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You can lead a horse to water, but can you make it learn? Showing compassion as schools reopen.

Updated: Jun 29, 2021

With schools reopening and learning returning to the classroom, there is much talk about a ‘catch up’ curriculum with the possibility of an extended school day and summer schools being discussed. Within this blog, we approach the current situation through a trauma-informed lens and consider the importance of incorporating compassion within the classroom.

Much like the old proverb ‘you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink’, it’s important to remember that you can lead a child to the classroom, but you can’t make them learn. Whilst we often picture traumatic events to include one-off incidents like car crashes and house fires, or alternatively, the experience of abuse or neglect, Duros & Crowley (2014) define trauma as being what happens to a person where there is either ‘too much, too soon, ‘too much for too long’ or ‘not enough for too long’. Based on this definition, the current lived experience of our children and young people through the coronavirus pandemic most definitely constitutes trauma – something that’s been going on for too long.

One way of thinking about how we perceive threat is that our thinking part of the brain (the frontal cortex) switches off and instead our actions and behaviours are guided by our reptilian brain (our fight/flight/freeze response) and our limbic brain, responsible for our emotions. The activation of these systems (without mediation provided by the frontal cortex) can result in aggression, hiding, running away and outbursts of emotions. Alternatively, children can persistently try to please or may ‘flock’ together, attempting to share their experiences with others. These are behaviours that we commonly see in the classroom and we can interpret these as the child trying to say “I need help” and “I don’t feel safe”.

As we return to schools following the closure period, this is very much going to be the case for some of our children and young people and here, it can be really helpful to think about how we respond, being sure to ‘match’ the emotional tone of an interaction.

In addition, we must remember that when we do not feel safe, we are not open to learning. That is because, without the activation of the frontal cortex, we lose key skills that are needed to access classroom teaching. These include language skills, organisational skills, planning, inhibition control, logic and reasoning. So even in the cases where child may not be displaying outward signs of emotional dysregulation, there remains a possibility that their response to the coronavirus pandemic is one of protection, limiting those cognitive functions.

Therefore, before we’re able to focus on a ‘catch up’ curriculum, plying children with extended opportunities for learning, we must first make sure that every child feels safe and secure, open to the possibility of learning. Without prioritising the mental wellbeing of our children and young people, learning will not be possible, regardless of how much ‘water’ we ‘lead’ them to!

To learn more about ways of fostering feelings of safety and security within your classroom, enrol on our 3 hour, self-paced online learning course ‘Supporting co-regulation through a trauma-informed approach’ (coming soon).

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