Time to Turf Out the Toxic – Promoting Wellbeing in Schools

by Nanny Aut

Image by FotoRieth from Pixabay

As an ex-teacher and someone who has a continuing interest in education, especially as it relates to neurodivergent students, I made time the last two weeks to listen to some speakers at the Festival of Education. There were some really interesting discussions about diversity, which reminded me that it is not only disability that suffers from lack of understanding and acceptance in the school environment. Currently schools are exceptionally poor with ANY difference – as it used to say on my school reports a lot – Could Do Better.

Which brings me onto my theme for this post – wellbeing in schools and how the simple act of genuinely promoting belonging could make such a difference.

Wellbeing is a massive issue in schools, and not just because of Covid – this has been brewing for a very long time. There is no question that the uncertainty around Covid and the fear of getting left behind through missing education has not helped the situation, but let’s not pretend for one second that the system wasn’t rotten and toxic to many students long before.

  • Among children of primary school age (5 to 10 year olds), 14.4% had a probable mental disorder in 2020, an increase from 9.4% in 2017.
  • Among secondary school aged children (11 to 16 year olds), 17.6% were identified with a probable mental disorder in 2020, an increase from 12.6% in 2017.

Report from NHS Digital

While I was listening to Sir Kevan Collins talk vaguely about how to promote wellbeing in schools, repeating the same buck-passing phrase, that ‘It is up to the teachers because they know their students best’, I wondered what genuine wellbeing in school would look like and how it could be achieved. While Sir Kevan did touch on belonging – focusing on getting students on the outside to fit in and be more like the majority – it occurred to me that this is part of the issue – the onus is on the outsider to fit in – not on the majority to include.

What would it look like if we did the reverse? If we educated students from Primary – promoting genuine acceptance and understanding instead of the tokenism of ‘Awareness’ days that we currently see. If we expanded children’s thought-worlds so they did not see difference as a scary and threatening ‘other’ but instead saw it as a valuable part of the integral variety and pattern of the school’s culture? If we had a much wider range of diversity on the teaching staff, instead of the discrimination against diversity hires that is common now.

 What would it look like if we educated teachers properly? Making understanding student’s needs and how to support them, core to the training course. If we taught teachers to be able to understand and recognise that not only that behaviour is communication, but WHAT the behaviour is communicating and HOW to address the distress behind the behaviour. If they made Ross Greene’s ‘Lost at School’ and Alfie Kohn’s ‘Punished by Rewards’ mandatory reading for ALL school staff.

The other barrier to school wellbeing is that most schools are filled with toxic trauma from the Senior leadership (SLT) down to the minority students. No one has the autonomy that they need to be able to work to their best, and performance is based on tickbox metrics rather than genuine progress. Behaviourism and compliance, a practice identified as abusive in the late 70’s, is expected to be part of the school culture. Indeed, this is even enshrined in the teaching standards in UK schools, taught as a core part of teacher training and the basis of school Behaviour Policies that run to several pages and contain rules that actively discriminate against neuro-diverse (ND) students. Of all the teaching standards, it is Standard 7, particularly the first two items on the list, that gains the most weight when it comes to teacher assessment. Standard 5, which addresses supporting diversity is often covered by tokenistic action and the loophole of ‘No support document’ is used to justify the little that is done. As many parents will testify, for many schools, support and accommodation is resisted and blocked wherever possible.

Standard 7 of UK Teaching Standards

Manage behaviour effectively to ensure a good and safe learning environment:

  • Have clear rules and routines for behaviour in classrooms, and take responsibility for promoting good and courteous behaviour both in classrooms and around the school, in accordance with the school’s behaviour policy
  • Have high expectations of behaviour, and establish a framework for discipline with a range of strategies, using praise, sanctions and rewards consistently and fairly
  • Manage classes effectively, using approaches which are appropriate to pupils’ needs in order to involve and motivate them
  • Maintain good relationships with pupils, exercise appropriate authority, and act decisively when necessary.

Currently we have a broken system. The WHOLE school is filled with trauma – top to bottom.

  • SLT facing kickback from staff, students, parents and most of all OFSTED. Trying to implement policies foisted on them without consultation. Trying to maintain services and support needed on a budget that is not fit for purpose. Managing a workload that far exceeds hours available, conscious that A LOT of this time could be reclaimed if pointless ‘metrics’ were removed. (Note: some metrics do have value, but these only make up a tiny percentage of those required by people outside of the school.)
  • Teachers feeling unequipped – wanting to support their students but very aware that they often lack the knowledge needed to do so. There is maybe two or three hours spent, in an entire year’s training, developing understanding on ANY diversities. Being asked to implement behaviour policies they don’t feel ethically comfortable with, but know it affects their performance review if they don’t. Being asked to effectively write whole text book chapters for each new lesson, as teaching materials have, for the most part, been cut from the budget. Being asked to waste a lot of their time doing pointless tick-box exercises that do not add to their teaching, but are purely for the ‘metrics’. Having their preparation time cut annually as budgets get tighter. Having classroom support cut annually as budgets get tighter. Being verbally (and sometimes physically attacked) by students and parents who blame the teacher, not the system.
  • Students in the majority group feeling insecure. Socially in the playground interplay, very aware there is an ‘in’ group and and ‘out’ group – and you don’t want to be sent to the ‘out’ group. Academically, feeling their entire future rides on their academic performance. Self-esteem as self-worth is constantly related to popularity and good grades. And this is without even considering home life and family support. Or the traumas related to financial insecurity.
  • Students in minority groups. The majority making it very clear that they don’t belong. Using the act of exclusion of minorities as a way of establishing their own sense of belonging in the majority group. Punished and judged for their natural way of being by both staff and students. Struggling to connect with the majority culture, because it is not their own. Told in a million microaggressions every single day that they are wrong, they are unacceptable, they have no value, they are ‘other’, they are ‘less than’. Barred from accessing their education through failure to accommodate their needs. And if you are autistic – you are also dealing with sensory and processing hell – so much in a school environment is toxic to our nervous system.

All the way from top to bottom you have human beings trapped in a highly stressful situation with no power to address or remove that stress. Is it any wonder that those on the bottom of the pile are attacked and bullied by staff and students alike? When people are under that level of stress, the Air Traffic Controller – the logic brain, is taken out of decision making. Panic Monkey has taken charge, decisions are made from fear and perception of threat. Which makes the development of genuine inclusion challenging to say the least. Panic Monkey fears difference – they see it as unknown and unpredictable and is to be avoided or attacked.

The first thing to address the trauma is to give autonomy back to the schools. Take away the tickbox metrics, and trust, that both teachers and SLT, when provided with effective up-to-date knowledge and the time to implement it, have the will and the ability to do well. Give teachers and management time to think and process properly, instead of constantly trying to stop Panic Monkey from taking complete control. Do that and you create the space that allows for genuine change and creation of an inclusive culture.

So, how does genuine inclusion and ditching behaviourism and coercion address any of this heaving pile of toxic trauma? Isn’t that going to add to the budget and the teachers’ workload? Isn’t it going to mean bad behaviour will increase? The answer is NO.

Research into schools that have used trauma-informed behaviour management – where the stress and the stressors are addressed instead of the behaviour – has shown an 80% decrease in behavioural issues, including suspensions and exclusions. This 80% represents a significant number of students lives and futures saved. Handling behavioural issues currently take up a considerable amount of time, both inside and outside the classroom. Not to mention the money wasted in supporting current punitive measures.

At the moment, we have performative inclusion based around student support documents that take a lot of time and money to produce. And a lot of time and money spent by schools fighting them to avoid ongoing perceived costs of accommodation. If we stopped using the paradigm that there is one ‘proper’ neurology of neurotypical and all other neurologies are defective versions that need fixing, then a whole new route opens up.

Universal design becomes the norm, and accommodations are naturally in place from day one. Movement breaks are included in lessons that help calm Panic Monkey and Dino Brain and boost processing capacity. Wiggle boards are available for chairs. Stim toys can be used by all students. All children are given the autonomy to listen to instructions in whichever way they can focus best. Group interactions are properly facilitated and supported, understanding that different communication styles need to be accommodated. Also, understanding that group work can cause anxiety and overwhelm for a lot of students and knowing how to manage that. A safe retreat area is available in each classroom that ANY child can use if they are feeling overwhelmed.

Hours on tickbox ‘differentiation’, that makes no real impact, is removed. Money and time on support documents are removed – the parent identifies the accommodations needed for their child – and they are believed. Students don’t have to wait until they are completely broken before the school acknowledges they need support. Hours of therapy isn’t needed to repair the damage caused by the schools insisting on waiting – or refusing to accommodate, full stop.

Behaviour policies are binned. Instead, teachers are taught how to identify the barriers that are causing the ‘misbehaviour’ and work with that. They are taught to ask students ‘why’ instead of leaping to isolation. Students are no longer taught by teachers that difference is bad and deserves to be punished.  Variety is allowed in the uniform to accommodate for sensory and financial needs. In particular, understanding that for many students, trainers are not a ‘casual’ choice, that they are the only shoes they are comfortable in, and the discomfort of ‘proper’ shoes is distracting them from learning. And for many families, two pairs of shoes, replaced every time the child grows, is more than they can afford. Take away the rule and then no one is breaking the rule and exceptions do not have to be made.

Hours of detentions and write ups and emails home about missing pencils, uniform infringements are removed. Time will be spent on training and implementing genuine restorative justice but nowhere near the time currently being spent, and wasted, on punishing children instead of supporting them.

Children are taught about differences and taught about how other people can see the world differently and that is OK. They are taught about communication differences and teachers help broker mutual understanding and respect. Children are taught that it is the effort that is important and not the grade and that a person’s value doesn’t lie in their intellectual abilities, their productivity or their popularity. And teachers are taught what effort looks like where there are invisible barriers. A culture is established where including and accommodating everyone is the norm, the bare minimum of decency, instead of being a heroic act worthy of an Insta inspo-p**n post. Where everyone’s achievements are noticed and appreciated and the fight to be noticed and recognised is removed. And because there is no ‘inside group’ of the majority and ‘outside group’ of the minority, replaced by one inclusive group, there is no fear of risking being pushed out – because there is no out.

Research has shown that if ‘challenging’ students feel safe and are calm and focused, the whole class benefits. And if students aren’t worried about belonging or being good enough or having value then Panic Monkey is able to relax and the Air Traffic Controller is back in charge and processing starts to work at its best. If asking questions is the norm, then fear of ‘looking stupid’ ceases to be a barrier when they don’t understand something. If different ways of communicating is the norm, then they will be comfortable with writing on a post-it or using AAC (Augmented Alternative Communication). And if being able to opt out of contributing was the norm, research has shown that students are more likely to participate. Simply because they are no longer struggling with the anxiety of not knowing where on when they will be picked on to speak.

Some schools are already doing these things. Some teachers are already implementing these things in their classrooms. Researchers in educational research are proving that these interventions work and make a huge difference. But currently these are just tiny lifeboats in a big ocean in which too many children are drowning right now.

THIS NEEDS TO CHANGE. If you want to genuinely improve students’ wellbeing, tackle the trauma, turf out the toxic and develop diversity.

2 thoughts on “Time to Turf Out the Toxic – Promoting Wellbeing in Schools

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