Taking a whole-school approach to trauma-informed practice

Carmel Hobbs, La Trobe University: 

Ultimately what determines how children survive trauma, physically, emotionally, or psychologically, is whether the people around them – particularly the adults they should be able to trust and rely upon – stand by them with love, support and encouragement” (Perry & Szalavitz 2017, p.5)

It is estimated that up to 40% of young people are exposed to traumatic events (Brunzell, Waters, & Stokes, 2015). Complex trauma (repeated, extreme, ongoing rather than a one off event) such as child physical, emotional, or sexual abuse, neglect, and family violence, alter a child’s brain structure, function, and chemistry. This impacts cognitive functioning including concentration, thinking, memory, and focus. Trauma limits self-regulatory and relational capacities, the consequences of which are often seen in the classroom. While it is important that trained health professionals address this trauma, positive impacts on students’ learning can also emerge if teachers and schools staff take a trauma-informed approach.

I conducted my PhD research in a Melbourne school established specifically for young people unable to attend mainstream schools. One of the unique characteristics of this school is its school-wide, trauma-informed approach, which draws on theory and frameworks from the education, social work, and psychology fields. The school recognises that many students have in the past or are currently experiencing homelessness, childhood trauma, drug and alcohol use, teen pregnancy, family violence, poverty, involvement with youth justice or state care, abuse, neglect, and mental illness. Strongly aligned with ‘Calmer Classrooms: A guide to working with traumatised children’ (Downey, 2007), a whole school approach to trauma-informed practice involves a strong focus on supporting student wellbeing and developing strong, caring relationships with students that acknowledge the complex past and current lives of students. These practices also serve to model appropriate behaviours and ways of interacting with others, which can strengthening students’ capacity for establishing positive relationships outside of school. Some of the key elements of the approach include:

  • All staff being trauma trained, consistent and predictable in the way they respond to students
  • Unconditional positive regard at all times, for all students
  • Modelling pro-social behaviours
  • Restorative practice for when students behave in ways that are outside the agreed school expectations
  • A commitment to student wellbeing and building strong, caring relationships
  • Establishing a calm, therapeutic learning environment that is physically and emotionally safe
  • Celebrating difference and diversity, and effort as well as progress
  • Partnerships with external support services
  • A staffing model that includes a teacher, wellbeing worker, and teachers aide in every class
  • Small class sizes
  • Supervision for staff

While staff in the classroom employ many of these elements, school structure, leadership, policy, and partnership are also crucial. In an increasingly marketised environment dominated by demands on teachers and schools to be accountable, transparent, and raise test scores of students in Australia, taking a trauma-informed approach can seem like an ambitious and resource intensive endeavour. To respond effectively to the complex needs of trauma-affected students, teachers need to be supported with professional development and training that will help them interpret and respond to the behaviours and specific needs of their students. But, training teachers is not enough, school and system wide understandings of, and responses to trauma are also necessary. The opportunities and positive impacts of adopting a trauma informed approach are widespread and powerful, benefitting all students, their families, and school staff.

References

Brunzell, T., Waters, L., & Stokes, H. (2015). Teaching with strengths in trauma-affected students: A new approach to healing and growth in the classroom. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 85(1), 3.

Downey, L. (2007). Calmer Classrooms: A guide to working with traumatised children. Melbourne: Child Safety Commissioner. Retrieved from education.qld.gov.au/schools/healthy/pdfs/calmer-classrooms-guide.pdf

Perry, B., and Szalavitz, M. (2017). The boy who was raised as a dog – And other stories from a child psychiatrist’s notebook (Revised and updated edition), Basic Books, New York

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