Each day, millions of students arrive at school carrying the burdens of trauma. The statistics regarding childhood trauma in our country are staggering: data from the 2016 National Survey of Children’s Health indicate that over half of U.S. children between the ages of 12 and 17 have experienced at least one adverse childhood experience (ACE) and nearly 30 percent have experienced two or more. ACEs such as abuse, neglect, loss of a parent, and exposure to violence have been linked to a range of negative outcomes relating to health, behavior, and life potential.

At school, we witness the aftermath of childhood trauma daily, manifested in student conduct, cognition, and achievement. Many states, like Missouri, have models in place to support trauma-informed school efforts. But, as the Missouri model states, “A ‘trauma-informed approach’ is not a program model that can be implemented and then simply monitored by a fidelity checklist. Rather, it is a profound paradigm shift in knowledge, perspective, attitudes and skills that continues to deepen and unfold over time.” So, where do we begin this shift? What organizational changes need to occur to move our schools from being trauma aware to becoming trauma responsive?

Shared Understanding and Commitment

Schools are full of caring adults, but some of them do not realize just how many students are impacted by trauma, and may not recognize the link between trauma and learning. As we become more trauma informed, we must educate ourselves and our staff members about trauma’s signs, symptoms, and effects. In our district, the school counselors have taken the lead in this endeavor. In addition to training at the beginning of the school year, they send weekly emails that not only inform and educate, but serve as reminders to see the whole child in our daily interactions.

School-Based Mental Health Support

Access to mental health support is vital to supporting students who have experienced trauma. Our school nurses and counselors were doing an incredible job recognizing student needs, intervening during crises, and connecting families with resources for ongoing counseling services, but barriers to access still existed. They advocated for additional support, and our district responded. We now have an on-site mental health center that provides services to both students and staff. Licensed counselors provide services in the office, and case workers visit students in their respective school buildings. The center has increased access and removed barriers relating to stigma, compliance, time, transportation, and attendance.

Evaluating and Revising School Discipline Policies and Practices

We know that trauma impacts the behavior of students in a variety of ways, but regardless of the manifestation, the result of disruptive behavior is the same: lost learning and damaged relationships. Schools need to invest time and energy into evaluating their current practices to determine whether they align with evidence-based best practices relating to trauma.

Administrators in our district regularly discuss discipline policies and interventions to ensure appropriate consistency between grade levels. At one such meeting last spring, an administrator shared her success with Behavior Intervention Support Teams (BIST). BIST is one of many evidence-based models that focuses not just on decreasing disruptive behavior in the classroom, but on teaching skills for life. Teachers in our district will all participate in BIST training prior to the start of next school year. Regardless of the discipline policies or programs your school utilizes, consider whether they are proactive or reactive, and whether or not they address resilience, hope, and skills needed to function both in and out of the classroom.

Staff Self-Care

When students carry the burdens of trauma to school, teachers feel the effects, too. Vicarious trauma is not a new concept in caregiving professions, but its impact on educators has only recently become widely discussed. This “cost of caring” can result in loss of concentration, difficulty sleeping, and can negatively impact relationships in and out of school. Over a year ago, our school nurses noticed an increase in what they believed were stress-related ailments among our teachers and approached administration with their concerns. As a result, our board of education recently approved an employee assistance program to make mental health services more readily available to staff. This program provides three free visits to our school-based mental health center for intake, assessment, and initiation of services. In addition to this responsive care, our district wellness coordinator provides regular education for staff on preventive stress management skills, like exercise and mindfulness.

It will be a journey

These are some first steps, but we know the journey toward becoming trauma responsive will be a long one. Along the way, we will monitor, evaluate, adjust, and adapt.

What is your school doing to move from trauma aware to trauma responsive? What has worked for you?

Theresa Wilson serves as an assistant principal at Carl Junction High School in southwest Missouri. She was the 2018 Missouri Assistant Principal of the Year. Follow her on Twitter @twils64.

About the Author

Theresa Wilson serves as an assistant principal at Carl Junction High School in southwest Missouri. She was the 2018 Missouri Assistant Principal of the Year. Follow her on Twitter @twils64.

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