Posted on August 25, 2017
Over the last several years, progressively more of my work involves schools and school districts. Like most things in my career, my work with schools is 90% chance and 10% strategy. Someone who worked with families experiencing homelessness in a school setting saw me present at the National Healthcare for the Homeless Conference and invited me to speak at the National Association of the Education of Homeless Children and Youth. These sessions were so packed we had security turning folks away due to fire code violations!
From this exposure and through other means, I’ve started working with districts in Colorado, California, Arizona, and Ohio as well as a larger project with the Colorado Department of Education. Having run education programming (aka day treatment) in the child welfare system and running a special education school gave me a strong background and shared language. It also helps that I am married to a 1st-grade teacher!
Since my early days of thinking about the trauma-informed paradigms, I realized that schools play a critical role in addressing the effects of trauma on the individual, family, and larger community. Almost every person that ends up in prison, a homeless shelter, child welfare facility, psychiatric hospital, or substance abuse treatment facility all spent a significant portion of their life in the school environment. There is no better-positioned institution in our society to address trauma both from a treatment and prevention perspective.
I must admit, I was more than a little nervous to walk into schools and start training educational staff and leadership. My first concern was that so much gets dumped on schools. Every politician thinks they know exactly how to “fix” education. While their “solutions” sounds good from a podium, few have an adequate understanding of education and their strategies often cause frustration and do more harm than good, No Child Left Behind (R.I.P. 2001-2015) is the perfect example. Asking teachers and schools to meet the challenge of becoming trauma informed could too easily seem like “one more thing” we are asking under-resourced and overwhelmed educators to consider.
My second concern was that teachers get so much unhelpful professional development or trainings on yet another “flavor of the month effort or curriculum” that I know many would see their time with me as a waste, at least initially. I’ve been surrounded by teachers all my life and I always hear, “I can’t believe I have to go to their training when I could be working in my classroom!” Plus, teachers know how to teach and have high expectations of those in the role of teaching them.
Both these concerns were quickly replaced by my educational audiences’ excitement and engagement around the topic of trauma-informed schools and trauma-informed classrooms. These folks care so deeply about their students that helping them understand the academic and behavioral struggles resulting from trauma gave them an exciting new way to think and approach children that traditional methods failed to address successfully.
This post starts a series on trauma-informed schools. For those not working in educational environments, PLEASE do not disengage on this topic. Even if you never set foot in a school in your professional role, I believe everyone reading this has patients and clients whose life situations are dramatically affected by their experience in school settings. Unlike other initiatives, we cannot expect teachers and school staff alone to create trauma-informed schools. Creating and maintaining trauma-informed schools is a community effort and as experts and leaders in your community, YOU play a critical role.
My questions this week: when you think of what needs to be in place for a school to be trauma informed, what do you think is important for schools and districts to consider? Please put your thoughts in the comment section.