Everybody needs those who can give them a voice, especially when they are young and dealing with trauma or neglect.
Yet it is only when a teacher with the right knowledge reaches out to 14-year-old Daniel that he can break a cycle of extreme behavior.
That is actor Rebecca Morton’s take on Judy, a character in Biting The Hand, a Hobo Playhouse production to be performed for principals, teachers, academics and educational leaders in Bendigo at Friday’s La Trobe University childhood trauma conference.
Judy recognises that Daniel is not a bad person, drawing on her own experiences of trauma to give a voice to a boy who is in turmoil.
“It was a teacher who had rescued her (Judy), taught her to trust and gave her a safe space to develop,” Ms Morton said.
An estimated one in 32 Australian children suffer abuse or neglect, meaning the impacts of trauma are felt in almost every school in the country, conference coordinator Anne Southall said.
It took me two years to unpack this kid’s trauma – two years working one on one. Who as a classroom teacher in a 40 minute high school session is supposed to understand and respond to this stuff? It’s too much to ask.Anne Southall, La Trobe University researcher
Their trauma can surface as behavior that is difficult to manage in schools, which is one of the reasons Ms Southall wrote Biting the Hand.
The work came out of Ms Southall’s 30-year career in education and extensive time spent with the 14-year-old boy Daniel is based on.
She said her academic research generated the play, with characters inspired by the real Daniel’s teachers and psychological reports as well as a person who had a traumatic childhood and then became an educator.
“What I did was personify those people, rather than write straight (academic) research. I gave them a character and they represented each of those perspectives,” she said.
“The play really tells this story the way it is experienced in schools. The purpose is to teach teachers, to give them that emotional understanding of what is happening and how trauma is informing young people’s behavior.”
Biting the Hand will take place part way through the conference, following one session on teaching and prior to a session on how young peoples’ minds develop.
Childhood trauma is something teachers do address at schools. Yet they do not always have the opportunity fully hone an understanding of something so complex.
“It took me two years to unpack this kid’s (Daniel’s) trauma – two years working one-on-one. Who as a classroom teacher in a 40 minute high school session is supposed to understand and respond to this stuff? It’s too much to ask,” Ms Southall said.
“But the more we reflect on, understand and inform our own profession the more we can approach it differently.”
The play and conference was timely. Keynote speaker Ann Morgan said more and more neuroscience research was showing the effect trauma has on the brain and learning.
“If your basic human needs like health, welfare and accommodation are not met, or if you are traumatised and constantly hypervigilant, it’s not possible to access that part of the brain which integrates thinking, memory and learning,” she said.
Research into how trauma affected the brain was inspiring new approaches to teaching, often with theories that many practicing teachers were not trained in.
For Dr Morgan and other staff at a “flexi-school” network in Queensland, part of the solution has been to create new educational institutions for students who might otherwise fall out of the system.
The past 10 years had witnessed a dramatic increase in the number of ‘special assistance’, ‘alternative’ and ‘flexi-schools’, many of which had a greater focus on wellbeing and creating deeper positive relationships with teachers.
“It can be very hard for them (young people) to connect and trust because there may have been adults in their lives who have induced that trauma,” Dr Morgan said.
“Over time, and through building relationships and connections, we see changes in young people, though not always … by the end of year 12.”
She said the students who she worked with in these schools were often involved in the juvenile justice system, were homeless, had a history of domestic violence or had drug or alcohol issues.
“They are choosing to come back (to school) and they want to learn,” Dr Morgan said.
“They realise that perhaps education can give them the skills they want. They want to work and they want a better life.”
Working at these new schools required a shift in how educators work with young people, Dr Morgan said.
The lessons she and other educators were learning would be the same ones she would share with mainstream teachers during her keynote address at the conference on Friday.
Ultimately, though, hopes for how teachers deal with their students’ trauma come down to how teachers harness their own professional understanding in the classroom.
For actor Rebecca Morton, it is about the power of a teacher knowing how to give a voice to those struggling to speak.
When that happens, she said, everyone starts to understand.
Have you signed up to the Bendigo Advertiser's daily newsletter and breaking news emails? You can register below and make sure you are up to date with everything that's happening in central Victoria.