This article is written by WestEd’s Natalie Walrond, Robin Ahigian, Rebeca Cerna, and Jenny Betz and first appeared in the Leadership for Educational Achievement Foundation (LEAF), Volume 5, Issue 6, subscription newsletter and is published here with permission in two parts. LEAF serves as the professional development arm of the New York State Council of School Superintendents.
Part one of this two-part series discusses trauma-healing systems, trauma-informed classroom practices, and school culture and climate. Part two examines the role of district leaders in supporting trauma-informed education.
The Roles of the District Leader
District leaders play essential roles in implementing and sustaining trauma-healing systems so that every member of the education community can thrive. Leaders interested in strengthening trauma-informed practices at the district and school levels can start by providing professional learning opportunities to help all staff — instructional and non-instructional, including support staff, from the school receptionist to the cafeteria staff to the bus drivers — to understand what trauma is, how to notice and respond to it, and how it negatively impacts student success as well as the school and community culture and climate.
Anecdotally, it appears that simply understanding the neuroscience of trauma and resilience can often move school staff to dramatically alter their practices. In addition to fostering a systemwide understanding of trauma, district leaders who are committed to implementing a trauma-healing system can take the following steps:
Reassess How Underlying Components of Education Systems Can Support Healing
To support a robust trauma-healing system, major components of a district’s education system may need to be revisited. Three examples follow.
- Program Collaboration. The district can explore opportunities for collaboration with health or mental health providers and community-based organizations to better serve the children and families they both serve. For example, a school may collaborate with a local library or recreation center to provide students with positive experiences during out-of-school time. As another example, one school has been able to offer office space for a local dentist, in return for free student dental exams, which helps ensure students’ physical health and, thus, their well-being. Districts may also want to explore ways to blend or braid funding to make collaborative initiatives more sustainable.
- Integration with Academics. The district can support professional learning for schools to integrate trauma-informed instructional and classroom management approaches with teaching and learning. For example, because building student agency is an essential component of serving all adolescents, especially those who have experienced traumatic events,(13) secondary school teachers can learn to incorporate developmentally appropriate opportunities for students to have choice and voice in how they master content.
- Operations and Administration. The district can ensure that underlying operations and administration of schools are trauma-informed. For example, if a child is consistently late to school, phone calls home to express that the child is missed and to convey concern for the child’s well-being may be preferable to immediately sending a chronic absence letter. Whereas the letter can feel punitive, the calls can feel supportive, especially if a family and/or child has been experiencing trauma. In making phone calls like this, the school can also find out if anything is amiss with the child or family. Before putting consequences in place, trauma-healing systems inquire about why something occurred and whether and how the problem can be resolved.
Create Time for Reflection, Self-Care, and Collective Care
Educators who are implementing trauma-informed practices commonly struggle with vicarious or secondary trauma, which may build up over time as they deepen their relationships with the children they serve.(14) Highly stressed educators need their own support systems and flexibility so that they can be their best selves.
The authors have heard anecdotally that educators who are “midstream” in the move to use trauma-informed practices — that is, those who have let go of practices that can create trauma but have not yet mastered trauma-informed practices — can feel especially overwhelmed. Thus, it’s important that trauma-healing systems offer opportunities for all adults in the school community to reflect and recharge, both in the community and in private, in order to help the work feel more sustainable.
Put Processes in Place for Noticing and Attending to Trauma
Sometimes the sheer number of students experiencing trauma can feel overwhelming for those working with them. Thus, trauma-healing systems create processes to ensure that all children have access to the specialists and experts they need and that all educators can benefit from the expertise of their colleagues. To that end, districts can encourage the creation of multidisciplinary “coordinated care” teams — consisting, for example, of health and mental health professionals, school counselors, and special education and general education teachers — whose members work together to create coherent responses to the needs of specific children and families.
By collaborating in this way, teachers are also less likely to feel that they are shouldering this work alone. The HEARTS program at the University of California at San Francisco applies a public health approach in a multi-tiered system of support (MTSS) framework and serves students, families, staff, and school leaders.(15) Through training and consultation, the HEARTS model augments existing universal supports (as in tier 1 of an MTSS) to be trauma-informed; helps schools put early intervention supports in place for students of concern and offer wellness groups for staff; and may even provide on-site psychotherapy for students with trauma.
Educators shoulder many responsibilities. As part of ensuring that all students successfully develop the knowledge and skills articulated across all applicable content standards, educators, in their daily practice, must address individual learning needs for students with an individual education program, support English language acquisition for English language learners, and be aware of and sensitive to the great range of cultural and other diversity in classrooms and schools, as well as fostering learning environments that promote healing for students who have experienced trauma. This can be a daunting task.
For many teachers, learning how to approach teaching and learning in a way that promotes healing may not come intuitively. To implement trauma-informed practices effectively, teachers need time and space to develop the necessary skills and must receive the support they need in order to be successful. Thus, the greatest role that district and school leaders can play in enhancing the healing capacity of education systems is to provide the policy incentives and supporting resources (such as professional learning and reflection opportunities) that teachers and other child-serving professionals need in order to understand trauma and how it affects the brain, learn to recognize signs of dysregulation, and utilize practices that support healing.
Interested in learning more? Access these additional resources.
Trauma-Informed Practice & Resilience at WestEd works to ensure all children thrive by supporting child- and youth-serving systems. We provide expertise and resources to help overcome trauma and its effects and encourage environments designed for safe, healthy, and engaged learning. Learn more.
- Center for Youth Wellness, 2013.
- Center for Youth Wellness, 2013.
- Nadiv, & Nicholson, 2019, p. 1.
- Trauma and Learning Policy Initiative, n.d.
- Ludy-Dobson & Perry, 2010. For a useful, detailed summary of neuroplasticity, see Wesson, K. (2019 June 7). A Primer on Neuroplasticity: Experience and Your Brain. Brain World. Also see the research of Dr. Anthony Hannan at the Neural Plasticity Laboratory at the Florey Institute of Neuroscience and Mental Health at the University of Melbourne.
- Shonkoff & Garner, 2012.
- National Child Traumatic Stress Network, n.d.
- Shonkoff & Garner, 2012.
- Pickens & Tschopp, 2017.
- Alexander, 2019.
- Shonkoff & Garner, 2012.
- Griggs, Glover Gagnon, Huelsman, Kidder–Ashley, & Ballard, 2009; Konishi, Hymel, Zumbo, & Li, 2010; Pianta, 1999; Waters, Cross, & Runions, 2009.
- Craig & Sporleder, 2017.
- American Counseling Association’s Traumatology Interest Network, 2011.
- University of California San Francisco, 2019.