Dealing with the Epidemic of Trauma in Schools
We are seeing an ever-increasing wave of mental health concerns overwhelm our school systems. Much of this has to do with the concept of trauma. An enormous number of students have had adverse childhood experiences, or ACES. ACES negatively impacts a students ability to learn, regulate their emotions, and ultimately have a negative effect on physical health.
When you see a student lose their temper over a small thing or just shut down and refuse to engage, you can feel reasonably confident that there is a dysregulation factor related to trauma at work. The problem in dealing with this has been two fold. First, most school systems treat these behaviors as disciplinary issues, no different than if a child is choosing bad behavior and attempts to punish it out of them. This only exacerbates the issue. Second, no school has the amount of social work and other mental health supports necessary to treat each child, individually, in a clinical manner.
Instead, schools need to look to the trauma-sensitive schools movement to find a way out of this crisis. By switching to a therapeutic mindset, schools can turn the entire school environment into a therapeutic space — whole school cognitive behavioral therapy, if you will.
A trauma sensitive school is one that assumes student maladaptive behaviors come from a traumatic experience. This is significant because most adults can understand why a student who has been through something horrific needs a more therapeutic approach. The additional piece here is that the approach assumes all maladaptive behavior comes from trauma. This works because the therapeutic response is far more effective at creating better behavior than punishment is, even when no trauma was present.
Trauma sensitive schools reconsider their physical environment, making a warmer and less triggering space (think harsh lights and alarms). They also reconsider their routines — things as simple as how students are greeted upon entering the school, entering the classroom, and how minor infractions are handled. In trauma sensitive schools, the adults do not get into demonstrations of power over students over things like tardiness. That doesn’t mean tardiness is unaddressed, it just means that addressing it is not about lording power, there is a discussion when it will be less likely to elicit a triggered reaction from the student.
In trauma sensitive schools teachers recognize their role in helping to reshape students’ brains, taking advantage of the natural neuroplasticity that exists in adolescents. This means making use of dialogic teaching, more collaborative work between students, opportunities to recreate self-narratives, and address neurodevelopmental strategies explicitly. It also means avoiding reenactments, taking student behavior personally, and doing other things that are likely to trigger students who have experienced trauma — like shutting off the lights unexpectedly to get the class’ attention, or creating a startling noise.
Creating a trauma-sensitive school is not an easy or quick path, but it begins with the simple notion that we will not punish maladaptive behaviors out of children. If they are struggling to keep themselves regulated, they need help, not punishment. Once you accept this assumption, you are on your way to becoming a trauma-sensitive school.
The scars you can’t see are the hardest to heal.