According to the study, which surveyed 302 Australian primary and secondary school teachers, more than 80% of teachers had supported at least one student during their career who has been exposed to trauma.
Worryingly, teachers were found to be at greater risk of experiencing secondary traumatic stress compared to those who had not been exposed to students experiencing trauma. The academics who carried out the survey say these findings highlight the benefits of trauma-informed teacher training in Australian schools.
Below, The Educator speaks to Yvonne Lindros, ReLATE Consultant and Practice Specialist at the MacKilop Institute, about what teachers can learn from the study, and how they can turn this knowledge into action in their classrooms.
TE: What do you make of the student and staff wellbeing landscape in Australian schools in 2024, particularly when it comes to existing approaches to improving student and staff wellbeing?
Schools are currently navigating the increased social and emotional support needs of students after the disruption of numerous stress-inducing experiences. While school staff focus so heavily on the needs of their students, it is easy to forget about their own experiences and needs within the school environment.
School staff are such creative and passionate people. They work with their students to support development of social and emotional skills in lessons and social settings. They tirelessly dedicate themselves to supporting individual students who are impacted by high levels of stress daily to create a holistically safe environment for learning.
However, the challenges of high workload alongside the time taken to work with teams and families to ensure that all students experience the best education, remain. The energy and time educators dedicate to managing their many responsibilities is not adequately supported by reduced hours, increased remuneration or intermittent wellbeing-focussed activities.
In a school community, everything works in parallel. Many staff experience stress intensely and often, and this impacts everyone. Unfortunately, I have seen this in many schools. The impact on the students is significant, and often results in increased stress-based behavioural challenges, which further exacerbate stress levels across the learning community.
TE: A recent Monash study highlighted the significant difference trauma-informed teacher training – specifically the ReLATE model – can make, both for students and teachers. Can you tell us about the approach you used when implementing this successful model to achieve a whole-school wellbeing culture?
The ReLATE model focusses on trauma, adversity and chronic stress as being a universal experience. It therefore enhances all elements of safety, counter-stress, and teaching and learning in a sustainable and holistic way for staff and students.
The culture is supported by common practices and language, such as ReLATE Circle and Regulation Plans, which require open dialogue between all stakeholders, across the school community. The many elements and strategies of self-care for wellbeing maintenance and recovery after stressful events is also a core part of the model; the importance of these strategies for staff should never be underestimated. When such strategies are practiced authentically, students are also impacted in a positive way. Staff model this approach in their classrooms with students, leading, teaching and modelling key strategies and open dialogue to support student wellbeing.
We find that when school staff feel they can be open about their emotions, needs and challenges and celebrate their achievements, they feel safer and more supported in the school environment, regardless of the level of stress. A more regulated educator is then better able to attune to the needs of their students, in turn supporting them to feel safer and connected.
TE: How did you support teachers who were experiencing secondary traumatic stress, especially those with personal histories of trauma?
Secondary Traumatic Stress and personal trauma experiences are an unfortunate reality in all schools, but often not spoken about openly. The connection we so often work on developing with our students must also be a focus between colleagues, as well as between staff and leaders within the school, to create a sense of social, emotional and psychological safety.
Support of staff who are experiencing secondary traumatic stress, requires a safe relationship where honest and non-judgemental dialogue can occur. Understanding the situation, triggers and experiences of the school environment is critically important. This support requires regular and authentic connection, as well as the development of a collaborative plan of support. This should include clear regulation strategies and a process for when direct support is required. Self-care discussions and planning should also take place. Any support provided, should also be regularly reviewed and refined together.
Practical strategies for managing the work requirements, supported by coaching and mentoring is critical, alongside scheduled check-ins and ensuring the staff member’s support networks are clearly established. It is important to encourage the staff member to access professional support, whether through EAP or an external provider, to ensure the support provided is multi-faceted.
TE: Are there any other strategies and/or considerations you would recommend school leaders consider when it comes to creating a whole-school wellbeing culture for staff and students, and if so, what are they?
In such a fast-paced environment, logistical planning and reactive decisions often take priority to ensure the smooth running of the school. While this is necessary, it is important that priority is given to focussing on the needs of all staff in the school to remain focussed on their greater purpose as educators, fostering positive emotions and valuing the individual and team achievements. Providing time within team meetings or individually for example, for staff to share proud moments, achievements, or ‘shout-out’ great practice can support this culture. In my experience, the time taken to focus on this throughout the day or week, significantly impacts the experiences of the team and staff morale overall.
A culture of openness and connection can be challenging to foster, especially in larger schools. It is important for any leader to authentically model key human traits necessary for genuine collaboration. Modelling vulnerability by sharing emotion or admitting you don’t have the answer for example, and courage to try something new, are appreciated and demonstrate the kind of openness that is valued within the culture of the school. This will inevitably increase other’s preparedness to share openly and enhance a sense of feeling valued.
Yvonne Lindros is a ReLATE Practice Specialist at The MacKillop Institute and formed educator in MacKillop Education Schools. Read more about The MacKillop Institute.