Trauma-informed practices: the case for more compassionate schools

*Note:  This article appeared in the Charlotte Observer

Imagine a student, let’s call him Jonathan, sitting in algebra class.  Jonathan is staying at his cousin’s house because his father was murdered last year and his mother’s income from Bojangles’ doesn’t cover rent.  The lumpy couch and the uncertainty about what lies ahead make it impossible to sleep more than an hour at a stretch.

Jonathan’s head begins to droop in the middle of class.  Worried about her slumping test scores and frustrated by Jonathan’s recent unresponsiveness, the teacher issues him an ultimatum:  “If you don’t sit up and pay attention, you’ll earn after school detention.” Jonathan is suddenly overcome by the unfairness of it all.  He snaps, “How about leaving me the %@& alone?” His teacher calls for security and writes a disciplinary referral. It will be Jonathan’s third suspension of the year.

The Center for Disease Control began a study in the mid 90s which continues to this day called the Adverse Childhood Experiences study.  The study’s lead investigator concluded that childhood trauma, stemming from experiences such as abuse, neglect, loss of a loved one and food insecurity, represents the nation’s #1 public health problem.  Trauma victims who do not cope with their experiences in healthy ways increase their risk of depression, drug and alcohol addiction, domestic violence, chronic disease, mental illness, and suicide.

In our classrooms, the impact of trauma can range from distractibility to difficulty relating to others and managing emotions.  Teachers may perceive that a student just has behavior problems or is not interested in learning, when the reality is that student is simply too overwhelmed to learn.  Trauma can lead to behaviors which result in lost instructional time, reduce graduation rates and set our students on the road toward joblessness and poverty.

So what are teachers with students like Jonathan to do?  There is innovative work going on in North Carolina called the Compassionate Schools Initiative which is being led by Buncombe and Watauga Counties as well as the Public School Forum’s Resilience and Learning Project.  This movement is changing our approach to students who have experienced childhood adversity by training staff on the impact of trauma, equipping them with new strategies for helping students build resilience, and emphasizing self care for staff and students alike.  

Strategies used in Compassionate Schools include practicing unconditional positive regard, holding morning meetings, teaching students calming techniques, and providing students with choice and control when appropriate.  Trauma-informed practices also involve handling discipline in a restorative rather than punitive manner, giving students a structured opportunity to reflect on choices and offer input on fair consequences that would help them achieve their long term goals.  This approach empowers students like Jonathan and builds positive relationships between students and staff.

After several years of the Compassionate Schools Initiative in Buncombe County, schools have seen improvement in test scores and attendance as well as reductions in discipline referrals and suspensions.  The shift in culture has benefited all students, not just those who have experienced trauma.

Recently I had an opportunity to speak with a group of school counselors, psychologists, and social workers from CMS schools.   Over and over during that conversation I heard about the need to move from a reactive mode to a preventative mode and equip students with the coping skills they need to deal with adversity.  Support staff also felt that prevention needs to happen not just in their offices, but in everywhere in our schools. Trauma-informed practices and the Compassionate Schools Initiative have the potential to help us do that.  It’s time to take a meaningful step toward creating the compassionate, supportive school cultures our students need.

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