School-age children in our communities spend 180 days in school each year. That is 990 hours. Most days, children spend more waking hours at school than they do at home and more time in the presence of their teachers than in the presence of their own family. Schools play a vital role not just in the hard skills of academics, but also in soft skills of social interaction, emotional health, and navigating life events. Jamie Vollmer, an advocate for education and the author of the book “Schools Cannot Do It Alone,” concluded in his famous blueberry story that, “. . . the most important thing I have learned is that schools reflect the attitudes, beliefs and health of the communities they serve, and therefore, to improve public education means more than changing our schools, it means changing America.”
There is trauma in our communities. There is trauma in our country. And our schools have an opportunity to be a part of the healing.
Trauma-Informed Schools Help Children Inside and Outside of School
Trauma-informed schools are important not just to deal with the trauma that happens in schools. They are also a tool to help children deal with trauma regardless of where it happens. Our children come to school with the baggage of their experiences from home and in the community. All of us are the sum of our experiences. When those experiences include traumatic stress, our students don’t get to check that at the door. The experience of chronic, toxic stress is living in that traumatic, stressful environment on a long-term basis. The result of living in that environment changes a person’s perception of safety and threat, the ability to self-soothe and self-regulate, and most important for schools, the ability to learn.
Often times we think of childhood trauma and chronic toxic stress coming through abuse, neglect, a physically or emotionally absent caregiver, domestic violence, or community violence. However, it can also come from the loss of a parent, school or community bullying, poverty, medical conditions, or even the pressure to achieve and meet expectations. Trauma is not just defined by the event, but also by one’s experience of it. Moreover, trauma is any experience that causes ongoing anxiety, stress, or fear that overwhelms the individual’s ability to cope.
Schools Play a Role
So why do schools play a role? We can go down two roads to answer this question. The first is about caring for children’s lives. Teachers aren’t mental health professionals. But we can all play an important role in the healing from trauma. For many students, teachers and school staff play a significant role in helping them feel heard and valued. In the context of this relationship, we are helping students be resilient. Empowering teachers and school systems to help students deal with trauma helps children succeed. This leads to the second way to answer the question, which is that they have to if they want to teach children.
When children experience trauma in their lives, their brains go into survival mode. A child will prioritize survival over most things, and certainly over learning. A child who has experienced chronic toxic stress will have a difficult time feeling safe even when in a safe environment, as a school should be. This child isn’t coming to school ready to learn.
The goal of a school and school system is to educate children. They measure that through attendance, behavior, grades, standardized test scores, school accreditation, and high school graduation rates. If a school wants to achieve these goals, it must deal with the trauma that is a barrier to learning.
What a Trauma-Informed School Looks Like
What does a trauma-informed school look like? There are many different models and implementation strategies, but they all start with the same foundation. It is first an issue of training and culture. To help school staff realize the widespread impact of trauma on their students and staff, they need to learn to recognize the signs of trauma. First, it starts with training, but extends into ongoing consultation and professional development to help the knowledge embed itself within the school culture.
Second, schools must look through a trauma-informed lens at the practices, policies, and procedures that shape the school experience. This could include the physical environment to discipline strategies to holiday celebrations.
And lastly, this self-examination process includes work to avoid re-traumatizing children. Without this lens, we might not realize the impact teacher’s responses to student behavior in a school have on a child who has experienced trauma. For example, a child can be re-traumatized when a teacher raises his or her voice to a child who has lived in a violent or shaming environment. How a teacher discusses Mother’s Day with a child who has lost his or her mother could be re-traumatizing. Even the way schools conduct emergency drills for a child who already doesn’t feel safe in the school building or who has experienced gun violence can be re-traumatizing.
A trauma-informed school looks at staff support and burnout as a result of secondary trauma experiences as well as bullying and school violence. Resources, such as mental health services. for students and staff, and how to identify, communicate about, and support students who experience traumatic events plays an important role in trauma-informed schools.
- To learn more, watch this video short from Edutopia to see it implemented within a school.
- The movie Paper Tigers is a wonderful story of the journey of a high school in responding to the experiences of their students.
- The Trauma-Sensitive Schools Checklist is a good place to start in assessing a school’s progress in this journey.
- The SHAPE system is a free tool for schools and school systems which helps in self-assessment.
- There is a lot being written on how we can make even lockdown drills trauma-informed. If you are interested in reading even more about trauma-informed schools, take a look at this list of school-specific resources.
By John Richardson-Lauve, Director of Mental Health and Trauma and Resilience Education
John Richardson-Lauve is a licensed clinical social worker with over 20 years of experience working in community mental health. He is committed to supporting and strengthening individuals and communities that struggle with adversity.
His experience includes work with chronically mentally ill adults, substance abuse, residential youth care, foster care, and outpatient mental health. He has worked with homeless veterans in New York City, in a hospice home for those with HIV in the early stages of the AIDS crisis, and six years living in a home with eight teenage girls in foster care. John is an experienced trainer, lecturer, and keynote presenter. He is the Director of Mental Health and Lead Trauma and Resilience Educator at ChildSavers. John and his wife have a nine-year-old son and together, they have worked with over 50 children in foster care in their home.