Preparing a traumatised child for a new school term, by Jane Evans
Recruiting Foster Carers in Croydon, South London, Ashford, Kent, Stevenage, Hertfordshire
A template for carers of traumatised children and young people
For some children, it might be the start of a new academic school year, a new school or nursery, or a return to a place where their ‘failure’ to follow and comply with the RULES has meant repeated experiences of confusion, shame and isolation. Every new academic year I put out a version of the child’s letter to their educators for those caring for traumatised children to use. Many print it off and take it to school or nursery, I hope it helps in some small way.
As August draws to a close, the children may, or may not, be remembering in their brains that school is on the horizon but their bodies may well recognise the build-up as it turns out bodies store memories of significant events, especially those we find overwhelming and stressful. Bessel van der Kolk’s great book, the Body Keeps the Score, and the work of Peter Levine, Pat Ogden and others, tells us so much about how trauma gets shut in side of the body and why the body is so important in helping a child feel more regulated and able to cope with chaotic situations, such as school.
In the run up to a new school term it is important to prepare, the child’s nervous system (body) for the sensory overload and possible memories of ‘being in trouble’, ‘the problem’, ‘not doing as they are told’, ‘shame’. Likewise, as the child’s carers, gathering every bit of courage to try to help the setting engage with the reality of the child’s reality is VITAL too. Very often rules, policies and fear, can mean that this is a real challenge.
What you can do to prepare the child
- Avoid talking about it starting or returning school too much – don’t poke the ‘sleeping, scared tiger’
- Decide yourself that it WILL be different this time – it will change what your body is giving off around the child
- Talk about how you notice you sometimes get tight feelings in your body when you get ready to take them to school – you will introduce NOW, a simple breathing routine to settle the body (see exercises below)
- Make a ‘mornings’ plan – with the child and the school so you can hand them on to a caring adult or peer
- Be prepared to prepare EVERYTHING for them to go to school WHATEVER their age – trauma = poor memory capacity, school = fear, being away from you = fear
- Keep mornings VERY SIMPLE!
- Ask to meet with school BEFORE the term starts with someone to support you – go in believing they will have learned more about trauma in the break
- Show them the body-regulating exercises you have developed and how your child must have support with these – ensure the child knows you have done this
- Ask your child if they would like to drive or walk to school and practice their breathing on the way, or humming or singing or whatever they find regulating – if they reject this idea, let them know you are going to do it and they are welcome to come along and watch to see it can be done discreetly
- Never punish a child when they get back to you – what happens in school stays in school, you only want to know how it felt for them to go through all of that – don’t rush with this though, regulate them first.
LETTER TEMPLATE - if you are caring for a traumatised child, sending the letter below will help educators to prepare for your child or young person.
I am writing to you so that you will hear my voice and not jump to conclusions about me.
I’m coming to your school in September and these are the things you need to know about me:
1. I'm a great kid!
2. I come with a past.
3. I did not create or control my past.
4. I have been shaped by my past.
5. I am struggling with the after effects of my past.
6. I struggle to sit still, to concentrate, to not look out the window, to listen to you, to not to fiddle.
7. Sometimes I 'flip out' but can’t tell you why.
8. I don't like loud noises or surprises.
9. I don't trust strangers.
10. I'm often very tired.
11. Making and keeping friends is hard for me.
12. I don't get sarcasm.
I could go on, it's a long list of what you need to know before you decide where to 'pigeon-hole' me, or to find a label for me. Disruptive, lacking motivation, poor concentration, confrontational, a problem..........
Why am I like this? (I hope this is a question you ask yourself, not through gritted teeth but with compassionate curiosity.)
1. I have seen and heard things a child never should.
2. I have not been held, sung to and soothed, only, maybe, in my Mum's head and heart?
3. I have only known chaos.
4. I have never had a day where I’ve felt carefree and relaxed and able to switch off.
5. I have always had to be alert and ready to run upstairs, to get out of the house, to duck behind the sofa, to ring the Police.
6. Each morning I never knew if Mum would be smiling, bleeding or crying when I got up.
7. I am used to staying alert, listening for sounds, watching faces, sniffing for alcohol laden breath it has kept me alive.
8. I have to look for the hidden meaning in everything which is said to me as getting it wrong is dangerous.
9. I have never consistently built a relationship with anyone, Mum wasn't allowed to try, and Dad was either my best or my worst friend.
10. I can't sleep now. Even though it’s over now, I'm still scared to go to bed, to leave everyone. I need to stay awake in case he comes back in the night.
11. I am very reactive, mostly I hit out, sometimes I run, but not 'cos I want too.
I AM a great kid, so understand me, support me, care about me, then maybe one day, I will be able to learn about the pyramids, how to do my times table, how to be a friend to someone in your school, it will take time.
A Truly Great Kid
Jane Evans is a former respite foster carer, she now works one to one with foster carers, and is a speaker, trainer and writer on the impact of childhood anxiety and trauma. She is known for her TEDxTalk on ‘Taming and tending your Meerkat brain’ and her range of books to address complex issues, such as growing up without a map for love and kindness, or in a ‘stormy home’, simply with children. They are published by Jessica Kingsley Publishers, and are widely available online.