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Start school selection early so that when trauma behaviours arise, your school is ready!

Choosing a Trauma Informed School with Chrissie Davies - Youtube Recording

Chrissie Davies has over 20 years experience working with children and families, as a teacher in the school classroom working with extreme behaviours, and as a mother of two young children, one through adoption and one through permanent care. Chrissie has had experience with navigating the school system due to trauma behaviours showing up unexpectedly. The beautiful child led systems in kinder and pre school were different to the teacher led expectations in school, and suddenly trauma behaviours showed up. Chrissie spent a year trying to work with the school on these trauma behaviours until she eventually decided to move everything to a location that would suit the families needs for the long term. That included finding a trauma sensitive school where teachers are Berry Street trained and behaviour is managed in a trauma sensitive way, embracing concepts like time in, calm spaces and sensory items. What happened? It was a great success. From daily worries about behaviours to not one phone call all term to report on unwanted behaviour in the classroom. Wow what a transformation. What changed? Not her son? The environment changed. So getting it right is invaluable. And what does her son think? He says the teachers at the new school support him. That's how every child should feel. Find out more about how to navigate schools and how to advocate for your child from Chrissie. She has some great tips.00:00 - Start 01:12 - Some schools will be lost in knowing how to understand, approach and work alongside kids with trauma behaviour. 03:30 - The right school that supports your child is critical. You school needs to explain how they would deal with tricky behaviours. 06:20 - Be upfront about your child's background as often children will fly under the radar until Grade 3 or 4 when there is a leap in expectations. Alternatively they may start to unravel as they move from kinder and preschool which is child led, to teacher led instruction. 09:25 - Find out if the school is trauma informed or willing to be trained by Berry Street to be trauma informed. Ask what happens if the wheels fall off because research tells us that trauma kids can unravel at any point. 12:46 - Arrange a non standard school tour so you can assess the day to day reality. Look at how the schools values permeate through the school and look at the behaviour management policy and how teachers relate to each other. Do they look happy to be there? 18:49 - Approach teachers as an ally: you have so much information about your child and trauma, so suggest to the teacher you would like to share what works and continue building a positive relationship with the teacher, yourself and your child. 21:27 - Advocate strongly: trauma is a disability and you are entitled to realistic modifications in the classroom. Focus on your child's strengths and interests in IPL or other meetings with school leaders. Remember the right approach from the teacher interacting with your child can make the difference: their tone, look or even a rejection can set off a child. Advocate for flexible seating and noise cancelling headphones and a calm space or sensory tools to help with children's nervous systems. 27:25 - School selection begins at 2 to 3 years old so that you can offer your child stability for the long term. If you are fighting to get what your child needs, or needing to involve the education department to get what you need, maybe its time to give up on that school. 30:26 - Make a long term lifestyle plan when selecting your school and be confident in your decision and work out how to sell a change of school to your children 38:39 - Schools don't work for all but they offer communities so don't give up on them

Choosing a Trauma Informed School with Chrissie Davies - Transcript

This is Sonia Wagner, representing PCA Families in one of our recordings that capture lived experience and best practice research-based learning that assist kinship, permanent and adoptive parents/carers in supporting young people. PCA Families has a zero tolerance of child abuse. I would like to acknowledge the traditional custodians of the land on which we meet and pay respect to elders past and present and express our intention to move together to a place of justice and partnership.

Today we are discussing choosing a trauma informed school with Chrissie Davies from Chaos to Calm.

Chrissie has over 20 years experience working with children and families, as a teacher in the school classroom working with extreme behaviours, and as a mother of two young children. Chrissie has a wealth of knowledge to share.

Welcome Chrissie.

01:12 Chrissie with your experience in schools and lived experience, you would understand the importance of choosing the right school for our children from an adopted, permanent care or kinship care family? Can you share with us a bit about your experience?

Boy do I ever. And Im so excited to do this topic because I feel like it is going to help so many families that come along after us. 

For those of you who don’t know about my work, I sit in this niche position as an educator for 15 years and now run my own consulting business and raising two neurodivergent children through adoption and permanent care.

Navigating the school system very sadly I found out first hand, particularly last year with my little guy starting school reminded me how far we have to go in school settings understanding developmental trauma and what that looks like in a busy classroom.

We plodded along ok with my daughter and she didn’t really have any behavioural challenges per se. As we know the kids that are the loudest get the most support.  She masked lots of her trauma behaviour which is a very real challenge that many families need to be aware of.  But boy did my little guy let the whole universe know how hard it was for him.  I am not exaggerating when I say, this particular school where we are at, and its not about shaming the school it’s about creating awareness, in our experience they were completely lost about how to understand, how to approach and how to work alongside us.  Unfortunately that educational setting did not work out for us and our family.

3:30 Why is finding the right school SO important for our kids?

School communities become a very important part of our family village. We cant survive without them. If you choose to send your child to a formal educational setting, the school leaders and in particular the school principal, the people who deal with the “tricky behaviours”. If you don’t get that right you live what we lived through of an incredibly challenging year. Are they ever going to get it? There is value in investing time to get it right. The happy ending is that it is very often not our kids but it is the environment.   My little behaviour kid who was getting sent home every second day is now thriving and we have not had one phone call all term. It has been transformational. I can tell you right now not much has changed about him. He is still his gorgeous rambunctious little self. But the approach the understanding the language the environment the support is a complete contrast. I said to the kids this morning I’m doing an interview today and my little guy, who is 6 and a half, said the teachers at this school never yell at me. They really care about kids and they support us better. unit.

06:20 Is it important to be upfront and honest about our child’s trauma background?

For sure. We were probably blindsided a little bit because our child had done really in the same child care setting and at stand alone kinder. But those settings are very child led. They follow their strengths and interests.  Once children hit more formal education it is really different and it is sadly not so much about the child anymore and it is very teacher focussed and teacher led. I think we are getting better at it but there is not a lot of room for individualisation. So when you have kids that don’t fit the mold, clearly my kids saying “Why do I have to sit on the mat. I want to move Mum”. I was like I know. There is a real shift from child to led to teacher led in education and this is where the wheels can really fall off in education. So being really honest and transparent with school leaders is really important because we might think our kids are doing ok in kinder. But the truth is that as our children’s brains grow and develop things more and more of those trauma behaviours or neurodivergence or others can start coming out at any point along that journey.

What we see generally in education is that kids can coast or fly under the radar until about Grade 3 when there is a huge leap in expectations and capability in what children are supposed to do. That is when we can see the gap widen if there are challenges or neurodivergence that goes hand in hand with our kids. So what becomes apparent in Grade 3 or 4 is that it becomes really apparent that the child is struggling or having some challenges. So that is important to keep in mind as well. Like I said you will get a really good indication from school leaders just by having that conversation about whether they are really invested. Schools are really good at saying the right things and their websites say the right thing but it’s not really until you are in the trenches or in the throws of suspensions and meltdowns at school that your really see how the school rise to the occasion or are a little bit overwhelmed in knowing what to do.

09:25 So how do you know as a parent if the school is using trauma informed practices?

You ask. And at a very bare minimum, the leadership are trained. The really great model in Australia is run by Berry Street in Trauma Informed Training run by Berry Street. This is the challenge we had. They just wouldn’t commit to any trauma informed training, or at least send my sons teacher. That’s what I mean about being invested – at least willing and open to learning. That is a question you could ask, what happens when the wheels fall off because research tells us that trauma kids can unravel at any point. They can be triggered by certain emotions or smells or memories. Have you dealt with these kinds of children before? There is a misconception that trauma doesn’t come from families like ours. There is a lack of understanding of the early brain development. We were told very early we wouldn’t get any help with education because our son comes from a good family. It has nothing to do with us as the adoptive parents. Its everything in utero. So get an understanding that if the wheels did fall off what are they willing to do. 

I want to also clarify that teachers are only as good as their leaders. There were many instances that teachers have been willing and wanting to do training but they are knocked back by leadership. Its important to remember teachers are the ones on the front line. They are the ones dealing with the challenging behaviour and disruptions in the classroom. Nine times out of ten teachers are amazing. Often teachers can’t do enough for you. But at some point their hands are tied in terms of access to training.

12:46 What are some of the questions or things we should look for when doing school tours?

I really want to iterate this, especially if you are doing a staged school tour. That school will sparkling like the Chrysler building in Annie. That school will spend weeks preparing, putting up displays and cleaning.  So you need to go into it with the knowledge it has been staged. So if you can get on a non staged tour you will get more of an indication about what is actually happening in the school. Lots of schools will do that if you call up and explain how you want to get the setting right and explain the situation. Most principals will be open to that.

One of the really important things for our kids is focussing on the school’s positive behaviour program that they use. Most schools will have a set of values that they follow. The model is meant to be ingrained and embedded throughout the entire school community. Teachers should be using that language. Awards given out at assembly should be linked to the school values. Many schools aren’t doing this. I nearly died when my daughter got an award for putting her hand up in Grade 2. I was pretty sure she had mastered that!

The biggest challenge we have with our kids is that there are a lot of schools that are empathetic and patient and understanding. But that doesn’t move our kids forward. Do you get what I mean? Because our kids need that little bit extra. Are they running social skills clubs. Are they running inside clubs for children having trouble on the playground. How are they communicating when kids are in trouble? What happens to them. Are they sent to outside the principals office on a cold concrete floor. Are they swept up into a beautiful Grade 3 class and nurtured and  involved with those older kids. There are so many ways in which schools view behaviour. Many still view it as discipline and conformity.

The Behaviour Management Policy should be on the website. You can get access to that as parents. But it’s usually a beautiful well written document.

The other thing I say is look at the teachers. Do they look happy? Do they look like they want to be there? The school we are at now, any interaction you have with any teacher at that school is so positive. You can just tell that they love working there. Teaching is a really hard job and at times a thankless job. If you see teachers and their relationships with each other and how they communicate with leadership at family events, that’s an insight into what is going on. If teachers are happy in their job you will know it.

Should you take the child with you on the school tour? I would say no. At the end of the day a 7 year old doesn’t really know what is best for them. Not every school environment is right for every child. Traditionally we went to our local school but now we are overwhelmed with choice, yet we are limited sometimes in terms of zoning. The reality is not every environment works for every child. I’m all about giving kids choices but I don’t think this is one they should make. Once the decision is made sure take them on a tour. That is then us being really confident in understanding and knowing, that as adults we understand trauma and adult relationships and we know what is best for you.

This is my daughters third school would you believe, where they had a beautiful cinema room. I can imagine kids  doing the tour going yes I want to go to that school because they have a movie room. Children are all about the sparkles, rainbows and unicorns. They don’t have the depth of understanding. They see it they want it.

18:49 How can we confidently advocate for our children’s needs in their classroom?

One of the biggest challenges we had was it became more about don’t tell us a how to do our job. We are experts when it comes to our kids. We know so much about trauma and we are always googling, learning from each other and watching podcasts like this so we have so much up to date information. Teachers are doing the same. But they aren’t experts in trauma. That is an important relationship where we need to come alongside teachers. And there is a huge disconnect in schools understanding that we are your ally. We have so much knowledge about this kid we can help you if you let us share what works. It also comes with an understanding that our child is not the only child in the classroom. So be mindful of hello here I am again. So once again doesn’t that come back to building relationships with people and having that relationship with teachers where teachers can share the good days as well as the tricky days. We get so much negativity and teachers are quick to tell us about the tricky day. I work with teachers around this – use the sandwich: come in with a positive, then come in with the negative and knock the parents out with a positive. This is so important. We know our kids have got challenges. Trust us we deal with it daily. First and foremost the relationship with the teacher is incredibly important.

21:27 How can we confidently advocate for our children’s needs across the school and families too?

I have been doing a lot of work around advocacy with families who want to feel more prepared when going in for ILP (individual learning plan) meetings and meetings with the leadership team. Understanding the language and using the right terminology around modifications. What is a realistic modification that you are within your rights to advocate for? You are not being annoying. Your child has a disability and they are entitled to realistic modifications in the classroom.

I’m just let it all out. We have so much radical acceptance and the more open and honest you are, and you don’t have to tell the whole life story. For example when we moved recently I said casually to one of our neighbours both of our kids have got ADHD and sometimes they struggle with emotional regulation so you may hear them from time to time. Sorry! Being open and honest with people is incredibly important because people still don’t understand what is going on. And isn’t that a good message for our kids. There is no shame in who you are. ADHD is just one part of who we are, just like you have blue eyes and blonde hair and like playing with sticks.  The more we do that the more they will do that.  My daughter actually came home from school telling her class that she was adopted. I was like great, that is radical acceptance. The more we can teach our children how to do that the more they will do that as well.

Most ILP meetings should focus on the strengths of the student. The things they do really well and things that they are interested in. That keeps our kids motivated. The second most important thing is language and approach. We know our children are very often functioning in a dysregulated state, most of the day, so even a teacher look or tone or rejection can set them off into meltdown. That can all be avoided with the right approach from the teacher interacting with the student. If they don’t understand rejection sensitive dysphoria, as a components of ADHD, or if they don’t understand hypervigilance or transitions. We talked about with our son even just someone new moving through the room. Even just the assistant principal turning up in the room makes his brain go danger, danger, high voltage. Its not always possible to avoid. But then understanding that if that child does have a meltdown or is triggered you know why.

The other thing that I would love to see is flexible seating options. It should just be a standard in any classroom. Gone are the days of whole body listening, throw all that garbage out the window please. Have any seating available for children, have noise cancelling headphones available in every classroom for all kids.  That sort of stuff can be implemented so easily in every classroom. Even just a calm space where kids can go to take a break so that they don’t reach meltdown point. There are so many simple things that can be implemented. We can advocate for our kids. Sensory tools. So many of our kids nervous systems are compromised. Those sorts of things should just be a standard in every classroom.

27:25 What happens if we get it wrong? How long should we hang in there hoping for change and the right support?

It’s a tricky one. Not everyone like us has the capacity to just pack up and move for a better school option. I know so many families that have moved or have left their house empty or are paying more rent or more to get into a school, which is so wrong on so many levels. But as families we really need to be thinking about this a lot earlier, when our kids are 2 or 3. Sending them to the local school may not be the best option.

In terms of hanging in there, we gave it a year and in the end we just felt like we weren’t moving the needle at all in terms of their willingness and understanding. At that point we had no choice but to move on. But where do you go? We looked around in our area and spoke to lots of schools that were very open and very understanding and willing to take us. But as a family we need stability. We deal with so much in our life in general above and beyond neurotypical families that having stability is important. We are safe and stable for the next 5 years. That weight is lifted off our shoulders in knowing that no matter what happens, even if the wheels fall of, we are in a great supportive environment that will support our family for a long time. That stability is so important to our family after having lived through all the ups and downs. So I think everybody has a different threshold. I like to think I’m pretty strong. So give it time but if you feel like you are just banging your head against the brick wall and you are at the point that you have had to get the education department involved like we did, you know that’s pretty bad.  You really shouldn’t have to advocate or fight that hard for your child to be understood.

30:26 What sort of things are important to consider if you need to transition to another school?  Are there things that helped your child with this?

Like I said for sure, with absolute resolution, knowing that the next move is the right move. We could have moved to any old school but there was a chance that it could happen again. So look at the big picture. Look bigger than that. Think about is it worth hanging in. Are you getting enough from the school that you think you can hang in another 4 or 5 or 6 years. That’s a long time. It’s a big part of your life that you go to every day. It is a really big part of our life, even more so for our kids. Because of their start in life and the losses our kids have already experienced, their disruption to identity and understanding who they are, I feel like getting the sense of community and belonging right for our kids is so important. I’m getting goosebumps saying that. Even though it might feel like our kids don’t want to go or don’t want to be there, they actually probably do. Its just everything else that is unravelling them. People used to say to me why doesn’t he want to go to school I would say he does want to go to school he loves being there. He would come home saying I had a great day today Mum and then I would get the call from school.

Coming back to what I said before about being confident in your decision. My daughter sobbed and sobbed I don’t want to move. She was on the transition of where her friends become more important. But I knew she would love it. But she couldn’t see the big picture.

But once we made the decision we were very strategic in how we conveyed the news to our children. Because my son has high anxiety we didn’t tell him until the end of school. We didn’t want him going to school saying we are leaving, this school is rubbish. We sat my daughter down first and said because you are older we wanted to tell you first. Her and I made a day of it and drove to the new house and picked up the keys and she is living the dream being near the beach. We knew it would be much more difficult for my son to transition. Also having really clear understanding that that yes stuff is going to get real for a few months. It’s been a hectic 4 months and we are coming out the other side now. School is amazing. It’s just the transitions. New house, new room, new school, new way of getting to school, new friends, new people. All those things that we know are really hard for our kids. But really drawing them into “it’s not just about you or her”, it’s about a lifestyle change. You don’t have to move to the coast to get that. But moving schools can be the life change for you as a family. When you sell it like that it’s about the betterment for everybody and the entire family will be happier if we don’t have this hanging over our head. Or if we are around people who get us and love us and accept us for who we are even on the hard days.

For myself personally I felt so let down by the education system. I had spent my entire career working in education and supporting other people’s children and then when it came time for my own child it failed and I was let down dismally. My heart broke for my son and for the system and for how hard it is for our kids and for all neurodivergent kids in this current system.

I just want to end of by saying really excitingly in education in Victoria there is a Statewide reform around trauma informed practices (the Statewide Trauma review – more here). It’s probably been pushed off the back of Covid because we are calling the Covid experience a traumatic experience. But what that means is excitingly that there is something like billions of dollars going towards this. That means that at a leadership level in every school there will be people working on and understanding trauma. That was one of the reasons why we moved because we are now in the region where it is all rolled out. The area that we were in in Melbourne will take another 3 years. Even if we can get schools to do the Berry Street training, it can take years for them to get their head around the philosophy and get up to speed and to embed this. We don’t have time. We have poured our whole life into these kids. We don’t have time to wait. It’s an exciting time in education. And something I have been talking about and advocating about for so long. The research shows and I am living proof of this, that all children respond to therapeutic approaches. It’s a no brainer. So what that means is that all of our kids hopefully are going to be understood and have teachers and educational leaders that really do have a good grip on trauma. That can be life changing for the families coming through.

38:39 Last thoughts?

As a passionate educator, a lot of people kept saying to me and I thought at some point that  I might end up home schooling my child. But my heart isn’t in it. I still believe in education and what school communities bring to our children. And don’t get me wrong I understand it doesn’t work for all kids. But I feel like that if we can get it right for our kids they can go on to thrive. They can be a part of school communities and also be around other children that understand them. That’s also why I like my kids to be empowered to understand who they are. So don’t give up completely on education. My heart took a little while to heal after what we experienced. I don’t want any other families to go through what we went through. Everyone said to me if anyone can change the system its you. I gave it a really good crack and we definitely did get some change in there but I wasn’t prepared to hand our kid over long term. So trust your gut parents.

Thankyou. To anyone making the time to listen to this recording, thankyou for giving up your valuable time for the benefit of the young people in your life. Until next time have an amazing week.


Chrissie Davies – Chaos to Calm Consultancy