Trauma-informed online education is world-first help for students in war zones

Claire Halliday
Claire Halliday
A world-first framework co-developed by Monash Virtual School aims to improve trauma-informed online education to better support students living in war zones.
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In a significant step towards addressing the educational needs of children affected by war, researchers from Monash University are developing a pioneering model of trauma-informed practice for online education. This collaborative project is supported by seed funding from the Monash Incubator Grants Scheme. 

Specialists from The Turner Institute for Brain and Mental Health, the Monash School of Psychological Sciences, the Monash Faculty of Education, and NGOs including Classrooms Without Walls and Smart Osvita, came together at Monash University Prato Centre in Italy to participate in a three-day co-design workshop.

Led by Dr Emily Berger from the School of Educational Psychology and Counselling in the Faculty of Education, the goal was to contribute to the development of a world-first framework of trauma-informed practice in online education, with a particular focus on supporting children displaced by the ongoing war in Ukraine.

Informed by cutting-edge research

Professor Mike Phillips, Co-Director of the Monash Virtual School says, by focusing on the development of this unique model that blends cutting-edge research from both trauma specialists and online educational expertise, the Monash Virtual School and its partners are taking a comprehensive approach to meet the educational and emotional needs of war-impacted children. 

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“During the Covid pandemic, the focus for many teachers was how to best teach content online. We have learned a great deal since then and our online teaching practices can be much more nuanced and sophisticated to cater for a range of student needs,” Professor Phillips says.

Volunteer educators, many from the Monash Virtual School, provide hundreds of free online classes every year to students from around the world, which have proved to be invaluable for these young people who have had so much taken away from them. 

Volunteer educators at heart of program’s success

Professor Phillips told EducationDaily that the success of the pilot program that has already run for two years would not be possible without these volunteer educators around the world who give their time to share their teaching expertise with the students desperate to hold on to some sense of normality, amidst the stress of war.

“There are well over 150 volunteer educators just in Australia,” Professor Phillips says.

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That number is made up of what he describes as a “real mix” – of pre-service teachers, retired teachers, and teachers still working and juggling their paid jobs with their desire to help others in urgent need.

For some of the volunteers involved, the time commitment they offer is just a one-off class. Others, volunteer more regularly.

“Every bit of help is important,” he told EducationDaily.

Benefits of remote learning extend across borders

Prior to his tenure at Monash, Professor Phillips was a secondary school teachers and principal for fifteen years He says, although many people view online education negatively due to their association of it with the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, remote learning can be an incredibly positive experience for many students – especially those impacted by conflict and war and keen to hold on to their education.

“I am a firm believer that online education does not have to be terrible – and for the students we help, it is life-changing,” he told EducationDaily.

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“The exciting thing about this trauma-informed program is that it focuses on what it means to teach people going through these unique – and distressing – experiences. You can imagine that young people who have experienced trauma in their lives react to things differently than young people who have not experienced trauma.”

And while recognising the ways those reactions can play out may look one way in a real-world classroom setting, it’s critical to understand that recognising the impact of a trauma in an online setting can be more difficult.

“Someone who has experienced trauma – who is in a real-world setting – may appear as angry,” he says. “But in an online setting that anger looks really different – and may be quiet, rather than loud.”

In 2023, the vast majority of the 75,000-plus registered students who benefit from access to the remote education Monash Virtual School is part of delivering were secondary students, but Professor Phillips says there are remote learning opportunities available to primary school students impacted by war and conflict as well.

Trauma-informed approach delivers better educational outcomes

By focusing on delivering this world-first model of trauma-informed online education, Tara Mannix, Co-Director of the Monash Virtual School says, “This initiative not only seeks to support the provision of educational continuity in times of crisis but also to establish a global framework for trauma-informed online education.”

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Over the next nine months, the pilot program and innovative framework will support practices in online learning environments that are both safe and nurturing for children who have been displaced by war.

Founder and Executive Director of Classrooms Without Walls, David Falconer is a member of the design team leading online education efforts in Ukraine. 

“The development of this framework and resources to support vulnerable young children will not only enhance their educational experiences but will provide invaluable support to the volunteer teachers who work with them,” he says.

Monash Virtual School ‘s collaboration with Canada’s Classrooms Without Walls aims to support the educational needs of students living in war and conflict zones.

War affecting growing number of students

In 2022, more than 1,000 free online classes were offered to students whose education had been disrupted by conflict in places including Ukraine and Myanmar. In the past two years, the work has expanded to include affected students in other locations, including Ukraine and Gaza.

While lives have been severely disrupted, the educational opportunities offered through this program have provided some normality, structure and hope for these young people. The online classes provide a safe learning space, a distraction from the horrors of war and a connection with teachers wanting to listen and understand.

“This program helped me to find a familiar place in unfamiliar places, light when it’s dark, find people all over the world who will always support me and teach about things I would never know without this program, or people who will just listen and understand,” said one Ukrainian student.

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“Simple things, it seems, but when war is so close that you can hear its rotten breath, it is very important.”

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Claire Halliday has an extensive career as a full-time writer - across book publishing, copywriting, podcasting and feature journalism - for more than 25 years. She lives in Melbourne with children, two border collies and a grumpy Burmese cat. Contact: claire.halliday[at]