Call: 01948 838108

Education Matters: Mind the Gap

UK foster carers undoubtedly open their hearts and homes to some of the most socially ‘in need’ and educationally disadvantaged children and young people in society. With an estimated 90 children a day being taken into public care, the impact of their displaced and disruptive childhood, coupled with trauma, as a result of early life adversity, will be forever etched on their brain, mind, body and soul. “Traumatised people chronically feel unsafe inside their bodies: The past is alive in the form of gnawing interior discomfort”. Van der Kolk, B.A.(2014).

It is for this very reason that we can no longer turn away from the gaping trauma wound that is pervading our state education system. The wound is open and growing, and it is continuously impacting on society’s most socially vulnerable and educationally under privileged children.

According to the Children’s Commissioner’s annual stability index, the number of looked-after children in England and Wales reached 72,670 in the 12 months prior to March 2017. Figures indicate that in 2017 alone, 32,810 children were taken into public care.

With these startling statistics, fostering  families are increasingly finding themselves navigating a shifting educational landscape, often with minimal understanding from schools’ in relation to the physiological, psychological, complex life changes and extreme emotional challenges that Looked After Children, and their dedicated fostering families are progressively faced with.

A recent report produced by the Become Charity, entitled ‘Teachers Who Care’ (2018), highlights a concerning deficit in the training and support that UK teachers receive in relation to the very real and lived experiences of Children in care.

We know that no child would ever actively choose for their young lives to be impacted through harmful and trauma-inducing situations, often affecting their long-term health, mental health, social engagement systems, relationships, emotional well-being, educational opportunities and ultimately their future life chances. And equally, no teacher with a professional duty of care, would ever wish these endemic levels of harm for any child.

So, why are the findings of the Become Charity highlighting significant levels of negativity from teachers towards children, and why is the gap between teachers’ perceptions of children in care and the reality of the child’s lived experiences so significant?

Put simply, the UK education system, and more fundamentally the majority of initial teacher training programmes in England, are not written, planned or designed to train teachers in the most relevant and recent developments in neuroscientific research. This ever widening training gap is leaving teachers without the skills to manage the presentation of trauma and attachment-based behaviours, which are beyond their regular area of training and expertise.

Big feelings, big emotions

In a classroom setting, a child in distress is likely to show their ‘big feelings’ in a variety of adaptive ways, often through anger, outburst and upset. Without an understanding of trauma and self-regulation, a teacher is likely to respond to the child with the very interaction that the child is inviting, but really does not need or truly want. Often the predicted adult response compounds the child’s suffering, resulting in further rejection, isolation, exclusion and emotional abandonment.

The child’s internal feelings of sadness, shame and negative self-worth are reinforced.

Undoubtedly, schools are under incredible pressure to perform within a culture of testing, league tables, increased class sizes, outcomes measurements and regulatory inspections. However, it is the very children who are likely to push against, or try to destabilise these rigid systems of accountability, who are more likely to be labelled by teachers as ‘disruptive’, ‘difficult’, ‘defiant’, ‘controlling’, ‘manipulative’ and ‘naughty’.

Without training, systemic support, supervision and professional containment, teachers are more likely to ‘blame’ the child in an attempt to deflect away from their own feelings of professional inadequacy. The child’s behavioural communication of need is likely to increase as a reflection of the teachers feelings of helplessness. The child’s ‘behaviour’ is managed within the context of the school’s DfE required ‘Behaviour Policy’, which will all too often be incongruent with the child’s relational and unmet emotional needs.

The neurobiology of social behaviour

Families who foster are finding that their caring roles are becoming increasingly challenged by the rigidity of school ‘Behaviour Policies’. Such polices are often informed and underpinned by an outdated behaviourist model of practice known as ‘Operant Conditioning’.

Operant Conditioning, founded by American psychologist BF Skinner (1938) focuses its discipline on the premise that human behaviour is learned, thus all behaviours can be unlearned and new behaviours can be learned in their place. Skinner believed that children could be ‘trained’ in the same way as hungry laboratory rats. Rats were placed in a ‘Skinner Box’, to be ‘conditioned’ in the principles of behavioural association, through positive and negative reinforcers such as; pleasure, reward, consequence and avoidance.

Schools across the UK continue to reinforce this method through the use of sticker charts, points systems, marble jars, weather walls, behaviour rockets, reading raffles and golden time. As a result, teacher directed‘ conditioning’ and behaviour modification techniques, in both primary and secondary schools, are seemingly failing the very children who are vulnerable to societal and educational exclusion.

Children are being ‘conditioned’ by adult dependent methods of external control, coercion, restriction and sanction, rather than being supported to self-regulate and make confident choices based on the child’s intrinsic feelings, independent thoughts and presenting emotions.

It is unclear how many children’s family placements breakdown as a result of school exclusions and how many children’s lives are negatively impacted by schools that are unable to include and emotionally contain looked after children, through their ever present emotional struggles and trauma muddles.

What is very clear, is that Skinner’s 1930’s behaviourist model, fundamentally disregards the disruptive and harmful effects of trauma on the central nervous system, and the neurobiology of social behaviour. Van der Kolk, B. A. (2014).

With an increased number of children entering state care, the impact of early childhood trauma and toxic stress is now being ‘seen’ and ‘felt’ extensively within our classrooms.

Neuroscience offers schools’ the research and evidence-base to ‘treat’ the wounds and close the educational gap of disadvantage.

‘Exclusion of a child in care is not an equal punishment as that of a child living with their family; the consequence can often be loss of their home, not just their education’

Edward Timpson, Children’s Minister 2013.

Further information

Become Charity: Teachers Who Care (2018)

The Body Keeps the Score Bessel Van der Kolk

Article written by Sarah Morgan 

Proud Foster Parent & Specialist Advisor: Education and Children’s Social Care

Shropshire Academy and Learning Trust

Published February 2019 Foster Talk Magazine