Overcoming adversity


Lynn Miles looks at what schools can do to support pupils affected by adverse childhood experiences

Half of children in the UK will have suffered an adverse childhood experience (ACE), including emotional, sexual and physical abuse (often perpetrated by the primary caregiver), and ten per cent will have endured four or more by the age of 18.

I was one of those children. At primary school, I was violent and unpredictable and at secondary school withdrawn and disengaged. Fortunately, thanks to a few perceptive teachers, flexibility in the school system and my welfare being more of a priority than exam results, I turned out OK. If it had not been for those teachers, my life would have been very different and I would not have trained to be a teacher and chosen to work with children like me as my career.

Nowadays, all schools need to be ACE aware and understand what they can do in response. While many staff can never truly understand what it is like to live the life of a child experiencing adversity, schools can assist in making life better for these children and even begin to help them heal. Here are my top tips for schools to support children who are enduring adversity:

1. Adopt a whole-school policy and practice

We must create environments that allow children to feel safe, valued and ready to learn. There is no low-cost, quick fix solution here, because the damage has been done to these children over many years. A handful of strategies implemented over a term by a few staff will not work. Whole-school changes to policy and practice – consistently implemented – are the most effective ways to address these challenges.

2. There is no one-size-fits-all model

Buying in an intervention and training all the staff to use it will not always work; schools, and particularly senior leaders, need to truly understand what they are dealing with and proactively take steps to address it, so we can help children to thrive rather than just survive. Explicit whole-school training, support, strategies and resources are the best approach; this needs to be for all staff, and often personalised and ongoing. 

3. Focus on restorative practices

Zero tolerance, punitive behaviour policies are ineffective and do not work for children who have had difficult childhoods; incentive or threat-based strategies are not powerful enough to stop deep-rooted behaviour that has served as protection in the past. Restorative practices are needed to improve and repair relationships between people and communities and, mercifully, schools are beginning to replace “discipline” policies with “relationship” polices.

4. Provide a variety of practical subjects

Narrowing the curriculum and focusing on the basics is the wrong approach for these children. They need music, art, drama, dance, sport and technology – subjects that are practical with therapeutic qualities that help children regulate, allow them to feel a sense of success, let them express themselves and their creativity, and help to repair some of the damage done to the brain through early adversity.  

5. Provide the right team

These children benefit from the most qualified and experienced staff, rather than unqualified teachers, TAs or supply staff; they need permanent, invested, knowledgeable professionals who truly understand what has happened to them and the impact it has had on their bodies and minds. Staff have to be there consistently and compassionately, no matter what these children throw at them, and these staff need to be effectively supported.

About the author

Lynn Miles is a Lecturer in Education at Teesside University.





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