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Why do our children need trauma-informed schools?

Most adopted children have experienced trauma, and their adverse childhood experiences mean they could go on to suffer mental and physical ill-health. They often find it difficult to cope with a school environment that is not able to support them as children and teenagers and enable them to learn and thrive.  The impact of these experiences affects the way children and teenagers develop healthy relationships, as well as how they learn, feel and behave. They may be unable to trust adults, unable to stay calm and become easily overwhelmed by their fears leading to a flight, fight or freeze stress response. With their cup of tolerance overspilling, our children will be unable to learn until the gaps are filled. Particularly within the education system, they often mask how they are feeling, are often misunderstood and too often we see the stress levels of both the child/teenager and teacher escalate.

Adopted children are more likely to have special educational needs and disability (SEND), but it is worth noting that the profile of an adopted child with SEND is significantly different to that of the SEND cohort in general. Adopted children are significantly more likely to have an Education Health and Care Plan (EHCP), with many having needs in more than one category and with some having difficulties in several categories.

Children experiencing the effects of insecure attachments, developmental trauma and FASD, for example, will tend to experience difficulties in several areas. Adoption UK’s 2017 report on Schools and Exclusions highlighted that FASD, for example, can result in hyperactive behaviour, poor memory, poor maths skills, language difficulties, executive functioning difficulties, sensory impairments and sensory integration difficulties.

The same report suggested that the primary area of need for adopted children is in the area of Social, Emotional and Mental Health (SEMH) learning. If our children are facing particular challenges in these areas, it raises the question of how they are perceived in the educational environment. Does a lack of awareness among teachers and other school staff lead to inappropriate interventions in response to the difficulties caused by attachment, trauma, sensory integration disorders and FASD etc? And does this, in turn, result in inappropriate behaviour or difficulties being exacerbated or escalated, even leading to mental health problems?

If an adopted child or teenager is not adequately supported in their school, there could be significant consequences. They could end up being excluded from their school and/or moved to an unsuitable education setting. This can also have an impact at home, with an increased risk of family breakdown and the child or teenager risks facing long-term mental health difficulties and lifelong problems.

What is going wrong?

Schools are busy places, with a lack of money, time and the specialist staff needed to support children that have experienced trauma. Adoptive families often struggle to find a school that can understand and meet their child’s needs. Adopted children are falling behind, they are more likely to be excluded, have SEMH needs and are more likely than other children to leave school without any qualifications.

Adopted children need a school that is attachment aware, and trauma informed, with these practices embedded and at the forefront of their provision. If our children’s needs are effectively met at school, then their brain can focus on learning rather than on keeping them regulated. Increased provision of the right sort of support for our children in the classroom can lead to higher attainment which, in turn, leads to a greater sense of wellbeing for the child.

Unfortunately, all the relevant evidence suggests that in general, schools in England are not providing the support that our children need due to a lack of knowledge, understanding and specialist expertise. We know that our members recognise the four gaps identified in Adoption UK’s ‘Bridging the Gap’ report – the Understanding Gap, the Empathy Gap, the Resources Gap and the Attainment Gap – all of which must be bridged if adopted children are to have an equal chance in school. Our concern is that as the mental health of our children has been impacted by the pandemic, so too have these gaps grown bigger. Teaching provisions are struggling now more than ever, and CAMHS (Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services) are both overstretched and lacking in understanding of adopted children’s needs.

What will We Are Family do?

Our members have told us that the call for trauma-informed schools is one they want us to make on their behalf, so this will be one of the priorities for our advocacy work.

We will learn from the experiences of our members and use this to inform our calls for:

  • Trauma-informed schools: We will join others in the sector in calling for a commitment from central government and local authorities to ensure that schools are trauma-informed, creating educational-settings which relate to children in a calm and safe way, eradicate over stimulating environments, and avoid toxic stress situations. We want to see a commitment to developing schools which will have emotionally available adults able to support our children and teenagers to avoid living out their trauma at school, to develop effective coping strategies, to build relationships that heal not harm, and to learn and flourish.
  • Improved information: Recognising that it will take a long time for all schools to become trauma-informed and support our children in the way we would like, we will call for improved information to be made available by local authorities so that adoptive parents can easily identify which schools have completed attachment training and trauma-informed training and how this knowledge is embedded throughout their provision.
  • We are Family will also continue to develop resources which we hope will support our members to navigate the challenges of school selection and engagement with teachers to ensure that their children are able to get the best out of their educational journey.

How can you help?

Please do get in touch with us ( if you would like to be involved in helping us to shape our work on trauma-informed schools. We’d also love to hear from you if you and your children have had either positive or challenging experiences of the education system, as we want to make sure that our work in this area is fully informed by your experiences.

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