A sense of belonging

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As part of her masters thesis Stefanie Pearce studied the experiences of children who were looked-after or adopted at a trauma-informed school.

Eliza attends a specialist school for children and young adults who require a supportive, nurturing learning environment through the lens of trauma-informed practice. The school offers an alternative education for children and young adults with social emotional difficulties due to developmental trauma or adverse childhood experiences and whose reactions to these experiences may act as a barrier to learning. Guided by trauma-informed educators, relationships are at the heart of the school’s practice and the building blocks upon which to support learning. This study was one of the first of its kind to explore school belonging in a trauma-informed school and to hear the voices of young people disempowered and marginalised by developmental trauma.

Trauma-informed methods have gradually emerged in education in the UK in the last decade and in 2018 the Department for Education (DfE) endorsed a trauma-informed approach in schools. Trauma-informed is a whole school response to the needs of young people and an understanding of how the trauma may play out in young people. It is vital for a practitioner to demonstrate curiosity and reflexivity posing questions as to why the child may be behaving in a certain way and what has happened to the child. The application of PACE (Hughes, 2012) (playfulness, acceptance, curiosity, and empathy) is used to slowly gain a child’s trust and respect. 

In 1943 Maslow’s influential hierarchy of needs emphasised the importance of lifelong belonging as a foundation for human motivation. When a person’s physical and safety needs are met, they next strive towards feeling they belong and are loved. Many studies have highlighted the positive benefits of school belonging and pupil voice, with school belonging deemed a basic psychological need necessary for a positive learning experience. Some studies have focused on pupils with special educational needs (SEN) in mainstream settings and these have found that SEN pupils tend to display lower levels of school belonging than their mainstream peers. There are few studies on school belonging from specialist settings. This study is from a specialist setting and it gives voice to a largely unheard population about school belonging—children who are adopted and looked-after and their parent or caregiver.

Adopted children face many challenges at school. Many adoptive families struggle to find a school that understands their child’s needs, and many adopted children have had to change school. This is important, as adopted and looked-after children already start school disadvantaged by their pre-care experiences, and the educational attainment of adopted children in England is significantly lower than that of their peers and the gap widens with age. 

In the course of the research, four themes emerged from the data under the central theme of belonging. Example quotes from pupils and caregivers are detailed below alongside illustrations by the school art teacher, Jane Williams. 

The opening parent quotes highlight the focal point of belonging:

“He felt different in the schools he previously attended and that meant he felt like he never truly belonged. Here the children have faced similar issues … which makes him feel a sense of belonging.”

“This is so important for a child who has struggled in previous schools. It is so easy for a child who has trauma to feel that they do not fit in.”

The study found that young people and their parents / carers have mostly positive, uplifting experiences and perspectives of the school, suggesting that their needs are being met to enable engagement in learning and that the environment is right to be able to learn. These perspectives about school belonging are shaped by relationships (the triad of adult, pupil, and peers as well as the interaction of the place), affirmations, and identity. Where there are challenges, such as friendships, they are a permeating feature of the general population. Careful conclusions are drawn to link these positive pupil and carer perspectives to their inclusion at a trauma-informed specialist school with a staff body committed to improving the lives of vulnerable young people and enabling their education through trauma-informed practice. 

An important distinction to consider around school belonging is the concept of fitting in vs. belonging—a prevalent discourse in this study. The researcher Brené Brown argues that fitting in, is not belonging—it is a barrier to belonging. To fit in, you twist yourself into someone else whereas belonging is being unashamedly yourself. Petra’s comment of not letting anybody know who she was at her previous school but being able to let herself out at her new school demonstrates that concept of internal belonging. This distinction between the two is worthy of consideration in school belonging—do you belong or merely fit?

Belonging has been demonstrated through trauma-informed practice. An increased awareness and practice of trauma-informed approaches and settings has the potential to benefit all children regardless of their early years. The SEND review (2022) proposes the following education system for children and young adults—access to the right support, in the right place, and at the right time. 

It is fitting to close with a quote from Petra that illustrates her belief that she has found the ‘right’ support and place. I smile when …

I smile every day!
Why do you smile every day?
I’m around people who I know. And who know me. Yeah, and they know how I like the school because it just makes me feel like I belong.

Stefanie Pearce
Author: Stefanie Pearce

Stefanie Pearce
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Stefanie Pearce is a primary trained teacher, teaching in a specialist trauma-informed school - Beech Lodge. She is also phase leader for the junior side of the school.

Website: www.beechlodgeschool.co.uk
Twitter: @beechlodge

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