Anyone who lives and works with traumatised children may be affected by secondary traumatic stress. As we’ve seen in earlier sections, we are all, at all times, both vulnerable and resilient. Educators and educational systems have an ethical duty to build resilience and reduce vulnerability in themselves and their colleagues as secondary traumatic stress is a health and safety issue. In this section we will look at two broad domains of self-care: strategies for the prevention of secondary traumatic stress and strategies for the management of secondary traumatic stress.
Prevention is better than cure, but the disorders cannot always be prevented. Training, support and coaching can all reduce the risk of teachers developing secondary traumatic stress disorder in the first place. When stress disorders do develop, various methods – in addition to training, support and supervision – can be used to treat the condition.
Prevention strategies: training and professional development
Understanding what secondary trauma is and what causes it reduces a person’s vulnerability and increases resilience. Training which increases understanding in the network of support around for teachers and groups of educational staff, increase their resilience. Training in managing stress will increase a teacher’s ability to respond to stress in ways that are less damaging. Enhancing the teacher’s professional knowledge and skills in trauma informed practice, increases their sense of professional identity, while also improving their capacity for teamwork and communication. Similarly, training aimed at personal development also increases the teacher’s sense of having an identity outside of work. Improving skill in sport, or some other pursuit such as music or dance increases the sense of joy in living which helps to protect us from the effects of stress. Educators and support staff in roles or location where no training has traditionally been offered or who would find it difficult to attend courses can utilise techniques such as online learning and distance learning or combinations of different learning methods.
Prevention strategies: support
An audit of one’s social support network, and methods to increase the quality of the support one is receiving, is possibly the most useful exercise in self-care. Informal support may come from people within the individual’s network who are familiar with the concept of secondary traumatic stress disorder and who recognise the signs. Teachers benefit from including at least one ‘trusted challenger’-someone who understands the dynamics of trauma and will point out changes in an individual and ensure that they get treatment.
Formal support may come from structures set up by the school or education department, such as peer support groups, who understand the dynamics of trauma; experienced mentors or people who know a particular traumatised child; or telephone or online helplines. It may also come from other organisations such as support groups and self-help groups.
Prevention strategies: coaching
Coaching and feedback on one’s teaching practice from senior educators within the department or school, line managers or specially designated pedagogy or behaviour management coaches within the school context. Regular de-briefing or feedback sessions that look for any changes that might indicate that the person is developing a secondary stress disorder is critical for good self-care. Such coaching can only be effective when there is a school climate that embraces a ‘growth mindset’ – supporting teachers to be thoughtful in their practice; feeling safe in making mistakes and learning from their mistakes. Coaches and consultants external to the school can also help educators to reflect on processes, policies and practices within the school that are working well and those that may require changes.
Building capacity among staff in educating and supporting students with diverse needs requires a multidisciplinary approach, with consultations from experts in education, psychology, occupational therapy, medicine and speech pathology. These professionals bring with them unique perspectives on the prevention of secondary traumatic stress in staff, while providing specific advice for particular difficulties. These could include problems with drugs and alcohol, mental health, eating disorders, and other challenging problems that educators may find difficult managing in the school setting.
Managing secondary stress disorder
Even with appropriate training and supervision, it is not always possible to prevent secondary traumatic stress disorders. However, these disorders are always treatable. It is the nature of secondary trauma that people who are suffering from it do not recognise the condition in themselves. Members of leadership groups who supervise teachers and other educational staff are equally vulnerable to developing secondary traumatic stress disorders, with consequent effects on their own performance and perceptions. Schools need to recognise these risks. They have a duty of care towards teachers and support staff to ensure that anyone who develops a stress disorder as a result of their work is supported in engaging in the treatment required to make a full recovery.
Before anyone can be helped by treatment, they need to recognise that they have a secondary traumatic stress disorder. As well as discussing this with a ‘trusted challenger,’ this may involve showing the person evidence of the effects on their cognitive processing, memory, emotional and social functioning and so on. There are several self-assessment tools available for free on the internet which can help with this process. They can be found online and be downloaded for use as self-reflection or discussions with members of your formal and informal support network.
There are effective remedies which will restore the person’s ability to manage stress, relax and feel pleasure – relaxation techniques, massage, yoga, exercise and music, among others. The key is to practice techniques with awareness of the body’s response to the activity. As soon as there is a feeling of relaxation and pleasure, the person should consciously note this. Keeping a diary or keeping a record of recovery can be helpful. After recovery, the person needs to monitor their state of mind and wellbeing and build in strategies to ensure that they stay well.
There are a variety of psychological therapies that can address the symptoms of secondary traumatic stress disorders. For example, teachers working with challenging students in stressful environments can start to develop distorted thinking patterns that persist and require psychological therapy. Similarly, working in such extremely stressful environments for prolonged periods of time can lead to habits such as alcohol abuse, gambling and other dependency behaviours that require treatment focused on these maladaptive behaviours. Working with traumatised students and their families can also trigger unresolved trauma from any time in the life of the teacher, which may or may not have a direct relationship to the child’s trauma.
Other therapeutic interventions
As we have seen in the previous chapters, children who live with trauma are regularly hyper-aroused or dissociated. Hyperarousal leaves children requiring soothing, calming environments which will help diminish their arousal. Such environments are also important for teachers working in stressful environments. Similarly, educators prone to withdrawing or zoning out when stressed will benefit from stimulating environments which help put them back in touch with their feelings. Some people also find complementary therapies such as massage, reflexology and so on beneficial.
Charles Figley (2002) wrote about the need to enable and empower people who give care to others to receive care in their turn. For their own sakes, and for the sake of the children they teach, educators need to be there for the child who experience trauma, while remaining in control of their own anxiety. They also need to realise the value of paying attention to their own needs and wellbeing as well as those of the children they care for.
Watch this short clip to learn about the ‘healthy brain platter’ by Daniel Siegal – a framework for thinking about self-care. Please note that the clip contains themes and images that may be distressing to some. Please feel free to stop watching the video if you are distressed.
Read the tip sheets series on ‘Teacher Self-Care’ from Education Queensland. It relates to supporting traumatised students in the classroom. The resource offers some practical tips and strategies for self-care for teachers.
Watch this short clip to understand the common traps educators fall into that impacts their capacities for self-care. Please note that the clip contains themes and images that may be distressing to some. Please feel free to stop watching the video if you are distressed.
Figley., C. (2002). Compassion fatigue: Psychotherapists’ chronic lack of self care. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 58(11), 1433-1441. doi: 10.1002/jclp.10090.