For this episode of 10 with Zen, we invited Lisa Cherry, whose research and books cover children and young people’s experiences of care.

Lisa spoke with host Helen Woodward about supporting vulnerable students, building relationships to make a difference, and understanding when to lean on colleagues.


You can subscribe and listen to the episode in full above, and we’ve provided a transcript below!


Helen: First of all, can you tell us about relationship-focused practice? I’d love for you to give an example of how this makes a difference.

Lisa: The thing about relationship-focused practice is it understands that it’s working from a very human place. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard that talk where she says ‘every child needs an adult that’s crazy about them’, it’s Rita… I forget her second name, but everyone who’s listening who has anything to do with schools will know exactly which talk I’m speaking about! I think there’s an assumption sometimes that people working with children are going to draw upon, in the way that we all do, our own experiences of life and relationships. And from that perspective, we might well make assumptions about the kind of relationship that children have available to them. And the reality is that often children don’t have access to lots and lots of relationships. And they might have very different experiences than the adults who are around them and working with them. Relationship-focused practice helps us understand that: that we might be the only adult. And when I speak to adults who had difficult, fragmented, fractured childhoods, with adversity, or trauma, or perhaps had attachment challenges at the beginning of their life, they talk about having the need for one relationship that helps them learn how to have a relationship. And unfortunately, children who are involved with services are more likely to have lots and lots of different adults, a high turnover of adults, from different roles, different perspectives. So relationship-focused practice is really understanding all of those things and thinking about how we connect with the child or young person in front of us from a perspective of building a relationship that makes a difference. That feels like a really complex answer, because I was trying to put so much into a really short space, so I’m sorry about that! Because actually, we don’t think about how we make a relationship, but if you haven’t had those relationships around you or modelled to you, we do need to sit down and unpick what that looks like.

Helen: That’s very helpful. You’re setting up lots of kinds of connections for me with what you’re saying. There’s a lovely quote that I often use when I’m doing training from Sebastian Kraemer, where he talks about how children and young people need someone who ‘has them in mind’; someone who knows what they need when they’re angry, what they like to eat, someone who knows what they like to take to bed with them to make them feel comforted and nurtured, someone who knows what helps them when they get up in the morning. He has that lovely phrase, ‘someone who has you in mind’. So you’re also making me think of a friend of mine who adopted a child who still struggles enormously with his mental health and trauma, and refers to his support and social workers by number. And we’re currently at number 117.

Lisa: Wow.

Helen: And says to them in meetings, right, number 117, what have you got to say for yourself? It’s quite shocking, really, that he’s had that many people involved in his life. But I fully hear you on the importance that just one person can make, who makes that significant connection and relationship.

Lisa: Yeah, in my research around belonging – which I’m really focused on at the moment – what comes up time and time again, is acceptance, feeling safe, and feeling supported. And that helps us have that sense of belonging, but they’re very relational feelings. Those feelings come from that very relational space.

Helen: Acceptance, feeling safe, and feeling supported. That’s very clear. Okay, so I wanted to ask you something else as well, because you’re a great advocate of trauma-informed practice. Now on social media, I see some people have some very strong views about this: to summarise, that it’s nonsense. I would be really glad to hear you tell us really succinctly how you describe trauma-informed practice, and why it matters for all of us.

Lisa: So trauma-informed practice is a framework, it’s a way of being, it’s a way of thinking about things like feeling safe, how we co-produce. How do we shift the balance of power? How do we ensure that there is voice and choice and empowerment in our work? How do we cultivate peer support, so relationships between people? These are not new things or new ways of thinking about things. And I think there can sometimes be a frustration across sectors, because thinking about childhood adversity in the impact of trauma, and some of the things that I’ve just spoken about, are very embedded in social work, practice, and have been for a very long time. What I think trauma-informed practice is asking of other sectors. So for example, of education, I think what it’s asking of education is to understand things such as behaviour as communication, to understand that we are as able to regulate our central nervous system as the adult around us, if we’re a child that’s had lots of disruption around that trauma-informed practice is asking education to think about child development. It invites education to think about creating environments that are conducive to developing children growing and learning in those spaces. Trauma-informed practice I think, from a health perspective, invites an antidote to thinking about – rather than the medical model of thinking – thinking about what has happened to us and how that presents, to thinking about what happened to us that has impacted upon our physiological state. Trauma is an embodied experience, it will show up in the body and show up in the mind. So for me, I think trauma-informed practice as a framework is an invitation to move away from the ‘mad, bad or sad’ narrative. And on that basis, for me, that’s what I’ve been wanting, desiring, striving for my entire adult working life, which is now over 30 years. What we call that, in a sense, for me, is not as important as how we work with the person in front of us. Is that quite succinct? Because that’s a big question for a succinct answer!

Helen: It’s a huge question, a huge question. And I’m thinking about some of the reading I’ve done in the last couple of years, particularly The Body Keeps the Score, and the work around how trauma is an embodied issue, it impacts on your physiology hugely. And you don’t wake up one morning and think, ‘oh, I’ve got a warm wash of trauma coming over me’ – it’s horrible. It’s frightening. What people describe is just all involving, it involves every aspect of their being. And I’m really noticing the point you made about how children can only regulate their emotions to the extent of the adults’ ability to regulate their emotions around them. Now, that’s very challenging. And I’m thinking now about the teachers and Teaching Assistants who work with us at Zen Educate. And I realise we’re talking about a highly complex issue that there’s loads of research about and we could talk about this for a long time I think, Lisa! So if you’re at the beginning of that journey, and your understanding of this for somebody who works in education is just at the start – what are some of the first really important things for you to know and start noticing and reflecting on when working with children and young people?

Lisa: Yourself. How are you responding? How are you feeling? Why are you now suddenly having a pain in your tummy? Where is that coming from? Why does this particular child really press your buttons? What’s coming up for you? What’s that reminding you of? What story are you telling yourself about this behaviour, about this experience, about what’s going in here? Oh, you’re hungry. That’s an interesting sensation. I might go and have something to eat because I’m hungry. Ah, but somebody is looking at me in that way because I’m having lunch. Why are they looking at me because I’m having lunch? Am I not in an environment that supports me to have lunch? That’s interesting. How does that make me feel? What’s going on for me right now? Research yourself and somebody much cleverer than I once said, ‘research is me-search’. So have that space to reflect upon who you are and get to know yourself. Again, somebody more, more, more incredible than I said ‘we can only meet someone as deeply as we meet ourselves’. And it’s that same kind of understanding that we cannot begin to think about how we can work with the legacy of trauma, or the challenges that are in front of us until we know who we are. So if you’ve got anybody at the beginning of that journey, wherever we land in that moment, it doesn’t matter. As long as people are willing to be on the journey, it doesn’t matter where you are on it. Then that beginning bit is about saying, ‘right, I’m going to figure out my own stuff. Because if I’m working with children, and I’m going to be that adult for children, not all children need me to be the adult, but some children do, then I have to be my absolute best person that I can be on that day. And every day, I only have to be slightly better than I was the day before.’

Helen: Okay, lovely. So ‘be the best version of yourself that you can’ is one of your messages?

Lisa: That you can be on that day. And be honest about that. Sometimes we work hard, but you know, my worst version of me is not great! You know? My best version of me is amazing. And then tomorrow, hopefully I’ll be a bit more amazing. But there’s a whole spectrum in between there, we’re just aiming for something that we’re present and conscious while we’re in that space. So if I’m not feeling that I can deal with something today, then I say ‘Helen, I’m really struggling today’. And then we can do something with that.

Helen: Okay. So there’s, there’s, there’s a big issue about noticing, and actually really noticing, you talked about the story that we have in our heads the narrative that we have about something, the emotional experience we’re having, and also what’s happening for us, physiologically, we noticed that we’ve got a pain perhaps, or I noticed that I’m feeling anxious. So lots about noticing to begin with. And there’s something there about vulnerability and being able to say to your colleagues, you know what, I need your support today, because I’m struggling with this.

Lisa: Yes, I’m part of a trauma-informed practice framework, about working in cultures and environments that support and enable that.

Helen: That’s lovely to hear. And we’re very conscious about the importance of working in a team where people, not just children, feel that they belong, but where the adults actually have that sense of belonging and psychological safety to enable them to practice the best they can. So, you’ve got two books out! Can you tell us first of all about Conversations that Make a Difference?

Lisa: Well, ‘d love to say Conversations that Make a Difference was my idea, but it wasn’t, I got a lovely phone call from Routledge when lockdown had just happened. So I was sat in the kitchen, and I just thought, what else am I going to do other than write a book? As it turned out, it was a very busy year, but I didn’t know that at the time. And they said ‘we love your podcast, we love all the conversations that we have. How do you feel about doing a book about conversations?’ ‘That’s my favourite thing! I’d love to!’ So it was really about thinking about creating a book that was sectioned down into attachment, adversity and trauma and conversations with different practitioners, in different sectors, what it means to them, how they have brought about trauma-informed practice into their school or system or sector. And so I had conversations with schools, I had conversations with a fostering agency, I had a conversation with an organisation who works with nurseries, criminal justice, and so on. So it’s very much a book about ‘how do we do this? What does it look like in practice?’

Helen: That’s great. Yeah, that’s great. That’s really helpful. And that focus on the conversations, the actual conversations, is a really helpful idea for people to reflect on.

Lisa: And that’s the format of the book as well. The format is that conversational style, and they’re quite short chapters because they’re for busy people. Like we can’t sit around spending 30 pages on a chapter!

Helen: Okay, so it’s so it’s very readable in chunks. Lovely! And The Brightness of Stars?

Lisa: The Brightness of Stars I wrote back in 2013 or 14. It was the first time I was explicit about my own childhood experiences of not just being in care, but what happened when I came out of care. And it’s a very different way that we lived then, I didn’t know anyone else with my experience, and the book was partly ‘how do I find other people who’ve got these experiences and are just living their life like I am? Where are they? I can’t just be the only person.’ And of course, now we live in very different times, it’s very loud, we have lots of communities, lots of organisations. On my timeline because of algorithms, it’s a job to think ‘well, who wasn’t in care?’ quite frankly! My whole timeline is just full of all of that. And Routledge said that they would like to publish the book, but it needed updating. So I updated it with new stories across different decades, I’ve got younger people in there talking about their more recent experiences. And I think the important format of that book is that I asked people to write their own chapter. And I almost hadn’t appreciated just how powerful it is to own your own story, if you haven’t done so already. And to not have somebody tell you what that chapter might look like, for somebody to make a decision about what it is they want to share what it is they want to talk about, and really do nothing with that chapter other than present their own story, that’s what the book is. It’s out in May, and I’m so excited about that, because it’s a beautiful book full of very gifted, generous stories from people with experiences that they often don’t talk about.

Helen: What a wonderful opportunity, to give all those people an opportunity to share their story, and for others of us to bear witness to that. Thank you for telling us about those. Lisa, thank you so much for being our guest today on 10 with Zen, it’s been brilliant to talk with you!

Lisa: Thank you for having me!