I don’t remember much about primary school. I remember small bottles of full fat milk at break time, and Mrs Jones. I remember Mr Young (the Headteacher) and sledging down the small hill behind the school. I remember PE and I remember Danny.
Danny lived in the children’s home near the school. I remember he wore thick black glasses and had messy black hair. I remember him as an angry kid who used to throw chairs and shout and scream a lot. We weren’t really friends and, truth be told, I haven’t thought about him much since we left primary school and went to different secondary schools. But I recognized him in this paper as soon as I read it.
While I don’t remember much about primary school, I do remember the class trip to Whitby. We stood beneath the whalebone arch, we saw the abbey and I remember seeing a whale in the museum (but I might have made that bit up). I remember we went to a joke shop and I remember we saw Danny’s house and met his Mum. I remember it quite clearly. Well, as clearly as you remember something from nearly forty years ago.
We’d left the joke shop and were walking down a hill near the sea and suddenly Danny changed. He went quiet and then he stopped outside a house. I can imagine him now, pacing and then suddenly he was knocking at the door. There was a woman. I recall an embrace and then we were on our way again. I remember shapes and actions, but they could be misremembered. The ‘truth’ of my memory is that there was more to Danny than I’d ever imagined. There was a complexity and a life untold and unshared.
Hindsight is a clear lens. The truth is I didn’t know Danny. The children’s home was simply where he lived, and his anger was just who he was. In my eyes it personified him and yet it wasn’t. It couldn’t be that simple. Even to the eyes of a child.
There are many times that I wish I knew what I knew now because I’d be nicer. Even as a teacher I can’t remember another Danny in my secondary school career – which seems unlikely since I taught for 15 years prior to my move to higher education. I wish I knew then what I know now. What I learnt from reading this paper. We need to be trauma aware. We need to recognise that these young people are on high alert for signs of danger and are, in some cases (more cases than we imagine) in a perpetual state of fight or flight.
In terms of the TAC I cut and paste to the bottom of every blog, I already have my C from this week’s paper. For one, I’ll be contacting Rachel and Oli and asking them if they would be prepared to run a session on the Teacher Education Course at Loughborough. I’ll also start to follow this work more closely and try and unpack the connections the authors make between trauma-aware pedagogies and models-based practice. It seems the least I can do given my own experiences as a child in Whitby.
Quarmby and colleagues set out in this paper to “enhance practitioners’ understanding of how trauma manifests and the impact if can have on children and young people’s engagement in physical education (PE).” The depth of understanding gained from this paper can’t be fully articulated in this blog, but I will try to unpack it a little as it is important in understanding what trauma-aware pedagogues seek to remedy.
Trauma comes in many forms: “exposure to physical, verbal or sexual abuse and physical or emotional neglect, along with those related to household dysfunction affect the environment in which a child grows up, for instance, parental separation, domestic violence, substance misuse, illness and incarceration of a family member.” But the list doesn’t end there, in addition it may include: facing racism, witnessing community violence, living in an unsafe neighbourhood, experiencing foster care or suffering the death of a parent, as well as having a lack of food, being exposed to consistent parental arguments, holding low social economic status, showing poor academic performance, having limited social capital and being rejected by peers.”
The scale of this list is breath-taking and it’s the individual’s response to such adverse childhood experiences (or ACE’s) that determines if these experiences are considered traumatic or not. The impact of such trauma can be varied and can be detrimental to a child’s neurological (e.g. “impacts on the brain and hormonal systems…which can affect information processing and memory”), physiological (e.g. “more likely to be susceptible to chronic diseases, be obese, have diabetes, suffer from high blood pressure and have problems sleeping”) and psychological (“may lead to depression, anxiety, anger and aggression, abandonment issues, difficulty trusting others”) development.
One such group that is likely to experience trauma are ‘care-experienced’ young people. This group includes anyone who, at some point in their lives, “has been removed from family and placed in the care of the state, another family member, in foster care, in a children’s home or on an adoptive placement.” Research tells us that schools – and more particularly teachers – are ill-prepared to work with trauma experienced young people. Quarmby and colleagues response to this admission was to provide ideas about what “trauma-aware pedagogies might ‘look like’ within PE.” They ultimately undertook this – after a wealth of information was shared with the reader that is beyond the scope of this blog to even attempt to unpack – by presenting five principles of trauma aware pedagogies in PE:
Ensuring safety and wellbeing – trauma can lead young people to feeling ‘unsafe’ which, in turn, can result in hypersensitivity to anything that may threaten their safety. This could include the actions of others and the environments in which they find themselves. This means that schools and teachers need to provide protective spaces in physical education which, in turn, requires an understanding of what students perceive as safe. Whilst, as the authors noted, “PE cannot be responsible for healing young people with histories of trauma, it should, without doubt, cause no further harm.”
Establishing routines and structures – structure is important for care-experienced young people and as such PE can support them by establishing routines, providing levels of consistency and helping them to re-establish their “belief that the world can be a safe and secure place.” These students are often more familiar with the demands of joining a new school, making new friends and engaging with a new social worker than they are with stability. Whilst change is familiar it is also a cause of uncertainty and anxiety. Therefore, the more PE can do to forewarn and limit change, the less stressful situations are likely to be.
Sustaining positive relationships that foster a sense of belonging – Trust, especially in adults, is a challenge for young people who have experienced trauma. Trust also impacts on their ability and willingness to form relationships with peers. Research has shown that PE provides different ways of engaging with adults and peers and yet this is not a given. Instead, it relies on teachers “knowing about and understanding the young person’s background.” Other actions teachers can take include a number of little things such as “greeting them using their names, sitting on their level when speaking and being positive and encouraging.”
Facilitating and responding to youth voice – This involves the recognition of trauma experienced young people as diverse and complex learners. It also means “being there” for young people who are familiar with the ‘tokenistic’ inquires of significant adults who listen to the concerns of young people and yet nothing changes. Consequently it means “facilitating and responding to student voice…[by]…building collaboration and ownership of the learning process” into teaching and learning in PE.
Promoting strengths and self-belief – Trauma-experienced young people are more likely to feel self-doubt and are less likely to view themselves positively or acknowledge their own strengths. As such, “promoting strengths and enhancing students’ self-belief in PE is not only important for helping young people to heal from trauma but may also impact on their engagement with education more broadly.”
Quarmby and colleagues present these five inter-related principles as a starting point for conversations around trauma aware pedagogies. They offer a number of comparisons with existing pedagogical models – TPSR and the Activist Approach for example – and argue that there is no one way of “enact[ing] trauma-aware pedagogies rather, that an understanding of trauma may enable physical educators to ask when, and for whom, it might be best to draw on particular models in the teaching of PE, through which these ends can be applied.” Fundamentally, and as the title of the blog suggests, we need to take a trauma-aware lens to our teaching and ensure, at the very least, we do no more harm in the lives of this group of young people.
What’s next? As part of this series of blogs I propose the following as a way of considering the implications of this research on your teaching - Think, Act, Change (or TAC for short).
Think about findings of the paper – do they resonate with you? Use Twitter (@DrAshCasey) to ask a question, seek clarification, maybe challenge the findings.
Act on what you’ve read. What do you believe? Is it your responsibility to make changes or is this just something else that I’ve put on your plate? Is there action to take? If so, what might it be?
Change what you do in response to your thoughts and actions? Is this a personal undertaking? If you want to do something, or are looking for help, then please let the community know about it.
I wouldn’t expect every paper to get beyond the T or even the A of TAC but if one paper resonates enough to get to C then hopefully all this is worthwhile. Good luck.
Quarmby, T., Sandford, R., Green, R., Hooper, O., & Avery, J. (2021). Developing evidence-informed principles for trauma-aware pedagogies in physical education, Physical Education and Sport Pedagogy, iFirst.