Last year I started working in a high school, which was a great professional experience for me and a steep learning curve. Having previously worked with post-high school level students in college and universities, it was rewarding (and challenging!) to begin working with a younger cohort.
Through this role, I met many new colleagues and one in particular really made her mark on me – not least because of the incredible work she does in the classroom with students from trauma backgrounds.
Trauma-Informed Practice in Teaching
Mandy Marmion is based in Australia and is a leading professional in her home state of Tasmania for Trauma-Informed Practice (TIP) Teaching. She specifically works with some of the most challenging and hardest to reach students, who are often entering the classroom with a past history of trauma or currently living in unstable circumstances.
Trauma-Informed Practice is a strengths-based framework grounded in an understanding of and responsiveness to the impact of trauma. It emphasizes physical, psychological, and emotional safety for everyone, and creates opportunities for survivors to rebuild a sense of control and empowerment. In the classroom, this means holding space for students from trauma backgrounds and acknowledging that their behavior isn’t fully within their control.
Through offering Flexible Learning Opportunities (FLO) Mandy designs her curriculum – and classroom – to be geared towards helping these students succeed in highly individualized ways. She says:
“With TIP, you need to look past the behavior and explore what their needs are. They need to feel safe to engage with their learning. If they don’t feel safe, they won’t try.”
I’ve seen Mandy in action and she is in her element when she’s building relationships with her students and gently showing them that not everyone and every situation in their life is going to be a negative one. She works with small cohorts at a time, often five or six students who have been carefully chosen to work together in the same space. It’s something other mainstream teachers simply don’t have the time to do with full-size classrooms, and it gives her an opportunity to connect and find the best ways to help these students progress.
“There is a lot going on under the surface for these students that needs to be acknowledged in the right ways to support their learning,” Mandy advises. “Fear of failure, shame they don’t understand something, lack of control, appearing ‘different’, not wanting to ask for help – often these students have been in and out of school and they’re deeply anxious about being behind. Behaviors like defiance, low concentration, disruptiveness, aggression; it’s vital to remember these are symptoms of their trauma.”
Creating Space for Creativity in the TIP Classroom
One of the things that really stood out to me about how Mandy operates is the care she puts into creating a space that’s actively engaging for her students and offers a variety of creative ways to participate in their learning.
“They’re used to sitting in a class, being talked at, being given a task, and being assessed on that task. It’s terrifying,” says Mandy. “Using creative-driven methods or at least creatively approaching learning can completely unlock these fears. When you’re mixing up what they expect in the classroom, their whole demeanor can shift.”
For Mandy, creating the right space is a vital part of this process. She uses round tables where everyone is encouraged to sit and face each other, which she advises can help them better regulate their responses to others and learn better social cues. Her classroom is separated into different areas, with each area staged to creatively encourage the learning outcomes it supports. Students have whiteboards to draw and write on, sofas to read on, a quiet space for spatial learning, and a round table for teamwork and collaborative learning in the center.
“You’re aiming to build resilience for embracing failure and being wrong. You’re safely reintroducing that the classroom is a safe space for that to occur, and you can do that through creative learning, like board games,” Mandy says.
Creating a classroom that the students can relax in opens up their neural pathways to actively take on board learning and progress through the curriculum. Setting up different creative learning spaces in the classroom shifts thinking through shifting the workspace and creates new expectations for learning.
3 Ways to Encourage Creativity with Trauma Students
Once the students feel relaxed and secure in the classroom and understand what’s expected from them, that’s when the real magic happens, Mandy tells me with a grin.
Here are three creative strategies she utilizes to keep her students engaged not only in their learning but in building their creative thinking and problem solving:
Utilize board games.
Board games are a significant feature in Mandy’s classroom because they encourage teamwork, communication, resilience, and creative and high-order thinking.
“Board games are all about engagement and controlling that vulnerability to engage. Every kid loves board games – you just have to find the right ones that engage them in the right ways. They create space for winning, and more importantly – losing. My students fear failure more than most, so giving them safe ways to ‘fail’ that also directly connects with those core things I need to teach them, including socio-emotional learning and creative problem-solving, is a win.”
Connect learning to the things they care about.
Mandy adapts her curriculum to be focused on things her students are passionate about. In their mainstream design class, the students would be asked to build a box or design a shelf – but who’s really interested in that? Instead, Mandy gives them greater flexibility to creatively pursue things they’re interested in – like a skate ramp!
“These students are usually very oriented to hands-on, active tasks, so design and woodwork are great ways to connect with them. These classes are fantastic for developing their learning in core curriculum areas in creative ways – without them realizing they’re learning most of the time! But they need to be passionate about what they’re doing – they need to feel connected to the outcome.”
Get creative about assessment.
Mandy says she sees her students excelling in her classroom, only to freeze when being assessed or sitting down to complete exam-like tasks. Their fear of failure, being singled out, or fully realizing how ‘behind’ they are can throw them, and disruptive behaviors aren’t usually far behind.
Instead, Mandy finds ways to make assessments a part of daily classroom life:
“We use local and national newspapers, reading articles out loud to each other, having verbal discussions about thoughts and ideas, asking them to spell out complex words and look up their meaning, and I record it anecdotally for each student. I assess their development term on term by responding to all the different things we’re doing in the classroom, and they don’t realize they’re being assessed. It completely removes the fear of failure and stress of sitting down with a blank piece of paper and a clock.”
Keep Holding Space
Working in the same school, I’ve seen how some of her students interact with other staff and students, but when they’re in Mandy’s classroom, it’s almost like they’re different students – and the critical difference that I can see is the expectations Mandy holds for her students above all else. Where some staff may only see a troubled student through the lens of the trouble they’ve caused in the past, Mandy starts each day fresh.
This is not to say she isn’t firm with them – she is! – but the boundaries are clear, and the students respond to this.
“You want to fuel success, achievement, and the idea that they can do it. Once they start to get those feelings, they want it again and again and again. They get success, laughter, enjoyment, and that leads them to keep coming back. Then their attendance goes up,” Mandy says. “Getting them to school in the first place is the biggest battle, so if you can create an environment, they actively want to be a part of, you open the doorways to further learning and further engagement.”
Mandy’s Three Key Take-Aways
- It’s not about you: Mandy says it’s important when working with students from trauma backgrounds to remember that it’s not about you. “No matter how they react, it’s coming from a place of trauma and it’s rarely about you as a teacher or person – this is vital to remember so you can keep calm and be of the best support to them.”
- Mix it up: Don’t be afraid to mix it up and find new ways of meeting curriculum requirements. There are so many creative resources out there that bring creativity in alignment with other skills, including the core three of maths, English, and science. It’s all about finding the best way to connect with and engage individual students.
- Have fun: I love Mandy’s ethos that fun and creativity need to be at the heart of the classroom. For Mandy, her classroom is all about creating and providing a space that changes the way these students think and injects some fun back into their life and learning, she says “I always say if they’re not laughing, they’re not learning – and that’s what it’s all about for me.”
Mandy is available to offer guidance, resources, and TIP classroom consultations. You can reach out to her at firstname.lastname@example.org
Elaine Mead is a Senior Careers Educator and Writer, with international experience, supporting students from a variety of academic backgrounds explore their chosen industry. Her work in this space has taken her from working with young unemployed people in London to university graduates in Australia, running internship programs, and supporting adults from migrant backgrounds.
Elaine now works within Australian high schools, supporting year 9 and 10 students as they transition to their next step. Next year she will commence her MA in Educational Psychology and hopes to one day create a creativity-driven careers curriculum that encourages young people to explore their career ideas throughout their high school journey. You can find her sharing more words and great career content she finds on the internet over on Twitter: @_elainemead.