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Diary 1: The chronicles of a therapeutic classroom – The first make over!

Therapeutic Classroom Shevington Vale

This year, childhood trauma expert Shahana Knight is working with a primary school to transform one of its year 3 classrooms into the ultimate therapeutic classroom. This monthly diary will chronicle the project, the ups and downs, and the lessons learned.

I have to admit, I am slightly scared about writing this diary. Part of me wants to fast forward to the end to see if my vision for our classrooms is as high-impact as I believe it will be and whether I achieve the outcomes I expect and hope for.

Let me explain. For the last three years, I have been developing a therapeutic school award. I launched it September 2018 with a pilot school in Yorkshire. They became our first ever Therapeutic School.

The programme helps schools become therapeutic in their approaches, embracing trauma-informed and attachment-aware practices and every school puts its own stamp on how we implement these practices.

Now, this year, I have the chance to put my money where my mouth is after an inspiring, forward-thinking headteacher signed his school up to the award.

When I went to visit them, the school was already emulating some of the things in my mind and my vision for schools was reflected in some of their existing environments. So I approached the headteacher with an idea – to transform one of his rooms into the ultimate therapeutic classroom.

He said yes!

And so, as I write, I am about to embark on a very exciting project and I have agreed to reveal all in the pages of Headteacher Update – the ups and downs, trials and tribulations, lessons learned and, I hope and expect, the many successes.

But I am nervous. My first thoughts are what if the school decides not to continue with it? What if I have nothing to write about? What if I am wrong and it is complete chaos? What if the teacher hates it and has to go back to the conventional classroom? And most of all, what if everything I have written about in this magazine in the last two years is wrong!

Nevertheless, here I am and regardless of how this turns out, I promise that this diary will be real, authentic and will include the challenges, epic fails and lessons learnt, as well as what I hope will be many great successes and “ah ha” moments too.

The therapeutic school approach

But first, a bit of background. As I have explained, my work helps schools to become therapeutic, trauma-informed and attachment-aware in their approaches. It is underpinned by neuroscience and childhood trauma theory, but for me it is vital at all times to bridge that gap between learning and actual practice and so the programme aims to be engaging and bring theory to life in a practical tangible way.

We teach schools to change their ethos, approaches, policies and environments through six core CPD modules. The outcomes so far have been fantastic and schools are seeing huge impact on the skills of their staff, as well as in the behaviour and wellbeing of pupils.

I am a childhood trauma expert and I specialise in challenging behaviour, but I also think outside the box and do not believe in a conventional approach to school.

I believe we need to evolve and change in a big way. Our environments play a huge role in that, specifically our classrooms. The classroom is where children spend most of their time, yet they are often overwhelming, full of clashing colours on backboards, laminated posters and with far too much on the walls. We expect children to sit on hard chairs all day and still pay attention and be inspired.

Our classrooms don’t take into consideration the needs of children today, the challenges they face to their mental health, emotional wellbeing or the world in which they live. I believe they fail our children.

There is so much more we can be doing in our classrooms to promote wellbeing, to inspire learners and encourage creative thinking. But none of it is conventional and it all requires us to re-imagine classrooms completely, considering things like lighting, seating, neutral colours and tones, calming music and more.

You can read more about my approach in my previous articles for Headteacher Update, not least my article A calming, therapeutic classroom environment (Knight, 2018), in which I talk more about this approach and how we can “silently create the right atmosphere for learning to occur”.

Causing a buzz

In 2019, BBC Newsround heard about my approaches and came to interview the children at our pilot school in Yorkshire – which was amazing! The school had really embraced the job of changing their environments and making them more therapeutic and the children had really felt the impact. I can’t tell you how lovely it was to hear them talk about the benefits the changes had on their learning and their wellbeing (see further information for a link to the short film).

Since then, we have had lots of schools taking part in our award, working hard to transform their environments. The result is always a version of the vision, tailored to the school’s context and setting. But just like our pilot school, they have recounted many a success story about how the new environments and approaches have impacted their children and this evidence has been the inspiration for my many articles and talks.

But the truth is, I have struggled with the fact that I don’t actually own a school! I can’t go out there and create an example of a therapeutic school for others to visit or use as inspiration. I can’t change the backboards each term or adapt things based on the children’s responses and I can’t be as bold and as brave as I would like to be.

So, the plan is this…

I have been handed a whole year 3 classroom for this “experience”. At the beginning of this term, we will have welcomed these year 3 pupils into a normal classroom setting in order to determine children’s characters and give them time to settle in. I want them to have enough time to develop a relationship with their teacher and for her to establish expectations around behaviour and boundaries.

We also need to get to know the children and identify those who may struggle with their emotional wellbeing. This will help us to monitor impact and see changes in behaviour as a result of the environment that I am planning to introduce. Then during the October half-term, we will redesign this classroom space, creating a therapeutic classroom complete with flexible seating and therapeutic approaches.

We will monitor engagement, attainment, confidence, self-belief, concentration and wellbeing throughout the year, tweaking and changing as we go to create an impactful therapeutic environment that supports the children’s needs and helps them to flourish.

This diary will follow our story and include photographs of the classroom, a monthly update of how it is going, comments from the teacher, headteacher and the pupils themselves!

My hope is that it will inspire you to make similar changes to your environments and will help me to continue my work advocating for therapeutic classrooms.

I hope that this project might also help schools to feel a bit braver when it comes to some of my more radical ideas – like getting rid of all tables and chairs in your classroom!

So – are you ready? I am – even though my tummy is doing a mini-summersault! Please do join me every month in these pages and on the Headteacher Update website as we embark on the chronicles of a therapeutic classroom…


This was written originally for Head Teachers update magazine  20 September 2021


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