Trauma Informed Care in a School Setting

It sounds so easy: take care of the student’s needs before trying to educate them…

Practicing trauma informed care in a school setting is challenging. Some students have had years of being unsuccessful in school due to lifelong chronic stress and lack of support. It takes a lot of time, energy and manpower to build resiliency in these students.

Integration of trauma informed care into our schools has had many ups and downs. In the two years I have led this work in an elementary school and now in a middle school, I have had many fruitful discussions with staff who have voiced their criticism:

  • “All the Principal does is ‘talk’ to them and send them back to class.”
  • “He/She can’t do the work.”
  • “The kids don’t respect me.”
  • “There are no consequences for student behavior.”

One of the most challenging hurdles to overcome is convincing teachers that our traditional consequences for student behavior were not always logical consequences. At the same time, implementing a system of logical or natural consequences in a large school is difficult. In a school of over 1,000 students, 46 teachers and over 30 support staff, how do you ensure every employee has the proper mindset? We turned to Starr Commonwealth.

Starr brought their expertise and training to our district to provide every staff member with professional development around trauma informed care. Most of this training was providing the understanding of how trauma and chronic stress affects brain development. With this newfound knowledge, we first focused on our student system of support, which included our discipline process and our tier 2 and tier 3 support.

Once those systems were built through a trauma informed lens, we began focusing on how to increase teacher capacity to:

  • Build relationships with the students.
  • Be curious about the behavior.
  • Understand that student behavior is not personal.
  • Understand that being trauma informed does not mean letting students “get away” with unacceptable behavior.

The students used to be removed from the class so someone could reset them. However, in order to keep the students in the classrooms, the teachers were now the ones who needed to build relationships with the students. For so long, social workers, counselors, behavior specialists and administrators dealt with students who were not ready to learn, both academically and behaviorally. We turned that around by allowing the teachers to reset students while support staff watched their classrooms, requiring “circles” in the classroom to build relationships and community as well as strengthening teacher tier 1 behavior strategies while insisting on effective tier 1 instruction.

Our tier 2 and tier 3 strategies also needed developing. We created a system allowing teachers to refer students to our SST (Student Support Team) when they are still struggling in the classroom. The system of support is based on the Circle of Courage®, which is a model of positive youth development based on the universal principle that to be emotionally healthy, all youth need a sense of belonging, mastery, independence and generosity. The first step with this team is to review the student referral, behavior, attendance and grades. From this review, the team determines which part of the circle needs repair. The SST discusses the student behavior and suggests strategies for teachers and support staff based on student need. After two four-week cycles of interventions, the student is moved to tier 3 and a cohesive behavior plan for those students is written.

Practicing trauma informed care is more than just not suspending students, or not taking them out of class; it is increasing teacher capacity to build resiliency in our students. To have a trauma informed classroom is the opposite of letting students get away with bad behavior – it is about providing them with the tools and reflection time to correct their behavior and regulate their mind and body. It is about providing routines, predictability and structure in their world that is often built on chaos and unpredictability. It is about providing them love and support in a world that can be full of criticism and hopelessness. It is about providing them a safe and comfortable environment that they can rely on. The more we expect of our students, the more they will thrive. Structure and high expectations builds the self-worth and confidence that many students with chronic stress desperately desire and need.

For some students, school may be the only setting in which they have a voice. Early on we must let our students know that in school we have high expectations – and a safe, predictable, orderly environment.

Why Schools Need to Be Trauma Informed

Do educators and schools have an informed role to play in the lives of students struggling with unprocessed traumatic memories other
than providing cognitive learning experiences? Although schools are not mental health facilities and teachers are not therapists, teaching today’s students requires alternative strategies and skills compared to what worked a generation ago.

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