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.
In New York, as virtually everywhere, many children face significant adversity in their lives, including abuse, neglect, and all types of household or community instability. For some, chronic or acute exposure to adversity results in trauma, which affects just about every domain in which children function, and which can inhibit their ability to learn and develop.(1) Further, there is a high level of correlation among children’s experiences with adversity, their education attainment, and their involvement in the justice system.(2)
How trauma affects children may be readily observable, though not always readily understandable, to the adults who care for them. Children who have experienced a traumatic event may “view the world as a perilous place and [be] prone to fear.”(3) Their coping mechanisms may be evident in externalized behaviors, such as acting out or being aggressive, or in internalized behaviors, such as withdrawing or daydreaming. Such behavioral responses can lead to lost learning time and can adversely affect relationships with adults and with peers. Children who have a history of trauma may also be unable to process social cues and to self-regulate emotions or behaviors.(4)
The good news is that neuroplasticity — the brain’s ability to learn, adapt, and become more resilient — serves as a mechanism for healing from trauma.(5) This article explores how education systems can support that healing, and it offers a few ways that education leaders can bolster trauma-informed practices in their schools, classrooms, and underlying systems.
The most fundamental, powerful way that adults can help mitigate the impact of trauma in children is by providing them with reliable, safe relationships that build new neural connections. Healthy relationships help strengthen children’s inherent capacity for resilience and serve as protective factors that buffer the effects of adversity around them.(6) Districts, schools, and educators play important roles in supporting healthy development and learning for all children, including those experiencing trauma, because teachers and other child-serving professionals have unique opportunities to develop deep, consistent, long-term relationships with the students in their care.
Trauma-informed practice refers to instructional and classroom management strategies that serve the needs of children who have experienced adversity that has resulted in trauma. Over the past few years, many schools and districts have moved to bolster such practices by ensuring that their underlying systems are designed to help heal trauma. The concept of trauma‑healing systems encompasses the various ways in which schools and districts design policies and cultivate practices, norms, and mindsets that strengthen children’s resilience and strengthen the protective factors that adults are able to provide to those children, so as to establish the conditions in which everyone in an education community can learn, grow, and thrive.(7)
Trauma-healing systems also attend to the needs of adults in the school community, because emotionally healthy adults are better able to effectively and sustainably meet the needs of the children in their care; are better able to model resilience and healthy relationships for children; and better contribute to the collective health of the entire community. A coherent trauma healing system informs classroom practices, schoolwide culture and climate, and systemwide supports.
Use of Trauma-Informed Classroom Practices
Research has shown that the most important intervention for children affected by trauma are trusting relationships with safe, caring, and consistent adults who can buffer a child’s experience of stress and communicate messages of empathy and optimism to support healing and resilience.(8) In addition to developing such relationships with their students, teachers and other adults in the classroom should be implementing universal classroom practices that are important for all children and especially so for students who have experienced trauma. Some of these practices, such as implementing routines and providing safe, caring classroom environments, are intended to prevent students from becoming dysregulated — having difficulty managing their own negative emotions. Others, such as guiding a student to a calm-down corner in the classroom, are intended for use when students are expressing early signs of dysregulation. Still others are used to intervene when, despite these preventative efforts, a student becomes increasingly dysregulated; these practices include using a calm voice and slow movements when interacting with the student and giving the student space and time to calm down.(9)
If, after all these classroom strategies have been implemented, a student still becomes or remains highly agitated or aggressive, it may be appropriate to have another adult work with the child one-on-one. Some schools use a trained specialist to help a student de-escalate when the student’s trauma response (e.g., acting out, withdrawing, crying, yelling) is activated, thus minimizing the amount of classroom time the student may need to miss.
One example of a de-escalating intervention is a four-step approach that starts with a caring adult engaging with the child in specific activities, such as breathing together, that help the child co-regulate with the adult. The next step is to offer the child some choice, a move that is intended to give the child some agency, or power, in relation to what’s happening. In the third step, the adult asks the child about what happened and why. Often, after calming down, a child is able to provide useful insight about what caused the earlier emotional dysregulation. The child’s explanation facilitates the final step, in which the adult helps the child learn how to avoid or navigate similar circumstances in the future.(10)
Regardless of how long it takes a child to calm down, or what approach is used to support that de-escalation, adults should only begin efforts to get the student to talk, reflect, explain, or engage once the student is totally calm and no longer having a trauma/stress response. When students are experiencing a trauma/stress response in the classroom, teachers or adults should be doing everything possible to keep them in the classroom and help them calm down so they can return to their work, sending them out to another adult only as a last resort. Helping a student stay in the classroom to calm down tells that student’s brain that the classroom is a safe place, which, in turn, can help reduce the student’s dysregulation moving forward.(11)
Establishment of Healthy Schoolwide Culture and Climate
Having a supportive school culture and climate is critical in the development, implementation, and sustainability of trauma-healing systems. Simple strategies, such as having adults welcome students by name when they arrive at school and practicing active listening, may contribute to students feeling safe, supported, and connected at school. In fact, having quality youth-adult relationships in school is a powerful predictor of a host of important youth development outcomes, including students’ satisfaction with, and connection to, school; academic performance; quality of peer relationships; and experience of personal well-being.(12)
Many schools have also adopted mindfulness activities, such as meditative breathing techniques, to help both students and adults improve attention and to support emotional regulation throughout the school day. To improve culture and climate, districts and schools may also want to reconsider their disciplinary approaches. Punitive disciplinary approaches such as zero-tolerance policies and suspensions contribute to negative environments, emphasizing the infraction rather than the support and learning that can lead to changes in behavior. An approach that is more trauma-informed begins with an inquiry about the conditions that contributed to the infraction and create opportunities for children impacted by it to heal from the incident and repair the harm done.
Ensuring Systemwide Supports
While a focus on trauma-informed practices within classrooms and schools is important, whole systems — including policies, processes, staffing models, funding mechanisms, culture, norms, and mindsets — must be set up to support this work. A system that is inflexible, punitive, unsafe, and/or inconsistent can impede efforts to heal trauma, and can even compound the impacts of trauma in the lives of students and their families. As an example, policies that are punitive to teachers, or that demand student outcomes without providing the supports teachers might need to improve their practice, may work at cross-purposes with a trauma-informed approach, which encourages transparent reflection about what’s working, and which offers supports to improve trauma-informed practices.
It is also important to note that when schools engage the communities they are serving in the design and delivery of trauma-informed supports, schools are better able to promote equitable and sustainable trauma-healing systems. For example, before exploring school-based mental health options, a school leader may convene staff, parents, and students to discuss the needs, assets, and strengths of the school community and their own hopes and concerns. In addition to sharing insights, parents and older students may lead a task force that explores solutions already available in the community, and they may co-design solutions that reflect the community’s values and history.
In part two of this series, we discuss the essential role of district leaders in implementing and sustaining trauma-healing systems so that every member of the education community can thrive. Read part two.
- 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.