By Alicia Rozum, MSW, PPSC | January 6, 2016
Project Director, Mental Health, California School-Based Alliance
Have you ever tried to reason with an irrational person? Generally, it’s a pretty futile endeavor. You’re processing up in your cerebral cortex, being rational and using logic. The other person is literally or figuratively placing fingers in ears and saying, “La la la la la. I can’t hear you.”
This is an experience many school professionals have on a daily basis. They come across students who are inattentive or provocative. Who aggravate peers. Who sometimes can’t control their emotions. Who lash out, strike out, shout out, and sometimes threaten harm to others or themselves.
A powerful practice called trauma-informed care can help all of us make better sense of such interactions. Schools that implement this practice are called trauma-informed or trauma-sensitive schools. In my work as a school social worker and with the California School-Based Health Alliance, I’ve had an opportunity to see these approaches transform schools, communities and the lives of individual students (see the case study at the end of this post for a great example).
You can learn more about trauma-informed strategies for schools by attending the California School-Based Health Alliance's statewide conference Advocating for Equity in Education & Health Care in Sacramento May 5-6, 2016. Learn more and register here.
One of the classic examples we use to demonstrate human response to threat and trauma is the encounter with a wild predator or weapon-wielding mugger. But the point is that you’re walking along feeling fine and, suddenly, something is threatening your life.
When this happens, a primitive part of your brain instantly takes over. The fight, flight or freeze response kicks in. You cannot think clearly. You may make irrational choices. You’re feeling all kinds of powerful reactions in your body—tension, maybe nausea, maybe rage. You might cry, hold your breath, shout, start running or lash out.
Children with past or current experience of trauma have these same kinds of physical and mental reactions. And, like survivors of wars and natural disasters, the reactions may kick up unexpectedly, even in safe situations, long after the actual traumatic experience has passed.
When school professionals understand these dynamics and how to respond in a trauma-informed manner, a whole new range of possibilities opens up.
History of trauma in school children is very common and spans a remarkable range. Children may witness violence in their home or community. They may be victims of physical or sexual abuse. They may live with mentally ill or substance-abusing family members. They may be unsettled by a messy divorce or a parent going to prison.
Some schools are located in communities with particularly high rates of potentially traumatic experiences. This is especially true in low-income, high-stress communities, both urban and rural, with high levels of neighborhood violence and poverty.
The effects of trauma can be powerful and profound. Trauma impairs the most essential elements of learning, including thinking, attentiveness and the ability to process new information. It can interfere with the basic tasks of child and adolescent development—social, emotional, cognitive and physical—by literally changing physical function and connections within the brain.
A national study called The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study investigated the connections between certain types of trauma in childhood and health status in adulthood. The more trauma experiences individuals had, the more likely they were to express a range of poor health outcomes. These include alcoholism and depression, heart and liver disease, sexual risk taking and early death.
Trauma Experiences of Children in Schools
We might expect teachers, administrators, counselors and health staff to understand these issues, but many have never had training on trauma-informed care. Additionally, students may reach out to staff who don’t fill those traditional “helper” roles. Relationships based on respect and trust, more than any specific role, are often most reassuring to students.
This is why, in a trauma-informed school, every staff member in every role is given information about the effects of trauma. All staff need to understand the strategies the school has chosen to address trauma, as well as the steps they can take to support students and contribute to a positive school environment.
It is especially important to offer training for security personnel such as school safety officers. These individuals are most likely to be dealing with students expressing volatility—threats, defiance, despair or violence. Any of these situations might involve a student experiencing a trauma reaction. Background knowledge about trauma will be helpful when choosing how to respond to the situation or crisis.
Schools also benefit when students understand how to respond respectfully, safely and appropriately in the face of a peer’s outburst.
There are a number of ways staff can interact with students that will help prevent incidents, minimize those that do occur, and transform the school environment in productive ways. For example:
Be proactive. One of the most effective things teachers can do is create a safe, respectful and positive environment in their classroom. All students benefit from this, but it is especially helpful for young people who have had experiences of trauma.
When staff know a student has past or current trauma experiences, they can also teach the student skills that help modulate trauma reactions. Students themselves often know when they’re feeling tense or about to “blow.” Staff might teach students stress-management exercises (“take three slow, deep breaths”) or arrange regular or “on-call” check-ins with a trusted adult during lunch period.
It’s also possible to offer structural adaptations. If a student fights repeatedly with one specific person during the lunch period, a schedule change might put the students into separate lunch periods. If that’s not an option, a student might engage in alternative activities during lunch, such as intramural sports or a student club.
Watch for signs and be aware of triggers. Some students exhibit signs—a sort of “precursor”—that they are close to a sudden release of powerful emotions. This might be directed toward others, or directed inward, at themselves.
Staff can tune into these signs as they get to know students. Students can often identify their own signs, or learn them with the help of school staff. It might be tapping a foot, tensing up the shoulders, having trouble with eye contact or speaking aggressively to others.
Staff may also be able to identify specific triggers that make it more likely a student will experience a trauma response. This might be aggression from another student, a transition during the school day, being yelled at by a teacher or being teased by peers.
Awareness of signs and triggers gives students and staff a chance to have a conversation about what the student needs before an incident occurs. Perhaps the student can calm down by stepping outside the classroom for a moment or speaking with the teacher or a counselor.
Some classes create a “peace corner”—a space available to any student, but especially useful for those dealing with trauma responses. The space usually has a range of tactile items students can use (soft toys, kaleidoscope, art supplies). This can help students learn to self-regulate when tensions arise.
Approach mindfully, contain and create safety. If a trauma-affected student does have an outburst, it’s important to remember this is not a time to try to reason things out. The student is experiencing a deep set of brain responses that will not respond to reason. The brain is primed to react—or over-react—in response to a threat, and the student is not fully in control.
This is a point where some staff want to ask, “What’s happening here? What’s going on? What’s wrong with you?” But if a student is having a trauma response, these are not useful questions. Instead, this is a time to offer reassurance and contain the situation to protect everyone’s safety. In our experience, calming expressions are usually most helpful. “It’s OK.” “You’re safe right now. You’re safe here.” “Try to breathe.”
Once students feel safe enough to calm down, they will have more access to their thinking brain. Then they are better prepared to listen to reason and collaborate in solutions.
An essential element of trauma-informed schools is the implementation of community-building activities. Different strategies can be used to achieve this goal, depending on each school’s setting and needs.
These activities engage students and staff alike, creating ownership of the school environment, building a sense of belonging and developing greater empathy. The need for community building is not exclusive to “troubled” schools or high-risk communities. When schools take these steps to help students build positive relationships with intention and skill, they are preparing them for greater success throughout their lives.
Some of the community-building strategies we’ve seen put into successful practice include:
Restorative Justice. Students and adults are empowered to address and resolve conflicts through mediated conversations and small group conferences. Instead of focusing on rules and punishments, the focus is on harm done, accountability for behaviors, and appropriate reparations. (Read more about restorative justice in action in this New York Times article.)
Positive Behavioral Interventions & Supports (PBIS): This is a framework that assists school staff in implementing evidence-based behavioral interventions shown to enhance academic and social outcomes for students. For example, one PBIS approach is to revamp school rules. Students and staff come up with a brief list of simple rules that create a powerful foundation for a positive school environment. A classic example is “Be Safe, Be Respectful, Be Responsible.” Students and teachers learn to look at conflicts or troublesome behavior through the lens of these rules and work together to make their classrooms and school a positive community for all.
This case study demonstrates the way trauma-informed interventions can succeed in creating new possibilities for students and teachers alike.
Soon after Jayla started ninth grade, teachers in her new high school knew she could be a challenge. She was easily distracted in class. She talked back. She had several altercations with peers.
But she was also a smart and capable girl who could apply herself when she chose—when a teacher made a good connection, when a subject really interested her, or sometimes when it was just a good day. Most of her teachers enjoyed her.
Mr. Miller did not enjoy Jayla. She was a constant disruption in his social studies class. She was disciplined frequently, and he kicked her out of class at least twice a week. For Jayla, something was different about this class.
Mr. Miller was a big guy—well over six feet—with a booming bass voice and a big personality. He managed his crowded classrooms through his powerful presence. He shouted at students to get their attention. It usually worked well, but it didn’t work with Jayla.
If he moved over toward her desk when she was using her cell phone, she didn’t straighten up and put away the phone. She stood right up to face him. If he yelled at her to put the phone away, she yelled right back, usually cursing him in the process.
When Jayla was young—seven or eight—she lived at home with her mom, stepdad and younger sister. Her stepdad was an alcoholic who often came home drunk and violent. He was a big man with a big voice who yelled at the whole family and threatened them physically.
Jayla’s mom was unable to deal with her husband, so Jayla became the family protector. She stepped between her stepdad and her mom when they argued. She pushed back and yelled at him when he tried to hit her mom or her younger sister. She called the police or ran to the neighbors for help when the violence became more severe.
Eventually, her stepdad was arrested. By the time Jayla was in middle school, he was out of jail, in recovery, and doing much better as a parent. This experience of trauma in Jayla’s life was past.
But the experience of being in the presence of Mr. Miller—a big man with a big voice who yelled at her—put her back in high-vigilance mode. Her reaction was, “I’m not backing down!”
A social worker from the school based-health center could see how Jayla’s early trauma was being played out in the social studies class. She was determined to work with Jayla and Mr. Miller to discover some solutions.
First, keeping confidentiality in mind, she spoke with Mr. Miller about Jayla’s background. Mr. Miller needed to understand the source of Jayla’s behavior. It wasn’t about him. It was about a big man with a big voice coming up to Jayla, and Jayla feeling like a seven-year-old needing to protect her family again.
The social worker then set up a meeting with Jayla and Mr. Miller. She asked each of them to talk about what they needed.
“I need you to pay attention in class,” said Mr. Miller, “to put down your phone, and to participate.”
Jayla replied, “I need you to stop yelling at me.”
They talked together about some things that could help improve their interactions. When Mr. Miller needed to speak to Jayla, she suggested he try to establish eye contact with her before he approached her. If he approached from the side instead of straight on, it would feel less aggressive. He could use a softer tone of voice. Instead of walking up to her, he might invite her to come up to his desk for a moment (but it was important he invite, not demand she do so).
Jayla acknowledged that she also had some work to do in avoiding distractions and the temptation to misbehave in the first place. She agreed to sit in a different desk, away from some of the students who provoked and diverted her, and to keep her phone in her backpack during class.
These agreements worked—most of the time. Mr. Miller still yelled at Jayla on occasion, and Jayla still pulled out her cell phone sometimes. But both of these individuals came out of this experience with a better understanding of the other person, and stronger respect for each other’s needs and feelings.
Trauma-informed schools are succeeding in many communities across the nation. While there is no single approach that will be appropriate for every school, there are ways every school can take steps to put these principles into practice. In these environments, and with these skills, staff and students together can make impressive improvements.
The experience of early trauma is not destiny. Building caring relationships with students who’ve experienced trauma can help build connections in their brain and change challenging behavior. When we recognize and accommodate students’ trauma responses, we open a path of possibility that can lead to greater academic success and richer fulfillment throughout their lives.
The California School Based Health Alliance offers a wide range of workshops, technical assistance and consultation services to schools within California. We are also an affiliate of the National School-Based Health Alliance and can help connect schools outside of California to their state affiliates. We and other school-based health alliances can help schools find a match between the range of trauma-informed approaches and their own needs and interests. If you’d like to learn more, I hope you’ll contact me.
Alicia Rozum, MSW, PPSC, is the Project Director, Mental Health, at the California School-Based Health Alliance. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can contact the California School-Based Health Alliance at email@example.com.