Kids who have experienced high levels of trauma can often feel threatened for no apparent reason. But what's really causing this?
In this episode of School Behaviour Secrets, we interview school leader and educational advisor, Dr. Tom Brunzell. Together, we discuss the impact that ACEs (Adverse Childhood Experiences) can have on pupils and he reveals his 5 part framework to support pupils who have been affected by trauma.
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Creating Trauma-Informed, Strengths-Based Classrooms: Teacher Strategies for Nurturing Students' Healing, Growth, and Learning here
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Show notes / transcription
Tom Brunzell 0:00
And nobody ever told me when I was becoming a teacher that my kids heads were connected to something and that something was the rest of their body. And so I would certainly, when I was a teacher first in the Bronx, I would support and had a special focus on kids that couldn't stop moving.
Simon Currigan 0:17
Hi there. My name is Simon Currigan and welcome to this week's episode of school behaviour secrets. My dream job is to be a biscuit polisher. Although delicious, in my opinion, biscuits like shininess and would benefit from a quick polish as they leave the factory line guaranteeing satisfaction for the end customer. I'm joined today by my co host Emma Shackleton. Hi, Emma.
Emma Shackleton 1:17
Hi Simon. Biscuits polishing?
Simon Currigan 1:20
Yeah, that's my plan for lifting broken Britain out of stagflation and economic decline employing 1000's of people to polish Jammie Dodgers and custard creams before they hit the packet. Worthwhile work, I am sure you will agree.
Emma Shackleton 1:34
I wouldn't hold your breath for a phone call from the economic unit at number 10.
Simon Currigan 1:39
Moving swiftly on then Emma, I wanted to open the show today by asking you a question.
Emma Shackleton 1:44
Well, there's a surprise.
Simon Currigan 1:45
How do you feel about unpredictability? Going into a situation where you're not exactly sure what's going to happen? There's no clear plan. Do you enjoy that or not so much?
Emma Shackleton 1:56
Well, I guess it depends on the context. I think most of us like to know what's happening. But having said that, for the most part, I don't usually mind too much if plans change and the situation doesn't quite turn out how I expected it would. What about you Simon? Are you a fan of surprises?
Simon Currigan 2:16
Yeah. If I feel like I'm confident in the situation, and it's not going to overwhelm me or something, or it's not something completely new? Yeah, I'm a fan of good surprises. I hate routine. I absolutely hate it. So I do like to have changes during the week not sort of get stuck in a rut
Emma Shackleton 2:30
Everyone's different, I guess. Aren't they with their tolerance of this?
Simon Currigan 2:33
Emma Shackleton 2:35
So why are you asking about unpredictable situations? What's the link to this week's episode?
Simon Currigan 2:41
This week, we're going to share my conversation with Dr. Tom Brunzell, which is focused on the topic of trauma informed practice. And one of the things he highlights repeatedly in his book is the way kids are affected by trauma. perceived risk as in, they find it really stressful, really heightening, and how incorporating as much predictability as possible, can be really regulating for them.
Emma Shackleton 3:06
That makes sense. I bet there are lots of people listening who straight away can bring at least one child to mind where this is familiar to them.
Simon Currigan 3:16
Yeah, and in the interview, we'll share in one moment, he actually lays out an entire five part framework for supporting pupils affected by trauma, and adverse childhood experiences, to help them develop and meet to their potential in school.
Emma Shackleton 3:30
Sounds good. But before we get into that, I've got a quick request to make. If you're enjoying these shows, don't forget to leave an honest rating and review on your podcast app. When people review the show. It tells the algorithm to share school behaviour secrets with more teachers, school leaders and parents just like you, meaning that we can help more people
Simon Currigan 3:53
Assuming it's a good review?
Emma Shackleton 3:54
Maybe don't focus too much on the biscuit polishing. And now here's Simon's interview with Tom Brunzell.
Simon Currigan 4:02
I'm privileged to welcome our guests to the show today Dr. Tom Brunzell. Tom has experience as a teacher, a school leader, a researcher and education advisor, and he's co author of the book creating the trauma informed strengths based classrooms. He is currently the Director of Education at Berry Street and Honorary Fellow at the University of Melbourne Graduate School of Education. Tom speaks internationally on the topics of trauma informed practice, students engagement, well being, positive psychology and more. His Research at the University of Melbourne investigates trauma informed strengths based classroom strategies, the negative impacts of secondary traumatic stress on teachers and the positive impact on staff wellbeing when teachers and school leaders work towards educational equity in their communities. That is quite a list of achievements. Tom, welcome to the show.
Tom Brunzell 4:57
Excited to be here. Thanks Simon.
Simon Currigan 4:59
And I want to start by saying, I really enjoyed your book Creating Trauma Informed Strengths Based Classrooms, by the way, because there's lots of information out there, training courses and books and resources. And they're often very good at describing the why. Why kids are experiencing difficulties with regulation, the part their histories have to play and all that. But then they don't often explain the bridge towards what does that mean for concrete practice in the classroom. So you read them or go to the training, and you think that's really interesting, but then you walk and think, but what do I do with that? Whereas your book, explains the theory, but then said, Well, here's what that means in terms of translation into classroom practice and the strategies that in a way that makes sense of using them. So it combines theory and practice in a really powerful way.
Tom Brunzell 5:43
I really appreciate that helpful, encouraging feedback, along with my co author and good friend, Dr. Jacolyn Norrish, we strive to reach and resonate for two audiences. The first, of course, we're hard working teachers and hard work and educators after the end of a long day. We know why they're there. They want to work toward learning for their kiddos, but we know they need strategies. And so the theories there, you know, we absolutely are building on the research that we know can help us understand trauma and chronic stresses impact on learners. We also understand that teachers need those strategies and need to feel like it's possible. So that's the first audience, the second audience, were for school leaders, really thinking, How do I create a culture? How do I shift an entire group of people moving and grooving together toward learning, towards self regulation, toward consistency, ultimately, toward equity? And so that sort of top down, bottom up approach around people on the ground of the school, people who are leading the school, that top down bottom up approach, I hope you felt was echoed in multiple ways throughout the narrative of our writing.
Simon Currigan 6:59
It was absolutely, absolutely. And it's a fascinating book, and I completely recommend everyone who's listening, get a copy of it and just devour it. It's just excellent. So we're going to talk today about using your framework for trauma informed practice in the classroom. But for listeners who are coming across this topic for the first time, first off, we need to talk about what do we actually mean, by trauma informed practice,
Tom Brunzell 7:20
I am so crystal clear about what it means to us as educators because we are a very unique discipline, we are there for the learning and crafting culture in the classroom. I also, as you said in your introduction, generously, thank you, I get to work at Berry Street. And if I may, for our listeners, especially those around the world, Berry Street is one of Australia's largest Child and Family Welfare organisations. That means that I have the privilege to work closely with a fleet of social workers, clinicians, therapists, family violence support teams, and out of home care teams as well. And what I now know after over a decade of working at Berry Street, is that trauma informed practice is an umbrella. That means a lot of things to a lot of our different disciplines. So clearly, if you and I were clinicians or therapists, then we would be using trauma informed research to inform our therapeutic work with families are for children, but we're not therapists, we're educators. So for us, that means that it is not our responsibility to sit side by side with parents and carers and go through perhaps what their family may be struggling with at home. That is certainly the province of the other people that I work with in allied ways. But as an educator, I still have to greet these kids, I still have to welcome them into my classroom and do what is really hard for a lot of kids to do, which is take the risk to say I can do this. I'm not sure how to do this, I can feel my body escalating. I kind of feel my body melting down right now. What do teachers need to do in those moments? And hinging on the practices arising from trauma informed education, I'd like to sort of nail down right here at the beginning of our talk together, that it really means building self regulatory capacities. That's emotional regulation, physical regulation in the body because learning is not easy learning requires us to channel our escalation and so sophisticated learners know how to do that and they kind of learn to love that feeling, but our strugglers not so much. So that is building the regulatory capacities is certainly the first priority. The second in terms of trauma informed practice for educators is building strong attachment informed and attuned relationships for learning that holding kids steady in their moments of escalation is proving to the kid this is the coolest, safest place you're going to be in today. And I am somebody who can be there for you. So what we realise now is a lot of people mistake that when we're told, Oh, I need to build a healthy relationship in the classroom, a lot of people are doing that. And they're doing their best for that. But I want to try to position us to say, yes, relationships are easy when everyone's getting to know each other and get to know each other's interests and all of that stuff. We ask a kiddo to do something they've never done before, which might be double digit multiplication in front of their friends, that's when we might see an escalation that we can proactively so.
Simon Currigan 10:26
And in the book you talk about for these kids, unpredictability equals risk. And I think if you're someone who's secure with learning, probably as an adult in education, you were probably fairly secure and education as a youngster, it's hard to appreciate that sometimes,
Tom Brunzell 10:41
I'm glad you brought up, one of our favourite theories of behaviour. So I'm gonna say self behaviour management, that theory has arisen for our team from some of our favourite behaviour analyst out there. And that unpredictability equals risk, it helps us explain that when we perceive the world as unpredictable, all of us will do things to make it feel less risky to ourselves. Now as a successful learner, and I know that I'm a successful learner, I loved my classroom, I hello to my teachers out there, if you happen to be listening, I've learned to like I said, to like that feeling that I can't do it. And now I have to get support, I have to try again, I have to decode the word I had to kind of look things up, I realised now if I don't feel that sense of, what am I going to do, and that sense that I've got to sort of channel my energy, then I'm not really learning. But again, that feeling is a feeling that is a bit tender for all of us. And unless you grow to like that feeling of unpredictability, you try to resist that feeling. We support a number of young people at our own Berry Street School, which is an independent specialist school for young people, often excluded from mainstream education. And what we aspire to do is to teach them that this feeling that you are learning is something that we can help you learn. And a lot of kids don't realise that because teachers don't kind of lift the lid on that ethos to say to kids, it's not always going to be easy, and that's good. And so these are the things we're going to do to bring a sense of regulation and a sense that you are centred in your body, and that you can keep on moving when you hit a speed bump.
Simon Currigan 12:31
So your book sort of presents a framework that coordinates the way we think about supporting these children to five key areas, body, relationships, stamina, engagement, and character. And in your book, you talk about the interplay between those different domains. Can you start by telling us what the body part of your framework means? And what that would look like in the classroom?
Tom Brunzell 12:54
As you introduce some of my research areas I/We were very interested as a new teacher in the emerging sciences of well being how could it be that we could teach the skills of resilience and learning and academic learning at the same time, this idea guided so many choices that I made in my early career and sort of led my research interest today. However, I kept learning things like mindfulness and character strengths, and how to instil a sense of resilience and one self talk. And all of those things are quite cognitive, they require a really well regulated brain to be able to process reflect and enact some of those pretty heady strategies. And I saw a lot of my friends, and sometimes myself giving up on that stuff. And I thought, Ah, I don't want anyone to give up on this stuff. But there has to be a middle path or a path that helps teachers understand you're not a failure if you're trying to enact social emotional learning and well being approaches, especially for the kids that needed the most. So my initial research led to some fascinating exploration around post traumatic growth for both adults and for children. And remarkably clear is that stress lives in the body itself in the sort of nonverbal life that we have, it starts in the way that we understand our own heart rate and the way that we can monitor our own heart rate and the way that we feel stressed in our own bodies. And nobody ever told me when I was becoming a teacher, that my kids heads were connected. And that something was the rest of their body. And so I would certainly when I was a teacher first in the Bronx, I would support and had a special focus on kids that couldn't stop moving. Now, I'm not going to label them hyperactive children because that's a little person centred for me, but I'm gonna say I've worked with a lot of kiddos who struggle with hyperactive
Simon Currigan 15:00
Tom Brunzell 15:00
And it's a body thing. And I would do terrible things in those classrooms like, lecture kids on stop moving, and just stop it and control yourself. And kids would look at me with big eyes and say I'm trying to or they would, you know, I'm not going to call them Little Liars, that would be very rude. But kids would look at me and say, I didn't do it, and they would still be holding the glue all over their hands. So I realised the truth is in their body, the truth is, their bodies did not want to spill glue all over their hands. But unless we attend to the body, the body is never going to grow or understand how to feel that micro moment of escalation, and then proactively have things in place ready to go to help them regulate themselves and move their body. And eventually, what I want is by naming that first strategy, domain body, I want teachers and educators to think what am I doing to bring regulation from all of this part of the human being that's below the neck. And if we help kids understand what a regulated body feels like, they will be able to attune to their own bodies as they grow up. I mean, my goal is for kids passed Senior Secondary into University and beyond that they, when they're beyond their time with us are able to reflect on their own sense of regulation, when they're in the workplace or university. And they have the strategies I've been practising year on year on year that says My body's important. So that's helped, I think a lot of educators out there to attend to the body,
Simon Currigan 16:32
I think that's really important too, because a lot of the children that get referred to us are generally poor at recognising the state of their bodies, certainly on a moment by moment basis. They know they're angry once they're angry, but they're not really aware of anything leading up to that you make a point in the book that I found really interesting, you differentiate between bottom up versus top down regulation. And I wonder if you could just talk through those terms, because I found that fascinating, actually, because as educators in the past, we've sort of traditionally focused on top down regulation.
Tom Brunzell 17:03
It's helpful that you've said read kind of recently, we've sort of attended to this because a number of things sort of helpfully exploded in the research about 20 ish years ago. And in research, that's sort of yesterday, the sciences of well being the sciences, that became positive psychology, positive education, all of these things are happening at once. And the research also benefited from advanced methodologies like neural imaging, and all of this very, very technical understanding of mapping things and processes in the body itself. And so what scientists tried to do quickly is to understand all right, so if I'm feeling escalation, what's that doing to my heart rate? What is that doing for my mind body connection, when I experienced well being what does that do for my body? What does that do for my mind body connection? And so I think it's pretty robust and, frankly, non negotiable. Now, when our work with schools to say it would be foolhardy if you were to lecture kids on their own regulation, unless you are absolutely doing everything possible to build a sense of rhythm, and movement, and all that stuff to regulate the body, that's the bottom up below the neck. Another capacity we like to put in the bottom up category is relationship to people or more in a healthy relationship for learning in the classroom. That means that we are working together co regulating each other. Yes, I can think about that. But the way I hold myself non verbally, is the way that my students will mirror my behaviour that is a nonverbal thing, tell people, I want you to calm yourself, I want you to centre yourself. But unless the adult is modelling these things, and living this authentically, the kids we know are like nonverbal radars, and they're looking at kids like well, do not tell me to calm myself down, when you are really sternly dominating my behaviour, right? That is not helpful. So it is a bit of a metaphor, but also a thing to say, if you want to increase the capacities within these kids to even have an understanding of regulation to have an understanding of healthy relationships, then it's helpful for us to remember, yes, we say nice things to kids, but we have to hold ourselves and empowered and attuned ways. So that's the bottom up part.
What we found in our research over time is that teachers have found it way more successful to build the top down capacities for learning, when they really position the body first, so top down, that's the good stuff. That's the stuff that we learn to do in teacher training, and that most of the interventions around well being and what it means to develop one's well being literacy and to be able to work through and To remind oneself, that I have something called a growth mindset, I have character strengths that remind me of what's going right with me today. And I am able to activate my helpful self talk strategies, all of those things we now know can build stamina for learning. And that is a top down capacity top down for me. And another way means my brain is telling my body to do something, and I can do it. So kids want to learn, they want to be there. And when their body sort of betrays them, it feels really sort of embarrassing or shameful. So top down means I really want to go outside, I'm looking at my clock, it's five more minutes, I'm just going to take a breath, it's going to be okay, I'm just going to finish one more thing and wait for the teacher. That's a top down thing. And that's the ability to coach yourself. And so what we've been able to do that we are excited to be highlighting in our book is all of the strategies that kids can use to coach themselves that teachers can model that build stamina for learning one minute at a time. And we love that word stamina. And I want to attribute that to a really important thinker and writer in our field, Matty Witter, who has brought that word stamina to our work at Berry Street, and so many schools around the world, that just like a marathon, or, or even a 10k, or you cannot just run a 10k If you do not have the stamina to run for more than five minutes. So one minute at a time, we need to build stamina for on task learning. And to do that we need tools and strategies to help visibly show these kids that they're building their stamina, and then of course, to be motivated engagement and use your character strengths, which are other domains. Those are all top down capacities. So we see this as a journey of integration for both teachers and their students.
Simon Currigan 21:52
So we've talked about the body parts of the framework, and you started to talk about relationships. But what is the role of relationships in a trauma informed approach to supporting pupils? Why are they so important?
Tom Brunzell 22:04
I'll start with the difficult part and and with I hope I answered with a little bit of hope here. What's difficult too, and this is probably the most serious thing I'm going to say is, we centre our practice on families that are struggling. Now, we never blame parents or carers in our work. In fact, we at Berry Street are allied with so ma ny other community actors who realise for systemic reasons. There are many, many credible reasons why families are struggling. We also understand that when families are struggling, and we owe them systemic supports, as a system working together, that children may be growing up in environments that have not had healthy attuned and regulating relationships, both modelled for them and with them and supporting them. But we also know that when children do not grow up surrounded by regulated relationships are regulated people, they will find ways to meet their needs and their relational needs in somewhat unhealthy ways. They might seek attention or seek the need, or try to meet the need for power in very unhealthy or unsafe ways. So it's hard for teachers to suddenly realise, oh, I'm not the enemy here. Now we have that comes with a caveat. Because if you make things worse, if you enact some of those behaviours that are unhealthy in relational ways, then you may be making things very much worse, like I did. And I start that way in the book telling some of the stories, but we want teachers understand there are so many things you can do to create a healing relational environment. Now I'm being careful with my language, because as teachers, we need to be aware of sort of the boundaries of what we're doing. But I do think we are crafting environments that are indeed healing for relational connection. And then as we talked about before, then we get to learning. And then we realise all right, so if a kid is not able to proactively seek support, meaning like get your hand up and say, I don't know how to do this, and I kind of have about 30 seconds before I lose my mind a little bit, that kiddo needs to feel that the teacher is attending is paying attention cares is able to give that kid some special intervention time when they need it. That's called healthy relationship in the classroom. And so it's a complicated thing. If I can, I want to add sort of two more of my favourite terms from attachment theory, we call it building a circle of security for the kid. And it's a helpful theory, meaning that adults need to consider who they need to be at the right place at the right time to meet this child's needs in healthy ways. The first is something we call Safe Haven and it is what it sounds like. Are you safe enough for this kid to see you as the safest person that they can come to when they feel that someone's bullying them, or they are not able to speak up for themselves or vocalise clearly what they need to succeed right now, that safe haven secure base, its other side of relationship is holding that space, but holding kids steady through clear limits and being able to share with kids, this is not okay. And this is not safe. And if you continue doing this, you will harm yourself and others. So holding that polarity is hard for anyone, experienced educators, but new teachers, I think it's helpful for them to realise Oh, so when people are telling me to build the relationship, build the relationship be relational, I want to break that down even deconstruct that even further to say, Well, what kinds of needs and my meeting through my relational strategies right now? am I building safe haven? Or does this kid need a bit of secure base and I think that balancing is a lifelong pursuit for all of us.
Simon Currigan 26:01
We've covered body we've covered the importance of relationships, and actually how difficult they can be to build and how intentional we need to be about the kind of person we need to be in the moment, the next part of the framework, which you've already started touching on a stamina, what I really liked in the book actually was the way you described mind hooks. So as we've already started talking about stamina already, can you talk about how mind hooks play into the stamina part of your framework.
Tom Brunzell 26:25
We love creating little metaphors that can be useful, not just for the students, but also for us is adult people. And one of the nicest compliments that we value when we get to work closely with schools, or when people read the book is they say, Oh, I just sort of realised that this can help me too. And I'm thinking, yay, that's tools for living. But you know, it's important, because like I said, Before, our kids can sense who is truly there for them. Who's not, they can also sense resilience. They may not be able to name it. But I know that kids gravitate to adults that can hold themselves steady. And that creates that safe haven for kids to say, well, I don't know why, but I like being in this room. And I like being in this person's presence. One of the things that's helped us a lot in our work is labelling, creating that little metaphor of mind hooks, it's a helpful way of reminding us that all of us have these moments when we are working through our day. And then we said something that we regret. And then we start saying in our heads. Why did I say that? Why did I say that? Why did I say that? Why did I say that? You know what? I'm gonna push that away. And then about an hour later, you kind of have a cup of tea. And you think why did I say that? Why did I say that? Why do I say that? We call that rumination. And that cycle and that cycle can go around and around and around. In circles. We like introducing that when your mind is hooked. When you see something you don't want to see. Or when somebody says something you don't like or when you can't do the maths problem in front of you, your mind is going to turn on and your mind will begin to wait for it catastrophize that we understand from the groundbreaking research of Martin Seligman and many, many, many other scholars from around the world, they have helped us understand that when the mind catastrophize is that first thought that pops into your head that says I can't do this, I must be an idiot, that is crushing. That is brutal. And that is more than a hook. Sometimes that is like a brick that can stop you from just connecting to your values connecting to your breath. And for kids the values is I just care about my reputation. And I do want to learn stuff I value learning. What am I going to do right now. And so we understand for you to gently unhook from that catastrophizing in that moment, you have to take a breath, get some oxygen in your body, remember what's important, and then just take a small step forward for some kids, and we focus on this at our own Berry Street School. When things go wrong, we don't autopsy all your terrible choices. Kids do not need to be run through all of that in the restorative conversation. We want to bring kids back to the moment that they could feel that mind hook and not let that go in their own bodies to say wow, I was caught a little bit more I could feel myself catastrophizing, I could feel that in my body, and then we want to step inside and so what can you do? Because today was a bit of a rough day. And so, you know, there are so many things you can do and we want to roll back that tape and that's how we spend time reflecting on mind hooks but finally I'd like to add reflecting on mine hooks is hard for all of us, meaning adults. So imagine how hard it could be for a kid who is just learning this for the first time.
Simon Currigan 30:08
I think what comes out from that is this is beyond giving kids rah rah speeches, and you can do it. This is teaching concrete strategies, things they can use to develop that stamina, that resilience with their learning
Tom Brunzell 30:21
In our research would also add to what you just said, Simon, that this change takes time that these are old patterns in the human being that is the child and when I mean old, I mean, there are some of the children that our audience cares about the most in their world, some of those children may have experienced significant dysregulation in utero due to some of the impacts of things serious things like family violence. And so we work with early primary educators that will say I kind of suspect this kid has been dysregulated for a really, really long time. And we're saying, yes, they have. So it would be foolhardy for you to be the idiot looking adult robot lecture, trying to lecture kids like lineup, I told you a line up line up line up, when you're really not doing anything to help them understand this body thing that's happening for them. This idea has helped us also keep our eyes straight on strategies. And so just a quick one for the lining up thing. And I know that lining up is like a debatable thing. So I don't like throw punches right now in our podcast, remember, unpredictable equals risk. So every single routine in the classroom can be a routine, that can be fun that you can make into a non consequential game that you can lift with positive emotions. So you know, even those physical routines have lining up. We want teachers to do it with a wink and a smile and a bit of a flirt, to say this is the best part of our little day right now. These are the routines that are going to regulate us together as a classroom body.
Simon Currigan 32:00
One of the points you make in the book related to that that jumped out for me is if we do get kids who come in dysregulated, very, very heightened, and we help them regulate and calm suddenly, they're used to having their bodies full of adrenaline. And when that drains away, for some of them, that might be a scary feeling, because they're just not used to it.
Tom Brunzell 32:20
I'm also going to add positive emotion can also be scary for them.
Simon Currigan 32:26
Tom Brunzell 32:27
In terms of just what they feel in their body. We've had very, very difficult unsafe days after excursions when the excursion was full of fun and probably too much sugar and the kids were just like adrenaline up with fun, and that adrenaline, they can't hold it so it spills out. And some of the roughest days for some of our own teachers was the car ride home after that excursion, whether we call it positive emotion or excitement, or adrenaline or cortisol, the stress hormones, it's so important for educators understand that, well, we're assisting kids to manage their escalation, we also need to help them manage wait for it. They're de escalation, which is such an important part of body, you know, some of the kids that we support, they don't feel like human beings, unless they're cortisol and adrenaline up. Like they're on a bit of this cliff all day long of like, I need to feel this buzz in my body because that's how they feel primed for survival and scanning and kind of hyper vigilantly getting through their day. But also, these are kids whose resting heart rate might be upwards of 120 beats per minute, and that's resting. And we know this for a fact, because we encourage the teachers we work with to teach our kids to measure their heart rates as part of a psychoeducation approach in terms of maths and sciences and all this stuff. But it is important for us to realise that the kid that looks super calm, is maybe at a resting heart rate of 120 beats per minute. So one poke one wrong answer game on and this kid is in hardcore survival mode. They can't hold that adrenaline and it is going to spill out until they crash, as you said, and that crash can also be alarming and somewhat mysteriously unsafe for some educators when they're not used to this up and down the sense of like real madness. And so all of this is to help us understand that the literacy around escalation, de escalation, understanding your body. This is the core of our trauma informed practice.
Simon Currigan 34:40
What's your approach to improving student engagement? And why is this important as part of your trauma informed framework?
Tom Brunzell 34:51
Engagement is often a full body thing but I do want to move to our thinking cells now because we put it as a top down capacity in our work as a developmental approach. Look from the science of engagement. Each moment which really formed the one of the initial foundational bricks of well being sciences and positive psychology about 20 years ago. Some of your listeners will be certainly familiar with flow theory that human beings at their optimal engagement, are full body engaged and have to experience a sense of positive emotion, they have to feel a sense of motivation to be engaged, they have to feel a sense of relational closeness, meaning, they have to feel a sense of accomplishment in each part of the task, right? So, engagement is a multifaceted thing. That's my research version of that. But for our teachers listening today, I want you to take one strategy away to get these kids engaged, primed for learning, we call it a strategy called positive priming that it is your responsibility to make this classroom both rigorous and fun. And that fun, I used to think was an auxilary add on if I was feeling fun today, but now we realise this is a non negotiable as well, that you can't possibly be at your optimum engaged state of mind your optimum creativity or your optimum collaborative self. If you are not primed with healthy positive emotion, healthy dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin generated naturally in the body, we can do that for students. If we boost them with these positive neuro chemicals, I'm going to say every half hour on the hour, that no way that we start the lesson, introduce the lesson aim, the way we give them brain breaks the way we ask them to connect and collaborate, the way we hold ourselves as teachers, we have to see ourselves as positive emotion priming, educating people, that your business is to ensure that positive emotions are holding this classroom steady, just like attachment and attuned relationships do. And this was kind of a major insight for some of the teachers we work with, because they said, Well, I was told to not smile until X date in the year, I was told that Stern is the way to go. And we're saying, you know, there is a time for what I would prefer to call, assertive empowered voice. But there's also many more times we need to prove to the kid that learning is a feeling that you want to feel in this classroom is the place that you're going to feel that natural gravitation to positive emotion, the uplift of learning, the satisfaction of being engaged and seeing your visible results right in front of you, of all the effort you just put in. Positive priming is a worthwhile pursuit that I would suggest some teachers would benefit for is their goal for the next term.
Simon Currigan 37:48
And lastly, we come to character and particularly celebrating our students character strengths. Why is this a part of your framework? And how do we help our students understand and find what you call their signature character strengths?
Tom Brunzell 38:02
So when choosing to work in communities of educational inequity, and I'm choosing my words very carefully, because we don't want to say disadvantaged communities, I feel like that puts a framing in educators brain that says, This is systemically impossible. And that is a hard way to get up, get up and go to work. We are working toward equity. And all of us are whether you work in high socio economic communities, or lower communities that I'm describing, all of us have responsibility here. What I'd suggest, though, is when you are focused on kids that are struggling, it is easy to say, Wow, this kid has a lot of problems. And they're unsafe, and really hard to work with. And it feels like we're all going down the drain right now. Now my polite way to reframe that statement is instead of saying this kid has a lot of problems, I'm encouraging us to build our literacy and to say, Oh, this kid has a lot of unmet needs, right, that notion of unmet needs is is really what I think trauma informed practice about. However, there's another side of the coin, if we're helping kids meet their own met, needs, unmet needs, we also have to look at this other side and say, What's right with this kid? What strengths do they have, that's the positive priming for us as educators, and it is so hard to see these kids strengths, maybe two weeks after you've met them in a new school year, or at the end of a long school year where I know that you are and your hemisphere of the world, you're right in the middle of so to remind ourselves that every single child, every single young person has strengths. Some of them may be hiding, some of them may be in overuse.
You know, fairness is a character strength that every kid I work with, has had, but when they see things as unfair, they're going to tell you and so they're overusing that strength at the moment and perhaps Not using the strength of kindness or social intelligence in that moment. It is heartbreaking moment when some of our own Berry Street staff will look at our young people and say, What are your strengths? And kids initially will say, I don't have any. That's why I'm at this dumb school. That's why I can't do mainstream classes. Well, that is a very difficult moment, because you realise, wow, you've been on this planet for 12 years. And you thought that you didn't have any strengths. You didn't have the strength of humour, perspective, fairness, you didn't have the strength of self regulation, because there are many times that you're self regulated, maybe not today. But we've seen it before. That is a responsibility.
Now, as teachers, it's really hard for us to remember that this kid has strengths. But we also know that is a key strategy to build relationships, deescalate kids, build your restorative practice capabilities as a teacher, to start with strengths and say, You are a kind person, I have seen that so many times this year. But today was not your day, let's talk about kindness, as opposed to let's talk about all the terrible choices you made this morning. Because the kid knows that what the kid is looking for are pathways that they can use with your support, that make them feel better and do better in the classroom,
Simon Currigan 41:25
I think you make a really strong point that because as human beings because of negativity bias, we're used to looking for negative things in our day and ruminating and thinking about them, which means we're gonna over prioritise in our memories and our minds, the negative things that we saw and discount the strengths of those kids, because they weren't dysregulated all the time, probably 98% of the time, they were regulated, but we're remembering the time when they threw a chair and walked out of the classroom. And that's what sticks in our memories. So we have to be intentional about that, I think, to bring out those strengths in conversation, especially if that child is finding them hard to identify for themselves.
Tom Brunzell 42:01
Well, I think as our time may be coming to an end, I want to drop the mic and say, I want to drop the mic and bring back something you said earlier about mind hooks that I think when a kid who may be struggling in the classroom, who doubts your ability to be there for them as a teacher, and then the teacher gives them the look and starts that lecture their own mind hooks hooks quickly and says this person, they never see me when I'm doing the right thing. They're always blaming me and hear that catastrophizing talking never and always, that's a mind hook. And so we know that strengths, and you being strengths lead and reminding these kids as many times as possible during the day I see you I see the best of you. That is an instant way I think to help de escalate somebody and stop some of that catastrophizing, because I just need kids at that moment to say, you know, okay, and that's enough to have a micro moment of mindfulness, and I hope a relational connection for that young person,
Simon Currigan 43:08
Tom, if you're a teacher, or school leader, or indeed parents actually listening to this podcast, what's the first step you can take today to start using a trauma informed approach to supporting the kids that you work with?
Tom Brunzell 43:19
I appreciate that, I encourage people to check us out we are at Berry Street and Berry Street Victoria is so we're easy to find on the interwebs. And also, my research is easy to find on places like Google Scholar, so I encourage people to check us out and contact us because we're helpful people. And we certainly want to show you our support.
Simon Currigan 43:41
And I'll drop direct links to your website and resources in the episode description as well. Finally, we asked this of all our guest who's the key figure that's influenced you? Or what's the key book that you've read? That's had the biggest impact on your approach to working with children?
Tom Brunzell 43:55
Oh wow, I acknowledge and stand on the shoulders of giants. The key person who influenced me, I'm gonna say my mom. And you know, I did not realise until I was a struggling teacher, first in the Bronx, and then in Harlem, that my mom was a teacher. And I never had professional conversations with her until I became a teacher and I got to tell her, Oh, I actually see what you were kind of doing all these years and you turned our living room into a little library and you created nookes for us and you gave us choices and all of these things around our learning. Also, I am deeply inspired by a number of researchers. I am most recently diving deeply way back into a bit of Rudolf Steiner and I am very inspired by both the philosophising and actioning that Steiner suggests.
Simon Currigan 44:59
Tom has been absolute pleasure to have you on the show. Thank you for joining us today.
Tom Brunzell 45:02
Thank you. Thanks, Simon.
Emma Shackleton 45:05
There's so much from that interview that we can all take away and start using in our own practice right now. And his framework really does make so much sense how the interlocking parts of it all work together to support the student.
Simon Currigan 45:20
I know he was really interesting to talk to a really nice guy, and I'll put direct links to his work in the show notes.
Emma Shackleton 45:27
Brilliant. And if you're working with kids who present challenging behaviours in the classroom, and you're not really sure why they're acting that way, we've got a download that might be able to help. It's called the SEND handbook. And it will help you to link behaviours that you're seeing in the classroom with possible causes, such as trauma, autism, and ADHD.
Simon Currigan 45:51
The idea here isn't for teachers to try and make a diagnosis because we're not qualified to do that. But if we can link the behaviours we're seeing in the classroom to possible causes quickly, it means we can get the right help in place and get early intervention strategies in place to support the kids we work with.
Emma Shackleton 46:07
The handbook even comes with a set of printable fact sheets for conditions like Oppositional Defiant Disorder, foetal alcohol spectrum disorder, and developmental language delay.
Simon Currigan 46:18
And you know, people ask us why we include information on language delay in the handbook. And in case you didn't know, difficulties with language are actually the single best predictor of SEMH and behaviour needs.
Emma Shackleton 46:29
And I reckon they're on the rise as well, don't you?
Simon Currigan 46:32
Emma Shackleton 46:33
So the handbook is completely free, go to our website, beacon school support.co.uk. Click on the free resources tab. You'll see that near the top and we'll also put a direct link in the episode description for you.
Simon Currigan 46:49
And if you found today's episode helpful or valuable, then open up your podcast app now. And press the subscribe button so you never miss another episode. It won't cost you a penny. And to celebrate subscribing, why not grab to post it notes and stay with me on this. Draw a single nipple on each. Now attach the post it notes in position to the front of your shirt or jumper and take a walk through your local shopping centre to let people know what they're missing. It'll certainly raise eyebrows, and you might even get one or two surprise high fives and the people you meet.
Emma Shackleton 47:20
Please don't do that. But please do come back for next week's episode of story ABC. Bye for now.
Simon Currigan 47:29
(This automated transcript may not be 100% accurate.)