Trauma Informed Practice in Education

Rebecca Harris, Carlton Primary School

A new resource to support trauma informed practice in education has been published by Rebecca Harris, a Melbourne Social Equity Institute Community Fellow from Carlton Primary School.

It’s likely that every classroom in the world has at least one student with an experience of trauma. For educator Rebecca Harris, that makes it essential that schools are paying close attention to their students’ wellbeing.

Rebecca is the Co-ordinator of Student and Family Wellbeing at Carlton Primary School. She says that it’s unusual to have a full-time person in this role at a school of only 120 students, but that it is recognition of the importance of the work.

“Carlton Primary is fiercely committed to student and family wellbeing. That comes from decades of experience with, and knowledge of, trauma-informed education. We know that students who do not feel safe, or who feel highly stressed, do not learn.”

Most people understand trauma to be the result of a single overwhelming event, but it can also be a response to repeated experiences of neglect, abuse, poverty or family violence. When children experience trauma, they can develop physiological and psychological responses that, if not dealt with, can last the rest of their lives.

Our brains aren’t set in stone though, and problematic responses can be corrected. Rebecca says that schools play an important role in encouraging this positive development.

“Schools can be therapeutic places, they can be safe and reliable. Staff at schools can help children to regulate, they can do their best to be reliable and emotionally available.

“When children experience school as a place where they know just what to expect, this can mitigate other chaos in their lives.”

This is a particularly urgent concern at Carlton Primary School. The largest group of students at the school are refugees from the Horn of Africa, who can face significant educational barriers: they often won’t have a high-quality pre-schooling literacy, which greatly impacts their ability to learn.

Many also have had direct and vicarious experiences of trauma.

“They live in high density public housing, which can be very busy. There are frequent moments of violence that the children are exposed to, and sometimes are victims of. Their parents are often living with high levels of stress – financial, of course, taking care of large families, stress for relatives back in home countries, and psychological processing of their own experiences.

“All of this impacts the children.”

Photograph of Bec Harris. Painted sign behind her says "Carlton Primary School"

Rebecca was among the first Community Fellows supported by the Melbourne Social Equity Institute. She had decided that she wanted to understand trauma-informed education more deeply, and contacted the Institute to see what opportunities might be available. Serendipitously, a pilot of the Community Fellows Program was about to be announced.

“My motivation was to dig deeper into the link between developmental trauma and education. There wasn’t much written about it, but everything I was reading made so much sense. I wanted to know more, and I wanted to put it in our context, to create kind of practice manual.

With support from her academic mentor Gregory Donoghue (Melbourne Graduate School of Education), she conducted a literature review on neurobiology and trauma-informed education, and gathered information about Carlton Primary School’s approaches to supporting student wellbeing.

“Greg validated the work a great deal. His own experience and knowledge helped me. He helped me set out what I was doing and where to start. He read quite a few drafts and gave feedback.”

“It was a very positive experience for all involved,” said Gregory. “Making long-term connections with educators and students, and the opportunity to apply research directly in the field, was invaluable.”

Rebecca’s project in the Community Fellows Program, ‘Trauma informed practice in education’, has been made available as a digital resource. She says the program gave her the time and support to dig deeper, and has improved the way she approaches her work.

“I would say that my project has absolutely improved my practice, and that of my colleagues. It gave us a framework to operate in a trauma-informed way. We worked out ways to gather data about what we were doing, so we didn't just have our feelings to rely on. We use the resource to bring new staff, and volunteers on board, and to remind ourselves about the importance of socio-emotional learning, and differentiated responses to behaviour.

“We worked really hard on having a whole of school approach – that is a really significant shift, an enhancement to what we were already doing.”

The resource is being picked up more broadly as well, including by academics at other institutions.

“I have had people from all around Australia contact me about it. I have spoken at conferences and personal development sessions. A group from a primary school in Shepparton is coming to visit in March! I am so happy that it is out in the world and helping other people.”

That is central to the work that Rebecca does. Equity and social justice are important values, she says, as is the recognition that everybody deserves the same opportunities regardless of the circumstances that life puts us in.

“Greg commented to me once that it isn't really the done thing to talk about love in education, but I would have to say that love guides me in my work. I do my best to have unconditional positive regard for all the students and families I work with.”

Visit the Trauma Informed Practice Website