‘Safe and Secure’ – A Guide to Understanding the Effects of Family Violence from the Australian Childhood Foundation.

On Thursday I attended a Professional Development session that I had been keenly anticipating for a number of months. The session was run by the Australian Childhood Foundation (@auschildhood) and was called ‘Safe and Secure,’ with the content relating to supporting young people who have experienced family violence related trauma.

safe and secure

I’ve been interested in the field of domestic violence for a number of years now, particularly after attending a session run by the Western Adelaide Domestic Violence Service about 5 years ago where I learnt about the complexities that victims of domestic violence face.

I registered to attend this course because I was working with a number of children whose mums were experiencing DV at the time. I didn’t learn about the violence these children were exposed to from the children first hand; I’d learn about it when I had meetings with their mothers to discuss the unpredictable, bizarre, volatile, sometimes unsafe and occasionally dangerous and destructive behaviour that we were witnessing at school. It was when these disclosures were made that the behaviour all began to make sense and with my main concern (as always) being for the students, it was from there that I developed a keen interest in the effects of family violence related trauma on the children with whom I was working.

I’ve done a lot of training with the Australian Childhood Foundation since around 2008. This was when I first learnt about Strategies for Managing Abuse Related Trauma (SMART) which turned my way of thinking and working with young people who experienced challenging behaviours on its head. In the initial years of the program’s release SMART was considered a model of best practice when working with students who had a history of abuse as we traditionally know it (including mental, physical, emotional and sexual abuse and neglect). In more recent years the SMART framework has included family violence under the umbrella of abuse related trauma because of the damaging effect it has on the brain development of children who are exposed to it. I was particularly pleased to hear this inclusion because in my experience in schools, family violence was the top cause of high level challenging behaviours that I worked with most prevalently (in fact, significantly way more than any of the traditional abuse categories combined).

You may not be aware of any situations in which children at your site are affected by family violence or you might not understand the effects of the trauma sustained on young people. For whatever reason (I think it’s largely as a result of our society’s attitude domestic violence which is slowly but surely changing) teachers have very little knowledge about it, let alone how to support young children who are caught in the middle of complex and violent home situations. If you’re interested in learning more about this topic, I suggest you check out the Australian Childhood Foundation website, particularly the SMART online training section which gives a great insight into how the experience of abuse related trauma (including experiences of family violence) impact brain development and behaviour.


How Becoming a Parent Made Me a Worse Teacher.

There’s been a bit of banter on the Twitter airwaves about parenting and how it affects our ability as teachers recently. Craig Kemp (@mrkempnz) wrote about how he felt his recent experience of becoming a father had enhanced his professional practice, whilst Corinne Campbell (@corisel) penned a sophisticated description of her experience as a committed and highly experienced teacher who feels she has many times been treated unfairly because she happens to not have had any children of her own.

I know that both of these posts elicited passionate responses from people who read them. And I have to say that when I read them my immediate response was that becoming a mum made me a worse teacher. And here’s why…

Baby Number One aka Baby Oops (now Miss 10) was an unexpected surprise. At the time of her conception I had just returned from working in a number of complex Special Education placements in London (think Brixton) and was flitting between short term contracts at local primary schools here in Adelaide. I had just begun my Masters in Counselling and wasn’t concerned about having a baby at the same time. After all, how hard could it be? I’d simply put the baby to bed and then do all my uni work while she slept (I was a competent teacher, surely I could just teach this baby to sleep when I wanted it to, right? How hard could that be?)

Let me tell you that Masters took me 8 years to complete. That was partly because Baby Oops didn’t sleep all night (and didn’t until she was over a year old) but also because I chose to go back to work after a relatively short time after having her. I loved my little girl very much but found motherhood an isolating experience so opted to return to work on a very part term basis for no other reason than to have something other than bowel movements, breastfeeds and projectile vomiting to think and talk about all day long.

The short term part-time contracts continued for a couple of years (as did the study…not quite as quickly as planned but that was ok) and along came Baby Planned (now Mr 8). Around this time I applied for and won a job at the school that I had been working as School Counsellor, a job which I was really excited to win. It was a challenging role that one, faced paced, furious and nothing short of completely full on some days, with police involvement not an infrequent occurrence but in the initial stages of the tenure I completely loved it.

Unbeknownst to me, all was not well with Baby Planned. At the 20 week scan we discovered that he had some very serious health issues; there was question as to whether or not he was even going to be a viable foetus. It’s sufficient to say the next 16 weeks were extremely tense and fraught, as we went from appointment to appointment, having test after test, scan after scan to monitor my little guy’s progress and to find out what we could about what was going on for him. I have to say, despite all this going on in my private life, I was still really enjoying my work and it served as an excellent distraction from what was proving to be one of the most stressful times of my life.

Baby Planned was born 3.5 weeks prematurely and had his first of countless surgeries when he was a mere 16 hours old. His surgeon told us afterwards that 20 years ago he would have died after a couple of days because the procedure he had been through was still relatively new.

At 4 weeks of age he spent a week in PICU with Influenza A, having only been home for two weeks. He was back in shortly afterwards for a  procedure on his heart. Then there were the tests. And more tests. And paediatrician appointments. And follow-ups with surgeons. And the people who did the tests. And physio. And so on, and so on and so on.

Baby Planned was (and still is!) a little champion though. By the time he was 8 months old he was up to average size and weight and was thriving. Once again I returned to work for the same reason I had when my daughter was still quite young. I needed to be able to think about something else and have a break from the very constant and stressful world of hospitals that I had been exposed to with my little guy over the last year or so.

Fast forward a couple of years. Over that time things changed. My role as Counsellor continued to be full-on and challenging; in many ways the complexity of the cases I was managing had increased and that meant I needed to devote more and more of my emotional energy to what was going on at school. I was constantly sleep deprived (with two small children who were frequently unwell, as kids that age are) to start with (it wasn’t unusual for me to get to work having been up since 4:30am) and my days at school were often extremely complex and intense. It wasn’t unusual for me to come home and pass out while putting my daughter to bed as I was completely smashed by the time I got home.

I began to feel that I wasn’t doing a very good job at work and that I wasn’t doing a very good job at home either (I was in a seemingly constant state of emotional exhaustion). My best intentions (which had previously served me really well in life) were just no longer cutting it. And I was still studying.

There were three things which happened in a relatively short period of time which changed things for me. The first was around the time of the Swine Flu epidemic (I’m guessing that was around 2009). Although he never contracted Swine Flu as such, Mr Planned had some serious upper respiratory issues which resulted in six hospital admissions (most by ambulance at 3 o’clock in the morning) which lasted several days over a period of nine weeks. I spent more time in hospital with him that term than I did at school. I think it even got to the stage where they bumped someone out of class to cover for me, as my absences from work had become so prolific. Although I felt awfully guilty about not going into work I just wasn’t in a position to do anything differently. I had to give my full attention to my son before I did anything else.

Another thing that happened around that time was a conversation with my principal who was venting her frustration about parents who didn’t read with their children at night. I remember that it was dark at the time, way after 6 o’clock and I thought to myself as she was talking ‘That’s me. That is completely me. I am one of those parents she’s talking about. I don’t read with my daughter because I’m here, focussing my attention on other people’s children while my little girl is at home with out me, not doing her reading.’ That came as a rude shock that did, and it was a thought I just couldn’t get out of my head. What was happening? How had all this come about? Why was everything suddenly so difficult?

Once Mr Planned had stabilised and I was finally able to return to work things weren’t the same for me, they’d shifted. I arranged to see my Counselling Supervisor to debrief about what had happened (hospitalisations would trigger my trauma from when he was in utero) and my concerns about not being able to spend time with my daughter, she very kindly and I think quite accurately suggested that I seemed burnt out, not just from my work at school but also from parenting. What I needed to do at that time was just take a step back, regroup and recover and make a plan about how to proceed in what had clearly become a work situation which was no longer working for me. As she reminded me, when we are emotionally exhausted and unable to connect with the people in our care, our professional abilities can become severely compromised. Being a conscientious practitioner, I very well knew this to be true and so made plans to resign.

There was some angst around leaving that position, the one which I had worked so hard towards and which I had completed a Masters degree for. I felt a sense of commitment to my colleagues and the children and families with whom I worked but despite this felt (whether accurately or not) that I was no longer doing the best that I could for them. I was not the teacher I used to be; I no longer had the drive, vigour or emotional energy to manage such complex cases to the level which I felt was good enough. I also really wanted to spend more time doing things with my own children which I had not previously been able to do because I had been too distracted by my work and study.

I love my children more than anything. They have made my life richer and brighter and they are both a constant source of amazement and inspiration to me. My son in particular has been the greatest teacher in my life. But their coming into my world made it impossible me for me to maintain my abilities as a teacher. There is no doubt and I have no trouble acknowledging that my performance at work dropped whilst I was caring for them when they were little and when he was so sick.

I left that position in 2012 and have fully recovered from being burnt out. I believe I am now a much better parent and wife, which to me is more important than being a good teacher. I’ve worked enough with children who are emotionally neglected; I won’t be doing that to my own children, that’s for sure. I’m not interested in getting divorced either.

As for working in schools, if you follow me you’ll know I’ve just finished a successful stint in a school recently, but it’s not something I’m particularly interested in right now. I’m more passionate about using the skills I gained from my Masters degrees (there was more than one) to help other teachers be the best that they can be with the children that they work with (and with other problems they might be having in their lives too). I might venture back into schools again someday but for now I’ve got the balance right and it’s what’s working well for me at the moment. It also allows me much more time to take care of the two children who are the more important to me than any others in the world. My own.