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Overcoming emotional overload: The program tackling trauma in the classroom


Overcoming emotional overload: The program tackling trauma in the classroom

We hear a lot about the long hours principals and teachers work to manage intense administrative workloads, but less is spoken about the overwhelming and complex emotional demands that these jobs involve.

Recognising this, Monash University launched a study in 2023 to explore the intensifying emotional demands and their impact.

What they found was sobering.

Nearly half (45%) of respondents reported their own personal history of trauma, and 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.

Justin Roberts is the National Program Director of the MacKillop Institute’s ReLATE program, which was independently evaluated by Monash University.

The program combines educational research, social science, behavioural theory and neuroscience to provide schools with “a blueprint for enhanced teaching”.

At the core of ReLATE’s approach is trauma-informed education, which recognises the impact that Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) have on the developing body and brain of a child. Through developing teachers’ knowledge and skills in this crucial area and making them aware of the impacts of adverse experiences on learning and wellbeing, this program has been achieving some profound ‘cut through’ in ways that many other wellbeing programs aren’t.

Below, The Educator speaks to Roberts about the current state of health and wellbeing in Australian schools in 2024, the transformational impact of trauma-informed teaching, and how the MacKillop Institute will be building on the work it has done to sustain the successful ReLATE program in 2024 and beyond.

TE: What do you make of the student and staff wellbeing landscape in Australian schools in 2024, especially when it comes to current approaches to improving student and staff wellbeing.

It’s an interesting time for schools, especially in the recovery period from COVID. Schools are working every day to support the social and emotional needs of children, young people, and staff. The challenges we face, such as the cost of living and environmental stresses, really require us to shift and adapt our approaches to support our communities more effectively. One approach involves providing resources and support around individual students who need it, emphasising the importance of a culture of wellbeing – not just individual support. For staff, addressing workload concerns is crucial, but focusing solely on this can be a danger if it detracts from fostering internal resources that support wellbeing within the school environment. The job of teaching and being an educator is an incredible vocation. It changes us for the better, and it’s a fulfilling way to spend a life, nurturing and developing the next generation. I’ve learned more from the children and young people I’ve worked with than I’ve probably taught them. It’s a privilege to be part of their lives and their education.

TE: A recent study by Monash highlights the big difference that trauma-informed teacher training can make, both for students and staff. Can you tell us about the approach you used when implementing the ReLATE model?

Research shows that 80% of teachers report having worked with at least one child or young person who has experienced trauma, and 45% of teachers report their own experience of trauma. That puts them at much higher risk of burnout and secondary traumatic stress as well. So, our approach is comprehensive, starting with the adults in schools, as their wellbeing is crucial to delivering quality education. The RELATE program focuses on developing routines and strategies that enhance emotional literacy, encourage vulnerability, and create a shared understanding of stress and trauma. This foundation allows us to build safe, predictable, and consistent environments that support learning for students.

TE: How have teachers typically responded to this kind of training?

Overall, the reception has been really positive. Educators appreciate having permission to focus on their own wellbeing. Our program emphasises relational trust, recovery processes, and reflective practices, offering strategies that adults can also use with students, fostering a whole school approach to wellbeing. After all, a well teacher leads to well students, and ultimately a well school. But we often spend a lot of time focussing on improving the teaching space, and this sometimes causes us to forget about the wellbeing of those doing that work. Personally, I love teaching. When I was a young educator, I’d sit in meetings and would be talking about a student who was really struggling. And then, all of a sudden, you would have a group of staff who kind of butt in with the old, “but what about staff? What about us?” And I used to hate that. I used to sit there thinking, ‘What are we talking about? We’re here for the kids.’

TE: I understand the ReLATE program also supports teachers who have experienced secondary traumatic stress, and who have their own personal histories of trauma. Can you tell us more about this?

It’s important to differentiate between burnout and secondary traumatic stress, offering appropriate support for each. Our approach is proactive, focusing on prevention and early recognition. Strategies include normalising vulnerability, enhancing relational trust, and implementing recovery processes. We aim for a comprehensive approach where the entire school community works together to support wellbeing. It’s about working together to create a safe and inclusive environment for everyone in the school community. And to anyone considering teaching, I wholeheartedly encourage it. Teaching really is such a purposeful and rewarding vocation.

TE: How will the McKillop Institute build on this work in 2024 to enhance its existing programs?

We’re always developing and refining our practice based on our work with vulnerable young people and the schools we support. Our goal is really to assist schools in becoming more trauma-informed and focused on wellbeing, learning from their strengths and needs. So, it’s about supporting schools on their journey – not just providing a package to implement. Moving forward, it’s vital for schools to reflect on their current practices, policies, and procedures, assessing how these either support or hinder their core values related to wellbeing. Engaging the leadership team in this reflective process can help identify areas for improvement, focusing on fostering a culture that encourages vulnerability and prioritises relational trust.

Another important thing I think is worth mentioning is that schools should leverage their unique insights and expertise to improve safety and inclusivity. This approach involves a deep dive into daily operations, identifying and addressing any practices that may conflict with the institution’s values and goals. Finally, I think it’s important to celebrate and promote the vocation of teaching. Highlighting the profound impact and fulfillment derived from educating the next generation can inspire current and prospective educators. Recognising the value of this career choice helps to reinforce the importance of the educational profession and its massive contribution to society.

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