In every classroom, 1 in 4 children has been exposed to some form of childhood trauma. It is time to revolutionize the school environment. Webster defines a revolution as the forcible overthrow of a system, but our revolution entails a more peaceful movement. Ghandi once said, “A nonviolent revolution is a program of relationship ending in a peaceful transfer of power”—peaceful and relationship building rather than violent and relationship ending. But a peaceful revolution is no less urgent than a violent one.
We cannot keep doing what we have always done, or we will get the same results we have always gotten. School shootings are on the rise. Every school shooter since Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold at Columbine High School was a child of trauma. The path to a reduction in school shootings is not about guns, but about children—and reducing violence through trauma-informed schools. A peaceful revolution.
Imagine that schools are ponds. In the ponds are ducks of many shapes and sizes—ducks with autism, dyslexia, or other special needs. We have become very good in this country at educating ducks. The problem is that in our ponds among the ducks sit lions. Lions cannot be cared for the same way as you would care for a duck. They need different food and a different environment. If you leave a lion to be raised in a duck pond, they will do one of three things: freeze—stop trying to eat the duck food and eventually die; flee—leave the pond in search of tall grass and meat; or fight—eat the other ducks. What they will never do is become ducks.
If you have been in education for five or more years, all of your preservice teaching instruction was likely through the lens of social learning theory (SLT). SLT was developed by Albert Bandura in the 1970s and is based on the premise that, as humans, we are social animals, and we learn by observing others. Much of Bandura’s work on self-efficacy is the foundation of many of our current social-emotional learning (SEL) programs. SEL presumes that all children have typical and appropriate prefrontal cortex development. Recent breakthroughs in medical technology have allowed researchers to see that children who experience trauma have brains that are not the same as children who do not experience trauma. Our schools are set up—from the curriculum and social-emotional learning in Tier 1 to special education in Tier 3—to address the needs of children with the assumption that they all have the same neurological capacity for learning. The assumption is that they are all ducks. We now know that in our ponds among the ducks are lions. They cannot thrive in the same environment. They will never be ducks. If we create schools that are also good for lions, the ducks will perform even better than they do now. Trauma-informed schools are good for all.
Our current system of education—the duck pond approach—is not working for all students. Our academic achievement is good, but not great. We are underserving our gifted children. We are underserving our lions. Take a look at your school data. Who is in the achievement gap: children of color, immigrants, children living in poverty? Children of trauma are the children in the achievement gap. We have been spending countless hours and dollars researching, developing, and implementing fantastic remedial curricula. I have been in public school education for more than 30 years; I learned about the achievement gap in my first year of teaching. I learned to write SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound) goals. Every year, there was a goal aimed at closing the achievement gap. Thirty years later as a school leader, I am still looking at the achievement gap. Again, we cannot keep doing what we have always done, or we will keep getting the results we have always gotten.
What do we do? Follow these five steps to create a healthier, trauma-informed school:
1. Give Yourself the Gift of Knowledge
Research shows that building leaders are the most underserved group in our public schools. School leaders have done so much for so long with so little, they are now qualified to do anything with nothing. (That does not make it right or recommended!) My research involved the perceptions of teachers creating trauma-informed classrooms—and all of my respondents said that the top ingredient for their success was a building leader who understood trauma-informed care.
2. Take Care of Your Staff
Caring for students and building relationships with students is heart-heavy work. To begin with, teachers and support staff need to be aware of their own childhood exposure to trauma. As they become more aware of their own triggers and regulation needs, they will take advantage of the opportunity to take a minute to collect themselves. Consider an idea like tap in/tap out—this is a regulation opportunity for your staff. For this to be effective, schools need spaces that allow teachers to take care of themselves. Take a good look at the faculty room. Is the copy machine in there? Take it out. Make the faculty room a place that is welcoming and relaxing. Create a “keep calm” space for the adults. For instance, include a water feature and comfortable seating. Consider the lighting: Can you reduce the overhead fluorescent lighting and add floor or table lamps?
A trauma-informed school’s work starts and ends with teacher self-care. The tap-in/tap-out program is designed to allow teachers to step away from an emotionally charged situation for a few minutes to collect themselves. It can be built into the schedule so that there is always a staff member available to supervise a class while the teacher takes a mindful minute.
The tap in/tap out program has a number of benefits. Research shows that schools that provide care for the adults have better overall attendance. Teachers may use it as an opportunity to access the restroom at more convenient times; teachers will drink more water and boost their immune systems if they do not have to wait three hours to use the restroom. Another benefit you may notice is an overall improvement in people’s attitudes toward each other and toward students. Adults who can take care of their emotional needs are better prepared to assist others with their emotional needs.
3. Inform Your Community About ACEs
One visit to http://acestoohigh.com will give you everything you will need to provide this training. Parents and community members can explore their exposure to adverse childhood experiences (ACEs). Studies have shown that ACEs have connections to negative adult health outcomes. This is a national epidemic. The ACEs survey is not recommended for anyone under the age of 12, and students should take the survey only in conjunction with school counselor support in a one-on-one setting. Talking about ACEs and the hope for healing with adults is a great way to get started with trauma-informed care without using the word “trauma.”
4. Respond in a Trauma-Informed Way to All Students
Teach everyone, including students, about brain development. Instruct adults about the impact of adverse experiences on the psychological and neurological development of children. Be sure to include a workshop on attachment and the power of relationships to heal trauma in students. Teach students about the limbic system and how the brain regulates emotion and improves the ability to learn. This process gives your entire community a common language. When children talk about their brain, there is no shame. They will be better able to become part of the solution.
5. Resist Retraumatization
Consider your practices and policies around student behavior. Chances are that most of them are reactive. Trauma-informed schools have strategies and programs that are proactive and will reduce the need to react to behaviors that interfere with learning. One proactive strategy is the Walk and Talk. One of the single greatest regulation activities is walking—it supports students who are angry, students who are sad, or students who are sleepy. Students who need a walk need supervision, so build it into your duty schedule (as opposed to taking up precious lunch or prep time). Teachers love this duty! They hold a radio, or they can use a cellphone. They can work on grading papers, making copies, anything, until they are summoned. Then they pick up the student and start walking. We highly recommend going outside, weather permitting. It is important to teach your Walk and Talk staff that they do not need to solve the student’s problems, nor does a student have to talk. If a student shares and uses inappropriate language, let it go. Walk and Talk staff need only to let the student know they are listening.
These tips will get you started. Keep in mind that ongoing professional development is important as well. The cost of creating a trauma-informed school includes the cost of providing learning opportunities for your staff. Perceptions change with knowledge. Aside from professional development, the cost of creating trauma-informed schools should be minimal. You already have so many things in your school that are trauma-informed—you will find them once you change your perspective. Build a school that supports lions, and your ducks will fly even higher!
Melissa W. Sadin, EdD, is the special education director of Unity Charter School in Morristown, NJ, and executive director of Ducks & Lions: Trauma Sensitive Resources LLC. Sadin is also an education consultant and developmental trauma expert and serves as a program director of Creating Trauma-Sensitive Schools for The Attachment & Trauma Network.