I was lucky enough to start my career at a school that was trauma-informed from the ground up. Mental health counseling is part of the school’s mission, so every decision was made with that in mind. Because it was my first post-college job, this became normal. I only started to realize how not-normal this orientation was when I started grad school, and soon after, began attending education conferences.
When I first got out of my therapeutic-school-bubble, it seemed like I was the only person talking about mental health and trauma in schools. I wasn’t, of course; there are plenty of organizations, schools and individuals who have been doing this work for a long time. Yet it seemed at the time that we existed in small pockets; it was hard to find each other; we didn’t have a hashtag.
Fast forward to 2018, and trauma-informed education has attained educational buzzword status. Even Oprah is talking about becoming trauma-informed. It seems like every day there is a new book, TED talk, or blog post about trauma’s impact on children in schools.
Part of me says – YES! Finally, we are talking about this. Yet, as with any complex topic that becomes a buzzword, we run the risk of losing meaning and nuance. As more people latch onto the surface-level teachings of trauma-informed work, it’s important to bring them in with intention and thought.
With that, I’d like to offer some suggestions to the growing field of trauma-informed education.
- Trauma-informed means anti-racist and against all forms of oppression. We can’t be trauma-informed without addressing the trauma of racism, sexism, transphobia, religious discrimination, and all forms of societal oppression. Trauma-informed educators must critically look at their own participation in these systems as well as whether they perpetuate inequitable school structures, and work actively to dismantle them.
- Trauma-informed education should be one aspect of a holistic approach to mental health. Trauma is one factor in the wider picture of a student’s mental health needs. Trauma-informed teachers should implement universal mental health supports, advocate for funding and access to mental health services, and seek to connect students to resources whenever possible.
- We need to move beyond ACEs as a shorthand for trauma. I write at length about this issue here; the short version is: ACEs “scores” can be harmful to students when administered by schools and we can do our work in more nuanced ways.
- “Mainstream” schools have lessons to learn from those who have been working with trauma for a long time. Public schools can and should partner with educators and mental health professionals who have been working in trauma-informed settings for years. Shelter educators, alternative school teachers, those who work with youth in the juvenile justice system – they all have insight and wisdom to offer. We don’t need to reinvent the wheel.
- Trauma-informed education and punitive discipline cannot coexist. Zero-tolerance policies, suspensions, shame, and unnatural consequences do not work for students who have been impacted by trauma. These procedures and policies only perpetuate harm and damage the relationships that could otherwise be powerful sources of healing. The same goes for rules that require strict adherence to authority. We need to rethink the structures and environment in our schools, not just our individual classroom practices.
- Trauma-informed education isn’t a set of strategies. Addressing the impacts of trauma on children is ultimately an exercise in empathy, patience, and flexibility. Although strategies are a good entry point to the work, we must constantly turn our focus to developing the capacity for the mess and challenge that is sustaining relationships with kids, no matter what.
I hope that the momentum around trauma-informed education continues to grow, and that we can carry these truths forward with us. One of the biggest things I learned from my work in a trauma-informed school was to embrace the gray areas and the struggle. That’s what I hope for us all in this movement.