Berry Street Education Model - Interview with Tom Brunzell

Berry Street Education Model - Tom Brunzell Interview

Congratulations on the launch of the Berry Street Education Model. How long has this been in the making? Why are students struggling to engage at school?

Thank you. The Berry Street Education Model is four years in the making. It all began with how we teach students at the Berry Street School – it’s here that we engage with some of Victoria’s most vulnerable students. Our aim is to reconnect the students to education, and a key indicator has been some pretty impressive academic gains.

For these kids, trauma-informed learning is a key way we can effect change, but really this kind of teaching practice shouldn’t be reserved only for specialist schools; we need to focus on helping young people at risk before they fall out of the mainstream system.

The strategies that inform the teaching practice at the Berry Street School have an important place in mainstream education and we’re very excited about providing this learning to schools across Victoria.

The Model is based on trauma-informed positive education. What is that?

Trauma-informed knowledge comes from Berry Street’s long history and strong reputation in the areas of research and practice, as well as international collaboration from highly experienced practitioners of positive psychology and the science of wellbeing.

What we’re doing is linking healing and growth into teaching approaches. It’s this kind of practice that goes beyond just teaching kids how to get a good NAPLAN result, we’re supporting teachers to re-humanise the classroom by acknowledging and cultivating healthy emotional self-awareness, strong positive relationships and skills to self-manage.

How does trauma impact on neurodevelopment?

What concerns teachers, schools and classrooms is that trauma impacts a child’s ability to learn.

Trauma affects a young person’s ability to learn self-regulation as well as their ability to build strong relationships with their peers, their teachers and even themselves.

All of this creates impediments in the classroom and subsequently affects a young person’s ability to learn and connect with their education.

But shouldn’t we be concentrating on the early years rather than primary and secondary school?

Without a doubt early learning is the space in which to set the foundation for future growth, but being a person who has worked across primary schools and secondary schools, we must not take the spotlight off those teenage years.

The Berry Street Education Model has been designed with child development principles in mind. We’ve designed specific approaches for both primary and secondary classrooms. And in our early work have seen readiness for learning improve across every grade-level.

What’s your background? And how did you discover this way of learning?

My own education really aligned to new research in the field of trauma-informed teaching practice and learning.

I’m a PhD candidate and my research is a combination of integrating trauma-informed practice and wellbeing in a whole school approach. But, it was when I was doing my first Masters in Differentiated Learning, and then my second Masters in Resiliency and School Leadership, when positive psychology really came to the fore. This was great timing for me as I got to work alongside these wonderful pioneering researchers such as Professor Martin Seligman and Assistant Professor Angela Duckworth from the University of Pennsylvania who are considered leaders in positive psychology.

Since then, joining Berry Street where we work so closely in the field of trauma and young people, I’ve been lucky enough to be given a mandate to put all my research and experience together to create the Berry Street Education Model – it’s a project I’m particularly proud of and it’s very close to my heart.

I’m originally from the US and back when I began my teaching career in the Bronx, I remember being struck by the struggles and the difficulties most of my students faced every single day; my heart really went out to them. I was very much aware that my teaching degree hadn’t prepared me for this and very early on I became someone who wanted to help the most difficult kid in the room. That was my focus then, and it remains my focus today.

My frontline teaching experiences and my academic research means I have both the confidence and the strategies to work with the “tough” kids. I feel very comfortable sitting down with them, talking to them on their level.

Deciding your life’s work is going to be focused on supporting trauma-affected kids through education is absolutely a pretty ambitious goal but I was, and still am, an idealist. I believe that teaching can be a path to self-development. It’s more than just getting kids to attain high grades; it can be a transformative experience too.

Do you think trauma-informed learning courses should be offered within teaching degrees?

We are already in early conversations with teacher training programs. The issue with teacher training is that it is already so jam-packed. If we consider the facts, we know 40% of Australian children are exposed to chronic or traumatic stressors and if you combine that with the stress of performance and the stress of teenage life, there’s a real argument for providing this training to all would-be teachers.

You’ve already started spruiking the Berry Street Education Model in schools. What has the response been so far?

It’s really exciting. There have been lots of different reactions and mostly surprise – teachers are hugely responsive to the ideas we present within the Berry Street Education Model.

The great thing about this model is it provides teachers with the power of knowledge as well as the tools they need to improve their classrooms. There’s an opportunity for synergistic learning between teachers and students; both groups can benefit so much from the learnings.

Teachers can see how the Berry Street Education Model can provide strategies which will help them feel more empowered in the classroom and, for the struggling kid in the class who thinks he/she has become this way simply by magic, once they are helped to understand more about themselves can then learn how to use these strategies for their own growth and healing.

Do schools generally not offer this level of support for students?

Many schools do everything they can for their students but it is difficult to meet the complex needs of trauma-affected children. Schools are over-legislated, under resourced and as we know, there’s simply never enough funding.

Schools need a community response to a community issue, and Berry Street is a community organisation who is able to provide that support.

What is dysregulation and what does it involve?

Put simply, dysregulation is a mismatch between your body and your mind. For example, you are telling yourself to sit still and listen in the classroom, but you can’t; you’re telling yourself to stay calm and not get angry, but you just can’t.

The thinking used to be that young people just needed a good pep talk, but we now know that those who are on the margins of their classroom need much more than that.

Teachers have to be prepared to address dysregulated students and defuse conflict through structure and consistency, encourage positive behaviours, determine logical consequences instead of punishment, and provide choices to allow student autonomy and control. It’s a big job.

What are the benefits of focussing on character strengths?

It gives kids explicit opportunities to build the character strengths they need to be successful in their future lives.

Gratitude, courage, kindness, and self-control are all character strengths that can come naturally to more advantaged children.

What we want is to ensure each and every child, regardless of background or experience, has opportunities to develop these, and the way to do this is to restructure the classroom so all kids have access to learning these important life skills.

How do you build healthy classroom relationships?

In the Berry Street Education Model we have eight specific skills to help teachers develop relationships with students.

We know that if teachers employ these strategies every day with all students, especially students who struggle the most, interactions will get stronger every day.

Why have the classroom as a therapeutic milieu?

Teachers are not therapists. We know this but the fact remains that, for many children who do not have access to therapeutic or clinical support in their lives, their teacher is at the frontline.

So, the teacher has two choices – to provide the child with a supportive and healing practice which will strengthen them and help build capacity, or to only teach. I think teachers and schools can do both.

The reason we’re even talking about the Berry Street Education Model today is because teachers have come to us. Teachers have told us they’re concerned about the children they teach and they want to help them, and so we are delivering them the strategies on how they can do this.

The Berry Street Education Model informs the three campuses of the Berry Street School – how has this method of teaching changed the lives of students?

The most important measurement is student academic growth. At the Berry Street School our students are tracking a learning average of 1.8 years in one academic year.

You’re hoping to roll this out across the State?

Yes, we’re already working across all three sectors of the education system to deliver the Berry Street Education Model to schools across Victoria. It’s hugely exciting.

Berry Street was first established on the lands of the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin Nation. We pay our respect to their Elders, past and present, and to all the traditional custodians of land throughout Australia.