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:
How was the THRIVE research conducted?
The study involved mixed methodologies.
An online questionnaire was used to gather information from second chance educators, including:
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
Supporting positive outcomes in ESLs
Educator and training needs
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
"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
"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
"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
"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
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:
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:
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.