Trauma Informed Schools: Part 2

Acquiring a deeper understanding for why a student is misbehaving or "acting out" allows trauma informed educators to start a conversation with the student: What are some of the underlying factors from the student's past or outside of school that influence their behavior and the choices they make?
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Bored girl in classroom
Bored girl in classroom

By Erin Browder, Transformation Facilitator, and Lara Kain, Senior Director, Transform Schools, LAEP

Part 2: Creating Trauma Informed Classrooms

In October a video showing a senior deputy yank a student from her seat and flip her desk at Spring Valley High School in Columbia, South Carolina went viral on the Internet. This incident gained wide national attention and demonstrates the need for trauma informed classrooms.

In a Los Angeles Times article about the incident, Kent Peterson, an elementary school teacher explains how he would try to "maintain a level of professionalism and be calm and direct" when handling conflict in his classroom. He states, "I'd ask them if they were ready to have a conversation with me. It would be quick and dirty; I wouldn't neglect my entire class for the individual. But I was trying to show them that I cared more about them than the perceived disrespect."

As Peterson exemplified, educators are in an ideal position and have an amazing opportunity to positively impact students through instruction, structured interactions and community building within classrooms and schools. We understand that educators are professionals and it is not our intention to confuse their professional identity with mental health specialists. However, research shows that positive adult relationships can go a long way to mitigate the effects of trauma and build resiliency in young people. Since educators are on the front lines in interacting with young students, the first step to creating those relationships and resiliency is by providing educators with the knowledge, strategies and support to become trauma sensitive.

Through our work, we have found that many teachers were not given formal training that would introduce them to the concepts of trauma. We've also found that teachers aren't aware of the avenues or resources available to them through the school to help students experiencing trauma and instead refer to sending the student "acting out" (as mentioned in Part 1) out of the classroom and into the principal's office.

Amongst our team, made up entirely of former classroom teachers, we've created a professional development series that provides a framework for educators, principals, and school support staff who work in schools serving a large population of students who have been exposed to varying levels of childhood trauma.

The "Creating Trauma-Informed Classrooms" series begins with teaching the biological effects of various types of childhood trauma and its implications at the classroom and whole-school levels. Acquiring a deeper understanding for why a student is misbehaving or "acting out" allows trauma informed educators to start a conversation with the student: What are some of the underlying factors from the student's past or outside of school that influence their behavior and the choices they make?

One activity we do during the series is display two sets of photos. One group of photos shows children in situations outside of the classroom that could contribute to stress--overcrowded home or parents arguing in front of the child. The second group of photos connects those situations with how the child might act in the classroom; for example, a photo of a disorganized student would pair with the overcrowded home, and a photo of a child withdrawn would pair with the arguing parents. It's not necessarily essential for educators to know the details of events, but it is paramount for educators to understand the broad spectrum of issues contributing to the behavior and understand that choices are often informed/learned elsewhere to help protect the student.

Once the educator can identify the triggers, the second step is to teach educators how to guide or coach the student to self-manage or self-regulate during a "tornado" moment of emotion, providing support along the way. Some of the trauma-informed practices we teach include:

●Always empower/never disempower
●Provide Unconditional Positive Regard
●Maintain High Expectations
●Check assumptions at the door; instead observe and question. Sometimes behavior is the only way they know how to communicate
●Be a relationship coach (explicitly teach how to have healthy relationships)
●Provide opportunities for meaningful participation
Rossen & Hull*

When educators approach the student with "How can I help?" versus "What's wrong with you?" it is more likely for the student to lower their defenses and understand that the educator is coming from a place of compassion and not consequence. For example, one educator we trained noted a student's chronic absence from school, but instead of making threats of consequences, she approached the student from a place seeking understanding. Once the teacher understood that chronic absence was due to a transportation issue, then the teacher was able to connect the student and family to resources that significantly improved attendance.

Through this trauma-informed process, educators become an ally for students who are affected by trauma and face adversity. They are also practicing a "whole student" approach, which includes helping the student develop emotional intelligence and problem-solving behavior--two acquired skills with long-term benefits. More importantly, educators are strengthening the student's ability to become resilient to stress or trauma triggers that can impede his or her academic success.

The third step in the "Creating Trauma Informed Classrooms" series puts the theories into practice and provides support to ensure the trauma practices are sustainable. Our services include providing on-site coaching, for example, we'll ask local educators to select the most challenging group--a class with the largest number of students showing signs of trauma-influenced behaviors. Then we co-teach or model in the classroom and work in parallel with the educator to create a lesson plan that is engaging for students with appropriate challenges and differentiation techniques. Trauma-Informed practices, similar to differentiation, offer individual learning experiences with a social-emotional learning undertone.

The series provides a space for educators to create a trauma-informed classroom that is aware of the impact of trauma and counterbalances it with compassionate communication and practices, leadership opportunities for students, development of metacognition and resilience, empowerment and validation of students' prior knowledge and experience that engages them in concept-based learning that is relevant to their world.

When moving from individual classrooms to multiple classrooms, or to creating a movement within a school, it is imperative to include all school staff in the training; office administration, bus drivers, after school care providers and any person who can have a positive interaction with the student, can become a mentor or an advocate for a child. Furthermore, we discuss the importance of teacher self-care to prevent compassion fatigue and teacher burnout, and emphasize the idea of "putting on your own oxygen mask, before helping others."

This "whole-school" approach to creating a trauma-sensitive school is what fosters a more compassionate, supportive environment for kids and the adults with whom they interact, which helps remedy challenging behavior, lower suspension rates, and supports success for the whole child. In the next and final series, we will discuss the "whole-school" approach in more detail.
* Supporting and Educating Traumatized Students: A Guide for School-Based Professionals Edited by Eric Rossen and Robert Hull

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