you

We hope you found this week's blog insightful, we would love you to join our community of teachers committed to transforming the life chances of their children. Please make sure you subscribe to our newsletter to join us so you don’t miss the next edition.


Over the coming months we will continue to develop trauma informed insights such as:

  • How we can widen a young person’s window of tolerance in Physical Education

  • How play can be a vital tool in improving mental wellbeing in Physical Education

  • How to transform behaviour outcomes through connecting before correcting

  • How you can take trauma informed practice from your classroom to your wider school to have greater impact

Please forward this blog on to anyone in your community who may find it beneficial.


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