Transforming Trauma by Laura Purser

Human beings experience the world in a vast variety of ways and their perceptions are often thought of as determined by a heady mix of nature vs nurture or genetics vs upbringing and even character vs culture. These differing factors and terms are used interchangeably and are, in a way, trying to make sense of the nuances of why some individuals can interact with the world in differing ways.

When the term trauma is discussed, it is often referenced in relation to the suffering of an individual in experiencing a disturbing or damaging event. However, during these turbulent and changing times, our understanding of what this means may need to be expanded, as it can now be applied and considered in a different way; a shared experience impacting and effecting large numbers of people globally. In some sense, we all have experienced the trauma of the existence of Covid-19. Perhaps we may observe a societal shift with a possible glimpse of empathy due to struggles of loss of control. One thing is clear, trauma is personal. You might have similar experiences to someone else but be affected in different ways.

Now within education, this impact can be felt as a shockwave, rippling through our desire to manage and cope with the situation occurring presently. This has set into motion plans for what is ahead for our leaders, teachers, parents and children in schools. We are stepping precariously into an unknown space where educators are eager to know how we can best adapt and expand our practices to support our most vulnerable from the impact of this trauma. Not forgetting that life does not slow for us to catch our breath and regroup, and needs to continue irrespective of this new challenge we find ourselves in. We must find a way to upskill ourselves and gain empowerment to support those who need our care. We must also be mindful that we ourselves can and will fall into these vulnerable groups and may need these self-care tools ourselves in order to be able to cascade our support to others.

At the University of Buckingham, our PGCE trainee teachers are taught to put on their oxygen mask first before helping others as they are the role models and guides for the children they are supporting. Their well-being and mental health are paramount in priority as we can only shine our lights to illuminate others, if we invest in nurturing ourselves. This can be seen as true with regards to managing the mass trauma currently being experienced by an ever-changing society. 

The key notion to hold in mind is that every person experiences the world through their own personal journey and therefore we may all have the same initial stimulus triggered but how we choose to process or cope with it will range significantly across varying degrees. Therefore, we have adults and children alike displaying differing behaviours. This makes it challenging for our teachers to identify the needs of the children we are supporting back in schools and makes understanding ourselves in relation to trauma a difficult concept to grasp. If everyone is experiencing it differently and simultaneously, how can we fully empathise with the depth and differing trauma experiences of those around us? This is the challenge we have now and have always been facing in supporting mental health.

Something struck me, as I was researching the topic of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder for our live PGCE training sessions; that we in the western world consider something damaged with the need to fix it and bring it back to where it was before. Almost a nostalgic view of repairing the flaws of ourselves and others to make it better; as if previously we were whole. This can be appreciated as a completely noble and well-intentioned ideal. However, whilst exploring differing concepts, an image appeared as a visual and conceptual representation of what it might mean to look at things from a different angle or lens. The concept of Kintsugi, a Japanese art form, considers the breaks in ceramic, using golden joinery. The repairs are visible and contributes to emphasising more beauty in the bowl then there was prior to the break. Leonard Cohen’s lyrics illustrates, “There is a crack, a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in”. When something breaks, it is changed forever. ‘Shape, structure, form and function may all be affected, and the way it is put back together, and the bonds forged to fix it, become as much a part of its new incarnation as its older parts. Perfection is overrated, and the Japanese have the most graceful and humble way of communicating reality’ (Candice Kumai). The art of ‘Wabi sabi’ goes further, by reflecting on the beauty of imperfection and the realisation that awakened pain can allow the feeling of aliveness. I particularly am drawn to the idea that without the darkness, light cannot exist.

This idea could potentially facilitate our understanding of growth beyond fragmentation of self that may occur within PTSD and perhaps could pave a path towards understanding those who are able to transform their trauma into post traumatic growth. If we could encapsulate and unpick the methods and magic of those individuals who are able to utilise a certain viewpoint of the world, we can begin to learn and replicate some of these strategies to support those who it may not come as naturally.

Differing traits of a resilient person have often been attributed to viewpoints that lend themselves to approaching the world from a positive perspective. For example, people know that there are negative things in the world, but many choose to focus on the positive. Seligman (2009) believes the need for ‘synergy between learning and positive emotion’ and argues that the ‘skills for happiness should be taught in school’. There are various practical ways promoted. For example, it has been suggested we could write down three things before bed, focusing particularly on gratitude. Our minds are set to a thankful and positive stance before sleep; an important process in which we sort and make sense of our lives through emotional problem solving, the psychological manifestation of dreaming. These individuals have also been known to not dwell on playing victim to bad things that occur in their lives. They come away from questions such as, why is it happening to me and perhaps move towards, what can it do for me?  This could be compared to Dweck’s (2008) growth mindset mentality. Another question they may ask themselves is, given their choice of their behaviour, is this hurting or harming them? They explore how their conscious behaviours are within their control and wonder whether their actions are in service of helping themselves or are destructive and damaging in themselves.

If these key identified traits lend themselves towards a greater chance of developing Post Traumatic Growth, then we can possibly learn from them and allow this process to inform our teaching practices and the way we support those suffering from trauma. The ultimate aim is towards a positive personality change following traumatic life events and a transformation and facilitation of growth.

With pupils going ‘back’ to school, a spotlight has been shone on the need for supporting child mental health. Something always prominent in our minds, but often pushed aside for the numerous demands of the packed curriculum and expectations to deliver progress in the form of attainment. Those who have always put best practice quality teaching and well-being ahead, have known the secret for a long time; that safe, contained and happy children learn and make effective progress. The parallel running pressures of making up for gaps and supporting the vulnerable with positive mental health, is a fine balancing act for teachers. Thoughtful and carefully managed transitions will allow schools to embrace a compassionate approach to the learning environment, where safety and reconnection is at the forefront of planning and re-engagement of pupils into authentic learning will be given the opportunity to thrive.

Barry Carpenter (2020) has designed the ‘Recovery Curriculum’ that promotes ‘a systematic, relationships-based approach to reigniting the flame of learning in each child’. It is a crafted framework of levers that highlight the importance of relationships, community, transparency of curriculum, metacognition and space to re-discover self and encourages planning opportunities for a child’s voice to be heard and validated.

Other organisations that highlight the need for promoting mental health and access to services for children is YoungMinds. Emma Thomas, CEO, believes that teachers do not have to be mental health experts and that by giving teachers the support to signpost, will help blend the insight of expertise of professionals in supporting vulnerable children.  Too few know where and how to get access to support, even when it is readily or more likely, scarcely available. Unfortunately lack of access to support services leads to the risk of trauma and bereavement.

Children are particularly vulnerable due to their inaccurate understanding of cause and effect, which means they are less able to anticipate danger and keep themselves safe and express their feelings. As professionals in education, we need to arm ourselves with the tools to engage in highly sensitive conversations related to bereavement and loss. We need to understand that adults and children have different styles of grief. I like to think of it as river and puddle jumping. Children jump in and out of grief through deep emotional responses that are brief and intense; whereas adults swim in deep rivers of pain that take time to wade through to the other side. Children have a lack of understanding of permanence and therefore the language we choose to use will impact on how they may process this abstract concept. We would have done well to navigate these challenging conversations if teachers can continue to build trust, tell the truth through simple language and avoid using metaphors. If we can, normalise the feelings and check that the child understands they are not to blame. If all else fails, authentic listening and reassurance can go a long way.

We may have heard or be a part of a ‘Trauma informed school’; this is the approach that teachers take in believing that a child’s actions are a direct result of their experiences. It may be a spring boarding off the adage that ‘behaviour is a communication’. Facilitating that when a child disengages or shows inappropriate behaviours, the teacher may ask themselves certain questions, such as ‘what has happened to you?’, rather than ‘what is wrong with you?’. Which could be perceived as intrinsically blaming the individual and reinforcing the perpetuating self-fulfilling prophecy. McInerney & McKlindon (2009), believe that by ‘being sensitive to students’ past and current experiences with trauma, educators can break the cycle of trauma, prevent re-traumatization, and engage a child in learning and finding success in school.’

It is key that as practitioners that we are aware of the possible impacts of trauma on mental health and ways we can support in our classrooms. For example, being aware of attachment, where teachers can provide a secondary secure ‘safe base’ to support insecurity. Awareness of anxiety and depression, at risk of forming from prolonged toxic stress and lack of agency. We also need to be open to the vulnerabilities of self-harm, exacerbated by lack of opportunity or skill to express difficult feelings with less distraction and more time to ruminate. Teachers on our PGCE courses are trained to be cognizant to individual differences and that pupils will display a vast array of behaviours that may be indicators that flag a need for further exploration and support e.g. anger, tantrums and self-blame, clinginess, presenting as withdrawn and anxious, demonstrating behaviours that are regressive and asking questions repeatedly. In particular, anger is often a mask for a multitude of emotions, and it may be that the tools we want to provide our pupils with, when dealing with trauma, are an emotional vocabulary to articulate the wave of emotions inside, rather than allowing them to fall back on overwhelming anger and aggression as a tool for ‘coping’.

By developing emotional literacy, naming and approaching a feeling with curiosity, we may be able to point those towards the perspective of transforming trauma into something for growth. Like the Kinsugi art form, perhaps we can view our cracks as a process of metamorphosis and embrace the art of precious scars, carved from our experiences of trauma.

By Laura Purser, School of Education, University of Buckingham

Laura is the Head of Primary, Prep and EYFS, PGCE Teacher Training https://www.buckingham.ac.uk/education/pgce/pgce-primary & also leads on SEN & Inclusion, Mental Health & Well-Being at The University of Buckingham. She has designed and leads the master’s level NASENCO course, training SENCOs for accreditation. (https://bit.ly/33CPoO9). Laura aspires to ensure that all Teacher and SENCO training develops quality inclusive practitioners who are person-centred to ensure positive outcomes for both learning and positive mental-health and well-being. https://bit.ly/2WIhxl8. – Blog ‘Navigating Your Internal Compass’.

References:

  • Carpenter, B. (2020) A Recovery Curriculum: Loss of Life for Our Children and Schools Post Pandemic. http://www.recoverycurriculum.org
  • Dweck, C.S. (2008) Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. New York, Random House
  • Kumai, C. (2018) Kintsugi Wellness: The Japanese Art of Nourishing Mind, Body, and Spirit, New York, Harper Collins
  • McInerney, M. and McKlindon, A (2014), Unlocking the Door to Learning: Trauma-Informed Classrooms & Transformational Schools. Education law center, pp.1-24.
  • Seligman, M. Ernst, R. Gillham, J. Reivich, K. Linkins, M. (2009) Positive education: positive psychology and classroom interventions, Oxford Review of Education, 35:3, 293-311, DOI: 10.1080/03054980902934563
  • Young Minds (2020) Coronavirus; the impact on young people with mental health needs. www.youngminds.org.uk

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