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What Teachers Should Know About Creating a Trauma-Informed School Environment

Amy Lauren Smith

Editor’s note: Choices teacher-adviser Amy Lauren Smith is a sixth to eighth grade health teacher at the Shanghai American School in Shanghai, China, and the brilliant mind behind our Teachers Guide each month.


I recently attended a four-day workshop on Adaptive Schools from the team at Thinking Collaborative. (I would highly recommend it!) There, I was able to squeeze into a session at the Los Angeles Education Partnership (LAEP), a non-profit that works with over 17,000 students in high-poverty neighborhoods, with large numbers of English language learners and first generation college-goers.

I was particularly excited to hear about their new project for creating trauma-informed (also called trauma-sensitive) schools. With the help of a grant from Kaiser Permanente, LAEP is going to be piloting a program in 20 schools that will help students deal with high-levels of stress, as well as equip teachers with coping and self-care strategies to handle their own burnout and compassion fatigue.

As this is a new area for me, I asked Lara Kain, senior director for LAEP, to explain a few key points she’d like teachers, admin, and policymakers to know about creating trauma-informed schools.


1. It’s all about relationships.

The familiar adage rings true: “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” Teachers and administrators cannot change the fact that students are affected by trauma outside of school, but we can adjust how we respond to them inside our classrooms and communities. Research shows that positive adult relationships and the development of resiliency in children can mitigate harm.


2. Trauma and toxic stress impact learning and behavior.

Student misbehavior and attention issues are often indicators of trauma and stress. That's because adverse childhood experiences—such as sexual abuse, domestic violence, parental drug use, incarceration, or mental illness—can have a profound impact on a child’s developing brain and body. These traumas can also include on-going daily stressors, like food or housing insecurity, fears over immigration, and frequent exposure to community violence.


3. If students don’t feel safe, they can’t access content.

Students experiencing ongoing trauma and toxic stress have a heightened "fight, flight, or freeze" response. When this natural biological response to fear is repeatedly activated, it can impact proper brain and nervous system function, making it difficult for the student to feel safe or focus on school.

Some ways to create a feeling of safety: setting up our school environments with predictable routines, comfortable spaces for students, and an emphasis on caring relationships, community, and belonging.


4. This approach is a paradigm shift for some.

When educators approach students from a place of compassion and not consequence, they break down defenses and open the door for relationships to form. Educators don't necessarily need to know all the details about what happened to an individual student, but they do need to understand the broad spectrum of issues contributing to behavior and understand that children's conduct is often learned elsewhere as a form of protection.


5. Self and collective care is essential for all school staff.

Researchers from Pennsylvania State University analyzed teacher stress and concluded, “Teaching has become one of the most stressful occupations, with alarmingly high rates of job dissatisfaction and turnover. This escalating crisis is affecting students’ educational outcomes, impacting teachers’ health, and costing U.S. schools billions of dollars each year.”


Staff are typically not trained to maintain their own well being while also experiencing their students’ emotional trauma. If schools can help prepare teachers to support students while protecting themselves from compassion fatigue and burnout, it can reduce turnover and help improve morale.


Interested in learning more? Lara recommends this additional reading:


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