School leadership: Enhancing learning environments through trauma-aware practice

In a recent Teacher article, Ben Sacco from the MacKillop Institute discussed three elements that can directly support schools to improve teaching, learning and wellbeing – safety, relational trust, and shared language. In this follow-up, Sacco, and St Pius X Deputy Principal Stacey Atkins and Principal Joe Ewing share how the Catholic primary school in the Diocese of Ballarat has been putting these elements into action.

At St Pius X Parish School in Warrnambool, strong and supportive relationships between teachers and students, and students and their peers, are regarded to be of the utmost importance.

The school provides an educational program which encompasses the development of the whole person, offering learning experiences which encourage the child to develop their skills and knowledge and an ability to apply these to their everyday living.

It recognises the importance of developing a child’s sense of self-worth and ability to believe in themselves through their own successful achievements, as well as providing opportunities for staff to focus on their wellbeing as a tool to enhance the teaching and learning environment.

The Principal and Deputy Principal roles make up part of the leadership team. We view authentic and genuine relationships as the foundation for all members of the community to flourish. We believe that all children can learn given the appropriate time and support – this learning occurs when they feel safe, secure and happy – and that children should be listened to, and treated with respect at all times. Staff are the most important resource in a school and their wellbeing is paramount.

Responding to needs of children and young people

The MacKillop Institute’s Reframing Learning and Teaching (ReLATE) model, recognises that teachers and schools need tools, knowledge, skills and resources that enable them to be cognisant of the impacts of adverse childhood experiences on engagement, learning, health and wellbeing.

Combining educational research, social science, behavioural theory and neuroscience, teachers are supported to implement practical strategies in their classrooms.

Before introducing ReLATE at St Pius X there were concerns about student behaviour and the leadership team was looking for the most appropriate and effective strategies to assist students and staff in addressing this. Staff were feeling additional pressure in the classroom and there were concerns about children missing out on learning opportunities due to the nature of the behaviours exhibited.

We identified groups of students that required targeted support – whether that be for behaviours such as aggression in the yard (physical and verbal), challenging classroom behaviour or school refusal. We noticed that all of these things were resulting in a high rate of advanced school discipline measures such as suspension and we wanted to do something more impactful for our students.

We implemented a variety of wellbeing initiatives across the school. Whilst students had quality experiences with social and emotional learning programs, we recognised we needed to create a learning environment that integrated research-informed and evidence-based theories and practices, in a way that was not onerous on our staff and that delivered positive outcomes.

Targeted strategies and a consistent approach

The ReLATE model has provided a theory, but more importantly it has provided targeted strategies that are evidence-based, helping our teachers develop a consistent approach and shared language when responding to student learning needs.

There is now a recognition that relationships are foundational to everything we do in school. Everyone uses consistent language and our staff are drawing on the shared professional learning experience in order to understand the significance of procedures, and to continue to move forward.

St Pius X established an ‘Implementation team’ – a non-hierarchical and professionally diverse team, which has proven successful in driving a healthy change agenda. We are moving towards improved teaching and learning outcomes through understanding the impacts of adverse childhood experiences on the developing child’s body and brain. Our thinking has switched from the challenging behaviour of children being rewarded to them being supported.

Wellbeing and safety have all been brought to the forefront of staff’s minds. There has been a broadening of what it means to be safe. Our community has reframed how they think in terms of emotional and cultural safety, as well as physical safety. Safety plans have become an important tool for planning, use and reflection in times of heightened emotions.

Safety, relational trust and shared language

The leadership team has also placed a focus on the three elements of safety, relational trust, and shared language.

Safety: establishing a check-in strategy to learn how the child or young person is feeling and if they are ready for learning or need more time.

We regularly check in with both students and staff to see how they are feeling. Primarily, this is through the ReLATE Circle (which we refer to as a community meeting) each morning. This helps to build connections between staff members, between staff and students and between students. We are more in tune with how our colleagues are feeling, their goals, achievements and their needs. We’ve found that students are also always eager to begin their day with a community meeting. Some children have more regular check-ins and use a card system so that teachers know how they are feeling at any given time.

Relational trust: considering acts of kindness that contribute to the happiness of students or colleagues and smiling and using colleagues’ or students’ names when you greet them.

The COVID pandemic and its uncertainty has demonstrated to us all the importance of being kind to ourselves and to others. Each morning, Joe or Stacey greet children and staff by name as they arrive at school, which is a small thing that goes a long way to ensuring that everyone is valued.

Shared language: spending time getting to know your colleagues’ and students’ interests that are not work or school related and learning the cultural narrative of those that make up the school community.

At St Pius X we have a strong understanding of the community we serve. We recognise that every community is unique and that this needs to be valued. We work hard to build relationships and trust through active listening and meeting people where they are at.

Where to from here?

After a very strange couple of years, we are hoping to continue to build on the foundations of the ReLATE model in our school. We are aiming to build a shared language for having difficult conversations with children who are having challenges and who would benefit from self-regulation, and we are hoping to further embed safety plans.

As we move forward, we hope to engage the wider community in this work. Most importantly, we look forward to seeing the continued benefits for all the members of our school community.

One of the strategies outlined in this article is for developing ‘relational trust’: smiling and using colleagues’ or students’ names when you greet them.

Think about your own behaviour at school – do you smile at colleagues and students when you greet them? Do you regularly use their names? How does it feel when someone does the same to you?

Schools wanting to understand the ReLATE model are invited to attend a free online information session, or contact The MacKillop Institute directly. Dates for upcoming sessions can be found at The MacKillop Institute website.