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Changing our use of feedback and becoming a trauma-informed school: A case study

Written by: Claire Tyson and Wendy Brown
6 min read
Claire Tyson, Teacher Researcher, IBCP Coordinator, Homewood School & Sixth Form Centre, UK
Wendy Brown, Family Liaison Officer, Homewood School & Sixth Form Centre, UK

The purpose of this case study is to illustrate how our school responded to an identified need to improve a range of outcomes for pupil premium (PP) and other disadvantaged students. This began by recognising the impact of developmental trauma and adverse childhood events (ACE) on disadvantaged students. The initial response was a programme of staff development with the goal of becoming a trauma-informed school (TSA, nd).

The setting for this case study is the largest secondary school in Kent, part of a multi-academy trust and serving a mixture of both rural and urban communities. This case uses qualitative data from members of the associate and teaching staff, recorded as reflections and action plans. Thematic analysis of these reflections (Braun and Clarke, 2006) provides evidence of our changing mindset, including a new awareness of adverse childhood events, and how this is changing our use of feedback. 

The challenging context

Students eligible for pupil premium make up 24 per cent of the cohort. Key Stage 3 data from ImpactEd (impacted.org.uk) showed that their baseline scores were below national averages for competencies in metacognition, growth mindset, motivation, self-efficacy, school engagement and conscientiousness. Kate Farrell, Director of Student Achievement, spent time observing PP students in the classroom and reading literature on improving outcomes for vulnerable students (Rowland, 2017) and narrowing the attainment gap (Sobel, 2018). Her observations and research led her to believe that building positive relationships with students was at the heart of the improvements that the school needed to make. 

Building positive relationships with ‘difficult’ students

In her role as a FLO (family liaison officer), Wendy Brown was familiar with the concept of building positive relationships with students and working with teachers to support students with a wide range of difficulties, in both their learning and their social interactions. Prior to school closure, the associate and teaching staff had both informal and formal ways of connecting with each other to discuss individual students and their needs, but this was a ‘reactive approach’, often in response to a problem with a student. As a result of her work, Wendy had identified that we needed to become a different kind of school:

‘The answer for me is for school to take a trauma-informed approach with every child. It’s not difficult, it’s not massive, it is about learning for us all, about reflecting on our practice, being curious, building relationships and treating every student as an individual.’

Solutions to the problem

The challenge of becoming a trauma-informed school led to the creation of a well-resourced virtual training programme, coordinated by Kate Farrell and supported by Leanne Janion and Wendy Brown.

During the school closures that occurred from March to July 2020, all staff were asked to participate in a development programme about working with disadvantaged pupils and pupil premium students. This was delivered through a dedicated Google Classroom so that training could continue during school closure. Teaching and associate staff were placed into multidisciplinary virtual teams so that they could benefit from each other’s experiences and perspectives.

Data collection

At the end of the weekly training and team meetings, the staff were asked to reflect on their learning and write a summary of their thoughts and feelings. These were submitted to the Google Classroom and collated onto a spreadsheet. The other main source of information for this article was the written reflections of Wendy Brown, family liaison officer.

Ethical approval to use these reflections for this article was granted by the school principal, and informed consent was obtained from 22 members of staff.

Data analysis

Thematic analysis was chosen as the tool for data analysis because it provides a relatively theory-free and flexible tool for rich and complex accounts of the data. Thematic analysis is a method for identifying, analysing and reporting patterns (themes) within data. It minimally organises and describes a dataset in (rich) detail (Braun and Clarke, 2006). In this case study, thematic analysis was used as an essentialist or realist method, which reports experiences, meanings and the reality of participants.

The original data items were collected as responses to weekly assignments on topics including attachment disorder, developmental trauma, closing the reading gap, anger management and unconscious bias.

The data items were then coded, using data-driven initial codes. Some examples of these include:

  • using data and information about students
  • a new awareness of theories such as ACE
  • comparing new and old strategies
  • acknowledging personal bias
  • anger in self and others.

The coded segments were sorted into potential themes, and the theme that is further explored in this case study is ‘trauma-informed approach to feedback’.

Findings on the theme of ‘trauma-informed feedback’

Some staff felt initially overwhelmed by the idea that ACEs are so prevalent in our student population. Previously such issues were seen as belonging to the domain of the pastoral staff, who dealt with these problems ‘outside’ the classroom. There was, understandably, concern that this was yet another problem that was being given to teachers to solve. As the training progressed, the feedback from staff evidenced that using a trauma-informed approach to feedback would actually benefit all groups of students and so it was worth adopting.

Training on the neurobiology of developmental trauma (Perry, 2009) was used to explain what some students are feeling and why they react as they do. By learning about the theoretical frameworks of ACE and attachment disorder (Geddes, 2006), staff could recognise that behaviour within the classroom was affected because those students had a different ability to focus, learn and self-regulate. Engaging with concepts such as the neurosequential models of therapeutics (Perry, 2009), the ‘window of tolerance’ and ‘triggering’ events allowed teachers to reframe and better understand some negative student behaviours. This perspective also allowed teachers to step back from a personal interpretation of being somehow at fault for causing or allowing conflict in their classroom.

The team feedback sessions supported staff to safely process these emotions, also modelling a trauma-informed approach that could be used for working with students. Acknowledging and naming feelings is the basis of helping students to understand what their feelings are about and why they feel like that.

The training emphasised that we all have limitations in our roles and that sometimes we cannot ‘fix’ a situation, only signpost students onto appropriate people for specialist help.

Many staff commented that feedback needs to be based on a real knowledge of that student as a person rather than their behaviour. Communication and sharing of information in future meetings between teachers and pastoral staff could be facilitated, not as a discussion about misbehaviour and sanctions, but as feedback on why a student is behaving in a certain way and how we can help them to make changes.

The idea that some children find adults frightening led to a new sensitivity around the body language of teachers and the tone of voice used to give feedback. Many staff recognised the importance of positive body language, the use of sincere praise and the creation of calm environments with structured routines for giving feedback, communicating clear objectives and holding high expectations for all students.

Staff came to realise that the way in which students receive feedback is linked to their ability to attach and to their self-esteem. Feedback to these students needs to highlight both areas of success and areas where they can be empowered to do things differently. 

It was recognised that some students struggle with communication, speech and language and that this would impact their ability to give and receive feedback. Strategies such as questioning and chunking down information were discussed as strategies to help to overcome this problem. 

Conclusion

By using peer support and access to theoretical frameworks, teaching staff became aware of how small changes to their existing feedback practice could create a trauma-informed approach. Examples of this include establishing classroom routines and expectations, the sharing and use of information about students, regular communication with pastoral staff and the sensitive use of praise and encouragement within the classroom.

Holistic solutions to behavioural issues, based on a willingness to discuss emotions with students, was an example of how pastoral and teaching staff could work together in the future to build positive relationships with vulnerable students and help to close their learning gaps.

The exact format of feedback was discussed by some groups, with specific examples linked to subject domains. One group discussed how observers, teachers and students may differ in perceptions about how much feedback is being given and how this would be an interesting area for future research.

References

Braun V and Clarke V (2006) Using thematic analysis in psychology. Qualitative Research in Psychology 3(2): 77–101.

Geddes H (2006) Attachment in the Classroom: The Links Between Children’s Early Experience, Emotional Well-Being and Performance in School. Duffield: Worth Publishing.

Perry BD (2009) Examining child maltreatment through a neurodevelopmental lens: Clinical applications of the neurosequential model of therapeutics. Journal of Loss and Trauma 14(4): 240–255.

Rowland M (2017) Learning Without Labels: Improving Outcomes for Vulnerable Pupils. Woodbridge: John Catt Educational.

Sobel D (2018) Narrowing the Attainment Gap: A Handbook for Schools. London: Bloomsbury. Treatment and Services Adaptation Centre (TSA) (nd) What is a trauma-informed school?

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