Creating a school with a heart for trauma

Issue: Volume 102, Number 12

Posted: 13 September 2023
Reference #: 1HAc6o

Ngatea Primary School went from reacting to behaviours to responding to individuals and found unexpected impacts from acknowledging trauma.

8. Creating a school with a heart

Teacher Karin Chambers joining in the play and games where ākonga are 'the boss'.

The day Ngatea principal Neil Fraser went from saying, “the system is broken, why won’t the Ministry of Education help?” to thinking, “Oh my goodness WE are the system” was a game changer in how his school responds to children and their trauma, and to children full stop.

Around the time of Covid the school was struggling with a few “severely challenging students”, recalls Neil.

“A teacher had been physically assaulted and we were dealing with several students who found it challenging to self-regulate. I was calling and calling the Ministry looking for answers and asking for help. And that was when I realised, the system is ourselves. That we needed to stop looking for a ‘spray and walk away’ type of drop-in one-off help and we needed to start looking at ourselves as to what we can do to help.

“Nearly three years on we’re proud to be a school that stopped seeing behaviours and started responding to our students as people.”

Ngatea School runs to Year 8 with a current roll of 330 students and a staff roll of 30. Surrounded by dairy farms, the semi-rural school sits on the banks of the Piako River on the Hauraki Plains between Paeroa and Auckland on State Highway 2.

Adaptability has always been a strength of staff and students at the school, says Neil.

“Teachers who come here have always had to be able to pivot as the populace is highly transitional. The first of June and the moving on of dairying families is an annual adjustment. Fifty percent of those in Year 8 didn’t start school here.”

8. Creating a school with a heart 01

With a wall of important themes to guide them, ākonga relish the chance to lead the fun and games.

Exploring good practice

The staff began learning what would become their trauma-healing teaching practice. First, they looked for other schools who were working from a trauma-informed approach. From Geelong Grammar in Victoria, Australia, they learned about a wellbeing framework.

“This led us to Nathan Wallis, and from there we visited Fraser Crescent School in Upper Hutt near Rimutaka Prison, and Glenview School in Porirua. We also took a trip to Henry Hill School in Napier which managed their own school and community challenges with a positive and trauma-informed approach.

“It was Jase Williams from Henry Hill who said, ‘We have the audacity to believe that every child in the country comes through the gates at 9am ready to learn’. We had to understand the whys of a trauma-informed approach before we could put new strategies in place.”

Staff began reading books on trauma by Dr Bruce Perry, The Boy Who was Raised as a Dog and Making SPACE for Learning among others, on its impacts and how to help, says Neil.

“We learned as teachers what can trigger children. That the child in the classroom being spoken to in a raised voice may not get triggered, but it could dysregulate three other students elsewhere in the classroom. That higher pitched voices can trigger children so to aim for a calmer lower tone.”

8. Creating a school with a heart 02

Wellbeing teacher Melissa Taaffe.


Very early on the school took a survey of their students from Year 4–8.

“I didn’t want to believe the literature, Making SPACE for Learning, when it said a quarter of your school population will have been affected by some sort of trauma. Then when we surveyed our students, it was exactly that. A quarter,” says Neil.

The Resilience Project survey gave the staff robust data. After implementing a range of key strategies to address some of the trends identified, a second survey was undertaken towards the end of term 1 this year.

“We were very pleased with the huge improvement seen across many of the targeted cohorts from the longitudinal data.

“Some of the key findings we tried to address were student-teacher relationships out of the classroom, students having trusted adults in their lives they can talk to, students being able to talk about things that upset them, and students getting along with people who are different to them, just to name a few.”

That data led to big changes, says Neil.

“We had teachers previously spending more time outside of the classroom walking a dysregulated student around the field to try and help them. Ngatea School then created a space called Te Punanga, which supports several students for varying reasons.

“We took Melissa Taaffe, a classroom teacher, out of her classroom, and she became our wellbeing/hauora teacher who works in Te Punanga two days a week. Melissa is a member of the wellbeing team, one of four staff who meet once a week to discuss and plan for the wellbeing of our community.”

Melissa works with students struggling with social interactions, managing emotions, feeling overwhelmed with change and what’s happening in their lives, explains Neil.

“Students have developed really deep relationships with Melissa – we have some come back to the school once they’ve left just to visit her. Because of the way TP is she can dig really deep and teach the students how to manage their own systems, therefore students are ready to learn when they are in their classroom spaces.”

8. Creating a school with a heart 03

The wellbeing team: Melissa Taaffe (wellbeing teacher), Kerri Heaven (learning support coordinator), Neil Fraser (principal) and Vicki Coles (deputy principal).

Child at the centre

The school has budgeted $20,000 to have a qualified play therapist in the school two days a week over the past two years.

Another powerful change has been changing the name and content of the student disciplinary code to ‘Understanding and Responding to Student Behaviour: a holistic approach’. This document was created with consultation from the community, the board and staff, and is a more positive approach to managing student behaviour.

Once a week, all the teachers go out into the playground and do 15 minutes of child-led play. They join in with a group of students and let them be the bosses of the play and the teachers go along with it.

“Teachers love it as much if not more than the children. It’s good to connect from that other perspective.”

Neil is also the chair of the Hauraki Kāhui Ako (Community of Learning). This has led to the cluster prioritising trauma-healing practice for 2023 to support the emotional and academic wellbeing of students.

As a part of that, the kāhui ako organised and hosted a Trauma Healing Practice Conference held at Hauraki Plains High School, with 360 attendees.

“We’re also fundraising to build a sensory forest. We’re on the lookout for some more mature trees if anyone has some.”

The school has also partnered with not-for-profit organisation Parenting Place, as one of their next vital steps is engaging with parents/caregivers.

“We plan on shoulder tapping those we think would be keen and who would really benefit to come to the course and workshops,” says Neil.

8. Creating a school with a heart 04

Teacher Holly Lyndsay gets active with ākonga during child-led play.

Powerful changes

A framed Springbok jersey hangs on the wall of the staffroom, and Neil explains how his South African roots – he moved here with his family in 1996 – may have played a part in the changes at the school.

“It did in that I came from a different system, so I knew there isn’t just one way to do things. As a school we don’t have to keep doing what we do.”

Neil says the powerful changes they are seeing in the school are at times hard won. And that wellbeing support for the teachers is on the to do list.

“We struggle with that … with our own wellbeing. Moving into this field, it’s very heavy. When you recognise trauma, you go deeper, and you have more compassion.”

BY Education Gazette editors
Education Gazette | Tukutuku Kōrero,

Posted: 3:20 pm, 13 September 2023

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