An estimated one in three children is exposed to at least one traumatic event by the age of 18. In this article, Luke Rodgers BEM, founder of The Care Leaders, explains why minimising the impact of trauma starts with recognising messages in behaviour.
“When people talk about messages in behaviour in our sector, what they’re actually saying is that trauma is presenting itself in behaviour, and we need to understand the trauma to be able to understand the behaviour,” he says.
If a young person’s behaviour is related to trauma and we don’t understand it, Luke says we risk retraumatising them. For example, many young people in abusive situations experience adults in their life using authority to discipline them. “If a child’s behaviour is presenting trauma and we respond to that with authority, we are somewhat enabling the reliving of an abusive situation they might be in.”
Around 70% of children come into care because of abuse and neglect – usually from adults that they rely on, who take advantage of that by being abusive.
If we look specifically at learned behaviour and relationships, there is one key area to focus on – young people learn behaviour through mirroring. “Theories suggest that all children will learn through mirroring. Mirroring being that they mirror the behaviours of those in their immediate environment such as their parents’.
“Children will mirror their parents behaviour, meaning that if their parents are abusive, they could mirror that. A message there is that children being unkind in school might be because that’s what they’ve learned growing up.”
Luke emphasises the importance of responding to that message in behaviour in a way that breaks the cycle, so that young people know that there are other ways of being.
He says that the other message in behaviour is when children copying relationships they have learnt at home. Young people in care that have had traumatic upbringings will usually see several relationships break down. When they come into care, they will expect a lot of instability in relationships and behave in a way that communicates this. This can be exacerbated especially if they experience professionals coming and going.
“They might push them [relationships] away and they might be challenging because they don’t think they’ll stay. They might also be scared of the relationship because relationships in the past have hurt them.”
There are also practical things to consider in terms of schooling. “Schools have a timetable for young people to commit to which might be starting school at 8:30, having their first lesson at 9, and homework at the weekend – that school’s expectation of a child.
“Social care also has an expectation that the child might have to go to a review or meet their social worker – often this is something that will happen at school. If that meeting causes the child to be absent from the lesson and it’s not communicated to the teacher, that teacher sees that behaviour as the young person not showing up.
“They might ask the young person in the corridor where they were. If they were at a social care review and the teacher didn’t know, conflict can happen.”
A young person may also be late in the morning because they might just be having a hard day and talking to their foster carer, or even, trying to ring their social worker. If they start school at 8:30 and the social worker starts work at 9, the young person is then waiting until 9 to call, and the school might not be aware of that.
“Again, with homework, most children will see their parents at weekends so their homework isn’t a priority. Teachers can fall into the space of saying things like ‘oh you were probably seeing your friends this weekend when you were supposed to be doing your homework’, and that can really trigger a young person.”
Luke believes the best way to avoid this outcome is for teachers to know which young people are in care and be trained to understand how adverse childhood experiences can affect behaviour so that they can respond to them appropriately, ultimately to become trauma-informed and attachment aware.
“It’s an interesting thing to say because people will come back with an argument and say ‘well what about young people’s privacy? Maybe they don’t want teachers to know that they’re in care – or they are worried it could cause stigmatisation’.
“While this a fair statement to make, I think we have two options – and I think these options need to be communicated to children.
“Option one is that we don’t tell teachers and staff who their children in care are because we want to protect young people’s privacy and prevent stigmatisation. I think if we do that, it communicates we don’t think our teachers can be responsible for respecting a child’s privacy. We’re also kind of saying ‘okay , we won’t tell the teachers because we actually agree that you’re going to be stigmatised by them’.
“Or the second option is we go back to the young people and say ’in no way whatsoever will you be stigmatised in this school, I’d like your teachers to know you’re in care so they can make sure you have the proper support’.
If teachers are given the appropriate training and a young person is late on a Monday morning, or is absent from a lesson, rather than immediately disciplining them, the teacher might wonder if something has happened in their ‘social care timetable’ and think ‘maybe I should ask first’, or say ‘I’m just checking in as you were late this morning. Is everything okay?’
On the other hand, if a young person is deliberately not turning up to lessons because they’re smoking outside and absconding, or arguing with teachers over nothing, for example, Luke believes teachers should take a different approach. –
“There are two different types of schools: behaviourists and nurturers. A simple explanation is the behaviourists have strict behavioural management policies which say if a young person is late, they are in detention. Then you have nurture schools that will have completely compassionate approaches and say ‘all behaviour is communication’. If this was on a spectrum I sit about three steps away from the nurture approach and seven away from the behaviourists. My opinion is that children who have experienced trauma need a lot of nurture balanced with clear boundaries.
“A teacher can have a nurturing approach and say ‘ah it sounds like you’re having a really bad day’ but if that young person is just swearing at you, why do we need to give them that grace? You need to separate behaviour from emotion in these scenarios.
“What is actually a behaviour that just needs to be dealt with, and what is an emotion that we should to be compassionate to? How do we separate them because they both need different responses.
“In the situation where the young person comes into school and is having a bad day and swears at the teacher, I wouldn’t respond to that with nurture. I’d say ‘it’s completely unacceptable to speak to teachers that way, irrelevant of what’s going on. However, if something is going on, I’d really like to know because I care about you, but in no way whatsoever is it okay to talk to teachers like that’.
“You’re starting to separate the emotion and behaviour there. You’re saying this behaviour is unacceptable whilst at the same time trying to understand if something is beneath it”
Luke says the second thing which is more challenging is when a young person uses their experience as an excuse for their behaviour – something he remembers doing while in foster care.
“My science teacher pulled the bunsen burners out of the cupboard, and when he went back into the cupboard to get the matches, I lit the bunsen burner with my lighter. The teacher came in and asked who did that, and when I smugly told him it was me, I got sent outside.
“He came outside and when he told me to hand him the lighter, I said ‘sir, my mum bought me it, I’m in foster care’. This wasn’t true but it was a good tactic to make him feel guilty so he didn’t take it from me.
“I got to keep my lighter but what he should have done is said ‘okay, I hear that you’re in foster care, I was not aware of that, but there’s absolutely no way I can let you have this lighter and walk around school with it. What I am going to do is give it to your head of year and you can pick it up at the end of school and let them know what you have told me’.”
The teacher can go on to be compassionate and say something like ‘if you need to talk you know where I am’ or, ‘If you want to talk to someone about that I can help you find support in school’. You’re holding people accountable for their behaviour whilst being compassionate by responding to the emotion.
Luke says that when a teenager is genuinely behaving in a way because of what they have been through – for example, if someone said ‘why did you slap that kid around the head’ and the young person replies ‘because I was slapped around the head when I was younger’ we need to recognise and respond to the emotion and the behaviour.
This means saying something like ‘what I’m hearing you say is that you went through a difficult experience when you were younger, and we really want to find someone for you to talk to about that. But slapping other people around the head is not okay and you need to apologise and not do that again’. In other words, I’m going to have to deal with that behaviour separate to the reason why you do it.
“What you’re doing there is severing a young person’s ability to make excuses for their past. If we don’t sever that, then we run the risk of young people turning into young adults and saying ‘the reason that I’m an alcoholic is because I was abused as a child and I do it to numb the pain’, or ‘the reason I beat up my partner is because I was beat up as a child and I just lost my temper’.
“We absolutely need to say to young people ‘the fact that you know being slapped around the head when you were a child has led you to slap somebody else around the head means you’re aware of it. I want you to recognise how amazing it is that you have made that connection but that tells me you can do something about it’.” This gives young people power and agency over their actions. We are not telling them they can’t do something, we are telling them they are aware of the reason for the behaviour so they have the ability to do something about it.
Luke recently listened to a podcast episode on ‘Hidden Brain’ about ‘conversational receptiveness’. It’s a piece of research about communication that has been done that follows the model ‘HEAR’. People who use this model of conversation tend to have reduced conflict, are reported to be seen as more trustworthy, and have better professional judgement. People are also more willing to approach them.
The ‘H’ stands for ‘hedging’ – using words that hedge your point of view, like ‘maybe’, ‘perhaps’, and ‘sometimes’. So instead of saying ‘you should have done this’, instead saying ‘maybe there’s another way to think about that’, or ‘perhaps this wasn’t the best way to behave’.
The ‘E’ stands for ‘emphasising’ areas of agreement. So saying ‘I think we can both agree that that experience you just communicated was quite difficult, and ‘I think we can both agree that slapping people around the head is not okay’.
‘A’ is acknowledging the other person’s point of view. So saying ‘you’ve had really difficult experiences and I’m really hearing that’.
‘R’ is reframing the positive. Instead of saying ‘I don’t like how you behave’, say
I enjoy seeing when you doing things you enjoy’. ‘It’s not okay to slap kids around the head – it’s better if you play nicely’. It’s telling them the positive.
Luke says the other way of de-escalating is around questioning. “If someone is in a space of conflict, if you ask them challenging questions, you’re likely going to get challenging answers.”
“So asking ‘why are you doing that?’, ‘What do you think you are doing!?’ In that moment, we don’t know a lot of the time, especially if we are angry. To avoid further escalation, avoid challenging questions, and instead ask people ‘why?’, i.e. ‘tell me what’s going on’.
“You can also use elaboration questions, so ‘I’m curious why you’re doing that’, or ‘I’m curious why you think that way’. Then ask a follow-up question based on their answer. This shows you are listening.
“If someone says ‘I’m doing this because I’m angry’, ask ‘well what is it that’s making you angry?’ Showing that you listen always deescalates because you’re showing that you’re somebody really there and on their side.” Once the situation is de-escalated you can then speak about the behaviour in more detail.
To prepare ourselves to be able to listen, Luke says we need to actively put our point of view and opinion aside and tell ourselves, okay for the first 10-15 minutes, I’m just going to listen. I think if we can do that one thing, it will go a long way.
“I think all members of staff in a school should be trained on understanding how trauma and adverse childhood experiences impact child development, for two reasons – one because it will help them with the children that they work with, but also because we all go through adverse experiences and we all go through trauma, so it helps with personal self-development.
“So they’re not just doing this because they’re trying to help the kids they’re working with – they’re doing this for themselves.”
Luke also emphasises the importance of learning about attachment. “For example, a member of staff who is a blonde-haired man might make a child feel threatened because they were abused by a blonde-haired man.
“If that member of staff is able to think ‘maybe what I represent in my attachment with this young person is fear’ that will reduce conflict.”
Luke says that understanding attachment also benefits relationships with colleagues, since it creates better mutual understanding. “We’ve got to be respectful of each other to create really meaningful working spaces, and we want to keep those working spaces meaningful and happy because that’s the environment in which children will learn.”