Building an inclusive place for all students
Building an inclusive place for all students

The first time I met Jodie was on her Year 6-7 transition day (names have been changed to protect privacy). At the time, I was leading inclusion for my academy as SENDCo and Safeguarding lead, and Jodie had been flagged to me as a child who might need extra support during her transition. She smiled at me sweetly when I greeted her, beaming when I complimented her unicorn pencil case. She worked beautifully through her CATS tests as part of my intervention group, following all instructions immediately, and stuck close by me for most of the day. When it was time to go home, she hopped into my lap like a much younger child and wrapped me up in a hug. Her behaviour was sweet, but confusingly out of place in the context of the secondary environment.

Six months later, halfway into her first year of secondary school, Jodie would have been unrecognisable by the description above. Teachers emailed me regularly to complain that she would refuse to complete work, putting her head on her desk, scrawling angry doodles on her worksheets and determinedly cutting her exercise books into little pieces. When challenged by staff, it was almost like she hadn’t heard them, her refusal to respond was so complete. When removed from lessons by the senior team and instructed to go to the reflection room, she would dissolve into a fit of silent tears, refuse to speak to them or go where she was told, and instead storm around the school under an impenetrable raincloud all her own.

What those teachers didn’t know is that Jodie was just one example of the many children across the world who have experienced a range of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), and who struggle with emotional regulation and managing relationships with others as a result. ACEs are highly stressful (and potentially traumatic) events or situations that occur during childhood and adolescence. This can include experiences of:

·       maltreatment (e.g. abuse and neglect)

·       violence and coercion (e.g. domestic abuse, gang membership or being a victim of crime)

·       prejudice (e.g. LGBTQ+ prejudice, racism, sexism or disablism)

·       household or family adversity (e.g. poverty, parental mental health issues or substance abuse)

·       inhuman treatment (e.g. torture, forced imprisonment, institutionalisation or genital mutilation)

·       bereavement and survivorship (e.g. traumatic deaths, surviving an illness or natural accident)

·       experiences of adjustment in their home lives (e.g. migration, asylum or moving home following a divorce)

·       or being forced to take on adult responsibilities (e.g. being a young carer or child labourer)

These experiences require the child to make significant social, emotional, neurobiological, psychological and behavioural adaptations in order to survive.

According to recent research, 15 children in every class of 30 in the UK has experienced at least one ACE. 8 children in every class have experienced at least two ACEs, and 3 children in every class have experienced at least four ACEs.[1] As if these statistics weren’t concerning enough, experts have found that the prevalence of ACEs has increased further following the pandemic due to lack of support from networks outside the family, including education, and lack of respite for parents.[2] The impact of ACEs on children’s success in education cannot be overstated. According to research, children who have experienced 3 or more ACES are:

·       5x more likely to be persistently absent

·       6x times more likely to struggle with emotional dysregulation

·       3x times more likely to experience academic failure

The reasons for these changes in educational success are neurological. The brains of children who have experienced multiple ACEs often develop differently to the brains of children who have safe and securely attached home lives. When exposed to toxic levels of stress, the brain goes into survival mode, causing it to develop in ways that have significant effects on rational thinking, emotional regulation and social development:

·       The threat detector of the brain, the amygdala, becomes over-active, causing it to send alarm systems through the body almost constantly, leading to persistent feelings of anxiety and danger.

·       The brain’s memory bank, the hippocampus, becomes less developed, making it difficult for the child to distinguish between past dangers and present experiences.

·       The brain’s command centre, the pre-frontal cortex, also becomes less developed, so that the child’s reasoning abilities easily become flooded by negative emotions from traumatic memories and the regions of the brain responsible for executive functioning and rational thought are overridden by our more instinctual fight, flight, freeze and fawn responses.

For Jodie, her ACEs stemmed from a combination of poverty and parental substance abuse, which had led to a childhood of emotional neglect, abuse and unpredictable parental behaviour. As a result of these experiences, her amygdala was constantly scanning the school environment for threats. Completely beyond her control, her brain was misreading benign present situations, such as a loud bang from a chair falling over or a disagreement between two classmates, as a signal that danger was about to occur. On her transition day, Jodie’s fear of the new and unfamiliar environment had caused her to enter what psychologists refer to as a ‘fawn’ state, regressing to childish and appeasing behaviours in order to seek protection from me as the only consistent adult in the vicinity. As the year progressed and her home situation became worse, her body responded to the demands of the classroom in the only way it could: by shutting down her reasoning brain and causing her, first, to ‘freeze’ in her seat, and then, when challenged by teachers, to ‘flee’, leading to those many incidents where she walked away from staff to stalk silently and tearfully around the school.

Rather than responding solely to the behaviours that children like Jodie demonstrate when they are responding to their dysregulation, instead we need to take a needs-based approach. We need to take the time to wonder about and notice the feelings, thoughts and needs that underlie dysregulated behaviours and supporting children like Jodie to understand and regulate their bodies and emotions so that they are able to build a sense of emotional safety and belonging in the school environment.

Through The Oasis Way for Inclusive Practice, we seek to ensure that all Oasis academies become emotionally aware environments. We aspire to become an organisation in which all adults understand the impact of trauma on the brain and know how to become co-regulators for children like Jodie, using bottom-up regulatory strategies to soothe the body’s faulty threat-detection systems, and using top-down regulatory strategies to build the capacity of the reasoning brain to develop insight, self-reflection and problem-solving capacities, so that children can develop the tools they need to regulate their bodies and brains and become settled to learn in the classroom.

Collectively, all Oasis academies are participating in a year of learning about The Oasis Way for Behaviour and Pastoral Care, with each academy sending leaders on our inclusive Leadership Development Programme to learn the theoretical frameworks and practical applications that will support them to develop a truly relational culture:

·       Our approach begins with How we build relationships, supporting all academies to develop a graduated approach to behaviour and pastoral care that centres relationship building and securing belonging for all children in every aspect of practice.

·       How we regulate and respond guides all academies to understand the ways children’s brains and bodies are sometimes hijacked by emotional dysregulation and gives them the tools to respond appropriately to ensure all children receive regulatory support in the school environment.

·       How we repair harm provides all academies with a framework for implementing restorative practices, so that instead of locating blame and punishment in an individual child, we can shift the lens instead to repairing the harms and relationships that have been damaged during an incident.

·       Finally, How we work together ensures that all academies have the tools required to build a strong and collaborative Team Around the Child, drawing on the voice of the child, their family and their wider system to ensure that we can meet the needs of every child, and that exclusion is truly a last resort.

Through The Oasis Way for Inclusive Practice, we are providing all Oasis academies with the knowledge, skills and tools necessary to ensure that we are building an inclusive culture where all students can belong, so that children like Jodie can find their way back into the classroom and receive the support they need to ensure that they can thrive in education and go on to lead flourishing lives.

[1] Bellis MA, Hughes K, Leckenby N, Perkins C and Lowey H. (2014) ‘National household survey of adverse childhood experiences and their relationship with resilience to health-harming behaviours in England’ BMC Medicine 2:72.

[2] ButtleUK (2021) ‘The State of Child Poverty 2021: The ongoing impact of the COVID19 crisis on families and young people in poverty.’

Building an inclusive place for all students
Joe Coombs