Nobody would deny that the intention of school dress up days is to create excitement, support imagination, enable some degree of self-expression, promote attendance and participation. Themes are endless, pyjama, pirate, animal, superhero, book characters. Schools around the world embrace the concept of dress up days and many parents feel that it is a wonderful idea. There is no denying that these have become embedded in the school year.
But what about the traumatised child?
Children and young people born into a world of multiple adverse experiences will almost certainly have lived through persistent states of unpredictability and chaos. Parents and professionals supporting children who have experienced abuse or neglect understand that maintaining consistency and offering predictable routines is the bedrock to developing a sense of security and safety.
Therapists take this need for consistency and predictability very seriously. Going to great lengths, the child therapist tries to ensure that the client can rely on the therapy space and the way in which it is organised, toys, games, art materials are kept in the same orderly place in the therapy room, sessions are scheduled at the same time and day each week. Most importantly, their presence remains predictable, non-verbal, and verbal communication including intonation and voice prosody. Even changes a therapist might make to their physical appearance, such as a haircut or change in hair colour, are managed!
Similarly, trauma informed schools strongly emphasise the importance of offering pupils a structured day. Many children have visual timetables, support is given to help manage transitions and, in many cases 1:1 support or Key Workers are allocated, offering children a safe and reliable person.
And then come dress up days.
For most children, the opportunity to go to school in fancy dress or wear their home clothes brings much excitement, delight, and joy. The anticipation of what to wear, who will be showcasing what costume and which child might win the ‘best prize’ are often huge highlights in the school calendar. But for many other children and for different reasons, these days bring a raft of very difficult feelings and experiences which are sadly not positive and often unappreciated by the adults and children around them.
‘My child needs to feel special, not different.
She feels different enough already.’
This poignant statement was made by an adoptive mother who is hugely aware of the daily challenges that her child *Cora faces because of early trauma and neglect. Her school is trauma-informed, and the teaching staff are devoted to providing support, care and structure ensuring that Cora has successful days and feels safe in her environment. Then come the dress up days and everything goes very, very wobbly.
Cora’s mother dreads this time of year; Halloween, International Day the imminent arrival of everything related to Christmas including Santa Claus. Everyone looks different, timetables are abandoned, lunch menus change, other students become excited, noise levels increase, and sensory challenges become more acute. Cora’s inability to join in only exacerbates her perception that she is different, leaving her feeling far from special.
Along with dress up days, are all the other school events that create repeated experiences which Cora’s mother must manage, external expectations alongside the very delicate needs of her daughter.
For Cora, dress up days present with two enormous and terrifying hurdles.
Firstly, she needs to navigate whether to put on a costume and join her peers or, remain in school uniform presenting differently to the other children. Alongside the sensory challenges many costumes bring to children, dressing up can disrupt their understanding of ‘how I go to school’. Cora’s nervous system remains very much in a protective position. Her ability to ‘pretend’ is very limited and she finds it challenging to discriminate between play and reality. School uniform is symbolic and readies Cora’s mind and body for the challenges of the school day.
The second challenge Cora faces is organising herself around others’ costumes. At aged seven years, Father Christmas made an impromptu visit to her school during lunchtime. The outcome is that Cora is no longer able to eat sweetcorn, as this was the food on her plate the moment an unidentifiable, booming man burst into the room to shouts and screams from the children around her.
Children who have experienced neglect and abuse during development struggle to identify cues of safety from within, the environment and from another. They will desperately seek to find safety through reading the face of another, many costumes and masks take away any hope of identifying whether a person is safe or not. The hypervigilant child will be pushed out of their window of tolerance, associating an unknown person who has a booming voice as dangerous especially when children’s’ responses are to scream at them. Cora’s experience of Father Christmas!
For many hurt children, in school a much-loved teacher wearing a costume with an unexpectedly loud voice will change the child’s autonomic states. Why? Because for many this was their experience of the perpetrator, a stranger with a thundering voice.
Hence, dress up days can illicit terror for a child because it is not a day of pretend. It is instead a day that is full of cues of danger because in their mind that person is not pretending. They are in fact somebody else from their past or in the here and now.
Sharing this perspective with schools, parents and carers may help bring awareness and support a change in an expectation that all children will find the delight and joy in days designed to be fun for all. For a child, like Cora, her experience of life is that the baddies really do exist, and bad things can happen to you. Sadly, school dress up days can reinforce this.
(Authors: Karen O’Neill & Tara McDonald) Published and Copyrighted by PIP Solutions: 1st December 2023
* To protect Cora’s identity, a pseudonym has been used.
Daniela D’Elia, Luna Carpinelli and Giulia Savarese (2022) Post-Traumatic Play in Child Victims of Adverse Childhood Experiences: A Pilot Study with the MCAST—Manchester Child Attachment Story Task and the Coding of PTCP Markers
Monique C. Pfaltz (2019) Are you angry at me? Negative interpretations of neutral facial expressions are linked to child maltreatment but not to posttraumatic stress disorder