Irish Teacher: 'The reason behind a child's bad behaviour won’t make you angry, it will break your heart'

The impact of small things can be huge on somebody who has suffered trauma
Irish Teacher: 'The reason behind a child's bad behaviour won’t make you angry, it will break your heart'

Jennifer Horgan, Diary of an Irish Schoolteacher. Picture: Larry Cummins

I sometimes imagine my classroom as something else — as a neighbourhood square or a small green in the centre of a quadrangle. The classroom walls are terraced houses — each house has a different coloured door.

The image jolts me into remembering my students have their own individual stories and histories. It’s obvious, but sometimes the most obvious is the easiest to forget. So, I visualise different houses, different coloured doors, the relationships going on behind them. Because I know how much relationships matter.

A ground-breaking study in 1995 on ACEs (adverse childhood experiences), confirms the potential severity of their impact on children and the adults they become. ACEs range from emotional, physical, or sexual abuse, to neglect, divorce or alcoholism in the home. Toxic stress from childhood trauma can alter brain development and affect how the body responds to stress. ACEs are linked to chronic health problems, mental illness, and substance misuse in adulthood.

Children need adults, especially teachers, to be aware of ACEs because awareness can translate into supportive relationships, buffering the impact of childhood adversity.

There’s a revolution happening in Irish education right now and I’m keen to join the the charge. Bit by bit, conversation by conversation, we’re repairing the historical harm done by decades of institutional abuse. We’re breaking free from dogma and learning to start with the child, to think, not what is wrong with them but rather, what is wrong for them. Finally, we’re learning to listen.

Dr Maeve Hurley of the Cork-based Relationships in Practice (formerly known as Ag Eisteacht and now operating under the Social and Health Education Project) accepted the Grand Prix Award at the All Ireland Community and Council Awards in Dublin a few weeks ago. They also won gold in the Best Community Health category, for an initiative providing facilitated screenings of a critically acclaimed documentary about ACEs, Resilience: The Biology of Stress & the Science of Hope, to community-based practitioners in various professions around Ireland.

Training teachers to understand how trauma impacts lives is transformative. Nickie Egan, principal of North Presentation Primary school in Cork first completed the course five years ago and calls it “a lightbulb moment” for her and her school.

“Before the training, everything had a sense of futility about it. I was dealing with emergency after emergency, just putting out fires, scrambling for emergency accommodation for homeless students, that sort of thing. But I didn’t feel like I was dealing appropriately with students or staff. And I didn’t feel like the next generation would be any different because I wasn’t helping anyone to help themselves.”

Egan learned about the impact of ACEs on mental, emotional, and physical health, and the shift in mindset, picturing what was happening to her pupils and imagining different outcomes, changed everything for her and the school.

“This isn’t about fixing the problem, but the impact of small things can be huge on somebody who has suffered trauma.

A smile at the school gate can fire something positive in the brain because people can be healed the same way they can be traumatised.

Her school is a different place now and behaviour has improved hugely. Everyone is trained and on board: teachers, SNAs, secretaries; all listening actively, sensitive to and watching for small changes.

“Beforehand we were using sticker charts and everything else for behaviour, but we weren’t really listening, actively listening. Behaviour is communication, it tells us what’s going on in students’ lives. Nine times out of ten the reason behind the behaviour won’t make you angry, it will break your heart.”

Egan doesn’t believe there’s any such thing as a bold child. Her approach couldn’t be further removed from previous approaches, including publicly humiliating children for being left-handed or slow to pick up Irish, or adequately articulate prayers. This new approach, one hopes, is the future.

A revolution is happening in Irish classrooms, providing frontline workers with skills they need to see the child and to remember that, for every child, there’s a door to another life entirely. We might not be able to see it, but we can imagine it. And that imagining is a good place to start.

  • Nickie Egan is a guest speaker at A Heart of Frontline Practice seminar taking place on May 24 for frontline practitioners at Nano Nagle Place, Cork. Bookings via

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