How To Create A Trauma And Attachment Aware Classroom with Rebecca Brooks

How To Create A Trauma And Attachment Aware Classroom with Rebecca Brooks

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When a child experiences early trauma, or develops an insecure attachment with their parent, the impact can last for years. It can negatively affect how they regulate their emotions, interact with others and cope in the busy school environment.

In this episode, author and expert Rebecca Brooks explains the link between adverse childhood experiences (ACES) and behaviour in school, and shares practical strategies for building an inclusive, trauma and attachment aware classroom - with the aim of creating success for all.

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Show notes / transcription

Rebecca Brooks  0:00  

Children in primary school would be asked to bring in baby photographs of themselves. Well, okay, some children don't have baby photographs of themselves. Some children seem oblivious to these kinds of triggers that go on it appears to sail over their heads, but I don't think it does. I think we've got to think the some of the experiences all the things we hear all the underlying messages that are being sent through that they are feeding into children and young people. like autobiography, please write a timeline of your life. Gosh, you know, it puts children in a difficult position while the other children are writing age three, I got a puppy. You know, what's this child meant to write, age three my dad went to prison. But I think as well as that there are more kind of hidden underlying things. So we do World War Two and we talk a lot about evacuees or you've been taken away from your parents and sent to live somewhere else. And you may not see an immediate reaction that shows that the child is identified with that, but nonetheless, these things are sometimes building up in a child.

Simon Currigan  0:50  

Hi there. My name is Simon Currigan and welcome to the latest episode of school behaviour secrets. While other educational podcasts are like skilled surgeons finally dissecting educational issues with a scalpel. We bring all the subtlety of Leatherface from the Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Hope you brought some CSI style coveralls and facecloth. I'm joined as ever by my co host, Emma Shackleton. Hi, Emma. 

Emma Shackleton  1:54  

Hi, Simon. 

Simon Currigan  1:55  

Before we get to the interview today, I've got a very quick question for you. According to a 2021 YouGov survey in the UK, how long do you think you should wait before telling someone I love you in a new relationship?

Emma Shackleton  2:09  

Oh, wow. So there's actually a rule for this. I'm guessing not too soon. So not the first date as that might be a little bit creepy. Maybe if you're really feeling it, you should let them know. After a couple of months, maybe?

Simon Currigan  2:22  

I'm sorry. I'm gonna pick you up on that, 'what if you're really feeling it', 

Emma Shackleton  2:25  

You really feel like you love someone then you should tell them

Simon Currigan  2:28  

Go on and moving swiftly on. The most common answer was three months followed by four months which covered about 40% of the population yet interestingly 1% answered, it was fine to say I love you, have relations, meet each other's parents and go on holiday in the first week of knowing someone. The world moves so fast nowadays.

Emma Shackleton  2:49  

Okay, so how come we're talking about dating? How is this relevant to the podcast? 

Simon Currigan  2:54  

Well it's about relationships. This week, we're sharing our interview with Rebecca Brooks, who is an author and expert on the subject of attachment needs in children, and how trauma impacts on our people's ability to build positive relationships, and cope with the emotional and intellectual demands of school. She's going to explain the link between trauma and attachment difficulties and challenging behaviour and gives us practical strategies for helping those children succeed in the classroom.

Emma Shackleton  3:24  

Okay, but before we go to that interview, please share this episode with your friends and colleagues, who might also benefit from the strategies Rebecca is about to share with us. And the good news is it only takes about 10 seconds. So just open up your podcast app, tap the Share button, and your app will help you to send a direct link using the communication platform of your choice. And now here's Simon's interview with Rebecca Brooks.

Simon Currigan  3:53  

Today I'm excited to welcome Rebecca Brooks to the show. Rebecca is the Education Policy Advisor for adoption UK and is the author of the book The Trauma and Attachment Aware Classroom. She's also authored reports for adoption UK, including the annual adoption barometer bridging the gap and better futures exploring the experiences of adopted children. In the UK education system. She's also got professional experience of working with pupils, both as a teacher, foster carer and as an adoptive parent, Rebecca, welcome to the show. 

Rebecca Brooks  4:24  

Hello, It's lovely to be here.

Simon Currigan  4:25  

And before we get started, I do want to say I do love your book, The trauma and attachment aware classroom. Because for me, it is a rare thing, especially in this genre. It not only describes the problems and the flash points you might experience when you're teaching a child who's been affected by trauma, but then it gives you step by step ideas and practical things you can start using in the classroom. It's one of the most practical books I read on this topic and I can't recommend it enough. 

Rebecca Brooks  4:48  

Excellent. Thank you. 

Simon Currigan  4:49  

So I'd like to start the interview in an unlikely place, an orphanage for girls in Romania. Could you tell us about your experiences working as a charity worker in Romania? And what that taught you about trauma and attachment?

Rebecca Brooks  5:04  

Well, it was a crash course in trauma and attachment. Actually, I think the first time I went to Romania was 1999 or 2000, something along that line. And I was, was supported in Romanian charity. And one of the things that they were doing was putting on summer holidays for children, they didn't get holidays, they didn't get to go away or do any of those things. So they would put on a summer camp every year, they would take about 15 to 20 girls from the orphanage. They don't call them orphanages in Romania, they call them placement centres, I guess you would translate as that. But most of the girls were not orphans, they would just have us two weeks on the holiday, we would go and do some crafts, and nice things. And that was the extent of it really. I went every year doing that for quite a number of years. And in the end, I went out to live there for two years to support the charity with the work they were doing. It was with the children, there was a lot of back room support, making the website and you know, those kinds of things. They had an apartment for young girls to live in. When they were leaving the orphanage. They could stay there until they finish their education. But once that happened, it was like there's your clothes. Off you go. They told me once they've gone to pick up two young women leaving the orphanage and they had a bag of clothes each and a bag of beans. That was all they were leaving the orphanage with. Wow. Yeah. And they were in their early 20s. And I think in terms of trauma attachment, these were despite a quite a long career in teaching. And these were terms I've not really come across and didn't really understand the implications of and I think what was nice about these teenage girls and young women was that they developed a survival strategy, a way of being that allowed them to cope and live within the system that they were being brought up in, which was not what we'd remember from maybe the TV programmes we saw many years ago during Ceausescu's time. Although some of these young women did remember those days, things had moved on an improved considerably since then. But still it was six, eight girls in a room, you keeping your stuff in a locker that doesn't actually lock nor families coming to visit you you've got a couple of adults, obviously, they're working there, so they're on shift. So it's different adults everyday taking care of your needs, it was almost like they all girls will be raising the younger girls, none of these children were ever badly behaved. There were some of the most impeccably behaved children you could ever wish to have on summer camp, the Romanian lady that run the organisation will say to us just be a little bit careful, these children will treat you as if you're the most special person in the world to them. But try to remember that you're here for two weeks, and there'll be some more volunteers coming another time. And I remember one camp, the youngest girl we'd taken was nine on the second night, we had a movie night, she can just sit on my knee. I mean, I'm a stranger to this girl. And then at the end of the camp, the girls would have built these relationships incredibly quickly, apparently becoming very close to you. And then at the end of the camp, they would come to look at your packing up and go, Oh, this is beautiful. That's nice. And of course, we gave them all our stuff. And I think that the lady that was really she didn't really mind, she kind of knew this would happen. But she was trying to say. They're not doing this on purpose. They're not trying to manipulate you. But this is how they survive. And I think it just really got me thinking a lot more about just the impact of the way that we raise, I guess I've not really thought about it that much in the past. And I've certainly not thought about it in relation to my teaching. And I think it's important as well, that when we talk about trauma and attachment, so often the conversation comes down to behaviour, and it comes down to unwanted behaviour or behaviour, there's disruptive. And actually, that's not always what you need to be aware of when you're looking after or teaching children who've had traumatic early life experiences, there is this other survival tactic as well, which is to be unbelievably compliant and incredibly sort of ingratiating in order to get the basic survival needs that you've got met. And I think sometimes that goes amiss. But it can also be a sign of deep, deep trauma and loss

Simon Currigan  8:21  

It shows it's a different children adapting to the same situation in different ways to survive effectively. 

Rebecca Brooks  8:25  

Yeah, absolutely.

And it doesn't mean that sometimes these conversations can be difficult to have, because you're saying, well, trauma and attachment affects young and young people. And somebody will immediately say, Well, I know this child who experienced this, or I personally experienced this. And it didn't affect me like that at all. Exactly. We are shaped by the experiences we have and the environments that we grew up in. Now, a lot of these girls are very similar response to their environment, but they all lived in exactly the same environment, they were all being raised in exactly the same way. Whereas if you go out to a community where people are being raised in different homes with different living situations, different mitigating factors in their lives, different experiences that they're having, there will, of course, be different responses to trauma. And it's really important to say that many people will experience adverse early experiences and not necessarily be traumatised by them. And that can definitely be the case. And one of the strongest factors that mitigates against long term impact of early trauma is the strong attachment relationship with the caregiver. So you know, you can have children go through unimaginable traumatic experiences. But if they're supported through that, by a consistent nurturing caregiver, the impact of that is lessened to a great degree bit can make a huge difference in what the long term effects of that might be.

Simon Currigan  9:33  

I read a really interesting paper not too long ago actually highlighting that lots of people talk about post traumatic stress after difficult incidents, but just as many people are likely to experience post traumatic growth and actually wouldn't have that difficult adverse experience any other way. They describe it as making them the person they become in the long term.

Rebecca Brooks  9:51  

Yeah, and I think if we're going to think about what trauma is, we think about traumas as adults, we're often thinking about a significant traumatic event, an accident and injury, a natural disaster, a war, famine, become a refugee some of these things or you know, an incident of violence or being assaulted maybe or attacked, you know, these things are obvious to us as being traumatic events. And with the right support in place from the start of it, it's the real opportunity to incorporate that into your life experiences in a way that you can find some positive outcomes from. When we're talking about children who have experienced very early traumatic events, that opportunity, maybe not, there the same. There's an opportunity to verbalise what has happened or to talk it through. I think Dr. Bruce Perry defines trauma as an event or a series of events that overwhelms the stress response systems. And so if we think about very young, pre verbal children experiencing a series of traumatic events, and for a child, a traumatic event might be different from how we would imagine a traumatic event. If you're a tiny infant. And your basic life survival depends on someone frequently coming to feed you when you cry, and that repeatedly doesn't happen. That is a traumatic event for you, you could die, so the child is left in their stress, and it overwhelms their stress response system. And there's no mechanism for that tiny child to talk about their feelings or to have any kind of counselling or to work through that in a meaningful way. And it's not even stored as a conscious memory that they could later talk through and get some support with is stored in a different way in their body. And this is the overwhelming of the stress response system that comes in. So I think there's a lot of factors that can impact on whether a traumatic event or a series of traumatic events on how that's going to impact you in the future.

Simon Currigan  11:32  

So you had this experience of Romania, you come back to the UK, you're a teacher. How did that experience change the way you thought about kids in the classroom, your everyday classroom practice?

Rebecca Brooks  11:42  

I had finished a 12 year career in teaching before I went to Romania and I didn't go back to the classroom. When I came back, I went straight into foster care. So I think that's probably how it impacted me. Because I came back and thought, right, I need to do something. And I had spent all my life, all my adult life teaching teenagers doing youth work with teenagers, I had volunteered with teenagers in Romania. And I think I came back and thought, really, probably very naively, I thought, I want to do something at the other end of children's lives, children are going through terrible experiences, or very difficult and challenging times in their earliest years, I want to do something there. You think you're going to make a difference. I think I was quite naive. But I thought, let's try and ensure that children that are coming into the care system as much as I can, that I can provide stability, provide love, provide nurture, and try and make it so that when they become teenagers, they're not experiencing the same challenges. There's some of the girls that I've worked with in terms of thinking back of my teaching career, of course, I immediately thought of a number of children who I might have handled very differently, had I known what I knew, to be honest.

Simon Currigan  12:43  

And I think we will have to remember whatever stage in the career we are at, we're doing the best with the tools and the knowledge we have at the time.

Rebecca Brooks  12:50  

Of course we are. I mean, I trained in the early 90s never heard the word attachment. And in my whole career, I've never heard the word attachment. And at that time, to be honest, we were just beginning to understand about autism and ADHD. I mean, it's a long time ago, things have moved on hugely, in terms of the support that we offer to students with autism now, and the understanding the education profession has increased enormously. And I think understanding of the impact of trauma and disrupted attachment probably needs to be doing something along the same trajectory really. 

Simon Currigan  13:16  

So if we think back to this child who's crying, and there's no one coming, and it's experiencing kind of like this overdose of stress that it's unable to cope with, how does that affect the way the child then goes on to develop and the way they see the world and the way they can integrate into society and our expectations? 

Rebecca Brooks  13:31  

Yeah, there's a kind of neurochemical way of talking about this, which I'm probably not really going to get into. But when a child is stressed, when anybody is stressed, our internal stress response systems kick in, we release chemicals we know about adrenaline rush, for instance, is a thing that happens. There are similar other rushes of chemicals that happen when we're experiencing stress. And what we know about very young children is that these systems are still developing in early infancy, they're not fully developed, they're still being worked on and how they are worked on depends on the environment that the child is experiencing. So that in the child's first month, first couple of years, really, the child is learning things in accordance with the environment, so that they can be best suited to fit in with the environment that they're living in that begins before they're born. And it continues after they're born. And so children that are born into a high stress environment where there may be experiencing neglect. Their needs are not being met, they may be in an environment where there's for example, domestic violence or unexpected noises, frightening situations that they can't understand. It's triggering the stress response system over and over again. And what you get there is a super sensitive stress response system, Dr. Daniel Siegel talks about a thing called Windows of tolerance where we have a central window where we're okay and we can manage but if we go beyond that, we can be pushed over that into hyper arousal dysregulation, or we can be pushed below that into hypo arousal, dis association or this kind of flights kind of responses and how he describes it is that a child that's experienced enormous amounts of stress and trauma in their early years that window of tolerance, the middle section is smaller. So the events that they can cope with is a narrower window. And they're much more likely to be pushed over either into hyper arousal dysregulated behaviour, flight fights responses or pushed into hypo arousal, freeze responses, dissociative responses, hiding, masking, those kinds of things. And it really has to do with cortisol and a number of other chemical changes that go on in the brain. But it's important to understand that these are not choices, it's not a choice for a child to become hypo aroused, or hyper aroused. This is their brain, telling them that there is a threat and that they need to respond in this way. And I think I would really liken it to anybody that has a phobia, let's say dogs, because I have a phobia of dogs, okay. And as a child, I behaved in an uncontrollable way, when dogs were around, I would humiliate myself, and I would know that was humiliating myself. So at the same time as being like screaming and running away and doing all kinds of crazy things, because a dog barks near me, a part of my brain will be telling me you making a fool of yourself. How humiliating and I would be also terribly ashamed. And I couldn't control myself. Now, as a grown very much older adult, I can control myself. And that's because, and the brain continues to develop through our childhood in our teens, we develop these abilities to use our, let's call it the thinking part of our brain, we develop these abilities to think rationally and to control our automatic responses. And so now when a dog barks near me, I'm still not keen, but I don't run away screaming, you know, I think, right, Take a deep breath, there's a dog coming, just take a breath, it's gonna be okay. That's a fact the dogs not gonna hurt, I can do all of those things now. But as a child, I couldn't do those things. Those were not choices. And I think we have children in our classroom who were behaving in perhaps surprising ways. And it's tempting to think, well, you're choosing to do that. But actually, if we think about our own, sometimes automatic responses to things, and I've seen grown people scream and run away at a spider, for example, then, you know, it's actually a very similar setup to that.

Simon Currigan  13:38  

I want to rewind a little bit actually, because you said something that was really interesting to me, we were talking about children's different responses to the stress they experience. And the kids who are having the fight response or the Run response to the you know, the fight or flight, they're pretty easy to spot, they make themselves known pretty quickly. And I'm actually working a case now in a school. I can't go into details, obviously. But there's one child who's presenting very difficult, challenging issues in the classroom. That person's got an older sibling, and everyone's saying that sibling is fine, because they're very quiet, very passive. But that child might be kind of like emotionally flatlining. Can you tell us more about how we could identify and support kids who might be going under the radar?

Rebecca Brooks  17:34  

Yes, and this is a great question, because I think this is a big issue for some children. I think what we're looking for there is children who, for example, never raised their hand, never asked for help. They hand in work. And it's clear that they didn't know what they were doing. But they never came to ask you for help. And sometimes as a teacher, that's frustrating. I said, you could ask me for help if you didn't understand the question. But you never said children are very avoidant, we're looking at procrastinating, we're looking at deflecting, maybe lying, we're looking at children and might be copying. So they're finding different ways to mask the fact that they don't know what they're doing. But they cannot bring themselves to make their needs known. So this is what we really talk about children who cannot make their needs known, and who have understood at some early points in their life, that keeping your head down and being as compliant and invisible as possible is the best way to survive life, really. And I think in terms of the classroom, and that, I think those would be the main things I've been looking at children who appear withdrawn, no child really should be ultra compliant all of the time, you know, you expect a child occasionally to break out, you know, to do something. But children who don't do that children who are perhaps a little bit ingratiating, I've used that word before. It's a negative sounding word, children who are going out of their way to make sure that they're viewed favourably if they're viewed at all. But then children who were always at the side at the back, standing quietly, just be looking out for those children. I think, as you said, it's really tempting to focus all our attention on the children whose behaviour whose internal anxieties are acting out, but there are children whose internal anxieties are being turned inwards, and those can be more difficult to spot. But we can do a lot to help children in that situation.

Simon Currigan  19:03  

In terms of support that in your book, you say one of the most important ways of supporting pupils who've experienced early trauma is in developing positive adult relationships, particularly with a key adult in school. 

Rebecca Brooks  19:14  


Simon Currigan  19:14  

So why is that key adult so important? And what should they be doing to help develop that trusting relationship and bond with a child?

Rebecca Brooks  19:22  

So I think this takes place in the context of attachment relationships, attachment relationships are important to children for a young child, or the preschool or the school becomes a secondary attachment base, really. And if you go to a preschool, you'll see that they have key members of staff, they put the children in little groups and there's a key worker with each group and it's to provide that secondary attachment base. So a child's primary attachment should be at the home with the caregiver, the parents or whoever's caring for the child and then at preschool. The key worker provides a secondary attachment figure they can do the handover in the morning the child feels that sense of safety because they're being handed over from one set of hands that they trust and knbow to another set of hands that they trust and know, and we  tend to drop that by the time children get to school. We tend to think children shouldn't really need that anymore. But children who've had disrupted attachments. And this can happen for lots of reasons, by the way. A child having a disrupted attachment relationship is by no means always an indicator of something gone awry at home, children who have had extended stays in hospital, for example, in early time that can disrupt the development of the attachment relationship, it can happen for a lot of reasons, some of which are just unavoidable. For some children, even when they're going to school and even into secondary school. Having that secure attachment base at the school, sometimes children are not being handed over by a safe pair of hands. So to at least have one safe pair of hands available during the day, the key adult wouldn't be a counsellor in this situation, you wouldn't be expected to discuss the children's traumatic please don't do that. Because actually, what the children do not need is amateur therapy. Nobody needs that it's a checking point to reassure the children that they are being thought about and held in mind and that there is always a safe person that's available to them. And so in terms of what a key adult might actually do, it is checking in, being greeted in the morning, Hello, how's things going? Checking in during the course of the day, perhaps at lunchtime, perhaps being available each week to have a chat if anything's going on. And some children need a lot more support like that than others and the conversations might be quite light or about schoolwork or about the child's pet. Certainly don't need to be about deep and meaningful personal things. But it is having that adult at school that makes you feel as though somebody cares about you and that you are safe with them. There's a lot of things in school that can be anxiety inducing for children really and it can really lower their anxiety if they know that at the end of the day, they're gonna get to speak to nice Mr. Smith or nice Miss Jones, who will have a quick word with them and make sure everything's fine. A key adult also can be really valuable in supporting transitions through holidays. A postcard home during the holiday, were thinking of you, I'm looking forward to seeing you next term. That can really support children. One of the things with attachment is that what we might call separation anxiety and child can continue long beyond infancy and toddlerhood. So an attachment figure in school, a key adult can help to mitigate separation anxiety for children as well.

Simon Currigan  22:04  

Just like to take a pause for a moment and say that if you're finding this podcast useful, then you're going to love what we've got waiting for you in that inner circle programme. The inner circle is your one stop shop for all things behaviour. It's a comprehensive platform filled with videos, resources and behaviour inspiration to get you unstuck with classroom behaviour. We've got training resources on de escalation, supporting kids with anxiety support strategies for conditions like autism, ADHD, and PDA. practical ways of helping pupils deal with strong emotions, assertive behaviour management techniques for managing the whole class, setting out your classroom environment for success. Resetting behaviour with tricky classes, and more. Our online videos walk you through practical solutions step by step, just like Netflix, you can turn an inner circle subscription on or off whenever you need to, with no minimum contract. Plus, you can now get your first seven days of inner circle for just one pound. Get the behaviour answers you've been looking for today with inner circle visit And click on the inner circle picture near the top of the homepage for more information. 

I heard someone talking about, it was in the field of divorce actually. And they were describing how to form a trusting relationship. And they said it's lots of small, almost inconsequential interactions held consistently over time. Is that the kind of thing we're talking about? None of them in themselves are particularly big or meaningful. 

Rebecca Brooks  23:35  


Simon Currigan  23:35  

But it's that chain that consistent checking in that helps the child repond and trust in you.

Rebecca Brooks  23:40  

Absolutely. And we might be surprised who children will turn to as being these key adults in their life. It may not be the school pastoral lead, or whoever it is that you've assigned to that role. It might be the librarian, it might be the caretaker, it might be the lady in the office that's kind to you when you've arrived late yet again, because of something that was very difficult that was happening at home and you couldn't get to school on time. Those key adults can arise from anywhere. And actually, if the child themselves gravitates towards an adult, it sometimes can be a good idea to just allow that to happen really and sort of semi formalise that. And I think one of the things that's really important about this is we often think especially as children get towards the end of primary and preparing for secondary school and through secondary school, that we want children to be more independent. And so we see sometimes in schools rotating teaching assistants because the child's getting too dependent. Schools may be concerned about the depth of the relationship that's going on there. And these do need to be professional relationships. But if we want children to be independent, we must understand that there are building blocks towards that and the first building block of that is dependence. children need to be healthily dependent before they can learn to be healthfully independent and when we pick up a child at six or ten, or fifteen, who isn't very independent, just pulling them in the deep end of independence will not make them suddenly have those foundational understandings. Healthy dependence comes before healthy independence and schools can provide a forum for healthy dependence to take place. And one of the ways of doing that threw a key adult.

Simon Currigan  25:01  

You used a phrase earlier, the child learning that they can be held in mind. Can you talk us through what that means and why that's important? 

Rebecca Brooks  25:07  

Yeah, I guess it comes back to some of what I was saying about separation anxiety. But I think for children who've experienced particularly neglect or different kinds of less than ideal, early childhoods, there's often a strong drive not to be forgotten, you know, because survival for a child requires having an adult attention, or doing it yourself in some way. And so these are both behaviours that can come out of having a disrupted attachment relationship, a child that really needs to get adult attention, because that's what they've learned to do in order to get their needs met. Or children, they're really ambivalent towards adult attention, because they're just going to sort themselves out. And they don't trust any of you lot to do anything helpful anyway, and I'm just going to sort myself out. For either of those groups of children knowing that they are remembered, but it seems like a small thing, but it's a really important thing to know that the adults in your life actually are thinking about you are held in their mind. So there's like an invisible thread between you and the people that are supposed to be caring for you and nurturing you, as some children really need it to be demonstrated that that is happening because they haven't had the Healthy Start that would allow them to take that on trust, or to just take it for granted. We're looking at children who don't have any reason to think that anym of the adults in their life give a monkey's about them, really. And that plays out in all different kinds of ways, but consistently demonstrated to children in small ways that you do give a monkey's about them can make enormous amounts of difference in a child's just ability to settle down to what it is you're actually asking them to do. 

Simon Currigan  25:21  

As a teacher, we often think about behaviour. And we often focus on the actions we see in the classroom. You know, we've talked about kids becoming dysregulated, and running off and having outbursts and so on. But those behaviours usually have an underlying cause that we often overlook. When I read your book, you talk about the role of the curriculum, which is something that often gets overlooked. So can you tell us about how the curriculum affects children who have been experienced by trauma and how we can use the curriculum to make a more sort of trauma and attachment aware classroom?

Rebecca Brooks  26:56  

Absolutely. And this is something that adoptive parents often will have conversations with their children's school about. And some of the examples, if you think about it are incredibly obvious. So for example, it's not infrequent that children in primary school would be asked to bring in baby photographs of themselves. Well, okay, some children don't have baby photographs of themselves. If you've moved around the care system a lot. If you've been adopted, if you're not living with the people that gave birth to you, if you've moved countries a lot, because you're an asylum seeker or refugee and you've lost all your stuff. You don't have a baby photograph. And I will be really honest about this. Some children seem oblivious to these kinds of triggers that go on my own children are adopted. Frequently adoption, comments and tropes and pretty awful jokes actually will come up in books and films and TV programmes. And I'm looking at them thinking, oh, goodness, me, what's that person just said, uh, my children are quite young, and it appears to sail over their heads, but I don't think it does. I think we've got to think the some of the experiences, all the things we hear all the underlying messages that are being sent through that they are feeding into children and young people. And so I think there are some really obvious examples like the baby photograph, like autobiography, please write a timeline of your life. Gosh, you know, it puts children in a difficult position while the other children are writing age three, I got a puppy. You know, what's this child meant  to write? Age 3 my dad went to prison, age two, I got taken off my parents and put in foster care, what are they supposed to put and it puts them in a dilemma. They either need to put this stuff and share it, or they need to lie. Same with a baby photograph if they've not got one, but I'll just bring in any baby photograph. What then lie and say that it's theirs when it's not? Youre really asking children to do a difficult thing there. But I think as well as that there are more kind of hidden underlying things. So we do World War Two, and we talk a lot about evacuees or you've been taken away from your parents and sent to live somewhere else. And you may not see an immediate reaction that shows that the child has identified with that. But nonetheless, these things sometimes building up in a child. Mother's Day can be very difficult for children who have got several people that they would see as a mother figure that needs a lot of sensitive support. And even if you don't do Mother's Day, in your school, it's everywhere. So be aware, children who secondary school you're not making Mother's Day cards, but they've seen 47 adverts on the TV, idealising mothers, knowing that they're own background has been really quite different from that. Topics in secondary school, particularly on drug and alcohol misuse and criminal justice. You know, when the guy from Barnardos comes into your assembly and talks about some children have a terrible childhood. Yeah, they might be seated in that assembly. So there are a lot of things like this that can be triggers, and you won't necessarily get a child going, oh, excuse me, sir. This topic is upsetting me that this is not how children articulate it, it builds up a stress in them, it builds up those feelings of not being safe and of being anxious and stressed they may not be able to articulate that and that can then come out either in acting out behaviours that we've talked about dysregulation behaviours, or acting in behaviours. And the final thing I'll say on that is that some children will have when I was training in fostering, they talk to us about very specific triggers that individual children might have based on the very specific experiences that they have had and you don't know what they are. So when you're a foster carer, children come to you. I used to take emergency placements, it was just a child and a bag and not even a bag sometimes. You didn't know anything really, one of the things I did in the training, which has tried to help us to understand that if a child reacts very strongly in an unexpected way, it may be that something and they gave us examples, and I won't share them here because it's horrific, but it may be that is linked to some specific, very unpleasant thing that's happened to them. Now teachers can't prepare for that you don't know. But this is where the importance of a responsive and flexible home to school relationship comes in. Because not always, but sometimes parents and carers will know about those things and will be able to talk to the staff about them. And I think what's really important for schools to understand this, the school may not see the impacts of that in the classroom, but the parent or carer probably will after home time. Alright, so if the parent or carer is coming in and saying my child is freaking out to home, what have you been doing? And it doesn't help to say, well, they were fine in class, because we've talked already about children who internalise all this and will do anything rather than make their needs be known and make a show of themselves in the classroom, and then go home and pour it out all over the house for parents and the rest of the family to deal with. So that's a real thing.

Simon Currigan  31:05  

In the book actually touching on that you say that some kids will be able to control their behaviour some of the time, but it will use up valuable internal resources that then will not be available for learning. Can you kind of explain what that means for us practically in terms of helping the child balance, you know, their emotional needs in the curriculum and how you tread that line?

Rebecca Brooks  31:25  

Yes, I'm gonna go back to my terrified of dogs analogy. I mean, as an adult, now, I've said, I've learned to control my fear of dogs and not behave out of control. But if I was sitting trying to do my work, if I was doing this podcast with you now, when a massive dog came in the room, I would be well distracted from what I was trying to say to you, because all my energy will be focused on not freaking out about the dog. And we've got children in schools think particularly with sensory processing is a great example of these children who were trying to block out the frightening, unpredictable background noise around them so that they can do their maths, they using what brainpower that could have been spent on maths to try and sort out the noise or really, sensory processing is just such a huge topic, we could talk about it all day. And it's definitely something that if you're not really aware of it, you should get a good book or find a podcast or do something, because it's so important to know about. So I think for a lot of children, it's it is making our classrooms as conducive to lowering the stress level of our children as is humanly possible. And that's not going to do any harm to any child. And we're not even looking at individual interventions for that one child, because we know that that's a massive burden on teachers you have 30 children in the class. And a lot of them might need individual interventions and a lot for teachers to manage. But if we say as a general rule in our classroom, we will try to minimise extraneous noise, we will try to lower perhaps the visual heat of the classroom, those kinds of things will introduce maybe tricky topics with an acknowledgement that they might be tricky. And if you want to talk about it, you know, those kinds of things, they're not going to harm or hurt the education of any of the children in the room. But they would support children who were struggling with a lot more things to perhaps focus more on what you're trying to teach them and less on managing more things. One simple tip children that are always turning around and looking at that door and looking at the thing, just sit them against the wall. So they can see, because children who have experienced a lot of unpredictability in their early life, they have to look and see what that noise is who that person is, they have to see it makes them twitchy. If you just sit them at the side of the room by the wall so that they can easily see who's at the door and they can easily see what that noise was, then they don't have to be craning round and disrupting everybody to look and it meets their needs. And it enables them to get straight back to work.

Simon Currigan  33:31  

A lot of adults in school as well, when they're thinking about helping kids with their emotions and behaviour. What they're thinking about is what rewards and consequences should I use. But I guess if you're in this heightened emotional state, that's going to have limited impact as well, because you're very focused on survival in the moment,

Rebecca Brooks  33:45  

Absolutely. A child can only be really taught something with rewards and consequences if they have the essential capacity to do the thing that you're asking them to do. We're often working with children whose development has been set on a different trajectory because of the experiences that they've had as a child and the way that they've adapted their behaviours to cope with those experiences. And as we've said before, it's not as simple as this is a choice at the part that becomes a choice later is the ability to put a lid on it that sometimes will not come until you are an adult thinking back to being scared of dogs. It may not come later. So there is some choice element to it. But often in young children, there isn't as much of a choice element as you would like to imagine. It's not that we think that children should be running around the school doing whatever they want. And this is something that's often said, it'll be anarchy in the school and it's not that I think Stewart Guest from Colmore primary in Birmingham, he describes it as high structure high nurture. Children who feel unsafe, absolutely need the structures in place. It helps them to feel safe, it reduces their anxiety. If you're worried about being burgled being shown a lot of locks on the door and a really good alarm system would make you less worried about being burgled. So really the boundaries, the routines, the structures in school are the lock and the alarm that they need to be applied to children with a higher level of nurture and not in a sort of controlling way. Because when children feel controlled and coerced and frightened into doing the thing you want them to do that raises the anxiety again, it defeats the object of having the boundaries. So what I will say about rewards and consequences is I'm not against rewards and consequences a thing I just don't think they always work. And I think from other children their work most of the time, won't they, I mean, if someone says to you, if you do this, you're gonna have a sticker, a lot of children will be out, okay, do that. But just consider would that child have probably done that anyway and didn't really need the sticker it, that would be great. I think some ways that we reward children bordering on discriminatory, I think rewarding children for high levels of attendance is a grey area. For me, in terms of consequences, there are consequences for our actions, we know that Ive told the story before, my daughter has severe allergies, which when she was very young we didn't really know about and there was one time when I threw my daughter in the car, and then drove and broke every speed limit went through red lights, I was terrified for my daughter's life. And we were five minutes from the urgent care and I calculated in my head that we could get to urgent care quicker than I could phone an ambulance. If youre in this situation, you phone an ambulance, I understand that now. But I didn't have the knowledge I needed to make a good decision at the time. If I had been pulled over by the police and been banned from driving because of that, I would still have done it. The consequence was irrelevant to me, because the thing that was driving me to behave in that way was far, far more powerful than any consequence you could ever have given to me. I've never done it again, because of professionals come to me, they've explained my daughter's condition. They've supported me to understand what is happening, they've given me a written plan to follow should that occur, and they've given me strategies to use to prevent it occurring. And to nip it in the bud. If it does occur, I have been given appropriate support to manage myself in that situation. And this is what children need. Sometimes the consequences that we're going to give them is not as powerful as the thing that is driving them to behave the way they're behaving, What they need is the support and the strategies to overcome it. So what I would like to see is children when their behaviour is being flagged up is as much curiosity and professional expertise being put into supporting children to manage that as we would if a child couldn't read, for instance, or hadn't learn the timetables or whatever other educational thing. When children can't read, we don't put them in detention, we find out what the problem is. And we look for a solution and that is teachers bread and butter. They're excellent at it. And the same level of professional expertise needs to go towards supporting children's behaviour.

Simon Currigan  37:26  

Becky, this is a really complex, deep topic, and we're only just scratching the surface. If you're a teacher listening to this podcast, what's the first step you can take today to start helping kids in your class affected by trauma or attachment in your classroom?

Rebecca Brooks  37:39  

I would go back to what I said earlier about safety, about making your classroom feel like a really safe place to be and you can think about that as an adult. What things make you feel twitchy, nervous, uncomfortable, unsafe? Might be that learning walk that's happening or maybe that Ofsted inspection? All of these things make you feel nervous twitchy and comfortable there. And the same is really true of children's so unexpected shouting unpredictable behaviour from the adults or predictable behaviour from other children. People say oh children need orderly classrooms in order to feel safe, and they absolutely do. And often the children whose behaviour is challenging need the orderly classroom just as much, even though they're the ones that are currently making it disorderly. But I would say to have a look around your classroom layout, your own demeanour and the way that children are greeted into your room and all of those things to try to make the classroom a place that doesn't raise children's anxiety levels, because a lot of the time for adults and children whether they've experienced trauma or not, if our anxiety levels are raised, then we don't function at our best level. So what can we do to lower the anxiety levels of everybody in the classroom. For school leaders. And I know school leaders are trying very hard at this. But in these difficult times, what can you do to lower the anxiety levels of your staff because it's the adults in the room that set the temperature in the room. And if staff and I know it's very difficult at the moment, particularly if staff are on their very edge, and they themselves are running hot, they are very close to the edge of their own window of tolerance. And senior leaders in schools need to do everything they can to keep their staff within their own windows of tolerance so that they're in a place where they can cope and they can manage. And I think that's incredibly important.

Simon Currigan  39:13  

Yeah, you make a really great point. We actually did a survey just a few weeks back how COVID and lockdown has impacted on SEMH and behaviour in schools. And one of the things that came up time and time again, that surprised us from teachers were saying how am I supposed to help other people with their mental health when I'm struggling with my own so giving them that support is really important. If you want the kids to be successful. 

I'm a big fan of the book. So what I'll do is I'll drop a direct link to your book The Trauma and Attachment Aware Classroom in the show description that's available with this podcast episode. My last question for you Becky, and we asked this of all our guests who was the key figure that's influenced you or what's the key book that you've read that's had the biggest impact on your approach to working with kids?

Rebecca Brooks  39:53  

I would say the person that really got me thinking about these issues related to education is Louise Bamber, really she's written quite a number of books they're really excellent. I heard her speak at a conference and she it was like light bulbs going off in my head. And this is probably about 10 years ago now it was really just like a series of light bulbs popping off in my head very relatable. Her books are really easy to understand they're a good read. If I'm allowed to recommend more things. I will say if you're interested in sensory processing, you might look at Sarah Lloyd, she's developed a sensory model called the BUSS Model B, U. S, S. And that's worth having a look at and just to understand a little bit more about how difficulties in sensory processing can impact children in the classroom. I think it's really important in schools and then outside of specifically trauma and attachment. Paul Dix When the Adults Change Everything Changes and Jaleth O'Brien anything by Jaleth O'Brien to be honest, I've really enjoyed all of his books, but maybe start with Louise Bamber. She's got some good insights.

Simon Currigan  40:43  

Rebecca, I've really enjoyed this interview, and Ive found it really valuable. And I'm sure our listeners have too. Thank you for being on the podcast.

Rebecca Brooks  40:48  

Thank you very much. It's been great.

Emma Shackleton  40:50  

So what I really picked up from that interview was that our early experiences of trauma and attachment can have a long, long impact on our emotions. So it really affects children's social interactions, and their whole view of the world. It actually affects every single part of their lives.

Simon Currigan  41:11  

I know, if you work with kids with challenging behaviour, and you're not sure why they're acting that way in school, we've got a free download that can help. It's called the SEMH behaviour handbook, and it will help you link behaviours you've seen in the classroom with possible causes like autism, ADHD, and attachment disorder.

Emma Shackleton  41:29  

And of course, the idea here isn't for teachers to make a diagnosis, we're not qualified to do that. But if we link behaviours to possible causes quickly, it means that we can get the right help and get early intervention strategies in place. This is a free download. So go to the website,, click on the free resources tab near the top and we'll also put a link in the episode description.

Simon Currigan  41:58  

If you've enjoyed what you've heard today. Make sure you smash that subscribe button so your podcast app downloads each and every episode making sure that you never miss a thing and why not do it with a style and panache of a 17th century French dandy powdered wig simpering expression and all.

Emma Shackleton  42:15  

Remember if you've got colleagues or friends who you think would find today's content useful, then don't keep it to yourself. Use the Share button in your podcast app to let three friends or colleagues know about the episode. So the classes and students they work with will also benefit too. That's about it for today's show. Have an excellent week and we'll see you next time on school behaviour secrets. Bye for now.

Rebecca Brooks  42:40  


(This automated transcript may not be 100% accurate.)