“The best predictor of current functioning in youth is current relational health, not history of adversity.” – Bruce Perry (2020:149)
As worldwide events in 2020 have shown, even though our experiences of adversity may be very unequal, we are all united in living through adverse events.
We now know that children and young people who have Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) may be at increased risk of mental health difficulties and behavioural issues, due to what is known as ‘toxic stress’ (Shonkoff, 2012).
The impact of ACEs such as abuse, neglect or domestic violence on the development of a child’s neurobiology – their nervous system, body and mind – cannot be underestimated. We let children and young people down if we ignore (at best) or punish (at worst) these young people for changes to a biological nervous system that they had no conscious control over.
Dr Nadine Burke Harris (2018) has demonstrated robust research to suggest that children who have experienced chronic levels of toxic stress due to ACEs, may go onto have more difficulty regulating themselves, especially in everyday situations they might perceive as stressful or unsafe. This is due to an overactivity of their stress response system.
It can be a daily struggle for individuals who have experienced toxic stress to dampen the (biological) survival impulse to fight, to run or to collapse – and to negotiate with their bodies when ‘visceral warning signs’ (Kolk, 2014:96) tell them they are unsafe and under threat – or to calm themselves when apparent small, daily stresses become overwhelming.
The long-term effects of this can be devastating for many children. There appears to be a direct correlation between those impacted by Adverse Childhood Experiences going on to being excluded from schools and ending up either as victims of crime or becoming perpetrators of crime (Dr Dowd in BurkeHarris 2018 pp.119-20; Bomber, 2020 p.28).
Dr Bruce Perry asserts that when children do experience an adverse event as traumatic, “defined as a complete loss of control and a sense of utter powerlessness” (Perry & Szalavitz, 2006: 52), differing effects in terms of long
term impact may be due to the quality and quantity of ‘protective factors’ they have experienced.
He says: “The more healthy relationships a child has, the more likely he will be to recover from trauma and thrive. Relationships are the agents of change and the most powerful therapy is human love.” (Perry & Szalavitz, 2006:230)
Research from experts in the field of childhood trauma and resilience point to the importance of nurturing relationships, as well as predictable rules and routines, high expectations, strengths-based approaches, meaningful participation, play, friendships, and coping skills – key protective factors – in buffering children from the impact of adversity (Henderson and Milstein, 1996).
One of the most powerful protective factors that can mitigate the effects of trauma and adversity for vulnerable children and young people is a stable, supportive attachment relationship with at least one or two caring, trusted adults who actively listen, respond with empathy, understanding and respect, and convey kindness and compassion (Benard, 2020). Vulnerable students often require comforting and soothing from a consistent trusted adult in order to cope with the difficult and stressful life experiences they may be going through.
Perry advises that: “Troubled children are in some kind of pain – and pain makes people irritable, anxious and aggressive. Only patient, loving, consistent care works: there are no short-term miracle cures.” (Perry & Szalavitz, 2006:244)
We need a county-wide workforce of kind, caring, and consistent trusted adults to reach out to vulnerable children and young people in order to stem the growing tide of social, emotional and mental health needs presented by students in schools.
Sir Ken Robinson once said: “We have to recognise education is a human system and there are conditions under which people thrive, and conditions under which they don’t.”
Children and young people who have experienced ACEs, need nurturing environments designed to suit their developing nervous systems and meet their basic needs in order to thrive. They need trusted adults who understand the story behind the behaviour and lead with kindness in order to gradually build their resilience to stress.
When we lead with kindness, we honour our shared human experience of vulnerability and adversity, and this helps to kindle warm, empathic, relational approaches that can help us to thrive. The drive to encourage these kinds of positive, relational approaches across our communities has been termed ‘Relational Activism’ by Dove and Fisher (2019).
A nurturing, resiliency-enabling environment can help to soften and reduce the adaptive – yet often unhelpful – survival behaviours children have developed in response to highly maladaptive situations because they are presented with an alternative, kinder view of adults and the world to model. And with this kindness, comes a sense of hope and the possibility for change.
I am very proud to be working to support Cheltenham in their commitment to a Community Agreement that aims to lead with kindness so that no child is left behind, and every child can thrive.
Juliette Ttofa is a Specialist Educational Psychologist and Child Therapist. She specialises in the area of social, emotional and mental health needs, especially developmental trauma, attachment needs and emotional resilience. Juliette has published several books and resources on the topic of resilience. She runs a course in “Resiliency Enabling Approaches for Children and Young People” in the county (known as “REACH”) and is passionate about developing a workforce of trusted adults who can nurture the resilience of vulnerable young people.
Acknowledgements to Dr Helen Tyson and Sandwell Educational Psychology Service for their inspirational work around the concept of a ‘trusted adult workforce’.