The lingering effects of trauma


16 August 2022

Team-teaching in the Northern Territory helped Tasmanian teacher Lauren Duncan hone her skills in teaching kids who have experienced trauma.

“I picked up a lot from my co-teacher about behaviour management around teaching kids with trauma, plus restorative practices from [education consultant] Adam Voigt,” she says.

Duncan, who leads professional learning at Glenorchy Primary School in Hobart, says one of the first goals with a student in distress is to attempt to shift their mindset.

“If I want a learner to do something, I give them a choice, but I always lead with the thing I don’t want them to do. I’ll say, ‘I will send you to the office, or you can just sit down and do this task’, because the last thing you say will stay in their mind.”

Some days, she doesn’t get it right. Learners still have meltdowns, which, she says, can relate to what’s going on in their home lives.

“We have a few families with a background of trauma. Gentrification is taking hold in our area, so some families are priced out of housing. They’re homeless, living in their cars, but still sending their kids to school. We have a lot of children at our breakfast club,” she says.

At Glenorchy, 20 per cent of the 300 students have a diagnosed disability, about one-third of students are either refugees or migrants. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students make up about 15 per cent of the school population. The school’s ICSEA (Index of Community Socio-Educational Advantage) value is 887 (the benchmark is 1000).

Calmer classrooms

Glenorchy Primary implements restorative practices and the Calmer Classroom philosophy. These trauma-informed approaches help teachers to develop compassion, empathy, and to establish better relationships with learners.

This year, Duncan doesn’t have her own class, but part of her role is to help peers develop and implement individual learning plans for their students with disabilities or additional learning needs. By 10am each school day, she’ll have notched 10,000 steps, often having put out several ‘brush fires’ when big emotions bubble to the surface in classrooms.

“When I’m talking to such a student, I won’t come to them face on. I’ll be side-on, and crouch down to their level, if it’s a little kid. That way, they won’t feel threatened.”

Duncan says when students are exhibiting signs of extreme stress, it is important to focus on the future rather than on what they have done wrong.

“Spotlight what they can do in the future to prevent it, to restore relationships they’ve broken. Have strategies to manage feelings rather than leaving them thinking they’ll always get into trouble.”

While students may look like they’ve calmed down after a few minutes, the physiological effects can often linger.

“New research shows that for some of these students, it’s reliving trauma that could have stemmed from their home environment and may take days for them to truly be classroom-ready,” she says.

Duncan is in her eighth year of teaching, a member of the AEU Tasmania branch council and belongs to union committees that deal with workload, new educators and EBA negotiations.

“When I moved from the Northern Territory, I took a $10,000 pay cut. Tasmanian educators are the lowest paid in the country – that’s not OK. We’re all doing the same job, so I’m passionate about pushing for appropriate workloads and higher pay for Tasmanian teachers.”

By Margaret Patton

This article was originally published in the Australian Educator, Winter 2022