Trauma-Informed School: Changing the “Identified Client”

Posted on September 1, 2017

Trauma-Informed School: Changing the “Identified Client”

In psychology, we use a term “Identified Client” to represent who is the focus of our treatment. Historically, the identified client of schools has been the student. This focus has driven our conception of schools, our thinking about school’s role in student mental health, and how we fund the resources available in the school environment.

When the student is the identified client the blame for negative academic, behavioral, social, and economic outcomes fall squarely on the school. In other words, if the student fails, the school failed the student. It is out of this thinking that we get terms like school-to-prison pipelines. While schools are a major contributor to the life outcomes of their student, schools are in no way the only factor. Poverty, racism, trauma, community violence, lack of economic opportunities, underfunding of schools in impoverished areas, a struggling criminal justice system, and maybe the most influential factor, the student’s family dynamics at home.

If the student is the identified client and schools hold the responsibility for all the life outcomes of their students, we will continue to fail a good portion of the kids in our society. Anyone who has spent a day in a school or educational program knows that a student’s ability to succeed academically and behaviorally are depended on their home environment as much, if not more than the environment at school. The greatest challenge of trauma-informed schools to our traditional model of education is transferring the identified client from the student to the student’s family.

For most students, their academic success is dependent on both the quality of their education and the health of the family system. If one of these influences is traumatic or disorganized, their ability to reach their academic and, later, economic potential is significantly limited. Schools and educators are uniquely positioned to identify trauma and other struggles in the home environment.

Ask any teacher, “what home issues are affecting your students’ ability to succeed?” and you will get answers ranging from abuse, neglect, a parent’s addiction or mental health issue, poverty, homelessness, domestic violence, and divorce. Traditional thinking requires the teacher to report these issues if they reach a certain level of concern and hope that another system comes to the rescue. These systems often do not see the extent the family dysfunction or economic struggles are having on the child. A less informed intervention is often a less effective one. Many parents are also hesitant to engage in systems outside the school due to fear concerning their immigration status, the stigma around getting services such as mental health, or just lack the resource or motivation to get their children and the entire family the help they need.

Since schools are ideally positioned to identify issues and have children longer than any other societal institution, why don’t we see schools as resource centers where families and children can address their social, emotional, and psychological needs? We have volumes of evidence that trauma, emotional dysregulation, and mental health issues affect academic performance and, later, ability to succeed in employment. So if the goal of schools is to prepare the student for success beyond the school years, shouldn’t schools prioritize the social, emotional, and psychological health of their students?

To take the next logical step, so much of a student’s social, emotional, and psychological health is determined by their experience in their family system. If schools attempt to address the students’ social, emotional, and psychological health in the academic environment only, they are missing the root causes of most students’ behavioral and academic issues. Student success depends heavily on family health. A healthy family provides the foundation for a successful educational experience.

We need to stop blaming schools, and we need to stop blaming parents, this approach is getting us nowhere! We need to step back from this judgment and ask the question, “What do schools need to ensure the academic success of every student?” You cannot answer this question without shifting the focus from the individual student to the family. A trauma-informed school wraps services around both the student and family to promote both mental health and academic success.

Most schools are not currently funded to take on this challenge. The school-to-prison pipeline is not the fault of teachers or schools; it is the responsibility of the larger society who do not understand the connection between family dynamics and academic success. If we expect schools to disrupt patterns of intergenerational poverty, we must give them the resources necessary to address the needs of not just the student but the family as well.

I would love to know if you have seen any best practices emerging out of schools in your communities. If so, please share in the comment section.

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