An inner Melbourne school servicing children from the local public housing estate has prioritised mental health and positive relationships as the necessary basis for learning.
In her room near the entrance of Carlton Primary School, student and family wellbeing coordinator Rebecca Harris works amid an array of boardgames, craft activities, kinetic sand and even stick insects – anything that might help her build a relationship with a student needing support.
Built in the early 1970s to service the local public housing estate, the school now caters to a large cohort of refugees from the Horn of Africa. More than 90% of students at Carlton Primary speak a first language other than English.
Rebecca is a ‘touchpoint’ for these children and their parents, allowing her to gather information for both families and staff. On any given day she might be working with a child cooling off after a playground incident, helping a parent find out about English classes, referring families to external support services or investigating ways the school could better connect with its local community.
“I have the luxury of time to build relationships without the pressure of having 20 children in front of me,” she says. “I can provide a safe space for disclosures, requests or questions, and this contributes to a powerfully holistic approach to teaching at our school.”
It is a unique role, she says. “But it shouldn’t be.”
“Students are living with parents with mental illness, poverty, separation in the family – and they bring that stuff to school. We have to differentiate between the child and their behaviour, because they have not necessarily been taught how to behave at school.”
Central to the school’s approach is a ‘trauma-informed practice’ that Rebecca developed as part of her Community Fellowship with the Melbourne Social Equity Institute. Published online, the resource is based on research into neuroscience, trauma and memory, and integrated with existing programs, specifically Resilience, Rights and Respectful Relationships, and School-Wide Positive Behaviour Support.
“Because we have a lot of children with refugee backgrounds, we knew we had to do a good job with this stuff,” she says. “But we’ve come to understand that it’s great for all kids. All families, regardless of their socio-economic situation, are vulnerable to family violence and we know emotional learning is a preventative.
“Students are living with parents with mental illness, poverty, separation in the family – and they bring that stuff to school. We have to differentiate between the child and their behaviour, because they have not necessarily been taught how to behave at school. Punishing them would be like punishing a baby because it hasn’t learnt to walk yet.”
And for the well-adjusted children who have not experienced trauma? The focus on student wellbeing is great for them too, says Rebecca. At the heart of Carlton Primary’s practice is relationship-building and emotional learning, with a “big focus” on teaching all students to self-regulate.
“Relationship is everything; that’s where repair and recovery happens. We operate with the phrase: ‘They are all all of our kids’. We talk about consistent messaging and do top-up reminders every year on the trauma-informed method. A student should be able to approach anybody and get a similar response.
“What’s hardest is being witness to some of the things that kids live with or that have happened to them. More than anything, what’s helped us is that we’ve got very engaged staff who care very deeply and a principal who knows that if you don’t get wellbeing right, you can’t get learning right.”
With 1.4 wellbeing staff, plus a full-time speech pathologist, Carlton Primary sees itself as a therapeutic environment – “as ideally all schools should,” Rebecca says, “but that requires staffing and time.”
While the ‘gold-standard’ is a whole-school approach, she believes individual teachers or ES staff have the power to “really see” their students and build strong relationships. “We tend to see the kids who externalise – those who are showing us they have pain. But there are just as many sitting there holding it in. If you bring a trauma-integrated wellbeing approach, you will help all of those students,” says Rebecca.
“The biggest factor for children is that they have a self-narrative that says, ‘I belong, I am worthy, I am a learner’. Maybe then that narrative can disrupt any negative narrative they have about themselves and their lives.”