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Child survivors of domestic violence flourish under homework trial

From left to right: Jennifer Johnson, Vicky King, Loraine McKay, Kara Scaysbrook, Brittany Nordling, Tasha Riley and Carolyn Robinson.

In a room set aside for domestic violence survivors on Brisbane’s southside, there is a literal buzz in the air as children, some of whom six weeks ago initially refused to engage with the idea, are doing homework and building up social skills with preservice teachers and lecturers.

One little boy runs up to a Griffith University lecturer mid-sentence: “Can you please come and build Mars with me?” he asks expectantly.

A Prep student, not much bigger than her backpack, is working assiduously with her preservice teacher. Her mother pulls QCT staff aside to talk about the difference the Homework Club has made in her children’s lives.

A teenage boy, who let everyone know how “dumb” he thought the idea was when he first started five weeks ago, is at his laptop asking questions of his preservice teacher.

The extraordinary difference this pilot project has made in just under six weeks has everyone in the room abuzz.

Led by Carolyn Robinson―a former teacher and Deputy Principal on leave from the Department of Education, after a family member went through a violent relationship and she decided to advocate for victims―the Homework Club is part of a suite of programs run by Beyond DV.

Beyond DV is based not far from where Hannah Clarke and her three children were murdered earlier this year, and Hannah’s Mum Sue has joined the growing number of passionate volunteers at Beyond DV to tackle the scourge of domestic violence on a number of fronts.

For teachers, the Homework Club is a reminder of the crucial role each and every school staff member can play in helping to support the eradication of domestic violence. It has also highlighted the importance of teachers understanding the effects that trauma is having on children right now in classrooms across Queensland.

Photo: Griffith University preservice teacher Brittany Nordling.

According to Orygen, the National Centre of Excellence in Youth Mental Health, research suggests between one-half to two-thirds of children will have been exposed to at least one traumatic event by the time they are 16 years old.

Domestic violence is just one of many potential causes of child trauma.

In the past financial year alone the Queensland Police Service recorded more than 96,000 occurrences of domestic violence across the state.

From March 2019 to March 2020, 125,489 concerns were lodged with Queensland’s Department of Child Safety, Youth and Women about harm or risk of harm to a child.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics estimates one in six Australian women who are 18 years or older have experienced partner violence from the age of 15.

Beyond DV founder Carolyn says trauma presents in a number of ways in children who have experienced domestic violence.

“It’s that lack of confidence, low self-esteem―feeling that they are different to their peers,” Carolyn says.

“These children have experienced situations where they have not felt loved, they have not felt valued, they have not felt safe,” she says.

“I think back over the last 30 years and there would have been children in my classes who would have been through trauma or domestic violence, but it just wasn’t spoken about.”

Department of Education Metropolitan Behaviour Support Services Metropolitan South Team Leader Vicky King says the concept of Trauma-informed Practice in schools is relatively new, and it is an area her team are incredibly passionate about skilling educators in.

Vicky says most classrooms across Queensland would have students who have experienced complex trauma.

“These students have been victims of repeated trauma that includes factors such as physical, emotional or sexual abuse; significant neglect or violence,” Vicki says.

She says a child’s development can slow down or be impaired following trauma and can often lead to them having splintered development.

“Children who experience neglect at a young age, their brain is smaller, has less brain tissue and the brain cavities are bigger. We need to remember the impact on the brain can be huge, but the brain can change as it is exposed to new experiences,” Vicky says.

Carolyn, who had worked with Vicky in the past through the Department of Education on behavioural management strategies for students, asked if Vicky and her colleague, Jennifer Johnson, could present to Griffith University preservice teachers, who were about to be paired up with children at the pilot Homework Club, on trauma-informed teaching strategies and how to best support students.

That vital PD is credited with being one of the key reasons for the club’s quick success.

Photo: Department of Education Metropolitan Behaviour Support Services Metropolitan South's Vicky King and Jennifer Johnson.

Vicky says students suffering from complex trauma could be presenting with challenging behaviours, be highly dysregulated, unpredictable, and disengaged from schooling. Students who are internalising the domestic and family violence they have experienced could be suffering flashbacks associated with movement, smells and sounds in the classroom.

“For trauma-informed schooling we are moving from the notion of, ‘What is wrong with you?’ to ‘What has happened to you and how can we support you?’,” Vicky says.

Relationships and trust are key.

“Children who have experienced toxic stress and trauma are likely to have been exposed to rejecting, hostile and inconsistent models of connection that really impact on their ability to make relationships. These children have had adults who have failed them – they have rejected them, they have abandoned them, so that whole notion of adults being trustworthy people, that has to be really worked on,” Vicky says.

”The quality of the student/teacher relationships may be the most important factor for positive adaptation to school. The antidote for traumatised children is to engage in relationships with them that are positive and sustaining,” she says.

“Students from a trauma background can emotionally dysregulate regularly. Just as children learn to read and write, they need to be emotionally literate to identify their feelings and manage them appropriately.

“Emotional regulation is a big one. You want them to become regulated and finally to self-regulate – however an adult needs to assist with co-regulation along the way by using verbal prompts: 'What do you need and how can I help?'."

Consistency, predictability, routine and structure in the classroom are vital to reduce anxiety in students with a trauma background―a ‘no surprises’ approach. Relationship check-ins with students also play an important role.

“We know that a number of these students come from chaotic, disorganised, dysfunctional households sometimes―through no fault of their own―so before we pop our students into class we should set the students up for success by using a daily check-in system so that the students check-in with a mentor who asks: ‘How are you feeling? Have you eaten breakfast? Did you have a good night’s sleep?' ” Vicky says.

“We are wanting to assess where that student is emotionally before we pop them into a classroom and they ‘flip their lid ‘ by ten past nine in the morning,” she says. The mentor is not going to place that student in class without communicating safety, security and stability, along with offering a warm, empathetic and supportive approach, that’s what a lot of students need, that really supportive approach.”

At the Homework Club, Jennifer, who also works with the Department of Education’s Metropolitan Behaviour Support Service, told the preservice teachers they would need to build relationships with students quickly and she provided advice on the language they should use.

“Because everything coming from a positive-based approach is going to be received better,” Jennifer says.

“Every positive interaction is having a positive effect on the brain. So, every time somebody is friendly and nice and speaks to them kindly and says their name, and tells them they are doing a great job―that is having a positive impact on that person.”

She says teachers should “never underestimate the potential that they have to help that child recover”.

“The relationship with the child is one of the most useful and important therapeutic tools we have,” Vicky says.

Vicky says it’s important to view students from trauma backgrounds as being emotionally distressed, not deliberately defiant, a point raised by trauma-informed schooling expert Dr Judith Howard.

“Learning is secondary to the emotional safety of the student, so unless we are socially and emotionally balanced, then we are not going to be regulated for learning,” says. “In teaching, you can’t do the Bloom until you take care of the Maslow.”

The Homework Club almost didn’t go ahead this year due to COVID-19.

Approached by Carolyn about providing preservice teachers to help students suffering from domestic violence, Griffith University lecturers Dr Loraine McKay and Dr Tasha Riley knew it was something they had to do, but COVID-19 threw a spanner in the works due to the logistical hurdles.

Photo: Griffith University lecturers Dr Loraine McKay and Dr Tasha Riley.

Loraine and Tasha went to visit Beyond DV mid-year to offer their support. Griffith University already had a connection with Beyond DV’s Hope for Life program, which pairs mentors with eight- to 16-year-old students through a monthly activity program and annual camp.

“We wanted to have a look at it and say, ‘Look, 2020 is not going to work out and we’ll keep it in mind’, and we’d been here half an hour and we were in the middle of talking to Carolyn about the place and we just looked at each other and we said at the same time, ‘We’ll work something out’,” Loraine says.

Both lecturers were impressed by the clear difference Beyond DV was making in families’ lives and by the passion everyone at the service had for women and children to move forward from what their pasts had thrown at them.

“I think, for me, it’s just that wanting to be a teacher to make a difference to kids’ lives, and it was the feel of this place, it was the atmosphere,” Loraine says. Tasha says the club also highlights the importance of, and value in, schools, universities and communities working collaboratively together to learn from each other and provide meaningful opportunities for students’ academic and emotional success.

The two lecturers called for volunteers, with 13 preservice teachers being chosen to work with 15 children. The preservice teachers were first given professional development by Vicki and Jennifer and they have reflection time with Loraine and Tasha after each session.

“They talk about what went well, what would you do differently next time, what did you learn about yourself, what did you learn about yourself as a teacher and what was your key take-home message of the day,” Loraine says. Preservice teachers are also asked to reflect using art-based means to help them “open up and express ideas and feelings they initially had difficulty expressing in words”, Tasha says.

For both of the lecturers, seeing the growth in the children as well as the preservice teachers has been both heart-warming and stunning.

“They have become really close to the students that they have been working with,” Tasha says.

“We had one instance where one little girl – she really wanted to have that reassurance that her mentor would be coming back and working with her, and so she and her mentor have worked on strategies to make sure that she feels comfortable,” she says.

One girl’s mother pulled aside QCT staff to say how much the club had meant to her. How her children had felt safe and secure with their preservice teachers. How they had been able to catch up on work that she couldn’t help them catch up on. How, when there was a storm and she said they couldn’t go to the Homework Club, they begged her to still take them. How they felt safe there.

For preservice teachers Brittany Nordling and Kara Scaysbrook, volunteering for the Homework Club has been life-changing.

Brittany says she has had some exposure to children from trauma backgrounds through her work at her Church and Kids Club.

“But it was so beneficial to have in-depth training because I think, not just as a teacher, but in our roles in the community and with family, being able to recognise the different signs and how we can best support people is beneficial for more than just our future in education,” Brittany says.

Photo: Griffith University preservice teachers

Kara Scaysbrook and Brittany Nordling.

“It (domestic violence) is something we can all have an impact on, even if we are not directly involved within our circle, we can still have an impact and make a difference.”

Kara said the experience had been “quite challenging” but also extremely fulfilling.

“It has really taught me that students from different backgrounds one second can be okay, and the other second it can not be okay, so it was just about the process of going off their moods, learning what upsets them and how do I not gloss over them, but make sure that they feel safe,” Kara says.

“The domestic violence statistics and just the mass amount of people that go through this, and the families that go through it, was quite shocking,” she says.

“This topic you hear about, but to really see the effects … it was definitely confronting … but it gave me the information I am going to need to have students in my classroom that are going to come from all different types of backgrounds and have difficult situations.”

For Carolyn, the extent of domestic violence in our community and the deep and extensive trauma it wreaks on victims, their families and friends, came as a shock to her when she was confronted with it through a family member’s experience.

“I knew nothing about domestic violence before then, I really didn’t,” Carolyn says.

Finding herself in a courthouse, she was staggered by the number of women and children who were there unsupported.

“That is what led us to think, ‘We have got do start something’. We are just ordinary people being impacted by something you could have never imagined and wanting to see some good come out of it,” Carolyn says.

“The idea for the Homework Club actually came from a need from some of our parents who had approached me to see if I knew of any tutors who would help their kids―they didn’t have a lot of money,” she says.

“It has really been greater than anything we could have ever expected. The outcomes for all parties involved are so very positive.

Photo: Beyond DV founder and managing director Carolyn Robinson.

“We have all got a part to play in helping to break the cycle of domestic violence and whether that is with these children to show them their worth and that they are valued, I think that is critical.

“What we are doing here with children might change the trajectory of their lives.”

For more information about Beyond DV and the programs they run, click here.

Family violence support services:

· DV Connect Womensline 1800 811 811

· Men's Referral Service 1300 766 491

· DV Connect Mensline 1800 600 636

· Lifeline (24-hour crisis support) 13 11 14

· Relationships Australia 1300 364 277

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