Staff wellbeing: Secondary traumatic stress

Written by: Darren Martindale | Published:
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Secondary trauma occurs when the act of supporting a traumatised young person becomes traumatic in itself – and it is a danger teachers should be aware of. Darren Martindale advises

Most teachers have felt it – that creeping, embodied sense of fear or dread when a certain pupil enters the classroom or before they walk in. It might, actually, have begun before you got up that morning.

You’d never admit to it, because you are a professional. In the more extreme cases, however, the tightening knot in the pit of your stomach is not just a symptom of everyday stress, and it certainly isn’t a sign of weakness or failure. You may be starting to suffer from secondary traumatic stress – where supporting a traumatised person becomes traumatic in itself – and this must be very carefully managed because it can damage your health and shorten your career.

“Trauma” is derived from Greek, meaning wound. When a child has experienced abuse, neglect or other significant trauma, the emotional injury can manifest itself in ways that present huge challenges in school.

They often push people away from them. Understandably distrustful of adults, they expect to be rejected (again) and so feel it is safer to reject you first. Sabotaging their own chances of success, they are reinforcing the self-doubts and pessimism that they understandably carry with them.

Of course, not all stress is bad. Different people react differently to traumatic events and we have built-in mechanisms to help us cope. However, when past stresses have been too great for a person to deal with positively, stress becomes toxic and those coping mechanisms can become compromised due to the neurobiological changes caused.

In a 2016 Edutopia article, Lori Desautels, assistant professor in the College of Education at Butler University and an expert in neuroscience in education, wrote: “When we feel distress, our brains and bodies are flooded with emotional messages that trigger the question, ‘Am I safe?’

“We react physiologically with an agitated limbic system (a set of structures in the brain that are involved in our behavioural and emotional responses, particularly those that are required for our survival, such as fight and flight responses) that increases blood pressure, heart rate, and respiration. Chronic activation of the fear response can damage those parts of the brain responsible for cognition and learning.”

So, the impact of trauma – previous and/or present – on cognition and learning really can be profound. Alongside other clear links between emotional states and the ability to learn, research has shown that “connections in the brain are reduced and lost through toxic stress ... Fewer connections means it is more difficult to utilize the brain capacity and learn effectively” (Cozolino 2013; Siegel 2012).

Trauma can affect a pupil’s capacity for attention, memory, critical thinking, problem-solving, self-reflection and, of course, emotional regulation.

In such cases, emotional outbursts, along with other behaviours that are highly disruptive in school, can become a young person’s defence mechanism. This is where secondary trauma becomes a reality for teachers. A pupil who is really struggling with emotional wellbeing might seem to do everything in their power to undermine you. They can appear lost and out of control. They may destroy your lessons and even instil fear in their class mates. You begin to work with constant uncertainty over how they will react; when they will blow up next.

When that happens, many teachers have an unfortunate tendency to overanalyse and to blame themselves; you naturally ask: what am I doing wrong? You sense their pain and anger too keenly, and might start to relate to their distorted view of themselves and the world (psychologists call this the “internal working model”).

They project negative feelings – anxiety, isolation, rejection, anger, fear – toward you, which you absorb and then reflect back, in an increasingly vicious cycle. The result of all this “toxic stress” is that you start to experience the same feeling of being physically and emotionally overwhelmed as your pupil. You’re suffering from secondary trauma.

This might sound rather dramatic to some, but it is a reality for many professionals working with vulnerable young people. It is likely that most teachers will be exposed to toxic stress at least once in their working week. For some, it might happen several times a day.

Secondary trauma symptoms are wide-ranging but can include cognitive or emotional disfunction, eating or sleep disorders, and stress-related illness such as depression. Avoidance or denial are also, unfortunately, common factors which can prevent people from seeking help. If unchecked, secondary trauma can lead to total burn-out – I imagine that many SecEd readers can think of a colleague who has suffered in this way.

Again, it’s important to point out that these are the more extreme cases, and we’re not in the business of labelling, blaming or demonising vulnerable children. Most of these pupils attend mainstream schools, and quite rightly. They will need a differentiated response (rather than exclusion) and you will need additional tools and robust support structures.

This article deals with the latter – how do you stay within your “window of tolerance” (Siegel 1999) amid the daily barrage of demands that a teacher faces?

Take care of yourself

A valuable analogy is often made with the safety advice on aircraft – put on your own oxygen mask first, then you will be able to help others.
There’s a reason that sleep deprivation has been used as a form of torture – you can survive much longer without food than sleep. A lack of sleep makes you much more vulnerable when dealing with high stress levels. That discipline of switching off, winding down and getting a decent night’s sleep is your first line of defence.

Remember to eat properly and take regular exercise. I seem to have been ill far less frequently since we bought a dog, and I’m sure it’s the fresh air and exercise. I’m not necessarily recommending that particular strategy (it brings its own challenges!), but do try to find active ways of spending some of your “me time”.

Find and nurture those regenerative spaces – the yoga class, the football match, the spa day, the wingsuit flying (yes, it exists). Make time for family and cultivate your friendships; good mates will help you through those darker times.

If you are dealing with secondary trauma on a regular basis, however, you may need more than that. Some further strategies to develop your resilience can be found via the Positive Psychology Program website. While you may reach a stage where you would benefit from professional counselling or therapy, you can also use some of these tools to help yourself.

Recognise, validate and control emotions

Emotional literacy is key, and it’s important that you don’t deny or downplay what you’re feeling. It’s natural to struggle sometimes, that’s how we learn and grow. Try consciously naming your feelings – shout them out (perhaps not in class), write them down or draw them. Identifying our emotions can be a first step toward containing and managing them. Equally, however, your feelings aren’t the whole of you, and you don’t need to be dominated or controlled by them. A negative thought doesn’t make you a negative person.

Reframe your thinking

Challenge those self-doubts or, taking it further, the “automatic negative thoughts” that can creep in and become so habitual. When your internal script goes bad, there are ways to rewrite it. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) is one approach which focuses on the way we think and its effect on how we feel and behave. Prioritising tasks, focusing on the things you can change, and taking time out for deep breathing or positive visualisation are simple techniques along CBT lines. “Motivational interviewing” is another solution-focused method of breaking negative cycles of thought and behaviour. Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT) can also help you regulate your emotions.

Regain your perspective

You may start to “catastrophise”, blowing things out of perspective. Try asking yourself: on a scale of 0 to 10 (zero being, well, nothing, and 10 being certain death) where would this be? Positive psychology, mindfulness and growth mindset thinking can help you to keep a sense of proportion and reboot your confidence.

I can hear the cynics guffaw now, but remember that these are ideas to be explored, and tools to be used, wherever an individual feels they can be useful. And they certainly can be useful, as long as you are open-minded, flexible and realistic in your expectations. Mindfulness, for example, is used as a de-escalation approach in many educational settings. It involves focusing very consciously on the here and now – your immediate surroundings and experiences – and accepting certain things for what they are.

Create a stress support plan

Be proactive, though realistic. What can you do today, this month, and this year, to incrementally reduce your stress and build your resilience? If it is just one tangible thing at a time, that’s fine – you’re taking back control.

Develop your de-escalation skills

Practice progressive muscle relaxation techniques and deep, regular breathing. Breath low – from the belly, not the chest (this can really help you to relax, and in turn, assist you to “co-regulate” the pupil’s emotions). Try standing slightly sideways on to your student, at an acute angle. This should reduce their perception of you as a threat as it is less confrontational and they can see their potential escape route. Move your body often, take regular walks around the classroom, to release pent-up energy and tension. Your CPD plan should include training in attachment-aware and trauma-informed strategies, such as emotion coaching.

Be adventurous in your teaching

As JK Rowling put it: “It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all – in which case, you fail by default.” I believe that when we’re teaching well, we usually find that we’re learning ourselves as much as we’re teaching others.

However, secondary traumatic stress can make you tentative, restricting learning for you and your students. That natural curiosity, and the willingness to move forward from an accepted position of not knowing something, are central tenets of emotional resilience and a prerequisite for education. I realise that our competitive, performance-driven education system doesn’t always help either, but remember that education should be an adventure. Don’t let your creativity be constricted by fear of failure.

Implications for school leadership

As Dr Tina Rae points out in her 2016 publication The Wellbeing Toolkit (Part 2), work-related stress accounts for a huge amount of work-related ill-health. Furthermore: “The highest rates of work-related stress remain consistently in the health and public sectors ... it is therefore more pertinent and important than ever to address these issues and proactively set up systems of support that ensure individual wellbeing within a supportive and nurturing context.” So, how can senior leadership create that supportive context?

Invest in training

Headteachers: on-going CPD is needed to enable teachers to manage these situations safely and effectively, as well as to understand and prepare their pupils’ brains for learning. Train your staff in the management of work-related stress and in pedagogical approaches that support children with trauma-related difficulties, such as emotion coaching or THRIVE.

The supervision model

Historically, this has been noticeably absent from the education world, yet it is very common in other professions that work with children or vulnerable people on a complex level. Staff should be given regular, quality supervision. This simply means an opportunity to discuss difficulties, explore solutions, celebrate successes and be given constructive feedback in a none-judgemental space. Promote opportunities for peer-to-peer supervision and support also.

Dr Robert Hart, principal educational psychologist for City of Wolverhampton Council, expands on the importance of a no-blame ethos: “We advocate a ‘no blame’ approach to responding to children and young people’s needs. But ‘no blame’ also applies to adults that work with children.

“Working with children who have difficulties with emotional wellbeing and behaviour can be challenging and stressful. School staff need to be confident that they will be supported and not blamed when things are difficult.”

A whole school approach

A better understanding of secondary trauma needs a whole-school ethos of mutual support. This means consistent thinking and practice throughout the staff team. Staff meetings, development days, whole-school training and policies and procedures (including performance management) should all be reviewed and designed in a way that helps to promote the mental health and wellbeing of staff. Leaders will need to be continually monitoring, evaluating and developing the effectiveness of strategies.

  • Darren Martindale is service manager: vulnerable learners – encompassing the role of the virtual school head – at City of Wolverhampton Council. You can read his previous articles for SecEd at http://bit.ly/2p0yq8X

Reading & references


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