Embracing Diverse Staff in Therapeutic Residential Care
‘Embracing Diverse Staff in Therapeutic Residential Care’ blog article was written by Allison Chambers, Therapeutic Specialist in the Therapeutic Services Canberra team, at the Australian Childhood Foundation.
In the middle of National Reconciliation Week and at the height of the Black Lives Matter protest movement in 2021, our team were running training for new therapeutic residential care staff. The training was an introduction to Trauma Informed Care.
During this training, we covered the definition of different types of trauma. These included the impact of trauma on neurobiology and attachment, the fight, flight and freeze responses and the P.A.C.E. attitude we encourage carers to adopt. Halfway through the day, we were struck by an insight that would change our approach – the majority of staff attending this training were people of colour from diverse cultural backgrounds, primarily from African and South Pacific countries.
Here, we were presenting the definition of developmental trauma to many of whom had lived through war, poverty, displacement, and immigration.
This posed the question – how do we sensitively encourage and promote therapeutic care, discuss a child’s experiences and the impact of trauma, whilst acknowledging the trauma histories and broad cultural experiences of frontline workers? Answer? It starts with a conversation.
I’m fortunate to have a strong working relationship with a residential care worker who came to Australia from Nigeria and allowed me to discuss how we could better support our diverse cultural staff. This worker previously expressed there is a mismatch between some therapeutic principles and his cultural experiences and values. For example, our approach to young people and education focuses on understanding the difficulties they may have in a classroom setting, allowing for flexibility and adaptation according to their needs. This clashed with his cultural values that place greater importance on being educated and students engaging respectfully in a classroom environment. His capacity to contemplate his own experiences and hold them up against our therapeutic framework for reflection is admirable.
He spoke to me about what it is like to grow up in survival mode and subsequently parent children who can be unconsciously raised in the same manner. He also identified cultural changes he had to make in his own behaviour and presentation, including alterations to his vocal tone and physical presence to not be seen as hostile, arrogant, or worse – violent. It’s evident he experiences a hyperawareness of the stereotypes white Australians hold about people of colour and consciously works to moderate how he appears to others. This likely occurs at great cost to him, in terms of the energy required to suppress his own identity.
Many of our staff from other countries are highly educated, holding a broad range of tertiary qualifications often not recognised in Australia. I remember speaking to another worker who had been a medical doctor in his country of origin for ten years before coming to Australia. In the residential care environment, he had sat calmly and listened to a manager explain to him how to apply the required first aid to a young person. My colleague explained these occurrences were not uncommon. He simply told me, “it doesn’t feel good.” I was struck by a felt sense of frustration. What must it feel like to be micromanaged or underestimated in that situation? How much of a difference would it make in the workplace if time had been taken to get to know a person’s strengths and experiences, rather than simply make assumptions or judge them based on their cultural background? This highlights the importance of a strengths-based approach in leadership and the need to understand the individual skill sets and knowledge each team member brings.
Workers from other cultural backgrounds also bring rich and diverse parenting styles to therapeutic residential care teams and to the lives of the children and young people they care for.
Workers from other cultural backgrounds also bring rich and diverse parenting styles to therapeutic residential care teams and to the lives of the children and young people they care for. Many cultures have strong, positive relationships with the healing and nurturing power of food. I love to see how cared for young people feel when a carer provides them with nourishment after some time away. My colleague spoke about the therapeutic value of music and dancing. He said that a song can be meditative. It can take you to a different place. He had experienced songs being used to calm children when hiding during the war, sung in a low voice, providing warmth, co-regulation and a felt sense of safety, despite the traumatic circumstances. The value of music and dancing in a residential care house is immeasurable in its capacity to change the atmosphere in the home, manage an escalation, and offer vestibular or sensory regulation. This is a clear example of how the strengths and values of a diverse workforce can promote meaningful opportunities for children and young people in care.
It’s my observation, the children and young people in residential care who have the best chance of success are those who are cared for by strong, confident and well-supported workers.
It’s my observation that the children and young people in residential care who have the best chance of success are those who are cared for by strong, confident and well supported workers. Workers who can use their initiative, make good judgements, and who feel trusted to do so. When we embrace and celebrate the rich cultural backgrounds of our residential care staff, their experiences, and the strengths they bring, we open up a space where workers become more than “just a carer” and instead become professionals, mentors, and key people in the lives of our children.
So, back to the original question – how do we sensitively encourage and promote therapeutic care, discuss a child’s experiences and the impact of trauma, whilst acknowledging the trauma histories and broad cultural experiences of frontline workers? Building cultural relationships are key. Have conversations with those around you. Deeply listen to understand what people have been through. And focus on what they can bring to the table.
Reflecting on our own judgements and biases helps us broaden our thinking to consider the perspectives of others, instead of just our own. By engaging in this kind of reflective practice, we can honour the experiences of others and be more empathic and supportive to those around us.
Interested in learning more about our Trauma Informed Practice?
Knowledge about the neurobiology of child development, trauma, and attachment is invigorating practice applications across all fields involved with children and young people. Click here to learn more about applying trauma informed knowledge to improve outcomes for children, young people, their families and their communities.