The Canary in the Coal Mine and the Antidote for the Future of Education

Seven Ways to Create Resilient, Trauma-Informed Schools Post-Pandemic

McGraw Hill
May 27, 2020 · 7 min read

By Dr. Mary Crnobori, Coordinator of Trauma-Informed Schools, Metro Nashville Public Schools

A powerful movement has been quietly growing within education throughout the last decade. It is a movement of passionate educators who are dedicated to intentionally exploring the very real paradoxes that exist in today’s education system — and facing them head-on — so we may improve our most precious institution of learning. It is full of those committed to strong pedagogy and data-based decision making as well as supporting the needs of the whole child; of fierce advocates and innovators driven by science and healthy child development; of conscious individuals who understand that today’s education system harms some children while it helps many; and of resisters and disruptors committed to dismantling the broken parts of our system while cherishing and preserving the good parts to avoid throwing out the baby with the murky bathwater of outdated practices.

This movement is the trauma-informed schools movement, indispensably more critical now than ever before as the pandemic constitutes at least one new adverse childhood experience for every student.

It is premised upon a converging body of scientific disciplines, characterized by healing-centered and resilience-focused engagement with students. This engagement is nurtured through relationship-rich school environments that prioritize social and emotional learning and health alongside academic achievement and school success.

Preparing for Challenges and Adapting to Change

I have been a part of this movement for my whole career really (though we only started to identify what we’ve been seeing all along as trauma in recent years). I was a young teacher working with students with and at risk for emotional and behavioral disorders. I was a behavior analyst for a large, urban district supporting many schools. I studied and researched evidence-based practices as a doctoral student. And now, I am a district leader of trauma-informed schools working tirelessly for the last five years to develop and nurture our movement in Metro Nashville Public Schools.

I developed a systems-wide model designed to leverage the power of collective impact and promote widespread organizational change throughout my district of 176 schools serving 86,000 students. When this pandemic started, a colleague said to me, This is what you were preparing us for, as she expressed gratitude for a training I had led a couple years back. Shortly thereafter, during a webinar about trauma-informed schools amidst the coronavirus, one of my co-panelists, the wise scholar Dr. Riane Eisler, said, Your work is like the canary in the coal mine for what we are facing now.

While we never would have wished for these challenges, she was right — this absolutely is what we were preparing for.

The world has changed, and the trauma-informed schools movement provides the ideal foundation for the path forward as we craft new ways of education to meet the needs of today's’ students.

Trauma-Informed Approaches in Post-Pandemic Instruction

We have our work cut out for us. When students return to school they will need us more than ever. But the need, and the need for change, is not new. What is new is that the pandemic will inevitability intensify needs, and it further exposes and amplifies the fractured parts of the education system that helped cement deep inequities into our society and failed to meet too many needs for too long.

This new collective trauma we are experiencing as a society necessarily comes with collective grief and coping — in healthy or maladaptive ways.

Adjusting to uncertainty and change is hard for all of us, let alone the millions of individual losses and traumatic events such as illness or death, abuse or neglect or domestic violence, loneliness and isolation, insufficient resources and threats to the safety and stability of whole families in epic proportions. It is exhausting when our stress response is constantly activated — and the same goes for kids. They too experience anxiety, grief, and stress– which are often even bigger and more unmanageable during childhood. These natural emotions can be an important part of coping and a critical step toward resilience, or lead to prolonged interruptions in development and social, emotional, or physical health problems far into adulthood.

The outcomes for each child largely depend on one thing — whether or not a child has a relationship with a nurturing caregiver to buffer all that stress. Simply put, the neurobiological storyline is clear: the most important ingredient for healing, resilience, and ultimately flourishing lies in the human medicine of connection.

Fortunately, we have great power to support our students’ resilience, well-being, and school success. Right now, millions of students are not getting a strong dose of relational medicine where they usually do — from interpersonal interactions with school adults who care about them. For those who don’t get the nurturing they need at home, trauma-informed schools have been intentionally ensuring it happens at school — and preparing to do what every school should when doors open again.

We will welcome students back carrying the wide variety of quarantine experiences they will bring — some excited and eager to share all that happened while we were away and ready to learn, others with backpacks overflowing with toxic stress far heavier than before. Things will be different, and trauma-informed school practices are vital.

Building Trauma-Informed Schools: A Beginner’s Guide

If you’re new to the process of building a trauma-informed school or classroom, I recommend starting with one or more of these seven key practices designed to empower and support resilience and school success for all:

  1. Ongoing training and support about adverse childhood experiences and trauma-informed school practices for all faculty/staff
  2. A mindset shift that prioritizes safe, stable, nurturing relationships and environments as the critical foundation for learning, while emphasizing practical and meaningful relationship-building strategies (e.g., morning meetings, community building activities, mentors for individual students)
  3. Structured yet flexible classrooms that incorporate low-stress physical spaces (e.g., muted lighting or volume, calming sensory materials, décor that fosters inclusivity and belongingness)
  4. Stress reduction and emotional regulation practices integrated into the curriculum and daily school schedule (e.g., mindfulness, breathing, chair yoga or movement, five-minutes of independent silent free choice)
  5. Materials in every classroom (e.g., peace corners, fidget toolbox or checkout system), and a regulation room if possible.
  6. Responding to symptoms of stress and dysregulation vs. reacting to problem behavior (e.g., co-regulation, trauma-informed de-escalation, conscious or restorative discipline)
  7. Strategies and supports for promoting staff wellness (e.g., self-care buddies, tap in/tap out, regulation cart for teachers, calming faculty lounge)

These practices are all designed to support wellness and resilience– for students and adults alike.

Looking Ahead

We have all gotten a sobering taste of how heightened stress heightens our sense of real or perceived threat, elevating anxiety and fear and provoking undesirable behavior — and we all need this right now.

The trauma-informed schools movement is skillfully equipped to repair what has been ruptured by carefully restoring harm, instilling hope, and helping young people make meaning as we empower us all to grow towards something better. While inequity and harm are amplified now, also are the helpers and the positive activism of a dedicated army of educators leveraged to do whatever it takes to support students’ needs.

When the quarantine is over our student’s social and emotional and mental health will be the most important thing for future success. We must now use and grow the skills the trauma-informed schools movement has been advocating for — as we connect through distance learning, and as we return to a better normal where schools are tasked with planting crucial seeds and scaffolds for resilience. The worst of times can bring out the best in us, and we must not waste the opportunity in this terrible tragedy — which is also a potent impetus for change as we strive towards a better education system, a more resilient society, and a more compassionate world.

Dr. Mary Crnobori is the Coordinator of Trauma-Informed Schools for Metro Nashville Public Schools. She holds a PhD in Special Education from Vanderbilt University and is a Board Certified Behavior Analyst. She developed and drives implementation of a system-wide approach to raising educator and community awareness about the impacts of childhood adversity on learning and school success, and a school-wide model for strategic implementation of healing-centered, resilience focused trauma-informed school practices. Dr. Crnobori has extensive experience with classroom teaching, consulting, district administration, speaking, research, and behavior analysis. She has co-authored multiple journal articles and book chapters and the book Managing Challenging Behaviors in Schools: Research-Based Strategies That Work, and has given a TEDx talk about trauma-informed schools. Most importantly, she gets her greatest joy from her role as a parent of two sons who attend public schools.

Watch Mary’s TEDx Talk here:

And learn more about her program to build trauma-informed schools:

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We apply the science of learning to create innovative educational solutions and content to improve outcomes from K-20 and beyond.

Inspired Ideas

Resources, ideas, and stories for PreK-12 educators. We focus on learning science, educational equity, social and emotional learning, and evidence-based teaching strategies. Be sure to check out The Art of Teaching Project, our guest blogging platform for all educators.

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