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The following transcript from Marking the Role’s Trauma-Informed Teaching Part 2: The Berry Street Model podcast (Episode 19) is shared with permission.

Phil Dye, Host of Marking the Role podcast: Hi and welcome to Marking the Role a podcast for teachers. We're based in the Illawarra area of New South Wales in Australia but really, it's for educators everywhere. My name's Phil Dye, I'm your host. The last episode, which was Episode 18, was the first in our series on trauma-informed teaching and I interviewed Beck Thompson, the author of Chasing Normal...

Today, I'm going to be talking to Tom Brunzell, the Director of Education from the Berry Street Education Model...Tom is a very popular speaker. I was told by many teachers, “Geez, you've got to get Tom on!” and talking to him I realised why. He's very, very passionate about what he does.

Firstly though, I asked him why trauma-informed teaching has become such a big thing in 2022.

Dr Tom Brunzell, Director of Education, Berry Street: I believe that the momentum is picking up because science has definitely strengthened in the last decade. When we say words like, ‘trauma-informed practice’ and ‘trauma-informed education’ I see that as interdisciplinary, and as you know, in your work field, so much of what we're doing is hinging on our advances in neurobiology and the impact of trauma and chronic stress on the developing mind and body.

Then as we also understand the evidence base of the impact of trauma-informed teaching and learning – wow, the publications and the foundational work we do around measuring outcomes around student well-being, student mental health student academic achievement. Well, I think that it's pretty compelling now, and the ways in which the field is meeting the needs of students of complex unmet needs.

But of course, now our teams at Berry Street are getting many calls from schools that we would not have gotten calls from before because of the vicarious impacts, the complexity, and communities, as a result of the pandemic, and of course, all the other things that communities are contending with right now.

Phil: A common phrase that I've heard from teachers is that this trauma-informed teaching is just an excuse for poor behaviour. Is that the case?

Tom: Certainly, from my standpoint as both a researcher and working at Berry Street, I would disagree.

I'd like to suggest that trauma-informed practices help us understand the underlying unmet needs of why we see some of these behaviours, but then we want to move right to strategies in proactive ways.

Tom

Because frankly, I do care about student well-being and engagement; I do care about how we help kids meet their unmet needs in the classroom. But ultimately, I want to see kids learn, and on-task learning is such an important centrepiece of what we do at Berry Street. You do better when you understand how to contribute, and what we can do to support you when you're having a rough day.

Phil: So, if this happens at school, if the teacher can provide a safe environment, what happens when the child goes home to a very unsafe, traumatic environment? Is everything then diluted or is there a counter action there? What happens with that?

Tom: Well, that's a big question, Phil. And I would answer that by reframing for a lot of teachers out there, and of course, our allied education professionals also listening, that what you've described in terms of the needs within the home and the needs we see in communities often of great, educational inequity is, those are systemic concerns. Those are concerns that are quite complicated for just a teacher to address and understand.

That's why I'm so proud to work at Berry Street because we take a real care team approach, we work with family and education case managers and other mental health professionals to support family needs.

Tom

However, what I want teachers to understand is although systemic concerns take time, those kids are still arriving at your classroom again, the next day. So, what can we do to have predictable rhythms and self-regulation strategies? How can we build stamina for learning? Because we know so many kids are going to arrive at school after an exhausting night of drama or sleeplessness or not having nurturing food in their tummies. We know that teachers still have to create the environment where students can succeed.

Phil: Indeed, last week I interviewed Beck Thompson, the author of Chasing Normal, and she described one of her teachers in the book that really made her do her very, very best and she wanted to do her best because of the words from this teacher and I suppose that's what you're getting at there. Yes, you can't fix things at home, but you can certainly fix things or help things in the classroom.

Tom: Well, that's what my research is suggesting; teachers’ own well-being can increase when they do have these effective strategies. And if it's okay with you, I'd like to share one of them because I think it does absolutely talk to what you have brought up here.

One of the things we do is have every student have something we like calling a Ready to Learn plan and it's very simple. It's ensuring that every student has three, maybe more, strategies pre-agreed upon with the teacher that they can use to self-regulate often in the classroom or from a trusted adult in the hallway or whatever it is.

Now everything is a little more complicated than what I just said, right, as to actually implement it requires whole school systems and systems of support from administration and leadership teams. But I really want all teachers to think ‘I'm going to build resilience’, and I'm going to define that because that's quite a buzzword, and I like the buzz!

But when I say resilience, I'm talking about helping kids be flexible, accurate and to meet their own needs in healthy ways. And when kids know when to enact one of their [Ready to Learn] strategies with permission from the teacher – go to the sensory corner, use something to keep your hand moving, get a drink of water or take a deep breath – that's when they can return to learning.

Tom

And the way that we help encourage our kids to use [these strategies] when we've had a rough day, and a student has perhaps made a poor choice--we know that they're making the best choices, things that are happening in their bodies. We don't want teachers to lord over the [students’] choices; we want them to say, ‘We're going to restore this with you, and we want you to choose a strategy next time. What can you do when you notice yourself struggling?’ That's, I think, one of the first steps to take toward resilience.

Phil: Yes, indeed and getting the student to be able to identify that and make the choice that will de-escalate themselves, I’d suppose you call it.

Tom: Absolutely, and I think that answers [your question], which is, is trauma informed practise saying ‘Oh, no, this child is too dysregulated to learn so they should probably just not learn for the day.’ And I know I'm being a little bit sarcastic in that way of framing, but, you know, we hear this a lot sometimes. So, we want to do is create that secure base by always offering strategies and pathways forward for this student to employ.

Phil: I like this about the program, Tom, that it's not just talking about support, and so many of these programs just talk about support, but yours talks about learning as well. So, it's support in order to learn, and I think that's really an essential difference. Tom, I'm a big fan of the Spark program in the USA with Dr John J Ratey, where regular exercises introduced to the learning program. What’s your view of that and as an aid, to the trauma-informed teaching?

Tom: Oh wow, I am a big fan of Spark. Yeah, thanks for bringing that up, Phil, you know what, great ways of thinking are teaching us is talking is important with students of concern, but movement is how they're going to help strengthen their own bodies, regulatory capacities, and have the capabilities to know what we can do in terms of that Ready to Learn plan.

Students have to move while learning, and I get worried with all online learning and then teachers, who don't know these practices yet saying, ‘I'm going to lecture you or I'm going to force you into some kind of listening marathon’.

We can see when students are moving their own bodies, and they're tipping in their chairs, or they're poking other kids, or they can't stop moving their hands. That's a sign to us that they are crying out for that physical regulation.

Tom

At the Berry Street School, we know that when our kids are antsy, and they can't stop moving that's a cue that our teachers are not doing enough to engage and motivate and pique their interest. But also, to provide those sorts of dual purpose, strategies that say this is going to help you focus and this is going to help you move your body at the same time.

That's why we love brain breaks...And you know, so many teachers are saying: ‘I thought brain breaks were just going to waste time in the classroom,’ but our research and practice say when you get kids to move, you're going to get more engagement.

Phil: You'll be happy to know that we have brain breaks in this podcast. At the halfway mark we always have a musical brain break...it's essential, I think not just for students and kids but for adults as well.

Tom: I'd like to give you just my favourite brain break idea. I certainly know that anyone can look up on the interwebs for great ideas, but you know what, I want students to have the assignment to look up what a great brain break is for themselves, and to have students create their own so teachers can have students lead them.

Phil: Tom, I came from a family trauma background. But in 1971, I had teachers who knew my ongoing trauma at home, and who definitely changed their words and their manner when I was in their classroom. It struck me that in some way teachers or the good teachers, have really always done this but never named it. Do you think there was always something in what a good teacher could do?

Tom: Oh yes. And I do think It's important to acknowledge that so much of what we now call trauma-informed practice has always been part of great holistic, age-respectful, stage-appropriate approaches to helping students.

The words ‘trauma-informed education’ are new. I mean, you know, new as in the last 15 years or so, in terms of the way we understand it now in education...I think it's important to continue relooking at the terms that we label things to really help meet the needs of our current time and age as it is....

The best compliment, the best feedback, [Berry Street Education Model (BSEM)] often gets is: ‘You've just given me language to describe what I'm doing, and you've helped validate some intuitive ways of working’ and I smile real wide and say, ‘Great!’

Phil: If you were going to identify a student in a classroom, Tom, that possibly has a traumatic home life or has said something in their background, what are some symptoms or some actions that you might look out for?

Tom: We as teachers (and that's me, I have been teacher trained and I'm an education researcher) is that we are not therapists. And what that means is, we are not going to delve deeply into a student's family history because that's not our discipline as educators.

However, I want educators to scan the room, and look for two particular qualities that can help us and understand that particular students may really benefit and need this kind of special trauma-informed education approaches to the classroom.

Tom

The first is looking at regulation, emotional regulation and physical regulation in the body.

The second is the ability to form strong collaborative relationships for learning. I mean, everything in our classrooms now is about collaborative learning, cooperative learning, and working together in groups because that's what we got to do later in life, as adults.

We also know that trauma and chronic stress can impact a student's ability to regulate and of course connect with others in the classroom.

So, whether you see these things or not, it's not your job to diagnose a student’s family history, but to realise that the students presenting struggles of regulation and relationship and maybe looking into trauma-informed practices can be a really viable pathway of intervention.

Phil: And that student doesn't have to be the student to misbehaves. It can be the quieter one.

Tom: Absolutely. I mean, we talk a lot about acting out that's about zero-to-100 in two seconds, it's obvious and sometimes it's easier to know those things because it's right in front of you, but we certainly know that there are many students whose response to stress is acting in.

Phil: But I think it's a little bit, as you said before, Tom, that it's good for the teacher, to take a breath, to breathe in and to lower their brain electricity – that’s the way I would present it – and speak in a soft voice. And I found that teachers are so stressed these days. They're so overworked, and we know that, you know, it's just horrible that they have trouble doing this; they have trouble regulating themselves let alone the students.

Tom: Well, Phil, you've passed me a baton, and I'm going to grab it from you now because this is a particular research area of my own exploration. I investigate teacher wellbeing and the impacts of trauma’s effects on teacher themselves, and their own compassion fatigue, potential burnout, and vicarious stressor awareness.

But also, the opposite of that is vicarious post-traumatic growth, which is when we observe the growth of a struggling person, and often in our studies, we see two different groups of teachers. And if you allow me, I'd like to explain these two groups that might be helpful to your listeners.

Group one is the group that when they've learned trauma-informed education strategies and they've decided, ‘I'm modelling adulthood, I am mirroring these strategies, what it's like to be a well-regulated, emotionally stable person when learning, because learning can be stressful.’ And this is how you manage speed bumps in the classroom, you’ve got to model these strategies. The good news is that when you model the strategies yourself, it's a twofer, you feel better about your own well-being, and you promote academic learning in robust ways.

However, there is a second group. Now, the second group in our studies often says to us, ‘I really care about my students and trauma-informed practice...but...I don't come to work for personal refinement, I come to work for the kids.’

Now, when somebody says that it is a flag for us because...we do see some promising student outcomes when teachers apply this to their practice pedagogy and their everyday classroom management. But in our studies these teachers in that second group often report lower wellbeing at the end of the year and they will blame their school leadership teams and other structural demands on their time. And we think, ‘Yikes!, you didn't use this opportunity not only to practice for your own well-being, to mirror for the kids, but now you are essentially blaming a group of other people in your school for things that you don't have autonomy over...’

So, we can see an integrated practice when teachers say, ‘I'm going to live this stuff and therefore my students will be able to see me as the living embodiment of what I want everyone to be, which is educated, regulated and connected.’

Tom

Phil: And will probably keep them in the profession longer because they won't be as stressed.

Tom: Also, I think it is about redefining what the profession even is, and a lot of people might say to us, ‘I got into teaching because I care a lot about the curriculum and I want to teach the kids that want to learn, and I want to teach kids that are going to show up and be ready to go.’

Well, that's very nice, but that's not a lot of the teachers we work with now, because we now understand in a service-rationing world when we do not have enough time, energy, funding, staffing etc. that we have to see our practice now with educators as an integrated approach.

'I can teach resilience well-being and content to my students all at the same time.’ And ‘I can teach how to manage disruption and speed bumps while I can manage when my brain feels escalated...’ All of these strategies become integrated in our work...

Tom

Phil: Teachers are so overworked these days. I've heard the voices of thousands of teachers over the last nine months that I can't forgive some for treating this as just another mandatory task that adds to the paperwork. My answer to them has been well it's not necessarily adding to any paperwork at all, but is it?

Tom: So, when I hear the kind of concerns that you just vocalised, I don't argue with people. Because if you have a struggling teacher in front of you saying, ‘I am exhausted’, I very much validate that because it's true, we are all exhausted it’s a complex world.

I want to lift this conversation to school leadership teams and those people in a school who are coaching guiding and supporting their staff. It is very important to us to integrate the change journey within schools to say trauma-informed practice, social emotional learning, restorative practices (and the list goes on) is not a side pathway. It is not something that we add in... it's integrated.

Tom

So, the next vista for us at Berry Street is to continue working in the way that I've been talking about but to really integrate that into instruction so that...it's all one journey. It takes really visionary leadership to make this pathway of practice refinement possible for all the teachers and their staff.

Phil: Should it be a part of teacher training?

Tom: Heck yeah! Because of the robust evidence space out there we have a number of really valued university partnerships who are thinking carefully about how we help and encourage education students to feel fortified to move into communities that need this work the most...

But again, teacher pre-service teaching curriculum is...jam-packed and so again just like I said it takes visionary school leadership, it takes pretty visionary university teacher planning coursework to begin carving out the spaces for that and the onward support and coaching of teachers when they're doing their placements within schools.

Phil: Mark Smith, Principal of Lomandra School said to me the other day that if teachers dumped all the other state mandatory training and just did the Berry Street Education Model (BSEM) course it would provide inspiration and a reason to teach for the next five years, something every teacher needs. That is an amazing comment to have about your program.

Tom: ...I have to say a very special thank you to Mark who's been a real good friend and champion of young people in New South Wales for many years. When we met Mark in our own training courses, he just became an instant friend to us because we certainly share the same values toward what education needs to be. So, thank you Mark, I know you're listening out there. We're easy to find, the name of our program is the Berry Street Education Model and that's the acronym of our website it's bsem.org.au.

Phil: Tom, it's been such a pleasure to talk to you I'd love to talk to you again in other podcasts and thank you so much for giving time to us.

Tom: Thanks Phil I'd love to reconnect with you soon.

Phil: And that was Tom Brunzell, Director of Education at the Berry Street Education Model. I like his tips for getting the students to seek out and learn/find/discover their own brain breaks; one of my favourites is to ask children to look at a silent movie for five minutes, so not an old Charlie Chaplin thing but something that's got no sound and draws their attention to just one thing. When you take out one sense it amplifies the others, so this is one way of getting the brain electricity down.

You've been listening to the second part of our series on trauma-informed teaching. I'd like to thank Beck Thompson and Tom Brunzell from Berry Street for the role that they've taken in these last two episodes.

More about the Marking the Role podcast

Marking the Role is a podcast for teachers covering the issues they face today. Based in the Illawarra region of NSW, Marking the Role welcomes the voices of teachers everywhere. To listen and subscribe, visit https://markingtherole.com.au, or follow Marking the Role on Facebook.

More about the Berry Street Education Model

Developed by teachers for teachers, the Berry Street Education Model (BSEM) provides educators with a toolkit of over 100 practical strategies for immediate use in the classroom and across your school.

BSEM shows educators how they can build student engagement and support an improved capacity for school achievement by:

  • understanding the benefits of trauma-informed teaching on child development and the ability to learn
  • creating a supportive and trauma-informed positive education classroom
  • bolstering student-teacher relationships
  • applying positive, relational classroom and behaviour management strategies
  • instilling strengths-based practices across the school.