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Trauma-Informed Schools

Posted on August 25, 2017

Trauma-Informed Schools

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.

9 responses to “Trauma-Informed Schools”

  1. Erin Dupuis says:

    Matt,

    Great to see this new blog in place! Congrats. I appreciate seeing the focus on education. I forwarded it to my brother and sister-in-law who are both in secondary education in the Boston area – one a Spanish teacher and the other, soon to be a school counselor. I have not sent them any of your blog posts before, so this really bridged a gap in my personal network and allowed me to share your work in a relevant way with more people I care about who do important work in our communities – thank you!

    Erin

    • Steve Jackson says:

      Matt,

      This is so cool. I spend a lot of time around teachers, as Rick is one, that I know this is a concern for many educators and school counselors. I am glad that you happened into this realm and it is mutually beneficial.

      Just a thought on another way to look at the trauma informed school ideology. Speaking from experience, I think that educators can contribute to trauma, so maybe this can be an informative means of getting that knowledge to those educators. My experience with second and fourth grade teachers were traumatic in different ways, but have both had lasting effects on me. Had I not had the support to counter the negatives, I may have developed differently. I can totally see the school-to-prison pipeline that many Black males experience, based on trauma induced by the education system. That’s my view, maybe not the view of others.

      Matt, keep up the good work! You are an amazing man, and this is another example of what you have to offer the world!

      • Matthew Bennett says:

        You make sure an important point my friend! School can be an amazing healing experience or be traumatizing in so many ways…and often both. So important we do everything we can to support successful schools and teacher in order to give every student a positive experience.

    • Matthew Bennett says:

      Thanks so much Erin for your continued support! Even for those of us in adult services, schools offer a great upstream advocacy and education opportunity.

  2. June Gorman says:

    Matt,

    Very interested and excited to find this; I think your work in general on healing the underlying trauma, widespread at all levels of our society, is critical. As a 35+ year educator in both California and Virginia, as well internationally, and founder of the Transformative Education Forum (TEF-Global), this has been my underlying premise as well in order to be able to create true full-potential learning environments of future self, community and complex world problem-solving. The key I focus on is educating for emotional and social intelligences, a priori in all learning environments. Thus, by necessity and by natural learning development, this means addressing the emotional/trauma damage created by the unexcavated emotional “diseases” of racism, sexism, inequality and all displaced inner-hurt (some of this is what you accurately pinpointed in your recent “Nazi” post) that damages this very ability to learn love ad acceptance of self that leads to greater understanding of all others, and the ability to see and create fair and more sustainable solutions.

    I’ve written about this in this article in the UN Chronicle: https://unchronicle.un.org/authors/june-gorman
    and here: http://www.susted.com/wordpress/content/whats-love-got-to-do-with-transformative-education_2015_03/ and have always believed that true full-brain education would necessitate this very kind of learning (by all in that learning environment) that you also discuss above and thus achieve better outcomes of learning in all fields and critically, the ability to problem-solve complex human social issues at all levels. It has always seemed to me the most important learning of all, for the human child in a traumatizing world.

  3. June Gorman says:

    Matt,

    Very interested and excited to find this; I think your work in general on healing the underlying trauma, widespread at all levels of our society, is critical. As a 35+ year educator in both California and Virginia, as well internationally, and founder of the Transformative Education Forum (TEF-Global), this has been my underlying premise as well in order to be able to create true full-potential learning environments of future self, community and complex world problem-solving. The key I focus on is educating for emotional and social intelligences, a priori in all learning environments. Thus, by necessity and by natural learning development, this means addressing the emotional/trauma damage created by the unexcavated emotional “diseases” of racism, sexism, inequality and all displaced inner-hurt (some of this is what you accurately pinpointed in your recent “Nazi” post) that damages this very ability to learn love and acceptance of self that leads to greater understanding of all others, and the ability to see and create fair and more sustainable solutions.

    I’ve written about this in this article in the UN Chronicle: https://unchronicle.un.org/authors/june-gorman
    and here: http://www.susted.com/wordpress/content/whats-love-got-to-do-with-transformative-education_2015_03/ and have always believed that true full-brain education would necessitate this very kind of learning (by all in that learning environment) that you also discuss above and thus achieve better outcomes of learning in all fields and critically, the ability to problem-solve complex human social issues at all levels. It has always seemed to me the most important learning of all, for the human child in a traumatizing world.

  4. SunnySP says:

    A few random thoughts: I worked in education for 20 years – from General to special to school psych to admin. and then spent 7 in health care and behavioral health. Trauma Informed is a concept I first heard in schools prior to 2010 when I made the jump to healthcare and behavioral health. In 2010 when I discussed ACEs hardly anyone knew about it. I’m now back in schools, and wish Trauma Informed practices were further along. I believe this is the single most critical factor for students’ success. But what I learned about during my years in healthcare and Behavioral health (where they discuss self care) – is that the concept of “self-care” is nearly non-existent in schools. I see school staff working so hard – endless hours to help children who are traumatized, and the concept of vicarious trauma never seems properly dealt with. Trauma Informed means the whole SYSTEM buys in – because it’s not just what we do for the kids – it’s what we do for everyone in the system, and what we do to change the system. If you believe in ACEs data you know it’s systemic. Refer to Van der Kolk and Matè and the ACEs study for more on Trauma.

    • Matthew Bennett says:

      Yes, yes, yes, yes, and yes! As a spouse of a teacher, I fully agree. Unhealthy systems burn out professionals, burned out professionals miss opportunities to help people heal and thrive. Thanks so much for bringing up this critical point!

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