Creating a therapeutic school

Written by: Shahana Knight | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock
How does an adult implement this if they too have grown up with trauma and abuse.

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How can you create a therapeutic and calming environment that cultivates learning? Play therapist Shahana Knight offers her advice, including five suggestions to get started

The problems of childhood trauma and adverse childhood experiences, paired with the effects of social media and technology, mean that many children are arriving at school with significant barriers to learning.

The NSPCC tells us that in 2015/16 the police recorded more than 14,000 offences of abuse and neglect. There are also around 94,000 children in care in the UK and more than 60 per cent of children in care are looked after due to abuse and neglect. These children are four times more likely than their peers to have a mental health difficulty. So, how many children do you have in your school who form part of these statistics?

Social media is also having an impact. The mentality of getting instant content and scrolling through posts does not help children to develop a conscious thinking process, reflective mindset or attention and concentration. Ofcom data from 2017 shows that 83 per cent of 12 to 15-year-olds have their own smartphone and 99 per cent go online for at least 21 hours a week.

In education, young people express their internal emotional struggles through their behaviour, self-esteem, relationship skills and concentration. The effects on academic achievement and participation are significant.

Therapeutic schools

All this means that a number of children in our schools will be struggling with their emotional wellbeing, their concentration, self-esteem, peer relationship skills, academic achievement and processing ability. So, what can you do to ensure your pupils are ready to learn and remove some of these barriers?

Make a move toward becoming more therapeutic in your approaches. Children need help to develop skills like being still, having reflective thoughts, mindfulness and positive self-talk. They also need to be shifted in to a state of learning after perhaps being in a hyper-sensitive, overstimulated mindset before coming to school. How much television did they watch before they came in? Did they have their tablet on in the car? Were they on their phone checking their social media? Have they stopped to look at their surroundings yet or have they been staring at a screen?

Schools need to ensure that their environments can cultivate learning. Adding small changes to your school can make a huge impact on outcomes and wellbeing. So here are five tips to a therapeutic whole-school approach:

1, Music to help regulate the internal state

Music is an easy way to calm young people down, with very little effort. Playing relaxing music can help reduce students’ heart rates, lower their blood pressure and decrease stress hormones. Try playing music in the reception area as parents and students walk in to school so that they are greeted by a soothing calming atmosphere after their busy morning routines.

Another idea would be to have music playing in the hallways or even in each individual classroom. This will help regulate everybody – students and teachers – encouraging them to refocus their energy and inspiring concentration before lessons begin.

2, Foster inspirational, motivational thought

Schools have an opportunity to mould their students’ internal self-belief and self-talk, shifting an “I can’t” attitude to an “anything is possible” attitude. Students who believe they can do well are more likely to perform well. It all starts with positive thought.
Use your display boards as a means to inspire your students by taking half of the boards and using them to focus on inspiration and motivation. Try using a whole board to display a huge inspiring quote. You could also cut out large bubble writing, laminate each letter and stick quotes around school. Don’t forget to add some in the toilets too!

Keep colours natural and the boards simple and easy to read, so that the words are read by students every time they pass, sending them messages based on positive thought and affirmations: “I can achieve anything I put my mind to” or “The world is full of opportunity”. This will have far more impact on their development than a busy board full of work.

3, A calm atmosphere and nature indoors

Using real plants around school will help to create a calming atmosphere and create a therapeutic environment. Having plants inside helps improve mood, reduces stress levels, increases worker productivity and attention span. They also improve the quality of air in a room. Try putting plants in each classroom, hallways and the reception area. It will not only look calming and inviting but will have health benefits too.

4, Be still and develop reflective thought

Students don’t get much time to be still (or bored) anymore. Whenever there is a moment of peace it is likely they reach for their phone or ask for the television or tablet to watch something on. It is likely that the stillness triggers anxiety. Do you have a student at school who, whenever there is a moment of calm or quiet, becomes agitated?

To be able to reflect is a life-skill that can be used whenever a child feels stressed or anxious. Try some simple breathing exercises or whole-class meditation/yoga to help reduce heart rates. This could be done at the start of the day or after lunch. Focus on helping them enjoy the stillness and find joy in relaxation methods and encourage them to use these strategies at home.

5, Create opportunities for relaxation

Lunchtimes and breaks can be difficult for some children, especially those who have experienced trauma. In order to function well during free time and enjoy it, students need to have good peer relationship skills, self-belief and confidence to navigate their way through social interactions. This can be a challenge for those children who spend little time engaged in conversation and developing interpersonal skills at home due to social media or trauma.

Try having activities available to help them calm down. Create “calming stations” – tables outside against the wall or in shared relaxing spaces with pencil crayons and paper on for doodling or with colouring books (you can get them for adults now too), books, brain exercises like sudoku or word searches, or even Lego.

Remember even older children need a chance to refocus and reshift their mindset so don’t assume they are too old. These activities are appropriate for primary and secondary students. Don’t forget to be clear about the rules in these calming stations so the students know what the expectations are for using the zones. 

  • Shahana Knight is a qualified play therapist and director at TPC Therapy, a therapeutic intervention service supporting children and schools with behaviour, emotional wellbeing and mental health. Email and visit

How does an adult implement this if they too have grown up with trauma and abuse.
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