Childhood Trauma and the Brain for Teachers

Short videos with practical examples of how teachers can apply their understanding of Childhood Trauma and the Brain in an education setting.

The argument pizza and helping children to mentalize

In this short video, Family School Co-Director and Consultant Psychotherapist Brenda McHugh gives some practical examples of how teachers can apply their understanding of the threat system. She describes the ‘argument pizza’ method and explains how to help a child or young person to redefine the way they view themselves.


 
 

 
 
Video transcript
 

Just this morning, in our Family School, where one child had got, I would say an activated threat system, had thought another child was giving him a look that meant: I disrespect you. He gave a look back. There was an explosion. Calmed things down. We did what we call our argument clock where we write around — also some children call it the argument pizza — in the first slice – what happened. In the second slice – what happened? And we got to a point where there was a child who was at the back of the class trying to work and they said, well, what do you think that this child felt who was sitting behind you at that point? And the two children look at each other he’s probably a bit fed up with us because he wanted to get on with his work. Just slowly allowing them to think about each other’s state. I guess in our language we might call that the mentalization process that we’re trying to train children to do. Because in the moment where they have their threat appraisal, we know they get tunnel vision.

One of the things that we’ve found is absolutely essential is evidencing the very small changes that we can see and that we do with photographs. We have a learning journey book. Every time anybody spots, even if it’s a bit more sustained attention or a better working memory or a little bit of selective attention that the child is doing, we reward that straightaway. So, that becomes part of their journey of, I was here in my learning and now I’m going to be here, and this is going to open all these other doors for me. So, giving photographs and evidence and stickers and everything that we do to reinforce them seeing themselves in a different way. Because, I think, sometimes they only see themselves as somebody that’s going to be rejected, to be hateful and turning that in on themselves. So, again, it’s about redefining for a child what their profile is.

So, children who have these kind of vulnerabilities are quite often on the margins because their behaviour pushes them away. They, not just at school, but nobody wants to have them over for a sleepover. They don’t go on school journeys; they don’t go to the science museum because they can’t be trusted because their threat appraisal means they could fly off at any moment. So, they don’t have the normal opportunities to see themselves in a way that could, kind of, boost their idea of this is the kind of person that the world could see me as.

The key role trust plays in learning

In this short video, Professor Peter Fonagy explains why children who have experienced abuse and neglect struggle in educational environments — they simply do not trust the teacher. The ability of a child to learn from a teacher depends on establishing trust. Without trust, there is no learning.


 
 


 
 

Video transcript
 

The ability of a child to learn from a teacher depends on that child trusting the teacher — just the same way that a child trusts their parents or other adults. When we trust someone, we open our minds to them, open our ability to learn.

So, when I think about teachers who influenced me, they were teachers who actually took an interest in me, as a person. That somehow creates a key, opens a door on a part of my mind, where I’m willing to learn new things from the person. We call this — the most complicated word to describe the simplest thing — we call this epistemic trust: a trust in knowledge. If I feel understood by you, I’ll open my mind to you, so that you will be able to teach me and I will learn from you about things: mathematics, English, whatever that subject.

What actually turns out from decades of research in education is that children learn best from teachers who have an accurate and individual understanding of them as a person, as a child. A guy called John Hattie did 800 meta-analyses to actually show that this was the case. You’ve heard it right — it’s 800 meta-analyses.

It turns out that what I’ve discovered for myself is that the teacher who gave all of us a book that she especially chose for each of us, was the teacher that we learned most from – all of us in the class. She did that at the end of each term — a book that she chose especially for each of us. It took me – I kid you not – it took me about 18 months in psychotherapy to figure out why I got the book that I got. Then I figured out why. She gave them out randomly. But, at the same time, we all felt recognised by her. We all felt that she treated us as individuals and we all had our minds wide open to her.

So, a child who cannot trust, who cannot recognise when they are being recognised because they can’t mentalize, because they’re so suspicious. They can’t recognise when they’re being mentalized — they’ll close their minds to learning. That’s why children in an educational environment with a history of maltreatment actually struggle so much because they simply do not trust the teacher being there in their interest, teaching them the things that they should learn. They feel that it is something that the teacher is doing for themselves.

We know from the literature out there that children with maltreatment history struggle educationally. They are often excluded from schools because of their behaviour. They change schools. They are more likely to have special educational need. A whole host of trouble in addition to the mental health problems that they develop. Yet there is no cognitive anomaly that under underpins this.

It’s simply that the relationship that they are able to develop is not optimal for the capacity for a human being to learn from another human being. That is, I think, in some ways the tragedy of trauma.

Children who experience reward differently

In this short video, Family School Co-Director and Consultant Psychotherapist Brenda McHugh gives some practical examples of how teachers can help children who may experience reward differently because of experiences of abuse and neglect.


 
 


 
 

Video transcript
 

One of the wonderful things that you’ve taught us, from the world of neuroscience, is that not all children experience reward in the same way. So, it may be that a child sitting in front of us can wait until Friday and get ten stars a day before we actually celebrate his or her success, but another child may actually barely wait till half past three, before we can celebrate their success. Because their default system is saying nothing ever comes — don’t expect success. My memories are that everything goes wrong and I’m not worthy anyway.

So, for those children. we need to realise that it’s a different pace about rewarding. It may be over time we can extend that system.

But, again, the courage to be able to talk to colleagues and say, this child is going to get a reward today. And also, to some parents who might say, well, that’s what I expected him or her today to do.

Why should that be rewarded? The idea that to warm-up the experience of getting a reward earlier might help with some of the rewiring or might help with some of that memory is really, really valuable.

I think as a class teacher you can still talk to other children if you have these reflections saying, you know, we need to, with this young person here, reward the fact that today there was a moment when we saw him step away from something that yesterday he might have thought he needed to take action on and yippee! Let’s really celebrate that.

And for this child, you’ve been doing that for some time and now you are being able to wait until Friday, when we know that your reward is this. It can be differentiated; in the same way we differentiate curriculum. As long as we can rate that and hold it with confidence.

What to do when waiting for a diagnosis

In this video, Family School Co-Director and Consultant Psychotherapist Brenda McHugh describes how new descriptions of behaviour can aid our understanding of a child or young person. These can help teachers and carers to explore ways to change behaviour they may find challenging during the wait for a formal diagnosis.

 

Video transcript
I think what’s interesting about what you’re offering to us teachers is maybe a different way of understanding what we’ve kind of traditionally looked at as behaviours that need a label.

I think many of us in the teaching profession think, well has this child got ASD? Is it ADHD? Is this conduct disorder? Is it just bad behaviour? And, of course, all of those behaviours, ODD, DPD, you know, it’s just an ever, ever-growing descriptions of things that stop us in our tracks every day.

Now, we have tried, as schools, to get better connection with CAMHS and other services to try and get a better assessment, a more accurate assessment, because we are not in the privileged position of making those assessments. But it can take a while just to get the appointment or even to get the assessment.

I was talking to somebody, a mother, yesterday has been told it takes 12 to 18 months to get an ASD assessment. 12 to 18 months of a child’s life who is 10 is a long time.

So, we need to be doing something with the information that we have. I think that what’s coming out of the neuroscience world are very valuable descriptions that help us understand behaviours — what lies behind behaviour, what we possibly could do to change or challenge that behaviour in our practice, even while we’re waiting.

Doesn’t mean that we still wouldn’t benefit from a diagnosis. But, from my experience of being in CAMHS, it’s not always easy to put children into one box. They’re quite often a mixed profile of difficulties. There may be some aspects of ASD. There may be some aspects of sensory processing. There may be some trauma experience. It’s hard to, kind of, say that this is one diagnosis.

I think what works better, when you’re talking to parents and also ourselves, is having that richer description of the child. Which then means that there are possibilities. There is opportunity for change. Opportunities to try things and see, does that make a difference for this child rather than just waiting for the diagnosis.

How schools can combat social thinning

In this video, Family School Co-Director and Consultant Psychotherapist Brenda McHugh explains how the Family School uses research on social thinning to help think proactively about ways to prevent exclusion.


 
 

 
 

Video transcript
 

I think at the Family School, we were really clear when we set up the school that being excluded and that meaning that families were more isolated was the biggest problem for children who have all of these latent vulnerability difficulties.

And that we needed to create a context that [we] almost replicated the idea of a village raising a child because these children are very much on their own; the parents failures mean they’re on their own. And the more that the family is on their own, let alone the child, the less learning is going on because you’re not picking up ideas from each other. The reinforcement that we are not a family that is successful continues.

So, Family School is really built on combating social thinning. So, the way we do that is that, whenever the family comes in, there is a meeting with the family and all of the network to look at what help everybody thinks they need from the roles and responsibilities. Parents are invited in at the very beginning of a child attending, so we start off with the notion of parents being involved to help us better understand the child. But, not in a way of what we’re looking for is blame. What we’re looking for is creative opportunities to work together.

The neuroscience allows us to think proactively about what we can do to prevent exclusion, not because it’s a government thing that we all have to make sure that we’re reducing exclusions. But, actually why we went into this profession was to really help children change and change through knowledge and change through experience.

And the neuroscience gives us a little bit more courage and a little bit more data to underline with colleagues and with parents why we’re taking a certain action. And gives us confidence that our instincts sometimes actually have some validity. And that instinct to put that into practice and then see the results of that, will then hopefully, grow and distribute through our colleagues as well.

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