The varied experiences of childhood trauma

In all of this the trauma of children takes on multiple forms and facets and becomes more complex as they process the mixed messages from peers, parents and the media. It is worth exploring this a little further because it reveals a much more nuanced picture than the one sector leaders, caught up in a political metanarrative, paint. The reality is that, while there have been some broad commonalities, particularly around being distanced from friends, the psychological demands of lockdown have impacted differently on the well-being of different children, and differently on the same children at different points in the lockdown. As this senior leader in a special school puts it:

I know it’s very early days, but it does seem [that] actually some of the children absolutely thrived and [have] grown [during lockdown] and they haven’t regressed and they’ve come back into school able to engage again. And that gives me great hope for September when we’re opening fully, that actually our children will embrace school and we can, we can, we can carry on carrying on.

(Jane Lovis, deputy head teacher, Pebble Brook School, focus group - special education and alternative provision, 8 July 2020)

Another teacher, formerly UK-based and now teaching overseas, also pointed to the benefits for at least some children, and some families, during lockdown. Reflecting on his own experience of lockdown in Dubai (where schools were also closed), he commented:

I’ve enjoyed it, for the most part. It’s new to me and as such, I’ve had the chance to experiment and assess what works well with the classes I teach (in terms of online teaching strategies). For some students, it has been great. Some have adapted well. I do get the feeling that some have not gotten the best out of it and real specific intervention will be needed for them in the future. As a parent, the time with my daughter has been incredible. Yes, she’s bouncing off the walls and going 100 mph from morning ’til night, but I can’t imagine a time when we’ll ever spend this much time together.

(Glenn Amoah, teacher of secondary English, Ministry of Education Dubai, United Arab Emirates, written submission, 27 June 2020)

A University of Bristol study, published later in lockdown and based on the survey responses of a thousand young people in the South-West paints a similarly nuanced picture, concluding that anxiety levels among young teenagers dropped during the pandemic, with the BBC News website reporting that: ‘Those who felt least connected to school before lock- down saw a larger decrease in anxiety, raising questions about how the school environment affects some younger teenagers’ mental well-being’ (BBC News, 2020a). One of the study’s authors, Dr Judi Kidger, added: As schools reopen, we need to consider ways in which schools can be more supportive of mental health for all students’ (BBC News, 2020a). And this broadly positive (or at least non-traumatising) experience of lockdown was reflected in the comments of some of the young people who joined our focus groups:

Well, me and my friends ... none of us have really been stressing about it. From my end, the people I speak to, none of them were really bothered about having teacher-assessed grades or not having to do their exams ... I think the news and stuff has made it out to be a lot worse than it actually was.

(Ben, Year 11 student (Merseyside), focus group - students (11-16), 25 August 2020)

Another member of the group, ironically the son of a broadcast journalist, agreed:

I’d say the same. I think it’s actually been much better than it’s made out to be by the news. Me and most of my friends weren’t stressed and have fairly enjoyed lockdown and not having to do grades. I know a couple of people who were stressed to begin with, but I think they’re [in] the minority.

(Jack, Year 11 student (London), focus group - students (11-16), 25 August 2020)

For others, lockdown has provided a chance for quality time with siblings:

I’m quite lucky because I have two brothers who are living at home at the moment with the family [during lockdown] ... I think we’ve had fun together as a family. One of (my brothers) is also quite into exercising [and] gym work ... he’s managed to [stop] me getting bored and [has been] getting [me] out of the house ... doing exercise, doing runs. So, I think, in a way, [it’s] brought us together a little bit more than usual because they’re usually at university, and I hardly ever see them, but we’ve just had six months of ... seeing each other ... overall I think it’s been good for us.

(Ed, Year 11 student (London), focus group - students (16-19), 26 August 2020)

Highlighting these cases is not to belittle the very difficult experiences of lockdown had by some young people, especially those living in the midst of abusive relationships or domestic violence, or experiencing the kind of disadvantage that those cited above have not had to contend with. A head teacher who took part in one of our research interviews reveals the following contrast:

I suspect that many children in the area that we serve, that we’re in, have had an experience [that] will have been very advantageous for them, rather than any kind of deficit ... but, also ... we [now] recognise some families [as] vulnerable, who prior to lockdown we would not have identified as having particular vulnerabilities ... particularly around domestic violence, relationships that maybe could be hidden. There are four or five families we now have concerns about who were not on my radar before ... Over the holidays I’ve been in contact with two of those women and we are [now] building a relationship with [professional] support ... which means that when the children come back ... we can offer something that’s more tailored to those children ... We know the damage that domestic violence, and witnessing it, can do to children.

(Head teacher (speaking on condition of anonymity), research interview, summer 2020)

Rebecca Brooks, the author of an early lockdown report on the experiences of adopted children (Brooks, 2020a), also pointed to this more varied picture than popular narratives might have us believe:

We found that more than half of the parents of secondary school children who responded to our survey said that the children were less stressed when they weren’t in school. And this is coupled with a lot of comments of children making remarkable progress or doing much better than parents thought they would.

(Rebecca Brooks, education policy advisor, Adoption UK, focus group - special education and alternative provision, 8 July 2020)

Many of the families and children that Brooks focuses on periodically struggle with school as a result of adoptive trauma and consequent attachment difficulties, something that we discuss further later in this chapter. Other children struggle with school for other reasons, including bullying, and for these children, lockdown may also have provided a relief, rather than a challenge.

Thus, while the simple narrative that the lockdown has been universally damaging suits political protagonists on all sides of this debate and makes for good news copy, the realities that schools will face on the return of children in all year groups will be much more complex. Here, it might be useful to identify some pupil ‘types’, not to suggest that young people fit easily into these boxes (because some children will have moved across these categories at different points during the lockdown), but because it gives a sense of the breadth of the schooling challenge ahead. Three types are perhaps prominent:

  • 1. Lockdown thrivers: these are the children who feel that they may have discovered something that works more effectively for them than the schooling they had experienced before lockdown. On the one hand, this group includes the kind of child referred to by Georgia Holleran (the independent SEND consultant who took part in one of our focus groups in Chapter 6) who has thrived during lockdown because it has offered the opportunity to do something very different to that which takes place in the schoolroom that they are assumed to be missing. They may have struggled with the structure of schooling, the busyness and noisiness of school corridors and school yards, the (often necessary) nature of school regulation or the demands of the school timetable. Alternatively, this group may include children who are living in comfortable settings with good Wi-Fi access and families newly won over by the potential of home-schooling and with the resources and cultural capital to support and richly resource schooling at home. Either way, the children in this group are likely to have discovered news ways of learning with which they are particularly comfortable. Post-lockdown, winning some of these children (and their families) back will be no easy challenge for schools; the likelihood is that some of these lockdown thrivers are likely to switch to home-schooling permanently.
  • 2. Lockdown survivors: these are the children who have, by and large, ‘got through’ lockdown, who have gained some new experiences and developed some new skills but who have missed the sociability of school and the structure that it gives to the day and the week. This group are likely to welcome the return of school, but may return with new perspectives and some sense of what life could be like without school. Prior to lockdown, many of these children will have survived school in much the same way, without necessarily engaging or flourishing. Post-lockdown, engaging these children will be vital to securing their renewed commitment to schooling. If many in this category are the low-maintenance, broadly compliant children that some schools may have taken for granted in the past, they might prove to be a different proposition afterwards and schools need to be ready for this.

3. Lockdown strugglers: these are the children who, for a myriad of reasons, may have found all or part of the lockdown incredibly difficult; they may have experienced abuse, ongoing family discord or domestic violence, they may live in challenging socio-economic or cramped conditions or they may struggle much more profoundly with anxiety, loneliness or with the schoolwork set during lockdown, such that any failure to ‘catch up’ is likely to impact on their already fragile self-esteem. Some of these children will have been unable to access secure Wi-Fi, or the equipment to make the most of such access, during lockdown. Postlockdown, identifying and delivering bespoke pastoral and curricular support to these children is vital, especially if they are dependent on a stable school environment, because this is so markedly different to what they face at home.

The point is that each of these very broad categories, of which membership is fluid over time, holds a tremendous diversity of need, circumstance and experience within it. Thus, these are not categories defined by the classic distinction of perceived or (somehow) measured ability. Instead, they are defined by the complexities of motivation, pre-existing conditions (such as ADHD and autism), personal disposition (however formed but likely to be heavily influenced by issues of attachment and adverse childhood experiences) and family attitudes and situation.

Too often in the past, schools have mixed the former with the latter, confusing the former (ability) with all kinds of behaviours that may present as difficult to manage for the school, or at least for the mainstream school or practitioner. For this reason, post-lockdown, the skill sets held by those who work in our special schools, in alternative provision and as SEND coordinators, those leading on the social curriculum and overseeing PSHE and pastoral provision, pupil counsellors, family liaison officers and educational psychologists are likely to be at a premium. Late and post-lockdown, the wider schooling system will need to acknowledge - and invest in - the expertise of these groups as never before. In the ‘new normal’ these skill sets will need to be ‘in the room’ from the start, not in an office, or former storeroom, down the corridor or at the end of a last-ditch and reluctantly made phone call.

And, this will be especially the case in the weeks immediately after schools return to something like full-scale operation. Why? Because during this period, very many pupils and students, whatever their age, circumstance and location on the matrix presented here, are likely to feel levels of anxiety, not unlike those that they first experienced on their first day at primary or secondary school; thriving or surviving during - or for most of - lockdown is an indicator of future need, but it does not preclude the possibility of high anxiety in those first few days and weeks back, especially if strong pressure is being exerted to ‘catch up’ during this period.

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