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Trauma Informed Insights: Relationships at the heart of Physical Education

Over the coming months we will be showcasing a series of blogs looking at Trauma Informed practice within Physical Education.

Our founder Neil Moggan has been road testing a trauma informed approach at a secondary school in the UK since September 2022 and will share his journey, his learnings, and how it has helped the young people he serves. Neil takes up the story here:

My why

I wanted to deepen my knowledge of trauma informed practice to help young people to recover from trauma and particularly the impact of covid for the children I taught.

As we returned to education in a post covid world, like many schools across the country, the pandemic had taken a significant toll on staff, the children we serve, our local community, and there was considerable instability and disruption.

For the first time in my teaching career I was struggling to build the quality of the relationships I wanted with my young people, particularly with my most challenging children.

I had to find a solution as my current strategies just weren’t working in my setting anymore so I enrolled onto the Diploma in Trauma and Mental Health-Informed Schools through Trauma Informed Schools UK.

A story of transformation

Since starting the Diploma in September and placing relationships first I have been amazed at the benefits.

My relationships with all children I teach have been transformed but particularly my most challenging young people as they feel psychologically safer so they are calmer.

They are happier & healthier, and their behaviour has improved significantly. Children are more engaged in their learning leading to an increase in progress and my own wellbeing has improved considerably.

Becoming trauma informed

Before starting to look at the strategies that made a difference, we need to develop an understanding of what trauma informed practice is and what we are trying to prevent.

What does being trauma aware mean?

According to Lisa Cherry, “A trauma aware approach seeks to provide an environment that means that when we are vulnerable, the environment we are in will aid recovery and healing and not add to it.”

I had to ask myself some pretty challenging questions during the summer term, about whether I was aiding recovery or making things worse. My answers were not pretty.

What does being trauma informed mean?

According to Serious Mental Illness adviser, being trauma-informed means we:

  • Recognise the prevalence of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) / trauma among all people.

  • Recognise that many behaviours and symptoms are the result of traumatic experiences.

  • Recognise that being treated with respect and kindness – and being empowered with choices – are key in helping people recover from traumatic experiences.

What are Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs)?

Trauma occurs when children are exposed to events or situations that overwhelm their ability to cope with what they have just experienced.

These can range from Big Traumas such as:

  • Child physical abuse

  • Child sexual abuse

  • Child emotional abuse

  • Emotional neglect

  • Physical neglect

  • Mentally ill person in the home

  • Drug addicted or alcoholic family member

  • Witnessing domestic violence

  • Loss of a parent to death or abandonment by parental divorce

  • Incarceration of family member

To smaller traumas such as:

  • Moving house

  • Birth of a new sibling

  • Failing at an exam

  • Friendship issues

  • Illness/injury

  • Loss

The key thing to remember is that all of us process trauma differently so what might have a significant impact on one person may not have such an impact on another.

Toxic Stress

When our body perceives that we are in danger it releases cortisol and adrenaline to keep us safe. These chemicals are great, for example, if we are crossing the road and we see a lorry flying towards us and they help us get out of the way. However, prolonged exposure can lead to physical illness, mental illness and early death.

Research completed by Brown, D.W. et al (2009) in their Adverse Childhood Experiences and the Risk of Premature Mortality study found that ACEs are a leading determinant of the most common forms of physical illness such as cancer, diabetes & heart attacks, Mental illness such as depression and anxiety, and early death in the western world.

What about the impact of Adverse Childhood Experiences in schools?

As the number of ACEs increases so does the chances of the young person having; learning difficulties, weak attainment, low attendance and/or violent behaviour.

A story of hope

It is not all doom and gloom though as research shows that a range of protective factors before the age of 18 can help interrupt the cycle from childhood adversity to early death.

Protective factors for a young person include:

  • I believe my mum or dad loved me.

  • When I was small other people helped my parents take care of me & seemed to love me.

  • Someone in my family enjoyed playing with me and I enjoyed it too.

  • When I was a child there were people who helped me feel better when I was sad or worried.

  • Family, friends or neighbours talked about making our lives better.

  • When I felt bad I could almost always find someone I could trust to talk to.

  • There are people I can count on now.

  • Someone in my childhood believed in me.

One emotionally available adult can make all the difference for a young person who has suffered from trauma and that one person can often be found in schools.

The good news is that we can become more emotionally available to our young people and that not only benefits them greatly but also benefits us.

When I reflect on my teaching pre summer holidays I was not as emotionally available as I should have been for a number of reasons and that was having a negative impact on the young people I was teaching.

Simply by becoming more emotionally available my relationships with my young people have been transformed leading to a whole range of benefits for both myself but more importantly the children I serve.

Understanding our role

Now we have got greater awareness of what trauma informed practice is we need to consider our own role in implementing this approach.

What we are and are not

Finally, it is important to recognise what we are and what we are not as frontline teachers.

We are not psychologists and we cannot diagnose mental health or trauma.

We can, however, be trauma informed and aware, we can be emotionally available and create psychological safety for all, we can create opportunities for children to regulate and teach them a toolbox of self care strategies.

Putting our own oxygen mask on first

In order to do all this though we need to make sure we put on our own oxygen mask first.

I appreciate that staff wellbeing is incredibly difficult for many of us in education at the moment. However we do need to find ways as a school and individually so that we can keep ourselves regulated when dealing with many of the increasing difficulties we have witnessed within the classroom since the pandemic.

We hope you found this week's blog insightful, please make sure you subscribe to our newsletter so you don’t miss the next edition.

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

  • How to transform relationships through creating psychological safety

  • 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

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