Learning can be a real struggle for children who have experienced a trauma. But once trauma is identified as the root of the behavior, educators can adapt their approach to help students cope when they are at school.
These steps create a blueprint for trauma informed school implementation and success. While creating a trauma informed school requires patience, with each small implementation you will see how each step complements another and you will experience significant benefits in the overall school climate. You may even see that parts of a step or even an entire step may already be in place in your classroom or school. If that is the case, celebrate and move on to the next step!
Detroit-based clinical director of The National Institute for Trauma and Loss in Children, a program of the Starr Global Learning Network, Dr. Caelan Kuban Soma, offers these steps to help school professionals put in place trauma informed strategies to help students. You can also check out our web page with all our Trauma Informed School resources.
1. Provide school-wide childhood trauma awareness and understanding of how trauma impacts children’s learning and behavior
Contrary to what many school professionals think, you do not have to be a school social worker, counselor or psychologist to provide trauma informed care and practice. Any person, regardless of their own background and role in the school setting, can help students thrive academically, behaviorally, socially and emotionally when they understand how stress and trauma influence students.
2. View trauma as an experience rather than an incident or a diagnostic category
Trauma reactions depend upon how a person experiences what happened or what is happening. Every person will have a unique response to life based upon their experiences, coping skills, characteristics of resilience and protective factors. The perception of what has happened or what is happening is more important than the actual event. Adults often assume certain events are more traumatic than other experiences. Adults may also assume that some events are just normal things every kid needs to learn how to “get through”. For example, many adults think that teasing from peers is a normal “rite of passage” instead of bullying. Remember, we cannot assume we know what is traumatizing or not traumatizing to a student. Instead, we need to be curious and ask how that particular event is affecting them.
3. Believe the link between private logic and behavior
There is a distinct link between a student’s private logic and their behavior. Private logic is described as the way a person views themselves, others and the world around them. Based on that logic they act accordingly. Think of private logic as an invisible backpack. In the backpack, a student carries around beliefs about themselves, beliefs about the adults that take care of them, beliefs about other people they interact with in their lives and beliefs about the world. This logic is a result of their experiences – both good and bad over the course of development and life. If their lives are fueled by fear, abandonment and anger, their private logic will be consistent with those experiences. They will view themselves as scared and powerless, others will not be trusted and the world to them is viewed as a scary place. If their lives are filled with comfort, connection and love, their logic will be consistent with those experiences.
4. Establish the experience of physical and emotional safety
While feeling unsafe may be accompanied by violence, it does not have to be. The experience of safety includes these characteristics:
Research demonstrates that academic achievement improves in schools where students feel physically and emotionally safe. Safety is experienced when school cultures support reasonable rules that are explained clearly and enforced consistently. A healthy learning community that is physically, emotionally and intellectually safe is the foundation for a comprehensive high-quality education.
5. Foster connections
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) conducted a national study of 36,000 7th to 12th grade students. School connectedness is indicated as the strongest factor for both boys and girls in preventing substance abuse, violence and absenteeism. School connectedness was the second-most important factor (after family) in helping students avoid suicide, emotional problems and eating disorders. Students who feel connected to their school are also more likely to have better academic achievement, including higher grades and test scores, have better school attendance, and stay in school longer.
6. Prioritize social and emotional skills
Not being given the opportunity and guidance to enhance social and emotional learning leaves a child with only a fraction of what is needed to grow and prosper. This includes the opportunity for socialization, especially for children who live in poverty or have experienced stressed relationships with parents and caregivers. Difficulty regulating emotions can lead to a host of problems in the school setting. Deficits in the capacity to regulate emotion are cause for serious concern, because the ability to modulate behavior, attention and emotions are the foundation for children’s adaptive functioning in three key domains: self-development, academic achievement and interpersonal relationships.
7. Promote play
A survey of nearly 2,000 educators indicated 78 percent feel students who spend regular time in unstructured outdoor play have better concentration and problem-solving capabilities and are more creative than students who do not. Many studies confirm that access to nature in schools has a positive impact on student focus and learning by improving attentiveness, test scores and performance.
8. Collaborate with families and community
The highest performing schools serving at risk children distinguish themselves by finding innovative ways to connect with parents and community partners (National Association of State Coordination of Comprehensive Education, 2006). Changes in family demographics, demands of professional workplaces and growing diversity are just a few of the reasons why schools need strong community and family partnerships. Reaching beyond school walls to provide all the support students need is essential.
9. Support staff
Distress reactions are normal. They are common for many helping professionals, including educators. Vulnerability to distress indicators increases when professionals work with children and when they have their own trauma histories. Distress is a natural consequence of caring for, listening to and helping those who experience chronic stress and trauma. So, if school professionals are committed to their work with children, they must be educated about distress indicators and if they are experiencing them, support must be prioritized.
10. Collect and share outcome data
Creating trauma informed schools is a process and outcome data helps show changes in that process. For example, if you do not have baseline data, you will not be able to see how things are changing over time as you implement new trauma informed practices.