In the wake of the devastating 2022 Northern Rivers floods, a dedicated Learning Support team at a small Northern Rivers public primary school embarked on a mission to better support their trauma-impacted students. They joined forces with Bec, one of our senior trauma consultants, hoping to transform their approach and make a difference.

Bec was brought to a Year 4 class, where she joined a group of students in their discussion. Lisa, a learning support teacher, accompanied Bec, eager to observe and learn from her. When the classroom teacher announced they’d be moving on to a Maths lesson, several students groaned, including 9-year-old Adam, who also made a face.

Later that day, Bec approached Adam and, with a gentle tone told him she noticed his discomfort with Maths. Adam eyed a sensory dinosaur toy that Bec had brought along with her and asked if he could play with it before replying “yeah, maths makes me feel dumb.” Bec asked Adam if he’d always felt this way or if it was a recent development. He replied that it was fairly recent and when Bec prompted him to try and identify when those feelings started, Adam took out a piece of paper and drew a timeline of his life. He started by saying that at the beginning, he was “good, happy, and life was okay”. Then there was a significant dip, and when Bec asked what caused it, he revealed that his mother had died and life became ‘bad’. He drew another drop in the timeline to the bottom of the page, explaining that this represented his current situation. He told Bec that he lives with his dad and stepmother, who is “allowed to hit him and his brother but dad cannot hit her children.” As the conversation deepened, Adam clung to the sensory dinosaur, using it to help regulate his emotions. With a shaky voice, Adam shared that his dad no longer wants him at home.

Bec talked about how difficult this was for him and how challenging it is to focus on school and learning when his “backpack of emotions is so heavy.” The school day ended about half an hour later, and as Bec was leaving, Adam asked if she would be returning because he enjoyed talking to her and wanted to see her again.

Later that afternoon, Lisa explained, through tears, that she’d never seen this side of Adam. Usually, his distress was a whirlwind of yelling, thrown chairs, and abrupt exits. Bec’s use of therapeutic language and unwavering focus on Adam’s emotions opened a window into his home life, revealing the depth of his hurt.

Lisa shared this breakthrough with her team, describing the power of the emotional conversation she had witnessed. With support from Bec, they began to adopt therapeutic language, and when they got stuck, they’d ask themselves “What would Bec say?” Lisa asked Bec for a list of conversation starters that they could use. She jokingly called it ‘Bec’s Top 10’ and suggested she’d print them out and wear around her neck with a lanyard for quick access before starting difficult conversations.

But behind the jokes, Lisa understood the essence of being trauma-informed. Essentially, it’s about shifting the perspective from ‘What’s wrong with you?’ to ‘What has happened to you that’s making you behave this way, and how can I support you?’

Bec’s list went on to become an important and cherished tool for the learning support team. Combined with some whole-staff professional development workshops in trauma-informed approaches, teachers felt confidently empowered. When Bec visited the school again two months later, the results were already transformative. Students’ behaviours began to improve, and the bonds between teachers and students grew stronger.

Today, Adam is being supported by the school counsellor and he’s even starting to hate Maths less – although as he tells Bec “it’ll never be my favourite subject!”

This heartfelt journey underscores the profound impact of compassionate communication and the resilience of both teachers and students in the face of trauma and some very tough life challenges.