Over the course of the 2018-19 school year, seven parents of students at McGee's Crossroads Elementary School, which straddles farms and suburbs near Raleigh, N.C., died. Students were struggling with the trauma of losing a parent, in several cases violently. Their classmates didn't always know how to support them, and in some cases taunted them over these experiences. The principal overheard one say, "I'm glad your dad died."
During the next school year, the school took a new approach to help kids who might be acting out because of stress and trauma in their own lives. Armed with so-called trauma-informed techniques, school staff focused more on building relationships with students and understanding why they misbehaved. No longer did teachers ask, “What is wrong with you?” when kids acted out, but “What happened to you?” to determine what to do next. Suspensions dropped 52%.
“Taking the few minutes to build a relationship with the kids and helping them feel like they belong is actually helping reduce discipline issues,” school counselor Carmen White said. “It’s helping the students be more successful academically.”
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, research indicated that as many as 50% of children had experienced some form of trauma or victimization, including sexual assault, abuse, the death of a loved one, natural disasters, a car accident or community violence. These experiences can tax the brain and make it harder for kids to learn and behave well. Now, 40,000 U.S. children have lost a parent to COVID-19, food and housing insecurity remains a concern and more kids are suffering from higher rates of anxiety and depression.
As schools reopen amid ongoing uncertainty, interest in trauma-informed teaching practices is growing among educators. The American Rescue Plan, the federal pandemic relief bill approved in March, included some funding for training, and some states and school districts have allocated money as well.
“We’re going to have a lot of behavior challenges, a lot of relationship challenges,” said Katie Rosanbalm, senior research scientist at Duke University’s Center for Child and Family Policy. “We have to reconnect, rebuild the structure, help people feel like this is a safe place to be and start to process all of this emotion that we have tied up in knots in our stomachs that we haven’t let out. And if we can do that, the kids can settle in and start to learn again.”
Brains on trauma
Results from the Adverse Childhood Experiences, or ACE, Study in the late 1990s linked childhood trauma with life-long issues. It sparked a new understanding about the challenges some kids face in school, and task forces across the country sprung up to dig into the connections, said Marissa T. del Rosario, a trauma-sensitive schools specialist for the Trauma and Learning Policy Initiative in Massachusetts.
At the time, Massachusetts schools were suspending and expelling kids at high rates, del Rosario said. “Lo and behold, who was being suspended? It was often students who had some history of traumatic events,” she said. “The research lined up with what was happening in schools.”
Depending on the person, everything from chronic abuse, neglect and domestic violence to bullying and homelessness can cause trauma and, with it, detectable changes in the brain, said Samantha Koury, a project manager and trainer with the University of Buffalo’s Institute on Trauma and Trauma-Informed Care.
Brain research shows that when children experience complex trauma, especially over a prolonged period, the amygdala, the brain’s emotion and fear response center, becomes overactive, Koury said. Meanwhile, the prefrontal cortex, which helps control impulses and learn, is mostly offline. Traumatized kids can shut down, fall back on negative thoughts and have trouble regulating their behavior. They are more likely to fail a grade or be identified with learning and behavior issues.
Traditional discipline strategies can make those negative responses worse. A common approach to a child who can’t sit still is movement breaks, said Jessica Minahan, a behavior analyst and author of The Behavior Code: A Practical Guide to Understanding and Teaching the Most Challenging Students. But if a child dealing with trauma is misbehaving because their negative thoughts tell them they’ll fail the day’s math test, a walk to the water fountain only allows them to ruminate about the test and return with more disruptive behavior, Minahan said.
Instead of stretching their legs, their brain needs a break. A more trauma-informed approach, Minahan said, would be to give them a hidden picture sheet so their brain can stop worrying about the test as they hunt for images.
Morning meetings, optimistic closures
Coming up with the right strategies for students requires that school staff have a relationship with them, a hallmark of trauma-informed practices. And because trauma is so widespread, experts advocate a whole-school approach.
“So much of it is about the mindset shift and the culture of the school,” said Elizabeth DeKonty, director of the Public School Forum of North Carolina’s resilience and learning project, which helped McGee’s Crossroads. “All of these individual strategies can be put in place, but if you don’t have the majority of your staff bought into that mindset …, it makes putting different strategies in place really hard.”
Trauma-informed strategies can include a wide variety of practices that focus on relationship building and helping kids understand emotions. At McGee’s Crossroads, all teachers start the day with a morning meeting where they cultivate a sense of belonging and end with an “optimistic closure,” where kids share something they’re excited about.
Classrooms have calm-down spaces with fidget toys or coloring sheets. Posters explain different emotions with words and pictures. And teachers, who also may be dealing with the negative impacts of trauma themselves, are rewarded when they take time for their own self-care. “We need our teachers to be really strong emotionally because it’s hard work,” White said.
There’s still room for consequences and discipline in trauma-informed schools, Rosanbalm said. But first, schools need to connect with students and understand what’s triggered their behavior before they settle on how to address it.
“Discipline is about learning and teaching a different way to be,” she said. “It’s not about punishing and getting someone back for their behavior.”
In recent weeks, Rosanbalm has spent her days traveling to schools as they prepare for a new year. With all the worry about the academic loss that students have experienced during the Covid-19 pandemic, Rosanbalm’s fear is that schools will simply launch into writing and math lessons when the first bell rings.
“The biggest thing we want teachers to do for the first two weeks of school is not even think about academics yet,” she said, “but think about reconnecting, think about building relationships, think about setting the structure up again so kids are familiar with exactly what school is going to look like and how to behave.”