School students are learning meditation and their emotions are being recorded with apps in a bid to prevent disruptive behaviour in the classroom and give children with backgrounds of trauma hope for a positive future.
Schools in New South Wales, the ACT, New Zealand and now the Northern Territory are using the apps to help teachers understand what drives student behaviour.
St Joseph's Catholic College is one of 10 schools in the Northern Territory town of Katherine trialling the Smiling Mind app, which has been developed by psychologists.
Dr Addie Wootten, a clinical psychologist and the chief executive of Smiling Mind, said teachers could use the app to practice mindfulness, meditation and emotional regulation in the classroom.
At St Joseph's, teachers have been using the app to settle students when they return from lunch, recess or other high-energy activities.
"The teacher can start to talk about how your body physically reacts to emotion," Dr Wootten explained.
"And how kids can learn simple techniques to calm their body so they settle themselves rather than react to those emotions."
Apps help with complex mental health challenges
While Smiling Mind is used for all students at St Joseph's, apps can be particularly helpful for children with complex needs.
The NT Education Department said public schools in the NT were locked down 16 times this year and 31 times last year because of student behaviour such as aggression, which could have threatened the safety of staff and students.
Dr Wootten said her organisation was overwhelmed by requests from teachers and families who wanted more support for their children.
"It's a big problem across Australia … teachers are not trained psychologists or counsellors and they often feel out of their depth when it comes to working with students who have complex mental health challenges," she said.
In the ACT, New South Wales and New Zealand, schools were trialling another app, from the Australian Childhood Trauma Group, where students report their emotions, sleep and eating patterns every morning to their teachers.
"We wanted to find out whether students were ready for learning each day and secondly to determine if they weren't ready, what was interfering with their readiness," chief executive Gregory Nicolau said.
"They can look at things like are they starting the day hungry or full? Are they starting worried or relaxed or sad or happy or angry or calm?"
He said with the reports, the school's welfare team could check in with the students before they acted out, or involve their parents when necessary.
"We need to get away from the blaming and shaming of children who have exhibited challenging behaviour and it's been far too long we've been using archaic methods around dealing with these students."
Children with trauma being failed at school
The NT has three times the rate of child protection orders compared to any other Australian jurisdiction, with 7,385 children receiving child protection services, according to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare's (AIHW) latest 2017-18 data.
Emotional abuse was found to be the most common type of neglect for children in foster care across the country.
Despite the high number of young people at risk, Child Australia's NT director of strategic relationships and innovation Kellie Johnson was one of several support organisations who said trauma support for disadvantaged families was scarce, and families felt failed by what was currently available because it was expensive and not conscious of their cultural needs.
She explained school was a key environment where trauma could be manifested, but could also be addressed if the teachers were proactive about investigating and addressing it.
However she said addressing the issue was not entirely the responsibility of schools.
She spoke of one seven-year-old child she had worked with who had behavioural issues, where he was regularly being sent home or complained about.
His grandmother said she wished his school investigated the concerns earlier to address the agony he felt after being taken from his mother, who had substance abuse issues, at a very young age.
She said it could have improved his school attendance and social and emotional wellbeing.
"He'll just sit in the corner and he'll weep sometimes. But I told him weeping can be a good thing, you're letting out your emotions," she said.
"There are days where he gets angry and he won't talk to anyone. He'll say to me, 'nana I'll go away and I'll come back'. Sometimes he goes for an hour before he comes back and tells me what's the matter."
Children in remote communities are four times more likely to experience abuse, according to the AIHW, but Ms Johnson said there was no counselling or psychological support in schools unless there was a major community incident.
"It's absolutely gut-wrenching," she said.
"I've worked with some of these kids for eight years now and to see them now battling it out in high school is really hard to see.
"We see very early drops-out at high school … fairly high incident of criminal activity, drinking, drug abuse.
"We've got students that are year 7 or 8 that are reading at grade four," she said.
The NT Education Department said in a statement that it provides trauma-informed training to its staff, and school counsellors were supposed to support teachers and families.