Behaviour Management Episode 12: Q&A – Trauma-informed practice, strategies for CRTs and more

Thanks for downloading this podcast from Teacher magazine. I’m Dominique Russell.

At Teacher, we are often asked for more resources and information on behaviour management. In the latest episode in our Behaviour Management series, we spoke with Senior Lecturer and Course Leader for the Master of Applied Behaviour Analysis at Monash University, Dr Erin Leif, and Russell Fox, Lecturer in Behaviour Analysis, also from Monash University. They join us again in this episode, but this time, it’s to answer your questions that you submitted. We asked for these questions in our weekly Teacher bulletin, which is a free subscription you can sign up for at our website,

In this episode, we’re going to delve into the link between positive behaviour support and academic learning; how positive behaviour support can be integrated with the principles of trauma-informed practice; and how we can upskill other members of the school community to help us in this area. Let’s jump in.

Dominique Russell: Welcome back Erin and Russ, it’s great to have you back for your third episode now. It’s going to be a bit different, this episode, though, to our last ones that we’ve done with you – we actually invited our readers and listeners to write into us with questions or topics that they’d like some more information on to do with behaviour management, to support them in their school settings. So, we’ve got a great range of topics, I think, so I think we should jump straight into them.

The first question we’re going to look at is from a reader who wrote to us saying, ‘We are currently working through the school-wide positive behaviour support modules within our dedicated team to implement this school-wide framework. I’d love to hear or read more from other schools who have already implemented this and the outcomes so far.’ So, to talk about this idea a little bit more generally, to be able to have as much impact with our audience as possible, Russ, can you talk us through the link between positive behaviour support and academic learning?

Russell Fox: Yeah sure. And I’ll get back to the specific question, because I think reading about things on pages of journals or reading about people’s experiences of success on blogs and things like that, that's really helpful, but I'm getting circle right back around to talk about a way to connect in in the Australian context with other people who are implementing, some of them further along in their journey than others, and that's the Association for Positive Behaviour Support Australia – just to flag it, I will come back to it.

So when thinking about the links between positive behaviour support and academic learning, there are several things that Erin and I talk about and one is that we consider academic learning as being behaviour. We’re just doing behaviour that's focused on the domains of academics. We’re talking about reading behaviour – and within reading behaviour that's a general, sort of set of skills that we use. I mean, there's the decoding of words, for some people they're tracking with their finger as part of their reading process – there are a range of skills within there.

And so each of those is a behaviour. So we think about that as behaviour. So when we're talking about learning, we’re talking about behaviour. When we’re talking about behaviour, we’re talking about behaviour.

And so the strategies that we're talking about here, really come back to the core things that teachers do as part of their work, which is assessing student progress; assessing their skill level currently; what the next skill is; and then going about teaching and providing feedback on their progress towards those skills (be it academic or social).

So in terms of the links at sort of a conceptual level, yeah, we're talking about learning as behaviour, behaviour as behaviour, and assessment, planning for the next skill development, and then providing feedback and reinforcement for learning, or correction if we need to, as being critical to that.

We do see when we implement PBS [positive behaviour support] or school-wide positive behaviour support [SWPBS], or PB4L (Positive Behaviour for Learning) – because the listeners across Australia will be calling it different things – we do see that it buys us more time to get back to instruction.

When we do good tier one implementation, when we're doing the core practices like establishing really good routines, teaching students about those routines, and reinforcing them and making sure that when they do engage in the classroom expectations and norms that it works for them, that they feel good about it, but also is really clear about how that benefits the group together, how it creates belonging, and a sense of our class community.

When we do that really well, we actually have more time. We're spending less time interjecting into the lesson and correcting, talking across the room, and correcting students for engaging in fairly low-level disruption (in some instances), and it also sets us up to deal with the bigger stuff. If we can eliminate the low-level disruption, or minimise it, or have a plan for it and be working towards it, it might be a little bit more bumpy in Term 1, and then by the time we sort of hit our stride middle/later parts of Term 1 and into the rest of the year, we can actually spend a little bit more of our planning time (and of course we know that that is limited too, we're not saying teachers have hours and hours of spare time) but by doing really good tier one, we win time back in our class, we allow ourselves to focus on some of the students that might need more intensive or individualised supports, and a teacher’s role really should be working to implement plans around (with support from leadership and from team leaders and the like) around some of those students that need more individualised support.

So there's a lot in there. So I think if I just recap a little bit, there are links between academics and behaviour on a conceptual level – we’re talking about behaviour, sometimes we label it as academic behaviour, literacy behaviour, maths behaviour, and sometimes we call that social behaviour. And that's how we talk about it in our work, and I think it's really helpful for teachers to think about this as ‘I'm just teaching. I'm assessing, I'm teaching and I'm giving feedback’.

So, on the conceptual level, and then when we think about it on the broader level, we buy more time for our teaching by setting up these good routines and doing a really good job of that and again it's the same sorts of processes where when we’re instructing, we’re letting students know what the content is we're giving them an opportunity to engage in that content by responding to it, and then we're providing them feedback, either reinforcing or corrected feedback, if they are moving towards that learning goal or not.

And so there's a lot of symmetry there, but also we actually see some of the benefits of implementing school-wide positive behaviour support within the research literature that shows that there are some academic gains that come with that. So, schools that focus on this really genuinely do buy themselves more time to focus on the instruction.

But then, for the question from the listener – and I'm sorry if I've ranted too far away from the question – the Association for Positive Behaviour Support Australia is a not-for-profit organisation that gets together people from all across Australia who are working to implement positive behaviour supports (positive behaviour intervention supports, positive behaviour for learning, however it's labelled across the states). It’s connecting them together in communities of practice where they can meet with other teachers, staff in schools, leaders, who are implementing currently, they can hear stories of success, they can share their own experiences and learn from each other. So that's one way that people can plug in, in a way that's a bit more sort of human connection than just reading, let's say Bradshaw and colleagues, 2008.

We’re looking at the impact of school-wide positive behaviour interventions/supports across it, so that's a much more personal way to hear stories and see people in communities similar to your own, implementing and what they're achieving as a result of that.

DR: The next question we received was on the topic of trauma-informed practice which is something that comes up quite consistently with our listeners. So, this listener in particular asked: ‘What kind of behaviour management strategies are best to adopt in order to make students with trauma feel as comfortable as possible in your classroom?’ So, Erin, how might positive behaviour support be integrated with the principles of trauma-informed practice?’

Erin Leif: It's a great question and it's a topic that I really enjoy talking about. I think the first thing we need to distinguish is between what we call trauma-specific services and trauma-informed practice. So when we talk about trauma-specific services, we’re talking about individual clinical interventions that are specifically designed to address trauma-related symptoms. And these are the types of things that might fall within the scope of practice of a psychologist or a mental health professional working individually with clients and actually perhaps talking about their trauma or prescribing individual interventions. And that's not what we're going to do in classrooms.

What we're going to do instead is adopt trauma-informed practice as a lens that we can overlay on top of the school-wide positive behaviour support framework or we can integrate with the school-wide positive behaviour support framework. It's a universal way of operating within a school that can benefit all students but particularly be sensitive to the needs of students who may have been impacted by trauma. And that could be a single event such as a bushfire or a flood, or it could be students who have experienced ongoing traumatic events like abuse, neglect, or experiencing domestic violence within the family.

And so, what we advocate for is integrating the principles of trauma-informed practice into the systems within a school. And the National Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration describes trauma-informed practice as a system, a framework, that first of all realises the widespread impact of trauma, and how that might impact an individual; understands multiple potential pathways for somebody who's been impacted by trauma to thrive and to experience a full and rich life; recognises the signs and symptoms or risk factors for trauma in individuals; and also responds by building teams within that system that have knowledge to effectively take steps to build strong positive relationships with students, understand if there are some historical factors that need to be considered, and take steps to actively resist re-traumatising the student.

So, generally, within a PBS model within schools, we might integrate an approach that's based on the four Rs – so the four Rs are that we Realise, we Recognise, we Respond, and we Resist. So we Realise, first and foremost, the widespread impact of trauma, and understand that people have been impacted by trauma, although we can't go back in time and change those events, we can help build resilience. We can introduce those students and families to more protective factors that are going to protect them from the negative effects in the future. We also Recognise that the signs and symptoms of trauma can look like a variety of things for our students. In some cases, it might look like externalising behaviour, in some cases that might look like internalising behaviour – it can look a lot of different ways.

And, in fact sometimes, the difficult behaviours that we see in our students (particularly those that have been impacted by trauma) are in fact very adaptive responses to very maladaptive environments. So these students have learned to engage in behaviours that, in other contexts, keep them safe and now those behaviours are occurring at school, or in other contexts, where perhaps they don't serve the student in the same way. But we need to be sensitive to that – that those were behaviours that actually perhaps saved the child’s life case in another context.

We Respond by first of all developing systems within our school that can provide information about trauma and can provide pathways to refer on to other professionals who can assist our students and families who are impacted by trauma. And then we actively seek to Resist re-traumatisation. So we want to avoid putting our students in situations at school where we’re in fact re-traumatising them, we’re re-exposing them to those trauma triggers.

And so there's actually a lot of ways in which positive behaviour support and trauma-informed practice already overlap with each other. So, it's not actually a very hard thing to do. Specifically within positive behaviour support we look at establishing clear and predictable social environments where adults say what they do and do what they say; we focus on building strong relationships, strong and trusting relationships with our students and their families; we look at understanding the reasons why behaviours of concern are happening for our students, and try to go upstream and address the root cause, rather than just changing behaviour for the convenience of others; and we provide within school an instructional framework.

So here we are coming back to this idea of integrating academic learning and behaviour. We meet this student where they’re at, and we teach them new skills that can build resilience, that can build a self-regulation and self-esteem.

And so essentially these overlap with characteristics of trauma-informed practice which are focused on things like building safe and positive learning and living environments, that focuses on building dependable, trusting relationships that emphasise security. We teach new skills, new ways of self-regulating and getting our needs met that build resiliency. And all of these qualities are central in both SWPBIS and trauma-informed practice, so I think there are some real synergies here.

But I think that it takes a whole-school approach. So this shouldn't fall on individual teachers. The school needs to articulate – How are we going to design our policies in ways that are trauma-informed? How are we going to provide additional professional learning to teachers? And what avenues for support do we provide for students who are impacted by trauma?

And finally, we need to recognise that our teachers who support kids with a trauma history may be at risk for experiencing secondary traumatic stress triggers themselves. And so we also need to look at how to build systems within schools that focus on identifying whether staff, our teachers, are experiencing vicarious trauma. What pathways can we provide them to get support, debriefing, and help with managing some of those things? And just, I guess, normalising discussions about some of the ways that this work is really hard, and it's okay if it feels really hard. But we're here to support you, and we're here to help you take care of yourself.

And finally, how are we going to recognise all the amazing work that our teachers are doing within the school? We’re telling teachers how amazing they are, and celebrating their successes, rather than just focusing on problems.

DR: And so, the last topic we’re going to look at in this episode is around the considerations for other members of the school community when we’re talking about behaviour management. We had someone ask about some strategies for casual relief staff, for example. So, I’ll throw this question out to both of you – how can we upskill other members of the school community (so, casual relief teachers, and also support staff and families) in positive behaviour support?

EL: Yeah, it's a good question. I think, first of all, I kind of am shifting the language that I use as much as possible to get away from the term behaviour management because I think it has some connotations around ‘what do we do after the problem happens?’ or ‘how do we perhaps manage this student for the convenience of others?’ Whereas if we reframe it as behaviour support we're looking at, what can we do to support this child to participate, succeed and thrive in the school context? And I know it’s semantics, but I think the words hold a lot of meaning and a lot of power in a lot of situations, so I'm actually actively trying to change some of my language around the term behaviour management.

But I think the question about engaging other members of the wider school community is a good one, because PBS is a systems approach that relies on teams, and it relies on active participation of all members of the school community. And, so I'm going to talk first a little bit about how we can engage parents in the process, because there's a lot of benefits with working collaboratively with parents to ensure consistent community expectations that translate across home, school, and community.

And so one organisation that I quite like, the Centre on Positive Behaviour Interventions and Supports, which is a technical assistance centre based out of the US, describes four different ways that we can think about partnering with families as part of our implementation efforts.

So the first, again it's a trauma-informed principle, but it's building positive relationships with families. And we can do that by having leadership view family participation engagement as a priority within the school, not as an afterthought and not as a burden. And we can ensure that we engage families as a priority by including it in strategic ways within our school’s vision, mission and goals. So, stating that as part of our school values, having collaboration with families. And then finally looking for practical opportunities. What are the different ways that we can establish teams that include parents to provide input into how this looks within our school? What do we value as a school community? And what are the practical things we can implement within the school that are going to help us work towards achieving our values of safety, respect, and inclusion, for example?

And parents might have a really unique perspective that's bringing something new and fresh that maybe the school leaders and teachers think a little bit different. And so I think that that relationship building, and involvement of families in a planned and intentional way, is very important. They also can give feedback on the acceptability of the strategies that you're using. If we use things within our schools that parents don't agree with, and think are unacceptable, then we're going to probably have some conflict with families.

The next thing is to really engage in two-way communication. Communicate with families. Look at ways to share successes and celebrate successes with parents. Bring them into that process. But also talk about the strategies that schools are implementing to address problem areas, or little sticky areas within the school. And demonstrate how data are being used. Now, data can look like lots of different things, even parent opinion and parent perception is a source of data, but demonstrate how you're being strategic about addressing issues that parents are aware of within the school.

Third is to ensure equitable family representation. Particularly for schools in culturally and linguistically diverse neighbourhoods or with the student population, you do want to make sure that parents who are involved are representative of the wider school and student population. And think about how parents can give input into cultural considerations. Implementing SWPBS in a way that is respectful and responsive to the different cultural backgrounds, cultural preferences of the families and students who are part of that school.

And then finally coming back to this idea of using data. So, when partnering with families, we want to make meaningful data-driven decisions about what we're doing in our school, how are things working, and what might we do differently. And so we can actually do some data collection with families. We can ask families questions like – How satisfied are you with our current efforts within the school? How is our school doing in achieving its family and school collaboration goals? What's currently working and what isn't? And what could we do to address any of the challenges?

So these are all different ways that we could integrate the participation of families into the SWPBIS framework. So, I'll turn it over to Russ to talk a little bit more about other members.

RF: Yeah, thanks. I think relief staff is just such an interesting one at the moment, given the shortages. The challenges with getting relief staff in schools at the moment is real, it's a significant challenge. And so I guess I want to put that out the front, because anything I say is within the context of some serious constraints that people are experiencing, that teachers across Australia are dealing with at the moment. And that is leading to challenges in grade splits and classes in large groups, multiple classes together. And, again, all of that raises really good questions about how do we do what you're talking about under those conditions? Which, again, are fair questions.

So, I think when we're talking about CRTs (casual relief teachers/relief staff) there are several things that will help, and they’re structural things again. So, I've seen schools that have set up really, really effective relief teaching kits. So, in the classroom there is an overview of the class group, there might be photos and names, so you don't get that situation where you walk in and you’re going through the roll and the students all mix up their names, which they think is hilarious, but it kind of sets the relief teacher off on the wrong foot and they’re sort of chasing that all day.

And I've done relief work and I've been in that situation, it's really frustrating. And it means that I was less calmly able to use what I know were effective strategies because I was under the pump from the beginning. So, structural things like having photos and names, can be really, really helpful; medication schedules if there are students that actually need to have medications within the classroom; and then a clear overview of (and it doesn't have to be an essay, it can be really, really brief, it can be some easy take-homes), ‘here are the expectations within our school’. So, really clear outline of what the expectations are within the classroom and school broadly, and just a really brief description of maybe some of those pathways we've talked about a couple of times … ‘What does a minor look like? Here are the ways we manage minors. If it gets to this stage, here is who you call and how this these functions from here.’

So, these are sort of little system things, but if we set that up, then it means that we don't have to rely on Erin being available on the Thursday, and Erin’s our go-to person for this, and we've got that established relationship. And lots of schools have really wonderful relationships with their relief staff and they can call on consistent staff coming in, but again we’ve seen all sorts of challenges to that. So, I think some of the things that set up for success are structural. And as a relief teacher going in, it means that I can use my toolkit of evidence-based practices within this framework. I understand what the bounds are within this particular school context.

So, if I'm a relief teacher listing here, I'm thinking about – How do I establish those clear expectations early? How am I open and honest and clear, without coming across as punitive and corrective? And this is a balance that relief teachers will understand, and I don't want to … insult them in how to do their work, but it is about that, setting clear expectations. And I think the earlier we can begin providing clear reinforcement for good stuff that's happening in the room, the sooner we can create a positive environment.

So, in the nerdy speak, we would call this ‘behaviour-specific praise’. So, if I can outline my expectations early and then start delivering behaviour-specific praise with really high rates, like really get stuck into it, I can actually show that if you’re doing the right thing, I see that, and I'm going to make sure that you understand that it's seen and noticed and I'm a positive person in this environment. But then, if you see stuff that is going on that is not okay and sits outside the expectations – and again within that systems change where we’re clear on what those expectations are, but at the school level and classroom level – then we can do some error correction with a greater sense of what we're looking for to correct within this environment.

So, if you are a CRT and you are going across multiple schools and you don't have those structures in place, I would recommend writing down what your expectations are within your space, for you; having a clear idea of how you're going to manage behaviours up to a certain level; and my first question when I would arrive at a school is, ‘If behaviour gets to this level, who do I call and what does that look like?’ so you can establish for yourself, sort of some parameters around ‘how do I respond using that idea of majors and minors?’

But having that clear before you're in the room thinking about ‘what are my expectations for today?’ No, no, let's go with some clear expectations so you don't have to think about it every day, you know what you're working towards, and you know what behaviours you're going to be looking for to provide high rates of behaviour-specific praise and/or really clear error correction. With error correction not just being ‘hey, that's not how we do it while I'm in this classroom’, but also then providing the opportunity to respond, and then providing that additional positive reinforcement when students engage in the expected behaviour.

So, when considering education support staff, there are a number of challenges that we can just name and own up front. And that is that Ed Support staff (ES/Teacher Associates/Teacher Assistants, however we’re labelling them across jurisdictions), they often do a lot of the contact work with students who are exhibiting problem behaviours or challenging behaviours/behaviours of concern. And so, they often are charged with the implementation, some of the more complex implementation.

And so, from an anecdotal perspective, from my work in schools, a lot of the time is working alongside ES to support them in their work, and it can be particularly challenging. And for the staff that I've worked with, there are several things that I noted.

One is it can feel like it's quite isolated at times. There can be situations where the class is doing other things and the student that they’re supporting is in another space, or the student might need a break and it is them and the student outside – and of course there are duty of care questions and policy things that are worth thinking through at the school level – but it can be something that can feel quite isolated.

It also can be something that can feel challenging insofar as the skills that the required. It can be a complex task. And so, to have that level of skill, we need to give professional development. But layering on top of that, the professional development is difficult because it's hard to get everyone together in the one place at the one time, due to timetabling. Ed Support staff are often timetabled from 9 ‘til 3 or 9 ‘til 3:30, they often work through lunch and finish early, and so calling them in on days off, getting a group of Education Support staff together, can be a challenging task. And then when we have them together, what does it actually mean for the students that they typically support?

And so there are several things that I think are absolutely worth doing. One is making that time – and it might cost a little bit of budget, but actually making the time on curriculum days to deliver Education Support staff-specific training that relates to the students’ needs within that community. And there might be some specific things that are worth focusing on and some of those might be delivering positive reinforcement, like effective use of positive reinforcement; it might relate to a functional understanding of behaviour, because sometimes when we talk about a functional understanding of behaviour, we’re saying that sometimes we think we are supporting a student to calm down when we're actually reinforcing escape from work.

And so there's just some little stuff like that, a little trick where we’re accidentally making our situation worse, and we can provide Education Support staff with the skills to know, ‘hang on a second, am I actually making this better or is this actually making it worse?’ And so, providing time out for Ed Support staff to get the professional development they need to meet the specific needs of the students within the community that they serve, is really, really important. And when this happens we see thrilled, grateful… Ed Support staff that are seen within the community and have their needs met as they go to do a very challenging task.

Now it's also really important that teachers understand their role in coordinating the program for Education Support staff. It's the teacher’s responsibility to all students on their class list, and their job is to ensure that they provide a high-quality program for their students, and that might be delivered with the support of an Education Support staff member.

But in order for that to happen really, really well, there needs to be really effective communication. And the same challenges that I talked about before in terms of time and getting everyone together, those challenges, they sit double, because teachers are time poor and Education Support staff are time poor too. So finding a little bit of overlap time is really, really important.

And I don't necessarily have like really good answers for that, I just have some thoughts around finding time where it doesn't add to workload. So, it might be that for five minutes of yard duty, the teacher and the ES walk and talk together. Now I know that's going to get interrupted and it's not a perfect solution, but it's creating space. Ideally, if it can be resourced, school leadership providing 15/20 minute/half-an-hour time allotments or allocations within time release, or some other way, like actually create the time, recognise the importance of the communication between the Education Support staff and the teacher, and creating that time and space for them to meet and discuss plans – how the work is going, how the behaviour is going, because sometimes it can be emails late at night, it can be notes on a sticky note on the desk. And that might be enough, but sitting down and working together can be really, really important.

So just to sum up (a lot of words in there) providing time for Education Support staff to receive professional development on skills that are relevant to the clients, not the students that they’re supporting, the actual community needs. As well as that, creating time for teachers and Education Support staff to meet, communicate, to talk about progress. And it doesn't have to be long, and we’re not trying to generate all new work, we're just trying to see – How is the work we're doing going? Is there anything that I can tweak in the unit of work that I'm doing at the moment? How are they finding it? Are they responding? How much of this work are you having to prompt? Is the student able to respond independently or are you having to prompt a lot of this kind of stuff? There might be some little questions that we’re able to ask in a small window of shared time, but if we don't have that window, it's really, really difficult to communicate, get on the same page and collaborate effectively.

EL: I think we just want to end today by talking about the fact that there's actually very little research on the implementation of Schoolwide Positive Behaviour Support or other systems for supporting improved student behaviour within schools in Australia. So a lot of what we're drawing on is research that's been conducted elsewhere around the world. And we know that what happens in other parts of the world isn't necessarily going to meet the unique needs of Australian schools.

And so, one thing we're really interested in doing, as researchers moving forward, is doing some in depth case studies of what implementation of these tiered frameworks (including Schoolwide Positive Behaviour Support), what that looks like in Australian schools, and identify really good examples and describe really good examples and effective examples of implementation in Australia.

Because the more we know about what's working in our local schools, the more we can share that information to support other schools with their implementation efforts. So, if any of you that are listening are in a school that's implementing, and you really want to tell your story, feel free to drop us a line and we'd love to come out and visit you and have a chat about the work that you're doing.

And finally, we’ll continue to advocate for feeding back into university teacher training programs. How can we better prepare teachers to enter into the teaching workforce with the skills to be able to effectively support the behaviour, social, and emotional success of all of their students? We know that's an area where teachers often feel underprepared, so we’ll continue advocating.

That’s all for this episode. Thanks for listening. If you’d like to get in touch with Erin and Russ, you can find their contact details in the transcript of this podcast over at our website, To listen back to our last episode with Erin and Russ, just search for ‘Behaviour Management Episode 11’ wherever you get your podcasts from.

We have over 200 episodes in our podcast archives. To keep up to date with all our series, make sure to subscribe to our channel, which you can do on Spotify, Apple podcasts, and Soundcloud. And, while you’re there, we’d love if you could rate and review us.

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In this episode, Russell Fox says his first question when arriving at a school as a CRT was ‘if behaviour gets to this level, who do I call and what does that look like?’

As a casual relief teacher, did you think to ask this question in the last school you were working at? How could asking this question in the future help to set you up for success?

As a school leader, reflect on this question. Do you think each member of staff at your school knows how to answer this question?