Exploring Adverse Child Experiences (ACEs) and trauma-informed practices in second chance education settings in Ireland:
The THRIVE (Training Hope and Resilience In Vulnerable Early school leavers) research
What is the THRIVE research about?
Early school leaving can be defined as non-participation in school before a young person reaches age 16 or before completing three years post-primary education (European Commission, 2017). The average rate of early school leavers aged between 18-24 in the EU is 10.6%, with an EU target to reduce this to 10% by 2020. In Ireland, recent data indicates an early school leaving prevalence of 18% although retention rates have been increasing in recent years. Early school leaving can lead to serious negative outcomes for the individual and is a significant and complex challenge for educational and political systems. Students who do not finish second level education have been shown to be at significantly greater risk of poorer outcomes including, unemployment/underemployment, reliance on welfare, poverty, substance misuse and poorer wellbeing later in life (Eivers, Ryan & Brinkley, 2000; Scabó, 2018). The consequences can also ripple outwards and place a significant burden on wider society, from both an economic and social perspective including increased need for social, welfare and health services and reduced intake in taxation monies. Therefore, alternative educational pathways which re-engage out-of-school youth in learning and enable successful labour market engagement are important.
Early exiting from education may emerge within the context of a range of interacting risk factors. Community and family disadvantage, experience of mental health problems and poor self-esteem in one’s self and one’s academic ability have been linked to poorer educational outcomes. The experience of alienation and discrimination in school, negative teacher-student relationships, constant punishments and disciplining and teachers’ inability to instil confidence in the young people with regard to their academic ability have been associated with disengagement from education. In recent years, there has also been growing interest in the role of trauma and the impact of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) on shaping health and wellbeing, as well as educational outcomes (Morgan, Rochford & Sheehan, 2016). Research has shown that two thirds of a sample of Irish early school leavers (n=23) experienced four or more ACEs, whilst 36% and 20% respectively were identified as living in significant poverty or had experienced homelessness, are perhaps not surprising and illustrative of the factors which contribute to early leaving (National Educational Psychological Service [NEPS], 2017).
Therefore, it is important for second chance educational programmes to develop approaches which redress trauma and marginalisation. Trauma-informed approaches may be effective in promoting re-engagement in education and positive outcomes for vulnerable young people.
ICEP Europe are currently leading on the THRIVE (Training Hope and Resilience in Vulnerable Early school leavers) project, a new cross-European research programme aimed at developing trauma-informed training supports for second chance educators.
Overall, the THRIVE study aims to:
- To assess second chance educators’ awareness and understanding of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) and trauma;
- Explore the use of trauma-sensitive practices and strategies;
- Examine second chance educators’ exposure to trauma and sense of efficacy in responding the needs of early school leavers (ESLs);
- Explore educators’ and ESLs’ experiences and the supports that are helpful to ESLs.
How was the THRIVE research conducted?
The study involved mixed methodologies.
An online questionnaire was used to gather information from second chance educators, including:
- demographic characteristics.
- trauma awareness,
- trauma-informed practices.
In Ireland, 120 second chance educators completed the questionnaire; 62% were female; 80% had more than 10 years experience of working in Youthreach settings.
Focus groups were also conducted with educators (n=17) and ESLs (n=6). These explored key stakeholders’ experiences of education and ‘what works’ for ESLs.
What were the key findings of the THRIVE research project in Ireland?
The questionnaire findings
Trauma-awareness & trauma-informed practices
- Trauma and ACEs were perceived as a significant issue for learners in second chance education. Over 90% felt that at least 1 out of every 4 students in second chance education settings had experience of trauma or adverse life circumstances. Indeed, a sizable proportion (42%) of participating educators perceived the proportion of students impacted by trauma or adversity to range between 81% and 100%.
- There was strong self-reported awareness and understanding of trauma and its effects on learning and development.
- 68 – 85% of educators agreed they had a good understanding of traumatic stress.
- Use of trauma-sensitive practices were high suggesting sensitive and collaborative interactions between educators and learners
Supporting positive outcomes in ESLs
- Practices which were identified as being crucial to supporting learners included:
- Relationship building and one-to-one-teaching; Positive behavioural supports (e.g. positive reinforcement and role modelling); Individualised, holistic learning plans; Collaborative working practices;
- Important resources included: Mentoring, guidance and psychological support
Educator and training needs
- Between 25% – 50% of educators felt there was a lack of training or supervision when working with trauma-exposed learners.
- Around 1/3 reported challenges in effectively engaging with and motivating learners.
- Almost 1/4 reported lower confidence in their respond effectively to challenging behaviour in the classroom and establishing effective rules and routines in the classroom
- Emotional, psychological and mental health difficulties in learners were perceived as becoming more prevalent and were a major source of concern for educators
- Educators also felt there was increasing pressure to focus on academic outcomes, rather than learner personal development and social and emotional skills
- Insufficient access to psychological and counselling support for learners was also highlighted
The focus group findings
Focus groups were conducted to explore the thoughts and experiences of key stakeholders in relation to trauma and the supports that are helpful to ESLs. The qualitative study also explored challenges and barriers that stakeholders’ experience in respect of addressing trauma in second chance education settings. Below is an overview of the key themes emerging from the focus groups.
'Left behind' - Early school leavers experiences of mainstream education
- Early school leavers’ negative experiences of mainstream education were highlighted.
- Feelings of stigmatisation and a lack of support played a key role in disengagement from mainstream education
“I never wanted to go in, because they always used to make a show of me in front of everyone” (Youthreach learner)
“They’ve been left behind. They got lost, struggling to keep up along the way” (Educator)
A second chance - Belonging in second chance education
- Positive experiences of Youthreach were highlighted. Educators and learners spoke of feeling a “sense of belonging” in second chance education.
- Learners felt more supported and described personal growth and development from these positive experiences
“They find a sense of belonging here. I think that really helps” (Educator)
“I’ve made more memories here […] It’s like a second home” (Youthreach learner)
(Re)Engaging - Meeting the needs of learners in second chance education
- Positive relationships and building trust were identified as crucial to supporting learners. Building strengths and fostering well-being were also emphasised
- Organisational factors, particularly small class sizes were seen as being important for achieving positive outcomes.
“In school you’re just a student […] here you are sitting there with us” (Youthreach learner)
“Recognising strengths […] that small but little bit of praise and encouragement – that can make a big difference” (Educator)
Boundaries and barriers
- An increasing prevalence of adversity and mental health issues amongst learners were highlighted as major challenge for educators.
- Work-related stress and distress were commonly experienced, particularly when dealing with learners’ psychological health and well-being.
- Educators also expressed frustration at a lack of resources and a perceived creeping emphasis on academic rather than personal-social outcomes for learners.
“We have to show success […] but it gives you less time for the soft skills” (Educator)
” I was upset all the time and I didn’t know how to deal with it” (Educator)
What do we learn from the THRIVE research?
The findings highlight widespread awareness of trauma and ACEs amongst educational practitioners. Distinct differences between second chance education settings and mainstream school were described. Educators emphasised the importance of using sensitive, supportive and collaborative teaching practices, creating a sense of safety and belonging for learners and a person-oriented, strengths focused approach for engaging with ESLs. Building trust and positive relationships with learners was highlighted as important in promoting positive outcomes for learners in second chance education. These findings are important. A sense of support and belonging are important sources of resilience and can help to promote positive outcomes in marginalised young people (Leitch, 2017).
However, re-engaging ESLs in education is a difficult process (Polidana et al., 2013) and educators also experienced significant challenges. Stress and frustration were highlighted and training supports which support self-care was an important avenue for further development. A lack of resources and collaboration with external services were also identified as challenges for second chance educators.
ESLs and learners in second chance education may have elevated exposure to adverse childhood experiences and trauma
- Trauma-sensitive practices which strengthen educator’ awareness of trauma and promote positive relationships, a sense of security and strengths-oriented approaches can help to promote positive outcomes for vulnerable young people.
- The findings point to a dearth of training for second chance educators and indicate that educators may benefit from supports that build capacity in relation to student well-being and educator self-care.
- Collaboration was also identified as an area where capacity development is needed. Partnership working can increase opportunities for preventative support and intervention for vulnerable young people.
What’s happening next in the THRIVE research?
Importantly the THRIVE research will be used as the foundation of a new trauma-informed training programme for second chance educators. This training programme will focus on strengthening the competencies of educators working with ESLs with a view to enabling them to better deal with the issues faced by ESLs and enhancing their capacity to create safe educational environments which mitigate the impact of trauma upon the educational performance of the ESLs in attendance. By implementing the core principles within the programme, educators will cultivate the resilience and psychological literacy of the ESLs under their guidance, which should yield a beneficial effect upon their overall wellbeing. In addition to this, the programme will also offer guidance to educators on how they can better manage their own stress, through the enhancement of their own self-awareness and provision of an array of evidence based coping strategies designed to assist them in functioning more adeptly in their highly pressured, emotionally-sensitive work environment. Once the THRIVE training programme is developed, piloted and refined it will be published as a freely available online resource.
How else will be THRIVE research be used?
Over the coming days, ICEP Europe will be presenting the THRIVE research findings at a number of important national conferences. Stephen Smith will lead on the presentation at these events and will showcase the findings from the THRIVE research from Ireland. These conferences include:
- Trauma Informed Care in Practice Conference, 5th November, The Richmond Education Centre, Dublin
- 2019 Annual Conference of the Psychological Society of Ireland: 07 & 08 November, Newpark Hotel, Kilkenny
We are looking forward to participating in these conferences and disseminating the findings from the study to a national audience. The conferences will also provide an opportunity to learn about other research, programmes and practices which explore ACEs and/or are trauma-informed or investigate the needs of practitioners and educators working with vulnerable young people.
Additional information about THRIVE
The THRIVE research team involves a consortium of researchers from five partner European countries:
- Austria – Verein Multikulturell
- Ireland – Institute of Child Education and Psychology (ICEP) Europe and Kildare Wicklow Education and Training Board (KWETB)
- Italy – CESIE
- Malta – University of Malta, Centre for Resilience and Socio-Emotional Health
- Romania – Association for Education & Sustainable Development (AESD)
This research was also conducted across each of the partner countries and a consolidated report outlining the findings from across Europe, is available here.
If you are interested in the THRIVE research you can find out more on our dedicated website: www.thriveresearch.eu
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This research is funded by the Erasmus+ Programme of the European Union. The content of this report represents the views of the research team only. The European Commission does not accept any responsibility for use that may be made of the information it contains.