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.

Self-Care & Creativity in the Trauma-Informed Workplace

Self-care in relationship to trauma work is an essential practice for professionals in this helping field. Without attention and connection to our own self-care, the demanding toll of aiding and supporting others in pain and distress can often leave us vulnerable to compassion fatigue, vicarious trauma and burnout. In relationship to this necessity for provider self-care, this post will focus on considerations about one’s workplace environment and the role creativity can have as a trauma-informed practice.

Laura van Dernoot Lipsky, (2009), who is author of “Trauma Stewardship: An Everyday Guide to Caring for Self While Caring for Others,” identified 16 Trauma Exposure Responses that can manifest within trauma workers “as a result of exposure to the suffering of other living beings or the planet,” (p. 41). These responses can range from, but are not limited to, feelings of hopelessness and helplessness, experiencing pervasive exhaustion, an increasing incapability for empathy, and struggling with states of guilt, numbing, anger, and fear (Lipsky, 2009).

Experiencing minimized creativity in our work is also identified as a trauma-exposure response and also worth paying attention to. Using our sense of creativity in the work we do as trauma specialists is a critical, as it helps us be open to and see new ideas or solutions that can empower problem solving, growth and different ways to view situations, tasks and challenging issues with clients, co-workers and ourselves. In addition, when trauma exposure limits our ability to embrace the fresh air that creative thinking can breathe into our work, our efforts to help others may eventually feel immobilized without meaning, hope or new possibility. We also may become apathetic to working within systems, strategies and approaches that do not nurture professional growth, invite opportunities for change, or best serve the client’s needs and trauma recovery.

To support the value of creativity within the workplace, as well as offer one way to foster a healthy safeguard to decreasing the effects of trauma exposure and stress, here are some suggestions to consider implementing into your work practice and setting:

    Be mindful of the physical environment around your workspace and/or agency and how you could invite more joy, fun and creativity through the use of color, scents, sound, lighting and other sensory-based incentives. Some examples are adding a favorite, comforting piece of art, nature inspired items, plugging in a lavender air freshener, or a cheerful lamp to brighten the space.
  • Create a box or basket that includes easy, go-to comfort care items that help you engage in playfulness, relaxation, and re-energizing.
  • Establish a mandala coloring area in your staff break room or kitchen with colored pencils, gel pens or markers that you and your co-workers can use for a creative break. Print Mandalas is an online site where a variety of mandala coloring pages can be printed for free.
  • Include creativity into your agency’s staff meetings by beginning with a meaningful poem, song, story or image that relates to the organization’s values and mission. Invite staff members to take turns being responsible for this activity.
  • Support your co-workers and staff through making artsy notes of gratitude, affirmation or inspiring quotes on sticky notes and index cards to leave in workspaces or mailboxes. Use stickers, a magazine photo collage, and simple art materials to leave an expression of your appreciation, support or just for a creative hello. You could even institute an agency-wide event dedicated to this practice! Connection and encouragement from those we work with helps foster emotional resiliency and better manage work stress. Recognizing the challenges, achievements and commitment to our work in this tangible, creative form reminds us that our efforts do make a difference and have purpose.

Lipsky, L. V. N. (2009). Trauma Stewardship: An Everyday
Guide to Caring for Self While Caring for Others. San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler.

Treating Trauma: Self-care for Providers
International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies

Self Care for Providers
SAMHSA’s Homelessness Resource Center

Self Care and Trauma Work
Office on Violence Against Women, National Sexual Violence Resource Center and National Sexual Assault Coalition Resource Sharing Project

Transforming Compassion Fatigue into Compassion Satisfaction
12 Top Self Care Tips

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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