Strengthening School Culture through Trauma-Informed Strategies in the Northern Territory

Malak Primary School in the Northern Territory has been transformed.
Trauma informed
Malak Primary has made huge steps by understanding the trauma that its students have experienced.

“This is work I believe in and value.” – Principal Lorraine Evans

Malak Primary School is situated on the traditional lands of the Larrakia people, and they are committed to providing a learning environment that is safe, supportive and positive for all. It operates in the northern suburbs of Darwin with an enrolment of 200 students from many cultural backgrounds, 21 international languages and 12 declared Indigenous languages are spoken.

The Malak Primary School leadership team wanted increase their school’s capacity for student engagement and learning. Over the last five years they have diligently worked to implement a suite of trauma-informed strategies for teaching and learning. The Malak way has contextualised world-wide best practices for trauma-informed education within their unique culture and community. Malak have embedded trauma-informed strategies into their daily practice in all classrooms, offices, meetings and playgrounds of the school, and they have seen significant improvements across multiple wellbeing and learning domains for their students and families.

Below, Principal Lorraine Evans shares her reflections on the Malak experience of working closely with the team from Berry Street Victoria to first understand the impacts of adverse experiences, chronic stress and trauma on child development and learning; they then enacted positive shifts to strengthen the teaching and learning within the school.

The impetus for change
In 2016 when I joined the Malak team, behaviour and safety were the two key tasks of every adult. A good teacher was one who kept all their kids in class and didn’t have to call a lockdown. Learning was a last consideration and academic results were on a downward trend. Teacher wellbeing and feelings of self-efficacy were diminished. I issued multiple suspensions for major behaviours in one school year. We couldn’t stay there.

Four years ago, another principal and I held a mini-conference for all schools in my region on understanding the impacts of childhood trauma with focus upon who experiences it and why and how it impacts behaviour and learning. The learning had a profound impact and left our team saying, “Now we know what trauma looks like, feels like and sounds like, we see the barrier to learning it creates, we understand where it comes from a bit more. But at the end of the day they were asking two questions – what the hell can we do to help ameliorate the impact? And, what about me?” That led us to seek partners to strengthen our school, and we started working with others who held the same values for the healing and growth of children including the team from the Berry Street Education Model.

It would be easy to see our kids as fragile, to be pitied; but they are not all fragile and they don’t need our pity. Our kids are amazing. Our teachers are high quality, dedicated and deeply appreciative of our kids. Our families trust us and have deep roots connecting them to the school – grandparents are now bringing grandkids to us. There is incredible resilience in our community. An understanding of trauma-informed education told us that what our students needed was support for self-regulation, positive relationships, knowledge of their strengths and success in learning.

Some of the immediate trauma-informed strategies that we implemented built stamina for learning in our students – and supported our staff to maintain our community’s strengths including daily reflections on WWW – What Went Well, Positive Primers to start each day, healthy touch opportunities, Brain Breaks – at least three per session, and Calm Corners.

Some key factors that supported our success in implementing trauma-informed strategies across our school included;

• We identified one ‘champion’ within the school to drive the implementation and support teaching staff. In most schools this was a senior teacher with responsibility for student wellbeing and additional needs.

• The group met as a network, sourcing resources, ideas and working on policies etc. that needed to be updated in light of our new learning. In the first year, all the principals met twice a term with the champions to keep things on track. We still have this group in operation four years later and we have amended it so that each principal sits on the team for a year and reports back to/from all principals.

• We start each staff meeting with a Brain Break, Positive Primer, a revision of a strategy or a sharing by any member of the team.

• We re-visioned school assemblies to demonstrate the strategies in action (to students and parents), to build the common language and to ensure school events aligned with what we had learned.

However, trauma-informed strategies are not a recipe. It is a way of being.

Implementing these proactive strategies takes persistence and requires effort to ensure all staff are using intentional strategies and language to ensure consistency for re-thinking how your class environment is set up, your daily timetable, how you respond to student behaviour, how you start your day, how you manage transitions, to what energy you bring into the room. It is a lot about knowledge and management of self.

Assessing the Impact of Our Trauma-Informed Journey
“Through our whole school approach, our students now know how to be ‘ready to learn’ physically, emotionally and in mindset. Our teachers and staff know how to be ‘present, centred and ready to teach.’ Our learning environments focus on building resilience, self-regulation, character strengths and learning stamina." Quoted from the Malak Primary School website:

Improvements in School Data in Our School Reviews
In 2017, before commencing the implementation I issued multiple student suspensions in a single term for periods ranging from one week to the maximum of four weeks. Suspension was used as a last resort to address violent, dangerous, destructive behaviour that led to whole school lockdowns. Over the last four years suspensions have become a rare event.

Every four years, NT schools have an external School Review conducted by ACER and NT trained reviewers. The shift from our school being labeled from improvement needed to a commendation is clear evidence of the change achieved. In the 2015 review, the recommend goals for the school were: “To develop a whole school intervention model with differentiated tiers of intervention in both wellbeing and special needs. To maximise human resources and build strategies to support implementation of behaviour approaches.”

Things have changed since then, as the commendation we received articulated:
“Malak Primary School presents as a calm and focused place to learn where caring and respectful relationships are recognised as the key to successful learning.”

Since 2018, we have been on a trajectory of improvement in our NAPLAN results, especially in literacy and in our Year 3 cohort. I remember attending a regional principals’ meeting in my first year at Malak. I was mortified to see we were the lowest in the region by a large margin. We had to change. Now, our students are present, centered and ready to learn.

We have been used as a national case study due to our significant improvement. The 2015 Australian Early Development Census (AEDC) report showed approximately 60% of our students were identified as vulnerable against one domain, 40% on two or more. In addition, I received feedback from our speech therapists that we had an unusually high referral rate. Investigation proved the referrals were warranted. Our early childhood students were not even at the starting gate.

In our latest 2021 AEDC results, we had significant change with the percentage of students identified as vulnerable on more than domain dropping from 59.3% to 50% and those identified as being vulnerable on more than two domains dropping from 40.7% to 16.7%. While our oral language, fundamental movement skills programs and Reggio Emilia inspired approach have all contributed to this change, so too has the BSEM approach.

By adopting trauma-informed strategies and our holistic suite of whole-school intervention efforts, we have created safe space for a paradigm shift at the staff and whole school level. It has helped us to recognise, understand and address the learning needs of children impacted by trauma. Our efforts continue to positively impact our school and will change the life-trajectory of our students. This is work I believe in and value.

Lorraine Evans is Malak Primary School’s Principal and a Schools Plus Fellow, 2021

Dr Tom Brunzell is the Director of Education at Berry Street, and an Honorary Fellow at the University of Melbourne’s School of Education. Dr Brunzell’s experience includes teaching and leading schools in the Bronx and Harlem, and working in New York schools following 9/11 to support communities through collective trauma impacts. Drawing from his experience working with schools in communities of systemic disadvantage, he has authored the publication: Creating Trauma-Informed, Strength-Based Classrooms: Teacher Strategies for Nurturing Students' Healing, Growth, and Learning. Dr Brunzell has masters degrees in teaching and in school leadership, and a PhD from University of Melbourne in the areas of trauma-informed practices and wellbeing.

Berry Street