The pandemic has raised concerns about the way stress is affecting kids. Even though the word ‘trauma’ is on a lot of worried adults’ minds these days, information about it is wide-ranging and can leave people feeling unsure about what to do next.
Trauma is a response to life-threatening events, harmful conditions or stressful environments, writes Vermont-based educator Alex Shevrin Venet in her book “Equity-Centered Trauma-Informed Education.” As students transition back to learning in school buildings, traumas that have been hard to see during Zoom classes may become more apparent. On top of that, adjusting to new schooling structures may be another hurdle for young learners and teachers alike. Educators who want to create a nurturing school environment for returning students or hybrid learners may find solutions in trauma-informed education that uses an equity lens.
How school leaders can support teachers
While teachers can benefit from self-care practices such as making sure that their physical needs are met, responsibility falls on school leaders to create the school conditions that set teachers up for success. “Teachers are witnessing and being present for children who are struggling [with trauma] and if you don’t have the opportunity to process or make sense of that, it can bubble over in negative ways,” said Venet.
Research about child trauma shows how important it is that children are in caring relationships with stable and supportive adults. In order to be ready for those relationships, that means in schools: “the adults need to feel cared for, connected and grounded in order to have the capacity to show up for kids,” said Venet. “Giving everybody donuts on the first day back to school is not going to help them manage this incredible stress of shifting modes.”
She refers to trivial moves towards teacher wellbeing as “cutesy wellness” practices because they don’t actually address the sustainable changes teachers need in order to experience long-term positive mental health. Venet champions time, money, autonomy and support as ways school leaders can show up for their teachers.
In order to check in and make sure that educators feel that they can do all they need to do within the hours of the work week, she advises that school leaders provide space for teachers to ask questions, ideate and reflect with their principal or school counselor. “We have a cultural expectation that people aren’t working after hours. And if you are finding that you can’t keep up with your job expectations in the 40-hour work week, you’re talking to your supervisor about getting support in a non-shaming way,” said Alison Putnam, a school leader at Centerpoint School in Vermont. Her school leaders prioritized getting rid of unnecessary, extra meetings and giving teachers more opportunities to connect with each other.
“We do a monthly wellness group where teachers from across the school get together in small groups to talk about our wellness, and how we’re feeling at work. We talk about goals we have for ourselves and what is supportive of those goals,” said Putnam.
Another way to support teachers’ working conditions and workload is “tap in, tap out,” a self care strategy from Fall-Hamilton Elementary School in Nashville, Tennessee. In this technique, educators form a text message group to contact whoever is available to temporarily fill in for them whenever they need to take a moment to step out and regroup during class.
“It’s just so simple, but it can be so powerful in acknowledging that you don’t have to carry this stress by yourself,” said Venet. “It’s more than saying, ‘We’re a community.’ It’s actually finding a way to put a structure around that.”
Trauma happens inside schools
It’s not uncommon for educators to think of students as “bringing their trauma to school” as if it’s packed in their backpacks somewhere between their bag lunch and homework folders.
“Too often, teachers perceive trauma as something that comes from ‘outside of school,’” said Venet. “Much of the research and writing on trauma frames it as resulting from factors schools cannot control.” When effectively applied, trauma-informed education means critically examining how oppression at schools causes trauma in students. Oppression can happen outside of schools as well as within schools, caused by peers in bullying situations, individual teachers and curriculum.
“Trauma is a lens, not a label,” advises Venet in her book, pushing teachers to look beyond labeling trauma-affected students to understanding how structures may cause trauma.
Schools are not equitable for trauma-affected students and numerous studies show that children experiencing trauma have greater difficulty learning. On top of that, student responses to trauma, such as disengagement or misbehavior, are often unknowingly disciplined.
Venet recommends a universal approach to trauma-informed education so that schools are centering students’ humanity, whether their trauma is apparent or not. She advocates for making responsive, social-emotional supports accessible to all students with as few barriers as possible. That means making sure students know what is available to them when they are struggling whether it’s having flyers on the wall, information on the school websites, or informed teachers that can point them in the right direction.
A universal approach ensures that all students, including students who are unwilling to ask or have cultivated coping mechanisms that allow them to go unnoticed, get support. High achievers affected by trauma are especially at risk for being overlooked, and adults often misinterpret their coping for resilience.
Cultivate relationships rooted in equity
“Take whatever timeline you have in your mind for how soon you’re going to have that strong relationship and multiply it by two, three or four because it just takes people so much longer to build that trusting relationship,” said Venet about cultivating connections with students.
She cautions that students’ capacity to trust will be lower as a result of the instability and uncertainty of the pandemic. When children go through trauma, they have some mistrust in authority figures and in systems, because often during trauma, those people and systems weren’t there for them.
“I think we have a lot of work to do to rebuild and prove that schools can be places of safety and community,” she said.
To do this, Venet urges teachers to take a stance of unconditional positive regard for students, a concept developed by psychologist Carl Rogers, that emphasizes removing conditions – such as compliance or achievement – for accepting another person. In schools, Venet sees unconditional positive regard as communicating to the student, “I care about you. You have value. You don’t have to do anything to prove it to me, and nothing’s going to change my mind.”
She encourages teachers to build positive relationships during everyday moments like how students are greeted when they enter class or when they make a mistake.
“Any opportunity you have to affirm the student’s inherent worth is a moment for unconditional positive regard,” she said.
Establishing good relationships can be a long process. And just because students are not openly responding to relationship-building efforts, it does not necessarily mean that the care and support they’ve received are unappreciated.
Make sure to note students’ progress and focus on their strengths. “Recognize that even though you might not see a shift right away, it doesn’t mean the shift isn’t happening,” said Venet. Additionally, it’s helpful to remember what is developmentally appropriate for students, so don’t take it personally when a highschooler rolls their eyes or a kindergartener has trouble following directions.
Trauma-informed education is not going to look the same for every educator. In the same way that Venet encourages teachers to pay attention to what is going right when working with students, teachers can expand upon what they do well when it comes to their own practice.
“I think it’s about finding where your strengths are helpful,” she said. “And also recognizing that if we’re going to be systems-oriented, that means that no one person is doing this alone.”