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Trauma Informed Compassionate School

Schools ‘First’ in NI for Oakgrove

College hosts ‘Trauma Informed Compassionate Schools’ Initiative

Oakgrove Integrated College staff were the first school in Northern Ireland last week to take part in the innovative ‘Trauma Informed Compassionate Schools Initiative’ – a programmed designed to help educators better understand how and why Adverse Childhood Experiences can impact a child’s development.

Held in the school’s assembly hall on Wednesday last, the event saw over 100 members of staff take part in the programme delivered by a team from Ulster University led by Dr Karen Kirby, Senior Lecturer and Psychologist, UU, in collaboration with Ms Marie Dunn, Director of Resilio and Mrs Katrina Crilly, Principal, Oakgrove Integrated College.

The workshop and research pilot introduced practical, individual and classroom strategies to staff to enable them to help students begin to feel safe, develop better relationships with teaching staff and support the increase of resilience and social and emotional wellbeing that would allow their students to develop their full academic potential.

Existing studies have shown that the model benefits student by improving grades, social and emotional skills, anxiety and so on. It has also been shown to benefit educators too as previous research indicates that teachers reported better job satisfaction, reduced stress and burnout after adopting these strategies in their classrooms and school.

Explaining the programme, Dr Karen Kirby, Ulster University commented: ‘On behalf of the team involved in this innovative and novel school programme and delivered to staff at Oakgrove today, we believe that ‘Trauma Informed Compassionate Schools’ will help educators better understand how and why Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE’s), trauma and toxic stress can impact a child’s brain and neuro development, which ultimately affects their potential for learning and academic achievement.

‘The training is aimed to help educators shift their attitudes towards children with ACE’s from questions like ‘ What’s wrong with you?’ to a more compassionate attitude of ‘What’s happened to you’; thereby adopting a more empathic and compassionate approach to children in their classrooms who are suffering with ACE’s. We hope that teachers and educators will view the child, who may be ‘acting out’ trauma in their classrooms, through a different lens. Rather than these children slipping out of reach, dropping out of school early, not thriving or reaching their full potential, they may have a better chance at being supported by compassionate, observing and skilled teaching staff; all of which can go a very long way in preventing the ill effects of ACE’s into their adult life.’

Praising Oakgrove College staff and their Principal, Mrs. Katrina Crilly for being the first school to embrace the innovative programme, Ms Marie Dunne, Director of Resilio (a voluntary organisation established in 2018), and founder of Hopeful Minds N.I said: ‘We are delighted to be part of this innovative team from the Ulster University and the staff of Oakgrove College in delivering the Trauma Informed Compassionate Schools initiative in Northern Ireland.

‘Oakgrove is the first school to embrace this concept and we hope the research findings will help to build a case for future development.  This is more than a programme, it is a process and framework tailored to the strengths and needs of each student, family, school and community. You cannot play chess in a hurricane and our young people cannot learn if they are struggling with their mental and emotional health. This initiative equips educators to respond rather than react to student trauma related behaviours. A compassionate focus creates a shift in thinking for staff from ‘what’s wrong with you’ to ‘what is happening to you ‘.  Together we can make a difference to the lives of all who have become involved in growing hope and compassion on this exciting and innovative journey. We look forward to sharing the outcomes of our research in the near future. Resilio will continue to support the training of this novel programme, as it fits very clearly within its vision which is to develop and grow hope and resilience at individual, community and organisational levels. Resilio prides itself on only using programmes which have an evidence based, and thus has forged strong links with our colleagues at Ulster University to demonstrate effectiveness.


Delighted to have Oakgrove Integrated College host the first ever roll out of the new programme, Mrs. Katrina Crilly, Principal, stressed the importance of responding to the emotional well-being of children before it has a detrimental affect on their potential to achieve

‘In Oakgrove we have adopted a Trauma Informed approach because we firmly believe that whilst academia is so important, unless we understand and respond to the emotional well-being of children as a priority, many young people will fail to achieve their potential. It is like building a house on weak foundations, sooner or later the cracks will show, so many of our young people struggle to cope. Being part of this pilot as first school in Northern Ireland adds to our existing provision to support our pupils intellectual and emotional well being. We have developed a bespoke subject in year 8 called MEE mental and emotional education. It is not a programme but a developed curriculum to address the needs of our students as soon as they enter Oakgrove. A small team of colleagues within the school have spent last two years researching best practice across many international educational systems and with support and advice of external professionals have designed a brand new subject that will appear on year 8 timetables this year.  Again we are leading the way by developing a subject like this, but we could not stand back any longer and do nothing about this huge gap in our education system.

‘I have been frustrated for many years that the curriculum addresses every organ in the body apart from the brain. I am a science teacher and have never taught pupils how their Brain works or the difference in "upstairs and downstairs brain”, which is fundamental to their understanding of how their brain regulates their thoughts emotions and how they learn.

‘Our children do not struggle with WHAT to learn but HOW to learn. They do not understand how their emotional state affects their ability to learn. We believe every child can learn but their emotional state which may arise from a one off traumatic event or persistent and repeated adverse childhood experience is a huge barrier to learning. This often manifests itself as poor behaviour, acting out or becoming withdrawn, leading to negative outcomes and knock on labelling as naughty or just bad manners. This can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Sadly, teachers are not trained to identify with signs of trauma and how this manifests itself resulting, in the behaviour being addresses and not the cause of the behaviour. Behaviour is a symptom of something much deeper which the child or the adult don't understand. However, I am so proud that at Oakgrove we have changed that, with the help of this research pilot. Every member of staff teaching and non-teaching have participated in Trauma Informed Compassionate training.

‘Educating our pupils how their brain works, supporting positive mental well being and training out staff to identify signs of trauma is a step in the right direction to ensuring pupils achieve their potential academic outcomes. We believe we cannot teach the mind until you reach the heart. Our trauma informed approach takes us a step closer to achieving this for all our young people.

I would also like to add that if anyone thinks that's not me and our children don’t need that  they are very much mistaken and possibly shortsighted. Trauma is not an event but the reaction to it and that event can be small and seemingly insignificant to everyone else apart from the young person have a traumatic response to it.

‘At Oakgrove we are adamant that we have to change the way we educate young people. Equipping them with knowledge skills and coping mechanisms to promote positive mental and emotional well-being and build their resilience so that they can overcome the challenges of life, learn never to give up and achieve their personal best. The mind is a busy place for young people we need give them a helping hand to make sense of it.


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