Trauma Informed Leadership – The Next Big Thing For Psychological Safety

By Tanya Hallet

Warning: The following blog includes adult themes and language and is not suitable for all readers.

Out of my way you f****** c***!

A student slams into me in their way through the door.

You look at me like that again and I’ll smash your f****** head in!

Another student knocks into me and the books I’m holding topple to the floor. This is a great welcome to a year 8 class I’ve never had before.

Hey you! Shut your c***!

Some other students file in and through the door, one even climbs in through the window despite my requests to safely enter the classroom through the door. A fight has broken out in the back left corner, another scuffle is occurring in the back right corner. One student is shoved against the window. A terrified group of students sit at the top left of the classroom with their heads down trying not to look at anyone. If they were turtles, they would have disappeared right inside their shells. Hell, I was the teacher, and I didn’t feel safe in here! So how will anyone else? And more importantly, how the heck was I going to change this?

The truth was many of these year 8 students came from severely traumatic backgrounds where they had witnessed and experienced repeated domestic violence, sexual abuse, generational poverty, and generational substance misuse. I had to start by building relationships with these students, learning their stories, and showing an interest in their wellbeing. I had to understand when they escalated quickly and became aggressive, it wasn’t about me, it was them struggling to control their emotions. I had to focus on positive reinforcement. “You can do this,” I’d say to the 13 year old kid who looked up at me struggling to hold his pencil and spell a three-letter word. “I believe in you.”

I can’t do this, Miss. I’m too dumb for this.

Yeah, we’re the dumb class, Miss. Didn’t you know?

There’s no such thing as dumb. You just haven’t learnt it yet. If you keep trying, you’re your practice, you will get better. Let’s go back over each step. We’re a team here. I believe in all of you.”  I told them countless times.

Soon, the kids came up to me in the corridors while I was on my way to another class.

I only came to school today coz I’ve got you today, Miss.

The environment in the class changed. The kids stopped hitting each other and yelling abuse at each other. They started encouraging each other. They would listen to each other. They helped each other.

How had I created this change? I was following the principles of Trauma Informed Leadership.

You see, a classroom has a lot of fundamental similarities with a workplace. Nothing good can be achieved in a classroom or a workplace until psychological safety has been established, and this comes first from the leader in the room. In a classroom and in a workplace, the following things are required before every member of that room can achieve their best.

  • Everyone must work as a team regardless of whether you like them or not.
  • You must trust and respect each other enough that you can take risks, step out of your comfort zone, try new things, be creative, speak up and share your ideas in front of each other.
  • You must make allowances for the diverse needs of each person for everyone to achieve their best work outcomes.
  • You must understand that each person has experienced trauma to some extent.
  • The teacher must lead the class in a trauma informed way to create this culture of safety. In a workplace, this is your team leader, your supervisor, or your manager.

I have stepped into some gnarly classes in my time where no one felt safe with each other. In those classes, the students bullied each other, spent all their energy on being defensive, aggressive, and hypervigilant towards any threats, either real or perceived. The students and the teacher are more anxious, depressed and struggle to regulate their emotions. As a result, there are regular conflicts, fights, very little work gets done, there is no respect and no creativity. No one is achieving their best results. It is a dog-eat-dog world in there. Like some workplaces.

And trying to breathe in a room like that…. is like inhaling thick, black, smoke from an industrial fire and trying not to choke.

So, what is Trauma Informed Leadership? Well, it’s based on the five principles trauma informed care:

  • Safety
  • Choice
  • Collaboration
  • Trust
  • Empowerment

It means you lead your team in a compassionate and inclusive way, building trust, resilience while improving the health and well being of the people who are within your care. You believe in your team.

You create safety by showing understanding for your team, moving from judgment to curiosity thinking. When someone reacts in a way you think doesn’t match the situation, you consider the reason why. We all have trauma we live with to varying degrees and this affects our reactions, our emotions and our overall mental health and wellbeing. Consider what your own triggers are. Know how you manage your own stress and trauma. Teach your team about the resources that are out there for managing their mental health and wellbeing. And mean it. Practice what you preach.

Consider the following questions: Do you smile at your team members and greet them? Have you created an environment where people feel safe enough to confide in you about what is really going on? What’s your attitude towards mental health? Do you listen to your team? Do you want them to achieve their best? Do you empower them to take control of their tasks and take risks and learn more? Do you ask them what they think? Do you give positive feedback and build them up?

All these things come down to empathy and understanding. Showing people, you know them and that you care about them. That you believe in them. Helping them become the best version of themselves they can be.

I got a message one of these students the other day.

Hey Miss, I want you to know the huge impact you had on my life. If it wasn’t for you believing in me, I would’ve gone down the wrong path. You were the only teacher who helped me and understood me and didn’t talk down to me or just ignore me or treat me like s***. I’m doing good in life because you gave a chance.

Creating Psychological Safety isn’t an ‘R U OK’ yellow cupcake or a yoga session. Its about truly considering how you can help other people be the best version of themselves they can be while being empathetic to the effects their experiences have had on them. We have all been through something, and we all deserve compassion for that experience.

Its about believing in people and knowing they can be great if you just create the space for them. That’s Trauma Informed Leadership.