I’m just sitting in the foyer of a hotel in Liverpool waiting to deliver my seminar to 60 further education professionals. Post 16 is a challenge for lots of young people but even more so for vulnerable young people who are struggling in so many areas of their lives. Two of our children are in college and have experienced difficulties, the causes of which can be numerous.
It could be typical child development and those lovely teenage hormones. It could be the fear of growing up and the unknown. It could be the fact that their brains are still developing and not actually adult brains until at least 25 years of age. It could be the fact that they are experiencing freedom in education unlike they’ve not had before and struggling to manage that.
It could of course be the impact of early trauma and Attachment difficulties. Many vulnerable children grow up to be vulnerable young people and eventually vulnerable adults. Their ages emotionally are often younger than their chronological age. That means the responsibilities and pressures our society puts on a 16-18 year old is overwhelming for a child emotionally a lot younger.
For my daughter who is in her second year at college the transition has been fairly smooth. This is mainly due to the provision she is in that caters for young people with some additional needs. It is part of a mainstream college but with fewer students and staff, set times and a much more nurturing approach to guiding the students into adulthood. For example, one of her functional exams in English last year she was told to take whilst in her class. The teacher said – “this is your mock exam, just give it a go”. Without any pressure my daughter took this exam, got 100%. She was then informed that it wasn’t her mock but her actual exam! What a different approach to the GCSE exams she failed just a year before…..just shows that many times our children can achieve under the right circumstances.
My son has been a different story. He attended a mainstream college for the first five months (I say attended – he was on 43% attendance when he left). The college staff tried to do all they could to engage my son and to help him transition into this new environment. However, the timetable was in split days, the cohort that he was with were not engaged in the subject either, the promise of practical sessions didn’t materialise and my son became less and less keen to attend. Lots of these reasons were down to him, his friends and the freedom he was enjoying. The college did try as much as possible to meet his needs.
Now he has moved to a small Military Prep College with two members of staff. He is engaged and keen to go, although the physical exercise is proving to be taking a while to adjust to.
Why am I mentioning this? If you are in further education, then please pay attention below to some considerations for young people who may have experienced early trauma. If you are a parent of a child struggling in college then maybe some of these considerations could be passed onto the relevant staff members. Ultimately there’s no substitute for the right provisions for a young people….you may need to hunt for that.
Key Considerations in Post 16
Building trust is a must. Vulnerable young people will take a while to trust adults and other young people. Make sure you are consistent, reliable and do what you say you will do.
They need adults who can cope with their complex needs. For some young people they need to know that whilst we may not be experts in trauma we can listen and not be shocked by how they feel. There is nothing more freeing then being truly accepted by others.
Behaviour modification is not the key – relieving anxiety is. This is a big challenge in all our educational settings as we run on behavior modification. However, for young people who don’t have a solid foundation in their lives they may feel a sense of shame and not be in control of some of their big emotions. When they are punished for forgetting equipment for example, they may struggle with that and react in negative ways such as blaming others or running away.
The messages they receive are vital i.e. anger is bad=I am bad. As mentioned above the shame aspect makes it really important that we consider how we word things with young people with Attachment difficulties. Take a look at the PACE model to aid with this.
They are very vulnerable in relationships. Both my children were terrified to start college as it meant making friends again – always a challenge. They will gravitate towards other vulnerable young people who also may have social and emotional challenges.
Survival is key over anything else. When young children experience trauma their brains and bodies systems are wired for survival. This is often around relationships and getting your needs met. So, for my children as they entered college it wasn’t about learning and about their futures but about getting through each day unscathed. No arguments or fights with others, tutors liking them or not telling them off, bring able to manage the logistics of college – lots of things that clutter up their minds.
Emotional resilience is what they need. I am convinced the older my children have got that what they needed to be taught more when they were little was emotional resilience. This is typically taught at home but if a child has had a difficult home life, for example moved through the care system then no-one has taught them resilience. They may be resourceful, which is different, they may even seem streetwise and self-reliant but being able to regulate your anger and not punch a fellow student may be too much for them. We try to encourage primary schools to focus on this more so that when a child reaches higher education they are more resilient. If they haven’t learnt how to self-regulate by 16 then it can be more challenging to manage the roller coaster ride into adulthood.
Be proactive NOT reactive. Know the young person and what might trigger them and try to pre-empt. I know this is really difficult in any environment, but transition is extremely important. If you have to move a support person on for example, make sure the young person is prepared adequately.
Create the space for recovery and a chance to succeed. This is such a powerful statement in my opinion. We are not here to fix what might have happened in a young persons’ life. We are only here to support them and help them on their process to recovery. It may take years and the part they spend with you is a tiny part of that journey. Do whatever you can to help the young person succeed. For us, with our one son that has meant finding alternative provision for him, with our daughter it’s meant working with the staff to make sure she succeeds.
I am so proud of my children as they grow and take on the challenges of growing up. I only wish our systems were more accessible and supportive in this. We have to fight for help for them from mental health services to careers. I know this is something that colleges fight for too. Let’s work together more to make sure ALL young people have a chance to succeed.