I was a guest on Angela Watson’s fabulous Truth for Teachers podcast. She put together a great episode on the core concepts of trauma-informed teaching, and it’s well worth a listen as a refresher or new information. You can listen to it and read the transcript on her site or just click play below!
Trauma-informed teachers need trauma-informed school leaders.
Teachers need support in order to support their students.
A trauma-informed school isn’t a collection of individual classrooms implementing a series of unconnected strategies. Trauma-informed work is about relationships, and relationships thrive in a healthy community where everyone has a sense of belonging and worth.
Administrators are key in setting the tone for this culture, and there are concrete ways you can do this. Here are some areas for school leaders to consider as they work toward a trauma-informed school environment.
Recognize that your teachers have experienced trauma, too
77% of teachers are women. 1 out of 3 women experience some form of sexual violence in their lifetime. Sexual violence is only one of many types of possibly traumatic experiences, but looking at those numbers alone should make you pause to consider the experiences that your teachers carry with them.
When you facilitate or provide professional development for your teachers, remember that these same teachers may be at any point in the process of managing the impacts of their own trauma: they may experience no adverse impacts, or every day they may be struggling with mental health and emotional wellness. Administrators must be mindful that teachers are carrying these experiences with them every day at the same time that they are being asked to support struggling students.
Administrators should use the same best practices that they ask teachers to use with students: provide flexibility, choice, and voice. Approach challenges with curiosity and empathy. Place a priority on autonomy and self-direction. Create opportunities for teachers to take a break during an overwhelming day, or take a day off to rest without being judged.
In addition, administrators should be sure that teachers are aware of the internal and external supports available to them. Is there counseling provided through employee assistance? What resources are available through the school or union for teachers who need extra help? Do teachers know about community organizations that serve adults? Make this information available to all staff, and play your part in destigmatizing mental health support.
Acknowledge that trauma occurs at school
Vicarious trauma, or the so-called “cost of caring,” has been written about in depth and administrators should educate themselves on how teachers may be struggling with it. Vicarious trauma is indirect – it’s the consequence of bearing witness to someone’s struggle.
But teachers may also be directly experiencing trauma in your school. One definition of trauma is when dangerous events overwhelm our capacity to cope. A teacher who has witnessed or been a target of violence within the school may experience this as traumatic. They also may not – it depends a lot on the specific situation, the coping skills of the person involved, and the preventative or risk factors both inside and outside of school.
Pay special attention to special educators, teachers who help intervene in crises, or teachers working with children who get physically or verbally aggressive. When there’s a critical incident involving a student, make it a part of the follow-up protocol to touch base with the teacher to see how that teacher is doing and what he needs.
We can expect teachers to be professionals about the difficult parts of their jobs, but we need to also expect them to be human. Use your leadership to make it okay to respond like a human to a tough day, and provide empathy and care on those tough days.
Put your time where your values are.
It’s heartening to hear administrators talk about the value of self-care. But if we tell teachers “practice self-care!” without actually providing the supports to do so, we’re just victim-blaming (“Burned out? Guess you didn’t self-care enough”).
A trauma-informed school leader recognizes that teachers are whole humans, trying to show up in full humanity for their students, and this can be draining and exhausting. Instead of presenting a PowerPoint about self-care, a trauma-informed school leader makes time within the school schedule for breaks. They create time for processing and making meaning in small groups. They offer flexibility and encouragement for teachers to actually use personal days, take vacations, and go home on time.
Trauma-informed school leaders create a culture where care is communal, not just a responsibility of the individual on her own time.
Know your role
Again, the work here is parallel to what teachers should be doing in the classroom. Our job is not to be a “trauma detective,” but rather to provide universal supports to all.
For administrators: don’t be a trauma detective with your staff. Especially because you have a professional relationship, provide opportunities for social-emotional support for all your employees but don’t expect any of them to reveal personal information.
Provide opportunities for your employees to connect with you as a person, but let them choose the level of vulnerability. If you’re worried about the wellness of an employee, ask “Are you okay?” but provide multiple paths for the teacher to get their needs met. Maybe talking to you is appropriate, but going back to my previous point, this is where it will be helpful to be able to provide other resources.
Use your leverage
As an administrator, you are uniquely positioned to make a big impact on inequitable systems, unsustainable working conditions, and allocation of resources. Do your research about the systems-level changes that make a difference for students who experience trauma, and then use your position to advocate for those changes.
Ask your teachers what they and their students need. Let them know you will fight for them, and then do it. Instilling hope is an essential part of a trauma-informed environment – you can do this through your pursuit of justice. Now get to work!
Let’s take some time this fall to dig into trauma-informed education. I would love for you to join me in these workshops and classes – click on the titles below for more information and registrations. Please reach out with any questions!
Supporting Challenging Students: Trauma-Informed and Strengths-Based Strategies (3-credit graduate course)
This is a hybrid online/in-person class (two on-the-ground meetings in Castleton, VT). The course is organized around your own self-reflection as well as an in-depth case study of one of your challenging students. This is an in-depth opportunity to experience a mindset shift and learn alongside a supportive cohort of classmates. Texts include Lost at School and Fostering Resilient Learners. Please note the dates of this course have changed. They are accurate at the link.
Teacher’s Trauma Toolbox (September 29, 1-day workshop)
In this workshop, you’ll get a crash course on how trauma impacts children in school and what we can do about it. Equal parts theory and practice, our day will include discussion, reflection, and information that you can use to jumpstart your trauma-informed work in schools.
Book Study: Fostering Resilient Learners (three week online group in October)
Kristin Souers and Pete Hall’s book Fostering Resilient Learners is an accessible, engaging read that will help spark new ideas for trauma-informed implementation. Our book group takes place asynchronously for three weeks with a “live” group video call at the end so we can discuss, problem-solve, and share ideas.
Preventing and Addressing Vicarious Trauma (October 17, webinar)
Working with trauma-affected youth can take its toll on educators. Participants will learn about the differences between trauma, vicarious trauma, and burnout, and about the individual and systemic changes we can make to stay healthy and well in our work with students.
Trauma-Conscious Pedagogy & Reflective Practice (four week online mini-course, 11/26-12/21)
This four-week online mini-course provides you with the opportunity to reflect on how you might align your learning design with trauma-informed practices. This course takes place toward the end of your winter semester; this is a great opportunity to reflect and make changes as you head into the second half of the year.
Personalized professional development, consulting or coaching
Didn’t see something that would meet your needs? Get in touch to schedule customized professional development for your school or organization!
One of the most common lines of resistance when it comes to social-emotional learning in schools: “But what about in the real world?”
I’ve heard this objection over and over in response to social-emotional learning and support strategies in schools. “In the real world, there’s no such thing as a Peace Corner.” “In the real world, no one is going to sit in a circle and talk things out with you.” “In the real world, you don’t get unlimited chances.”
Let’s look a little closer on what it means to invoke “the real world” as a reason not to provide children with social-emotional support.
Real world versus…fake world?
The most obvious objection here is the implication that schools are somehow not “real.” When students spend most of their waking hours on school and school-related activities for at least 13 years, I don’t see how we can argue that this time isn’t “real.” Yes, children are preparing for adulthood – but all of the time they spend on the way to adulthood counts, and students deserve to develop skills and experience supports specific to their time in school.
It’s also essential here to remember that children’s brains are different from adult’s brains, and children developmentally need different support as they grow. Just as you use training wheels on a bike, you also need support as you develop skills to manage your emotions, develop healthy sense of self, and learn to connect with others.
The real world isn’t black and white
One of the common threads of “real world” objections seems to be that “in the real world, there’s no support.” Is this really true? In the “Peace Corner” video linked above, the strategy presented is essentially a way to support students to take a break when things are stressful. Don’t most adults find ways to do this during their work days? We go to the water cooler, we take a quick walk, we space out at our desk for a few moments, we linger on the way to the restroom.
In objecting to restorative practices or alternatives to suspension, the “real world” argument goes that “people aren’t that understanding in the real world.” While this one varies largely depending on context, let’s look at it from the lens of interpersonal conflict (which describes a huge portion of what ends up being “disciplined” in schools). Yes, it’s true that some behaviors may get you fired on the spot. But most of the time, when we mess up in the “real world” we actually do “talk it out.” We meet with our supervisors. We talk things through with our spouses. We get messy with conflict rather than receiving a harsh sentence from above. We need to be able to tolerate frustration, find ways to solve our own problems, and manage relationships.
Another one I’ve heard is, “in the real world, you don’t get do-overs.” Tell that to the many folks who have retaken drivers tests, reapplied for jobs or college admissions, or revised work assignments. Part of the real world often involves the process of evaluating our mistakes and incorporating that reflection into a new course of action.
Whose real world?
There are also cultural assumptions built into the “real world” objections. There seems to be an individualistic stance, an idea that in the “real world” we are all on our own. While this may be the dominant view of white Christian America, the reality is different in other cultures that emphasize connectedness, community, and mutual care. When we perpetuate the myth of meritocracy, kids suffer.
In many people’s “real worlds,” connections are how we survive and thrive. We need to support students to learn how to create and sustain healthy relationships – the “social” aspect of social-emotional learning.
Real world, or a better world?
Most importantly, we should stop talking about the “real world” because it keeps us from talking about a better world. If the premise of a “real world” argument is that the real world is harsh, why would we want to replicate such a world in our schools? From a developmental standpoint, exposing children to harsh conditions causes lasting neurological damage, whereas surrounding children with loving, supportive relationships buffers them from future trauma.
We need to surround them with more caring, not less. And when these children, raised with the confidence that they matter, enter adulthood, they’ll be more equipped to make change. They won’t merely be prepared for the “real world” – they’ll create a better one.
Photo credit: Emma Craig, flickr
Whenever I run a training, share a blog post, or have a conversation with educators about how trauma affects student learning, I hear the same things: “I want more resources,” “I wish I had learned about this sooner,” “How can I learn more?” Teachers are hungry for information about how to better support our students whose lives and learning are impacted by trauma. Whenever I hear these comments, I’m further inspired to get training and reflection opportunities to more teachers so we can all get on the same page about how our schools can foster change and resilience.
I’m really excited to share that we are launching a micro-credential program for Trauma-Conscious Teaching through Antioch University. This collaboration is taught by myself and mindfulness specialist Robert Black, and open to all as a non-credit-bearing opportunity (you don’t have to be an Antioch student to enroll).
For those new to the concept, micro-credentials are intended to offer personalized, competency-based experiences for teachers, recognizing formal and informal learning. Many places define and structure micro-credentials differently. For our experience through Antioch, the micro-credential involves participation in a series of online and face-to-face workshops, webinars, mini-courses, book studies, and reflection. There are six to seven options; completing five of these plus a capstone reflective project comprises the micro-credential, all centering around increasing our support of trauma-affected students.
The micro-credential is for you if:
- Small, “bite sized” course opportunities fit your schedule (the longest experience is a 5-week book study)
- You want to dig into the content, skills, and reflective practice necessary to better support trauma-affected students
- You are in the vicinity of, or can travel to, Keene, New Hampshire (for now, the in-person opportunities take place there. We hope to eventually offer everything online)
I’ll update this post once we get a full information page up on the Antioch website, but in the meantime you can register for several of the experiences coming up this spring:
- Trauma-conscious pedagogy and classroom practice (4 week online experience)
- Trauma-Conscious Classroom Management (face to face half day workshop)
- Teachers’ Trauma Toolbox (face to face 1-day workshop)
- Book Study: Fostering Resilient Learners (online, 3 weeks)
- Book Study: The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog (online, 5 weeks)
- Mindfulness for Trauma-Conscious Teaching (online, series of 4 webinars, taught by my colleague Robert Black)
These dates are just for the first round of the micro-credential – I’ll be updating soon with dates for Fall 2018 and more information about putting the pieces together with a capstone project. You are also more than welcome to take any of the piece “a la carte” without taking the entire micro-credential. Stay tuned and please let me know if you have any question! I hope I’ll see you in one of these experiences to learn together.
I would like to see the trauma-informed education community focus less on ACEs, and in particular to stop asking students and staff to take ACEs surveys. The ACEs checklist wasn’t designed for that, and I think it does more harm than good.
For those not familiar, ACE stands for Adverse Childhood Experiences, which were the focus of a CDC-Kaiser study originally conducted in the 1990s. ACEs seem to have become synonymous with childhood trauma, and are often invoked in writing about trauma-informed education practice. An example of this is the popular documentary Paper Tigers, which is about a school identifying as trauma-informed and relying heavily on the vocabulary of ACEs as they shift how their school supports trauma-affected students.
At a conference last fall, I facilitated a group discussion for those interested in trauma-informed education. Participants were sharing how they were making changes to their schools to incorporate trauma-informed strategies. One participant shared that as a part of the admissions process for her charter school, she was planning on asking students to fill out an ACEs questionnaire. I’ve heard of other schools and staff groups being asked to do the same: to fill out a survey created from the list of ACEs identified in the CDC study. Presumably, the information from these surveys help schools identify students in need of support, and perhaps help teachers better understand how their own experiences impact their work with trauma-affected students.
I would like to strongly caution school leaders from using an ACEs survey with students or staff in their settings.
Limitations of ACEs
The ACEs identified in the CDC study aren’t meant to be inclusive of every possible traumatic experience. As is the case with any study, they needed to narrow down their focus in order to measure and study. The adverse childhood experiences that were focused on in the study were:
- Physical abuse
- Sexual abuse
- Emotional abuse
- Physical neglect
- Emotional neglect
- Intimate partner violence
- Mother treated violently
- Substance misuse within household
- Household mental illness
- Parental separation or divorce
- Incarcerated household member
Each of these items were assessed based on responses to specific questions in a lengthy questionnaire. When you search online for quizzes to determine your own “ACE score,” you’ll find a boiled-down 10-question survey which asks one to answer “yes” or “no” to experiencing each of the above ten items during the first 18 years of life.
Taking a ten question survey about childhood adverse experiences has a few problems. First is the issue of what’s not on the list. Focusing only on the ACEs list excludes a huge range of experiences; for example, the traumatic impacts of racism – not an ACE. Traumatic natural disaster, such as a hurricane, flood or fire? Not on the ACEs survey. If your intention is to use the ACEs survey to find out what percentage of students or faculty have experienced trauma, your data will be incomplete at best.
In addition, trauma is widely viewed as subjective – an interplay between dangerous events and our capacity to cope – and one’s experience of a potentially traumatic event is impacted by risk factors and protective factors. Because of this subjectivity, we cannot immediately assume that an ACE score correlates to an experience of trauma. Divorced parents is on the ACEs survey – which may be an adverse experience, but might not be trauma. To conflate all ACEs with trauma is a false equivalency, which makes “ACE score” an incorrect shorthand for trauma.
More than a number
To ask kids to take ACEs survey is to distill all of the complexities of their lives into a number, and that number isn’t really going to help your practice, anyway. Trauma-informed work in a school setting is all about relationship – should knowing if a student has 0, 4 or 7 ACEs change or impact whether we build relationship with them?
Speaking of relationship: requiring students or their families to report on these adverse experiences is a risky proposition. Asking these questions may open the door to conversations that educators are not prepared to have, and without mental health training and structures, these conversations may do more harm than good.
Even as a mental health screening tool, “the current ACE inventory was also not chosen through a rigorous process of scientific review to establish the best predictors of health outcomes” (Finklehor, 2017). With this in mind, schools should critically question what screening information they hope to gain through an ACEs score and consult with mental health professionals about best-practices tools.
Trauma-informed strategies are best practices for all kids. Does knowing how many students have high ACE scores change that? You should assume that your community suffers the impacts of trauma. Use state-level data if it helps to build community understanding and buy-in for trauma-informed practices, while also pushing all stakeholders to recognize that it’s not about the number.
We do our best work when we directly listen to the needs of our community and the individuals within it. Resources spent on ACEs screening might better be spent investing in building relationships.
ACEs as a profesional development tool?
For all the same reasons – don’t ask all your staff to fill out an ACEs survey. Like kids, your staff/teachers have varied and complex histories – and while taking ACEs survey might be enlightening for some, it should be completely optional and presented as only one among many strategies that teachers can use to gain self-awareness. Remember that many of your teachers have indeed experienced adverse situations as a child, and being asked to reflect on and check “yes” or “no” to these experiences may be harmful to their ongoing process of recovery.
Teachers absolutely should have self-awareness of “their own stuff” they are bringing to working with trauma-impacted kids. ACE information could be one option. There are many others. We should trust educators to choose their own strategy for building self-awareness.
I worked at a school for 8 years with a mostly trauma-impacted population. I was never asked to do an ACEs survey, and students/families were only asked to share specific history w/clinical staff, at their own pace. Our clinical director also held the opinion that, while it was helpful to know about specific triggers or needs, you can do the work with any kid if you know how to use the general frames and strategies. You don’t need to be a trauma detective to be effective.
A grain of salt
With all of this in mind, how should we proceed? Use the ACEs for what they are: an interesting data set that helps inform our understanding of long term impacts of a specific set of adverse child experiences. There is a wealth of other research on trauma and its impacts on children, and it’s worth spending the time to investigate different frameworks and ways of understanding this issue.
In working with the humans in our schools, seek other ways to understand your students and raise self-awareness in staff. Respect individuals’ paths to recovery and use trauma-informed practices as a mindset that supports all students.
This post is an expansion of a Tweet thread I wrote that can be found here: https://twitter.com/shevtech/status/948221926371221507
The students who fall through the cracks and get pushed out of their communities need us to change how we approach our work with them. This change can happen when we take the time and space to self-reflect.
I believe that self-reflection is one of the most important things teachers can do to improve their support of all students, the challenging ones especially. We need to identify our hidden beliefs and emotions to understand why some students feel more frustrating than others. We need to find ways to transform our experiences into meaning and align our philosophies with our practice.
This spring, I’m teaching a graduate course through the Castleton Center for Schools to help teachers take the time for this self-reflection, focusing on trauma-informed and strengths-based approaches to working with challenging students. The course meets face-to-face twice in Winooski, Vermont, to allow us to build community and dive into thoughtful conversations about our practice and our beliefs. In between those two meetings, we’ll read, reflect and discuss online, applying new learning directly to our current classroom environments.
At the end of the course, you can expect to walk away with concrete strategies, problem-solving approaches, and many resources to explore. I also hope you’ll walk away with more questions than answers, and a willingness to carry that inquiry into your work.
Please join me to create a learning community that will help you build your skill set to support challenging students.