Innovative education programme puts trauma first

Lesley Taylor and Elisa Mitchell gave the first Keynote address of the conference, on an innovative education programme that recognises trauma as a major obstacle to educational achievement. Margo Cole reports

“When a sapling doesn’t thrive, we don’t blame the sapling,” says Clackmannanshire Educational Psychology Service educational psychologist Elisa Mitchell, “we ask what it was about the conditions that wasn’t right.”

So it is with children, says Mitchell, explaining why, for over 20 years, her service has shaped its approach around awareness of the impact trauma can have on children throughout their lifespan.

Clackmannanshire – the smallest mainland authority in Scotland – is an area of very high socio-economic disadvantage, with low social mobility, post-industrial decline and significant levels of childhood adversity. A 2002 study found that 98% of children in the local authority area had experienced one or more traumatic or adverse childhood experiences, with bereavement and loss being the most common 1.

It is widely accepted that experiences can have an impact on children’s relationships with others, and on their ability to engage in learning. And, while not all children experience trauma through their childhood, most will experience stress at various points in their lives. Clackmannanshire’s Educational Psychology Service was keen to use this as the basis for its work with children and schools; supporting children to manage stress and trauma would give them the best chance to be as emotionally ready for learning as they can.

Lesley Taylor, another of the service’s educational psychologists, says: “We are fortunate that, for a number of years, successive Principal Psychologists within the Education Service have championed the need for trauma-informed approaches to be embedded within the educational experience for our children and young people, due to their awareness of the long-term and wide-reaching impacts that growing up in communities such as this can have on developing brains.”

Among those former Principal Psychologists were EMDR UK President Mike O’Connor and EMDR Board Trustee Ali Russell, both of whom were instrumental in embedding this trauma-informed approach and in establishing EMDR within the Service.

In 2015, when the local authority received Scottish government funding to close the poverty-related attainment gap, the Educational Psychology Service saw it as an opportunity to redesign the support it offers schools into a trauma-informed, multi-level approach known as ‘Readiness for Learning’ (R4L). The funding came from the Scottish Attainment Challenge, which aims to raise the attainment of children and young people living in deprived areas. It is specifically targeted at improving literacy, numeracy and health and wellbeing in primary schools.

The Educational Psychology Service’s R4L approach is based on helping children and young people to regulate their brains at times of stress to help them feel safe, settled and ‘ready to learn’. It is structured around the Neurosequential Model in Education (NME), but combines a number of other psychological theories, interventions and models to support practice that is BALTIC – an acronym for brain-based, attachment-led, trauma-informed and communities (see Figure 1).

Figure 1: What the BALTIC acronym stands for

NME was developed to help children and school staff to learn more about brain development and the impact of developmental trauma on a child’s ability to function in a classroom. The fundamental principle of NME is the recognition that the brain develops in a certain order, which is particularly important in understanding how children learn and why they may behave as they do. Better understanding of brain development can lead to a clearer idea of how to teach and support children in school.

At the heart of the R4L approach is a programme to train staff in all the authority’s schools in the basics of NME and support them to apply this knowledge to the teaching and learning process. This has been achieved, with around 1,200 educators trained in NME, 550 of whom have also completed e-learning modules in other R4L components, such as attachment theory.

Elisa Mitchell: “Every child gets the right type of support at the right time by the right people”.

EMDR is one of the key tools in R4L, relating to the trauma-informed aspect of the approach, and two thirds of Clackmannanshire’s educational psychology team are trained in EMDR. But R4L is a multi-level approach, and the aim is to provide the best conditions for children to thrive without the need for intensive one-to-one input like EMDR. “The emphasis is on prevention,” explains Mitchell. “We hope that, with the right kind of understanding and approach in schools, intensive intervention will not be required.”

She adds that R4L is structured so that “every child gets the right type of support at the right time by the right people”.

The first two levels – “Universal” and “Enhanced”– focus initially on training school staff in NME and adapting the physical environment and timetable to reduce possible stressors, followed by specific activities to help children with their behavioural and emotional regulation. At the next level – “Targeted” – there is more emphasis on sensory and relational regulation, with work in small groups for children who need it.  

As a result, if intensive support is required – the final level – the structures that are already in place mean that it is not happening in isolation. “This is part of an environment, an ethos, a way of being within education,” explains Mitchell. “Our Intensive Therapeutic Service sits at the very top of the triangle. Therefore, we would expect support to be in place at all of the other levels before embarking on EMDR.”

She adds: “Part of our role is to ensure our education staff understand that not all of those who experience a traumatic event require intensive therapeutic input. Our aim is to empower education staff, children and families to be aware that, in many cases, they have the resources to find a way forward. And, when this is not possible, educators and families have the understanding and skills to support the child beyond their weekly EMDR sessions.”

The Educational Psychology Service has been structured to support this approach, says Mitchell: “Members of our team will have been involved in creating or delivering R4L training; educational psychologists will be having consultations with school staff about implementing R4L approaches with particular schools; and within our case work we will be having consultations and assessments driven by R4L principles. If we don’t have a shared and coherent understanding as a team, we can’t expect our schools to have that understanding.”

Taylor adds: “Previously, we had a “link” psychologist approach, but that meant that, if your link psychologist didn’t have EMDR training, you were unlikely to be able to access it – or the whole range of other things we are now able to offer.”

Lesley Taylor: “Some schools have been really effective in sharing their work with parents and carers”.

A study to assess the efficacy of R4L at Primary 1 stage has clearly demonstrated its impact. The team predicted that pupils in an R4L classroom would improve their executive function skills, and that most of these improvements would come in behavioural regulation and emotional regulation in the first year. They also anticipated that there may not be an impact on attainment in the first year, as underlying developmental skills needed to be developed first.

As anticipated, the study did find an improvement in executive function, with a 13% increase in the number of pupils with age-appropriate executive function skills. In addition, the number of pupils on staged intervention halved, as did the number of pupils needing out of class nurture support. And attainment did, in fact, go up, with a higher number of pupils working at the correct curriculum level compared with the classes above and below 2.

So far, the R4L approach has focused on working with educators and school staff, but the Educational Psychology Service would like to widen its engagement to include parents and carers. “Some schools have been really effective in sharing their work with parents and carers,” says Taylor. “During the lockdowns, for example, parents were able to access a series of ‘brain lessons’ with their children through our virtual school, teaching them the core concepts of NME. And a lot of the material we put out over the school closures to help parents/carers support their children was based on NME/R4L principles.”


Margo Cole MBPsS is a freelance writer


  1. O'Connor, M., & Russell, A. (2003). Identifying the Incidence of Trauma in Children in a Sample of Clackmannanshire Schools.

  2. Developing a trauma-informed approach to closing the poverty-related attainment gap, Lesley Taylor & Whitney Barrett, Educational & Child Psychology; Vol. 35 No. 3.