Implementing Practices for Trauma-Informed Schools

Andrew C. McMillan
Andrew C. McMillan
High school principal; Ed.D. in Educational Administration
Concerned teacher talking to a student with arms crossed and looking down.

When asked why they entered the field of education, many teachers, administrators, counselors, and other faculty and staff will, more often than not, answer the question by saying they were influenced by a particular teacher, coach, and/or adult while they were in school. The best educators leave a mark on those they teach, making a difference in a young person’s life that oftentimes can serve as a pivotal juncture in the crossroads of their lives. The best educators are those who seek to truly understand why students behave the way they do, act the way they do, and interact with their peers the way they do.

Unfortunately, understanding our students in today’s society proves more difficult each year. Students today face a number of challenges; whether it be issues at home, peer pressure, relationship issues, social media influence, poverty, violence, and others, students today come to our classes having lived with more and more traumatic experiences.

Combining all of these traditional challenges for students, along with the COVID-19 pandemic, has caused even more trauma for young people navigating their physical and mental wellbeing, while being socially isolated from their peers. Having a healthy understanding of who our students are and what they have faced will make us better educators and help us to fully serve our students.

Benefits of a Trauma-Informed School

It is an all-too-common scene played out in classrooms across the country. A student comes to class without homework, and the teacher responds by giving the student a zero on the assignment. At lunch, the same student is unruly and becomes a discipline problem, receiving further punishment. Sound familiar?

Our students are not inherently bad children. Students react and act out according to internal struggles they are facing, and their external actions mirror the internal strife that traumatic experiences outside of school can create. Because of this, a recent movement across the nation urges teachers and schools to identify root problems of behavior and become trauma-informed schools.

These schools consist of total-school programs or individually trained faculty and staff who are encouraged to dive deeper into why students behave and act the way they do. Trauma-informed schools, also identified as compassionate schools, include research and activities on Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), where participants score themselves on personal experiences that impact them, getting an ACE score.

In these trauma-informed schools, educators benefit because they are learning different strategies for dealing with inappropriate behavior that can be a warning sign of childhood trauma. Trauma-informed schools are grounded in understanding the traumatic experiences that many children have and the impact that those experiences have on their brain, their capacity to learn, and their greater risk for more complex social and health problems.

How to Implement Trauma-Informed Practices in Your School

Implementing trauma-informed practices in your school begins with informing educators about the specifics regarding trauma and student behavior. Educators unfortunately deal with the negative aspect of education that includes student discipline, but developing and implementing a framework for understanding the context of trauma and how it impacts brain development allows for a better understanding of the student sitting in your classroom.

Having gone through trauma-informed training myself, the most eye opening component was completing the self survey regarding Adverse Childhood Experiences to determine my ACE score. The survey consisted of personal questions regarding upbringing, violence in the home, drug abuse, divorce, etc., and for each item selected, a number was assigned. A higher ACE score correlated to more adverse childhood experiences and corresponding traumatic events.

This is a powerful activity to do with staff so they can see and identify their own traumatic events or understand they may not have experienced the same childhood as their peers and/or colleagues. Once faculty and staff have a greater understanding of their own ACEs, that information translates to a shift in thinking regarding student behavior.

For many trauma-informed schools, students complete their own ACEs activity, gaining an understanding of their own personal traumatic experiences. From there, a consistent framework and design around reaching students with adverse life experiences is necessary. This could involve counselors, interventionists, and other support staff, in addition to the classroom teachers. These supports include trauma-informed lessons on coping strategies, building resilience, and navigating through complex family and/or home situations.

Schools are an optimal place to make a difference and intervene, building resilience in children to help them combat the potential for lifelong problems. Trauma-informed schools and educators are cognizant of student behavior and seek to identify the root cause and how they can help.

Ultimately, trauma-informed and compassionate schools are no substitute for good teaching, which involves relationship building and trust within the classroom between student and teacher. However, the framework behind being trauma-informed allows for better understanding of the signs and influences of trauma and strategies for successfully mitigating those influences, allowing students to be successful while overcoming individual obstacles to their learning.

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