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What Culturally and Trauma-Informed Practice means in Australian Schools By MacKillop Family Services

Aboriginal children living in safe, resilient and culturally rich families and communities thrive and grow up with a strong sense of identity and belonging. Sadly, this is not the experience for all.

Trauma expert Prof Judy Atkinson (2013) explains how colonisation – over 240 years ago – impacts Aboriginal children today: “The trauma of historical events associated with colonisation of Indigenous land can pass to children (inter-generational trauma). Even if protected from the traumatic life experiences of family, some Indigenous children, like non-Indigenous children, directly experience trauma through exposure to an accident, family violence and abuse. Although the effects of childhood trauma can be severe and long lasting, recovery can be mediated by appropriate interventions.”

Providing appropriate and genuinely inclusive responses to such complex societal problems is extremely challenging for schools when they are seeking to meet the learning needs of children who have been impacted by intergenerational trauma and ongoing trauma as a result of colonisation, including racism, poverty and violence.

Little has been published on how to create traumainformed schools and even less is understood about the barriers to education experienced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. However, trauma-informed principles are consistent on what the evidence tells us about the needs of children and families who have experienced trauma – recognition of the impacts of trauma, safety, transparency, empowerment, choice, pathways to recovery, collaboration and cultural safety (Quadara & Hunter, 2016).

Many schools already have a strong focus on child safety. They have compliance checks, child safe policies and training for staff. Compliance and training is important, but these measures are not enough. Commissioner Robert Fitzgerald (2017) – one of six Commissioners leading the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse – said there are three elements critical to creating and sustaining child safe environments: governance, leadership and culture. “You can have all the policies and procedures in the world, but if you don’t have the right culture, you will fail,” he said.

A safe whole school culture is essential, particularly for Australia’s First People who have survived generations of trauma; other survivors of traumatic events, like refugees; and children with sensory needs, like autism. What we know is that trauma causes ‘injury’ to the developing brain and impedes self-regulation, positive relationships with others and a view of the world around as safe (Bloom & Farragher, 2013). This knowledge guides MacKillop Education in creating culturally, physically and emotionally safe and inclusive schools and helping other schools to do so.

MacKillop Education schools, delivered by MacKillop Family Services in Maidstone and Geelong support children who are disengaged or at risk of becoming disengaged from education. MacKillop Education has been implementing a trauma-informed model in their schools for six years, in consultation with Aboriginal Torres Strait Island representatives, identifying what cultural healing looks like in schools.

Wungurilwil Gapgapduir Vision

All Aboriginal children and young people are safe, resilient, thriving and living in culturally rich, strong Aboriginal families and communities. Where this is not possible, that they are strongly connected to their culture, community and mob. That the voice of the Aboriginal child is heard and listened to, so that generational change can be achieved that will see more children returning home. (Wungurilwil Gapgapduir, Victorian Department of Health and Human Services, 2018)

Esmai Manahan, MacKillop Family Services General Manager, Aboriginal Torres Strait Islander Service Development, contributed to the writing of Wungurilwil Gapgapduir and is guiding MacKillop’s cultural competence. Wungurilwil Gapgapduir marks the first tripartite ag eement between the Aboriginal community, the child and family services sector, and the Victorian Government. “The best thing for Aboriginal children is to be connected to culture, country, family and community. Mackillop Family Services is committed at the highest level to incorporating the Cultural Principles of Self Determination through culturally competent and safe services. To help achieve this, all MacKillop staff receive cultural awareness training.”

Out of their extensive experience, MacKillop Education has developed their own cultural and trauma-informed school model called ReLATE: Rethinking Learning and Teaching Environments, for the Australian education context. ReLATE supports Catholic schools to build a culture of safety and wellbeing for learning founded on their Christcentred values, and recognising the signifiance of cultural healing and connection to culture. ReLATE creates cohesion between Catholic Education requirements, school values and policies, staff and student safety, inclusion and wellbeing.

MacKillop’s belief in the power of a culturally safe and trauma-informed whole school culture has paid off – not only or students and families but for staff as ell. The early findings of the independent evaluation of ReLATE, headed by Professor of Education Jo Deppeler, Monash University, show highly positive responses of teachers to recognition and better understanding of trauma, as well as changed practice. Findings from parents and students testify to the trauma informed way that staff a e responding to student difficulties. eachers here get it,” reported a student at MacKillop Education’s school in Geelong.

To find out m re about ReLATE, contact MacKillop Family Services on 03 8687 7448 or visit

Our existence as MacKillop Family Services began on 1 July 1997. But our history extends back more than 150 years, when the Sisters of Mercy, Christian Brothers and Sisters of St Joseph began their work in Australia, establishing homes for children who were orphaned, destitute or neglected, and for families in need of care and support. Our education programs focus on young people who have disengaged, or are at risk of disengaging from mainstream education. Our schools, based in Geelong and Maidstone, target students with identified social or mental health issues, and offer an alternative approach to education that is culturally safe and where emotional and physical wellbeing is as important as academic success.


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