Building a Trauma-Informed School
Written by: Trudi Wolfe
What does it take to build a trauma-informed school?
Why is a trauma-informed school important?
How can a trauma-informed school help teachers and students?
These are important questions when considering whether you want your staff to be trauma-informed. Although “trauma-informed schools” is a commonly heard concept, what does it mean? When I think of building a trauma-informed school, I think of the social-emotional support that students need to be successful. Teachers and principals are very knowledgeable in assessing students for academic needs and developing interventions to assist them in being successful. It has only been in recent years that schools have begun to recognize students need social-emotional support just as much as they need academic support. When I think of a trauma-informed school, I often reflect on a training that my previous school district did with Erica Giron with Starr Commonwealth. Throughout this basic training, Erica referred continually to the need to be “curious.” I think this is the foundation of building a mindset for a trauma-informed school. Being curious means “to wonder,” “to notice,” “to question.” Why is this student so dysregulated? What is happening in the classroom? What is happening at home? What is happening with his/her peers? What is happening within this child? What does this child need? How does this child perceive what is happening and what is needed?
Three Pillars of a Trauma-Informed School
I also think of the Three Pillars of a Trauma-Informed School: Safety, Relationships, and Regulation. Of course, we need to provide a school that is safe from harmful physical components, from bullying, from staff who could demean and devalue students. But from the student perspective, the school must feel safe. For each child, this is different. For the “Andys” of the world whom Heather T. Forbes describes in her book, Help for Billy, as coming from a home with stability and his needs being met, it takes very little to provide a school that feels safe to him. But for the “Billys,” who come from homes in which chaos and unmet needs are the norm, the school must provide many safeguards for the “Billys” to feel safe. The most important pillar for me is relationships. If each staff person works diligently to connect with students and to meet their social-emotional needs, even with the “Billys” in the school, the relationship will lead to a sense of felt-safety. The relationship will also be the cornerstone for regulation. As Dr. Lori Desautels often says, it is through “co-regulation” that children learn to regulate themselves. So, if a school has strong relationships between staff and students, this will lead to felt-safety and regulation, thereby providing the support the child needs to be successful in school.
To do this type of work, the teachers need both a message of “This is what we are going to do together,” as well as, “I am here to support you.”
Creating A Trauma-Informed School
As I begin a new school social work position at Loper Elementary School with Shelbyville Central Schools this school year, I have the unique opportunity to help this school build a trauma-informed school with the knowledge and experience gained by helping my previous school do the same. The difference is that as I worked to build the capacity of staff at my previous school to support the social-emotional needs of students, I was growing in my own knowledge of what a trauma-informed school is. With my new school, I already have this knowledge, so the implementation can be more thoughtful and organized. The most important piece of beginning this work is to have principal support. Building a trauma-informed school takes the full support of the principal. The principal must be willing to grow in knowledge, to think outside of the box, to try new interventions. The principal must be willing to be the leader in implementing trauma-informed strategies. At the first meeting with teachers to begin the process, the principal needs to be willing to start the meeting by saying, “I want our school to be trauma-informed.” The principal must believe in his/her social worker or counselor or whomever will be providing information to his/her staff. The principal must be willing to address any “bumps” along the road as implementation begins. As with any change, the system will desire to maintain homeostasis, to remain the same. Trauma-informed strategies require change. Not just a change in methods, not just a professional change, but a change in being an educator. It also requires personal change to be truly effective as well as an open mind. For some teachers, they may need to begin dealing with their own trauma or with the legacy of trauma in their family. They may need to look at how the students who come from rough places affect them as an educator and as a person. To do this type of work, the teachers need both a message of “This is what we are going to do together,” as well as, “I am here to support you.” This is the first of several planned blogs to chronicle the journey of Loper Elementary School as we work together to develop our trauma-informed school. Although many of the interventions will be the same as my previous school, the strategies and plans will be based upon the needs of the students at this school as well as the skills, talents, and hearts of the teachers and staff at this school. I am excited to share this journey with you, the reader.