Looked-after children are falling behind in school, but a trauma-informed approach could help those young people who have had difficult starts in life to flourish, says Andrew Taylor-Dawson

Looked-after children – in the care of a local authority – and adopted children are consistently disadvantaged in the British education system, with traditional models of behaviour management often struggling to meet the varied needs of children who have experienced early adversity.

In 2019, 35% of children in care completing Key Stage Two of the National Curriculum in England reached the expected standard in reading, writing and maths – compared to 65% of non-looked-after children. 

Looked-after children are also more likely to have special educational needs (SEN) at the end of Key Stage Two – 58% compared to 18% of non-looked-after children. However, children in care without an identified SEN or who receive support, often progress as well as non-looked-after children.

The attainment gap between state and privately-educated children, and between wealthy children and those growing up in deprived areas, has been in the headlines in the past week as young people have received their ‘A’ Level and GCSE results.

But what about the challenges facing children and young people who have suffered from adverse early experiences? Are schools adequately addressing the impact of early trauma on later learning? 

Trauma, Development and Behaviour 

Increasingly, studies have revealed how trauma impacts brain development. Early experiences of neglect, abuse or abandonment often force children to rely on their fight, flight or freeze instincts for survival. 

The busy, chaotic, noisy, and over-stimulating surroundings of a school can pose significant challenges, leading children to exhibit behaviours which often put them in conflict with the rigid expectations of school life and behaviour policies. 

In its annual Adoption Barometer survey, Adoption UK argues: “It’s an ongoing struggle for adoptive families to find accommodation in our education system for the very different social, emotional and educational needs of adoptees. Trauma is life-lasting and adopted people often need accessible support well into adulthood.” 

As an adoptive parent myself, I have witnessed the all-consuming effects of early trauma and supported my daughter as she has navigated the transition into education. She functions like a much younger child and suffers from acute sensory processing difficulties, resulting from a combination of her social background and the impact of protracted hospital stays at a very young age. 

Her school has taken a trauma-informed approach and embraced attachment theory. But there are still challenges – and we are among the lucky ones. 

Loud noises and busy places are particularly tricky for our daughter. The lunch hall can be a source of anxiety and the unpredictable behaviour of other children can also be a trigger. Like many who have had similar experiences, she can react in a range of ways – including by lashing out and shouting, or by letting her body go floppy and sliding onto the floor. 

The exhibited behaviours are symptoms of an emotional need.

All too often, however, when a child brings the weight of trauma with them into school each day, where it will manifest as behaviour that is labelled ‘naughty’ or ‘disruptive’. When these attitudes are left unchecked, and when trauma reactions are treated as a child being difficult, the stress and negative experiences will be compounded. 

Some schools, like the one our daughter attends, have worked to incorporate trauma-informed approaches to behaviour management. But this is far from universal. As Adoption UK argues, implementing a consistent approach to these issues across the board is essential to improving the wellbeing and educational outcomes of children with adverse early experiences.

Trauma-Informed Schools

To provide adopted and looked-after children with the chances they deserve, we need all education professionals to be trained in early childhood trauma and associated conditions, including foetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD) and attachment disorder. This is one of the core recommendations made by Adoption UK in its recent study

The very fact of removal from birth parents, it has been argued, creates a form of innate trauma, whether it is remembered by the child or not. There are of course numerous factors that affect how trauma manifests over time, as well as the ability a child develops to manage trauma, particularly as they traverse the choppy waters of adolescence and move into adulthood. 

Adoption UK argues “from initial teacher training and beyond, all education professionals should be trained and resourced (through targeted funding) to support the needs of care-experienced children, including those adopted internationally”. This is a belief I share. 

Many adopted and looked-after children have an attachment disorder of one form or another. This means that they have emotional or behavioural difficulties arising from disruption to the process of forming bonds with their primary caregivers. 

Children who have experienced removal from their birth parents have had to form bonds to new caregivers, meaning that they have had significant impediments to their ability to feel safe and secure. If these basic expectations are disrupted, then a child will struggle to learn and develop in a conventional manner as they are simply focusing on survival. 

Ensuring that schools are properly resourced to train their staff in early trauma and attachment theory would help to create more inclusive environments, where challenging behaviour is treated as the expression of a need rather than disobedience. 

In the long-term, this approach would benefit all pupils, not just adoptees and looked-after children. Any child can experience trauma, which may well manifest through challenging behaviour. Trauma-informed approaches have the potential to support the emotional development of all children and help them to build resilience. 

If we are to make our education system fairer and more inclusive, it is imperative that a consistent, well-funded approach to providing trauma-informed learning environments is created. 


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