I started training school staff and advisory teams around understanding children who had experienced trauma over ten years ago. It was something that grew naturally out of my years as a teacher and then as an experienced play therapist and clinical supervisor. For schools, it was a new concept and back then I was very much a lone voice. At that time most people were still talking about Emotional Literacy and some nearer the front of the curve, were getting their heads around Attachment.
Over the last decade and the last few years particularly, there has been an explosion in the ‘popularity’ of trauma awareness. Everyone and his dog is a proud ‘trauma informed’ practitioner/ professional / school. (The dogs, it should be said, didn’t need as much training as the people ;-))
So how is it then, that with the great shift in our cultural acceptance of ‘mental health’ and embracing the crucial fact that we need to understand trauma, be properly informed around what it is, the impact it has and really take it seriously, that a little boy age 7 is in his second month of medication?
Let me explain. One of my consultations recently was precious time with a Mum. She is one of the Mum’s that really care about their kids and genuinely want the best for them. A mum who is prepared to do more than lip service and willing to look at the bigger picture, honestly. She wanted to see if I could help with her son’s new diagnosis of ADHD, and what, if anything could support him, because she wasn’t truly thrilled to have her 7 yr old on 2 different meds daily.
The story of his journey from (let’s call him…) Sonny, to a ‘boy with ADHD’ was pretty typical. Issues first raised when he was at nursery, concern from teachers and Sencos throughout KS1. Ed Psyche. EHCP. CAMHS assessment – diagnosis, oh, and then a mere 6 sessions of ‘therapeutic creative arts’ with a charity. His presenting symptoms were pretty standard; hyperactive, struggles to sit down, avoidant of work, buzzy, blurting out, happy on his gameboy, low self-esteem etc.
The point that truly shocked me in all this, is this: In the conversations (across 3 different schools) with the 6 teachers he had from nursery to now, and the SENCOs, the Ed Psyche, the CAMHS worker and the creative arts ‘therapist’, not ONE of them mentioned to her that all his behaviours might also be a result of early and complex childhood trauma.
Didn’t they know his full life history?
Yes, they did.
Apparently mum had been as open and honest with all of them as she was with me. They knew about the multiple things that had happened in the past and the current, significant family situation that was still on going. Not one person saw the link to complex childhood developmental trauma. Not one person saw his behaviour and functioning ability as a very understandable and normal result of a nervous system that had been totally overwhelmed multiple times in his short time on this earth.
We need to do better.
We can do better.
Sonny has been through ‘the system’. I fully understand that this system is at breaking point and in it’s own state of overwhelm. I also know all the grown-ups within this system care and want the best for these precious kids. But for a little boy to come through without one person truly asking and grasping ‘what’s happened to you?’ seems to me broken. For so many professionals to be part of his story and invest time in his case but not yet truly ‘see’ him feels all kinds of sad.
We need to do better.
We can do better.
This is not ‘trauma informed’ care. For a little boy to be on meds, and working on adjusting his 7 year old self-identity around a label that may last him the rest of his life, but may well not be accurate, is, to me, not OK. This kind of thing was going on as standard 10-15 years ago. I thought we were past this.
TO BRING CHANGE
To change the trajectory of the mental health crisis in our teens and older children, we need to start to truly honour and respect the impact of life experiences on a little person’s brain and body. We need to stop automatically seeing fidgeting, buzz-iness, needing to move and reluctance to write as ADHD (I know there’s more to it – I’m being brief on purpose).
There is a current move in education to encourage people to stop seeing children just as their labels. It is damaging to them and potentially misses their real unique needs. I wholeheartedly agree. However, I would suggest their real and biggest need is being seen and understood correctly in the first place.
In case you are wondering, I helped Mum become ‘informed’ about the impact of childhood trauma… it made complete sense and resonated deeply with her. She cried with relief that finally someone got it.
Claire Wilson is a trauma therapist and consultant. Her first book GROUNDED – Understanding the Missing Piece in the Puzzle of Children’s Behaviour, is widely acclaimed by teachers, parents and therapists in the UK and around the world. She was one of the first to bring the understanding and application of Polyvagal Theory to the UK. Claire’s TEDx talk is a great resource for anyone who cares about mental health. Both can be found at www.groundedgrownups.com
Did you see the waves come through?
Did you feel the tremors?
Did you notice everyone hold their breath and freeze, go faster, do more or panic out loud with previously unheard screams; loss and pain that may yet reverberate through generations.
Did you scream? Cry? Hold your breath? Did you stop, retreat, collapse, or push through, push on, push out?
2 years…. And still counting…
It is not over.
The waves are still coming.
The tremors still rumble and all around structures are being shaken, falling, failing, disintegrating.
Danger often comes from outside. We are held safe and supported or impacted – even threatened, by what is going on around us. Jobs… culture… services…structures… leadership… legalities. Squeeze. Contract.
And the hardest part. The additionally traumatizing part of it all… is when leaders don’t see.
When they hide their eyes. Deny impact. Disconnect. And like a child shutting down in a classroom, can’t help their behaviour. They simply live out their patterns. Their own curated collections of trauma still unseen, un-visited, pain unacknowledged. Upper lip stiffened years ago. Lip service all they can muster. Bluster. Souls still toughened with danger-proof steel. Focus narrow. Numbers. Tangibles. Tables. Survive chaos by control. Deflection. Distraction. Control.
When they keep going and going and going and….
When they get smaller, and bigger, and tighter, and less authentic and more powered. More power-fuel. Their conundrum of mis-alignment growing with each new challenge. Shock. Blow. Still unbroken. Lips unquivering. Unflinching. Unaware without and within. Perpetuating impact for others. Amplifying Pain.
When they deem the best way is forward. With blinkers and denial and blame and formulated standards. Power used for preservation. Subconscious intention.
When they grab back the boxes. Grapple a way back to ‘normal’.
But it is not normal.
Normal got swept away by the waves that were higher than the highest buildings.
Normal was buried under the rubble of these times.
We need to bring you flowers. To place candles and vigil in the streets. We need time to mourn you too. It would help us, to demonstrate and collate, to slow and be still and acknowledge our loss of precious, steadfast, idolized, idealized Normal.
These times. Now. Not familiar. They are turbulent. Still.
Life has been changed. We have all been in the sea of it. All of us. Some got boats. Some died. Others are drowning. Still.
Gasping. Desperate. Too long spent existing beyond themselves. It is not over. Still.
Change and uncertainty remains. Exhaustion flooding. Tolls are being taken.
We could survive together. We have better chances together.
All of us need…all of us.
But when leaders continue to cling on to their survival patterns of disconnection. When leaders remain ignorant of themselves. They can not empathize. They cannot be together. Their bodies simply cannot be.
There is no allowance for grieving Normal. No tolerance for tangible truth. No sense in wasting time being still. Not good optics to be seen standing in streets acknowledging such cosmic change. Impact.
Trauma from years back changed them. Then. Now. It is no longer possible to connect with others. To acknowledge pain. It is too much. May crush what’s left of them… their survival selves… their remains… they cannot allow that. They cannot stop. CanNOT be weak. Must not be broken. Must not look back. Must carry on. Pretending. Functioning. Freezing. Desperate. Numb. Brains on over drive. Doing the only thing they know to do. Survive. Preserve. Power. Assert. Rules. Direct. Clamber back control.
And all the while appeasing those leading them.
STILL by CLAIRE WILSON
Founder of GROUNDEDGrownUps®
For more insight on nervous systems and the impact of the past, check out her book
GROUNDED – Discovering the Missing Piece in the Puzzle of Children’s Behaviour
or her TEDx talk
This review appeared in the summer (2019) edition of Play for Life, an International journal for Play Therapists.
GROUNDED ~ Discovering the Missing Piece in the Puzzle of Children’s Behaviour
CHEW Initiatives, 2018
Paperback 131 pp
Claire Wilson has many years of experience in working with children, parents and teachers. Starting out as a teacher, a youth worker and helping to run retreats for adults, she became a play therapist in 2008. She is now an accredited play therapist, supervisor and has an MA in practice-based play therapy. Her vocation is further demonstrated through being the founder of CHEW initiatives, (chewinitiatives.com) and an advocate for children’s mental health.
“Grounded” is a concise text written for all adults that care for children both professionally and personally. It is written from the heart, with a genuine passion and dedication to enlightening and supporting the reader with the message that adults possess the most significant variable in influencing children’s behaviour. The book is engaging, very easy to read and has a clear, appealing layout with diagrams to illustrate the key points. Claire seamlessly incorporates evidence from neuroscience, predominantly Porges’ polyvagal theory, (with neuroception as a key element), and the work of Bruce Perry. She has astutely outlined this theory in a very accessible way. Case studies from her work and personal life are used throughout the text, really bringing the book to life. Practical ideas are also offered, lending it to being a book to revisit time and again.
Although not written specifically for Play Therapists, I believe that “GROUNDED” will be of deep interest to those at all levels, from just embarking on the certificate course, to seasoned practitioners. Claire highlights the link between the mind and body in a trauma informed and holistic approach, compatible with PTUK’s model. “Grounded” offers a powerful reminder about the value of human connection and relationships as the keystone to managing behaviour. The author accentuates the notion that all key adults can unwittingly influence the behaviour of children; I found it incredibly useful to have neuroception explained in terms of this impact. For me personally, this book has encouraged me to introspect on how my own physiological state is “neurocepted” by the children I work with. Equally, when attempting to unravel a child’s behaviour when the cause is not obvious, it has highlighted to me the significance of considering the influence of other key relationships. Consequentially, this has encouraged me to reconsider the benefits of working with parents alongside their children in these terms.
The author briefly outlines the trauma-healing modalities of somatic experiencing and TRE, in which she is trained. These may be of interest to more experienced practitioners as areas to consider for CPD.
Because of the considerate, supportive and straightforward writing style, this book is one I will recommend to parents and teachers; the author is non-judgmental and kind to the reader. Recently, I have delivered a staff meeting on de-escalation and found it useful to convey the key message I got from the book: Bodies speak louder than words; it is only when we are grounded that we can fully help a child to calm, (Wilson, 2018).
Claire Wilson’s genuine commitment to the message she delivers is demonstrated through an invitation to join an online supportive community in which adults can further explore their journeys in becoming more grounded. I thoroughly recommend this book to everyone who has a desire to influence children in a positive way. Not only is it informing, encouraging and supportive but offers an attainable way in which all adults, in becoming more grounded, can pave the way to enable children to be their best selves.
Helena Cole, PTUK Certified Play Therapist
I recently heard about a group of children who were told that they were important but that all the adults who work with them were replaceable.
It is incredible to me that someone would say that to children…. that someone would say that at all…
and as far as children go, in my professional opinion, it is absolute rubbish.
Children survive and thrive in relationship. If you have read GROUNDED then you will know the inside info on how this works, but let’s simply say here that the relationships they have with the people around them MATTER. Which means, if you are a grown up around children in any capacity; YOU MATTER. You are UNIQUE. You are NOT replaceable.
The relationship that each child has with you is unique. That relationship is NOT replaceable. If you were to go away the child (and you the adult) looses that unique relationship. It is gone. It lives on, only in memory.
Children need role models… and they will model themselves on the grown-ups around them. The media would have us believe that the only role models children value are the out-of-touch celebrities they see on TV or the slightly more ‘reachable’ YouTubers.
It’s not true. Yes those people have some influence. However, children learn how to be, how to do life, by watching closely the people around them. Their brains and bodies react and respond positively to the people they feel good around, the people who understand them, respect them and make them feel safe.
So let’s get personal. Let’s really bring this into your world. Let me ask you – what’s your number?
I’m not talking contact details… 😉
I want to ask you if you have ever stopped and thought about the number of children who love the fact that you are in their world? The number of children who would be significantly impacted if you weren’t there anymore. The number of children you influence?
You Have Influence
It’s worth taking time to think about it. Maybe even write it down. Here is a little list to help jog your memory:-
- kids you are related to
- kids you share home with permanently or occasionally
- kids who visit your home for any reason (play dates, meals etc)
- kids you take places (car runs etc)
- kids you work with 1:1
- kids you work with in groups
- kids you work with in classes
- kids you are responsible for, who know your name and who see you regularly
So add them all up – What’s your number?
That number represents lives you influence, lives you impact, lives YOU ARE IMPORTANT to.
I wonder, when you really stop and think about it, how do you feel about that?
It can be so easy to get swept along in the busy and fall into the trap of
thinking our relationship with all these children is somehow one way – that we think about them, that we plan for and look after them, that we notice when they are not ok.
Let me tell you it goes both ways. If you have influence in a child’s life, they see you too.
What you do matters.
WHO YOU ARE matters.
I know this story is well known. I’m sure you have heard it before. This is my version of it. It ‘s good to come back to and remember it’s message now and again. We may not be in a position to change the world for all children, but we can certainly make a difference…
One day a man was taking his dog for a walk to the beach. It was early in the morning – a great time of day for a walk, especially with a dog.
As the man got to the top of the cliff he could see the debris from the storm that had rampaged against the shore all night long. The beach was covered in all sorts of things: seaweed, drift wood, rubbish… and starfish.
There were hundreds and hundreds of starfish that had been carried up onto the beach by the waves. Now the tide had gone back out, the waves had abandoned their cargo and if these starfish didn’t get back into the water – well…
Everyone knows that starfish need water.
Water is the environment that they can thrive in.
The man got down the steep path with his dog, and onto the beach. And he could see now that he wasn’t alone. There was someone else on the beach early this morning too.
It was a boy and he was throwing things into the sea.
The man got near to the boy as he was going in that direction anyway… and as he approached he could see that it wasn’t pebbles or wood the boy was throwing in, but starfish!
The man shook his head and carried on walking. The beach was covered in the tiny creatures. What could anybody do to save them? It was ridiculous to try. “Ridiculous…” he muttered to himself and on he went.
When he had got as far as the big rock – the only thing it seemed the sea hadn’t moved in last nights’ storm, he turned, called his dog and started heading back up the beach towards home.
He was amazed to see that, after all this time (he walked slowly, did the man) the boy was still there. Still patiently and carefully picking starfish up one at a time and throwing them back in to the waves.
The man started muttering and mumbling to himself again… but his dog went bounding up to the boy, wagging his tail and curious to see what was in his hand.
The man, who was obviously older and knew a thing or two about life, couldn’t help himself. He told the boy he was being ridiculous. That he should stop what he was doing right now and go back home. There were too many starfish up on the beach… and he was just a boy. The man finished his ‘advice’ with the simple, emphatic statement: “There are too many of them. There is nothing you can do to make a difference.”
The boy stopped still for just a moment. Was he deciding to listen to the man? Was he contemplating the truth of what the man was saying? Or was he trying to figure out something else.
Quietly the boy turned and bent to pick up another starfish. He walked it to the sea’s edge and gently tossed it back in. “Made a difference to that one…” he said, and he bent to pick up another. “Made a difference to that one… “as it flew threw the air and splashed back home.” Made a difference to that one…” with each and every starfish that he saved.
Now it was the man’s turn to be quiet. He watched the boy for a few moments, his dog hovering by his side wondering what would happen next… and if it was home-time still. Then the man bent down. His eye fell on a beautiful starfish that had slightly different colouring to the others. He gently picked it up, walked it to the water’s edge and released it quietly, whispering “made a difference to that one…”
While we all continue to raise our voices and advocate for better provision for the mental health of children and young people, we need to talk about what is already happening. It may be that we can make what is there even better, even more effective. Many organisations are suggesting we need a play therapist in every school – and don’t get me wrong, it would be a great step in the right direction – but there are certain things we need to talk about when it comes to therapy provided in school. Many schools around the country have taken the courageous decision to employ a qualified play therapist at least 1 day a week. Many schools know it is important and have fought to retain that provision through the crazy current budget situations. Many schools don’t realize what they have really done by doing that! What do I mean? Well beyond the obvious ‘we have employed a qualified mental health professional to work with a few of our children’ is hidden something else. It is this:
‘We have brought into our school, a mental health professional who works in a different way, with different priorities, different processes and a whole different way of thinking.’
Many schools and therapists actively say they value diversity, however, it is a common phenomenon across the country, that when therapists start working in schools, these differences, between their culture and school culture, if not handled proactively, can bring confusion, frustration and quiet animosity on both sides. Understanding the main points where these two cultures clash can bring real insight and when openly addressed actually improve the quality of the mental health provision for each child.
In a school a closed door is frequently hardly noticed (apart from the door to the Head’s office?) and is opened and often walked through without acknowledging it even existed. Any message it may be giving is unheard, un-acknowledged and not respected. Closed doors have little-to-no meaning, and whatever a person needs on the other side of the door, whatever activity is happening there that they will interrupt, they are allowed to proceed to their agenda. That is common door culture in schools. In the world of therapists a closed door is imbued with profound meaning. It is a sacred way of protecting a client. Helping them know they are safe here; there will be no interruption, intrusion or any distraction. It lets them know that this room, this space is for them. It lets them know that they are important, they are valuable. It reassures them that the often hideous things they have experienced that may have them feeling worthless and vulnerable, will not happen here. A respected closed door communicates to the hurting child that they, and the things they may need to concentrate on in this session, are IMPORTANT, will be HONOURED and are worth PROTECTING.
In schools change is the one constant. Room changes, timetable changes, lesson changes (curriculum changes and government focus changes!). One of the qualities of a proficient teacher is to be able to ‘go with the flow‘ be spontaneous and keep the learning agenda high whilst juggling, being flexible and creating ‘on the hoof’. In the therapy world consistency is another sacred way of showing respect for the client and the journey they need to make. Therapists will resist change and it is important that they do. Sessions need to be at the same time, on the same day, in the same place each week. Children learn very quickly when their session is, and that time and day becomes an anchor for them in their often turbulent weeks. Keeping things looking the same, and in the same place in the room (without items suddenly missing or being added) helps children develop relationship with the room as well as the therapist. It is a big part of helping a child feel safe and trusting this space. I will never forget the child who made a card to stick on the cupboard before he left his last play therapy session before the Christmas holidays. What did he write on it? ‘Bye room. See you next year.’
In school playing with toys, or doing anything that is not timetabled or sitting in the classroom with the rest of the class can be seen as a ‘treat’. If a child isn’t in school then they don’t get to go swimming, they don’t get to see the pantomime, they don’t go to Lego club, and they don’t get Golden Time; they don’t get their ‘treats’. Therapy is a mental health provision. It is there to support a child as they try to survive and heal from the challenges that life has thrown them. Therapy is often very hard work. It may seem like fun to an outsider, because a client gets to choose what they ‘play with’ but really a child is just choosing their safest way to express what has happened to them in the past, what they are dealing with in the present or what the are scared about in the future. Going there, thinking about that stuff, is rarely fun. Therapy is not a treat. Even though it may happen on the school premises it is not ‘school’ ie education, it is a mental health provision. If a child is unwell they will obviously miss a session. If a child is excluded however, they will still need to attend their session (and they now have even more to process) and then go home again.
In school any educational process is governed by the progress and outcomes that are provable. Each lesson, intervention group, and module of work is assessed and evidence is gathered that progress is being made in lines with already pre-determined markers. Progress in these terms is more-or-less a straight upward trajectory. If there is evidence that things are getting better then ‘it’ is working. In therapy assessing ‘progress’ is an altogether different scenario. General tick box-assessments (SDQs etc) are made regularly (probably termly). However, in between these tools, which are only 1 element to a wider review process, ‘progress’ may look different to the therapist than it does to school staff. A child who has been shut down, possibly in freeze following earlier life trauma will always hit into the massive survival energies of the fight/flight physiology as they start to feel safe enough to ‘heal’. As I explain in detail in GROUNDED, this is a particular area where staff can easily mistake behaviour that is more challenging for no-progress or things getting worse.
In school extra educational provision can stop on a whim. Heads are under intense scrutiny from higher powers to line up budgets, to justify spending, to use the little money they have for the greatest return. They think big picture. What’s best for everyone, and make most of their decisions of success inline with section 4 above. If something isn’t seeming to them to be ‘working’ they are used to having the power and autonomy and (internal sense of responsibility) to make a decision and stop it swiftly. In therapy endings are INCREDIBLY important. The child is likely to have already had a collection of losses in their life – possibly leaving them with self-beliefs like ‘people always leave me’, ‘don’t trust people- they will go’, ‘people don’t want to be with me’, ‘people don’t like me and go away’. If a child has been through a deep healing journey with a therapist they will need a long run of sessions to process all their thoughts and feelings as their relationship and their access to their safe space comes to an end. 6 weeks of counting down with the child enables them to do what they need to, say what they want to and have a positive ending experience that leaves a good deposit in their life. They are part of the process and empowered by it. Ending a child’s therapy should be a joint decision made by the therapist, school, parents AND the CHILD. Any deviation to this procedure and the therapist will likely challenge the decision. They will advocate for their client. It is their job. It is important for that child’s mental health that they do. Of course, emergencies happen, and will be managed as best as possible by the therapist, however as a rule they should be the rare exception. Suddenly imposed endings cause damage to a child’s mental health. No one wants to be responsible for that.
Schools and therapists both long for happy children. Schools and therapists agree that there are oceans of unhappy children currently swirling through schools. Therapy can absolutely be a life raft for them, but only when the school and therapist work hard to communicate. Communicate needs. Communicate expectations. Communicate about communication! Communicate with curiosity, respect and with a desire to understand each other. We only manage to build bridges and work together with those from other cultures when we can first acknowledge we are not the same. Supporting our children’s mental health and supporting effective therapeutic provision in schools is going to challenge, test and grow us all! Are these children worth it? I believe we already know the answer to that… Claire Wilson is the Clinical Director of CHEW Initiatives and has many years experience as a teacher and subsequently an accredited play therapist. She is now a therapeutic adviser to schools, and is the author of GROUNDED: Discovering the Missing Piece in the Puzzle of Children’s Behaviour written for parents and all professionals working with and around children (www.groundedbook.net)