A Call From My Old Coworker Got Me Thinking About Trauma-informed Schools

Alieyyah Lewis is an intern with Bellwether’s Policy & Evaluation team.

In April of this year, my phone rang, and I was excited to see a former coworker’s name light up. We had taught together in the Cleveland Metropolitan School District (CMSD) for three years, and I had not heard from them since Christmas. Instead of good news and exciting life updates, my friend let me know that one of our former students had passed away from tragic circumstances earlier that week.

Alieyyah as a teacher standing in front of a white board at the head of a classroom

photo courtesy the author

I spent the next few weeks recharging my old iPhone to scroll through teaching memories, and I realized that my students and I were not new to coping with traumatic experiences. My preparation to become a classroom teacher in Atlanta during Teach For America’s Institute was smooth and built my confidence. However, once I entered the classroom, it became clear that my students had experienced homelessness, food insecurity, gun violence, effects of drugs, teenage pregnancy, and the criminal justice system long before they walked into room 136. 

My students carried their circumstances and their Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) in their backpacks. In Cleveland, OH, roughly 42.2% of children live below the poverty line. I did not understand why some of my students would sit in the back of the classroom and attempt to play games on the computer. I did not understand why others skipped class in the morning, knowing they would spend the day in the in-school suspension room. 

I did not understand that the decision to avoid work in the classroom could be a coping mechanism for ACEs. I now understand that out of every 30 students, 13 experience stress from three or more ACEs, which triples the chances of a student repeating a grade and makes that student twice as likely to have adverse health outcomes. I needed concrete skills to help my students focus on their academics amidst these challenges.

I wish I had known about the trauma-informed school model, which uses policies, procedures, and practices to resist re-traumatization. I believe this approach is more essential than ever to support cognitive, academic, and social-emotional development.

Even supporters of the trauma-informed school model wrongly assume that states must develop legislation to implement the model. While many states have successfully implemented that model with legislation, it is not required. Local education agencies can conduct research and develop strategies to establish an environment that is supportive of trauma-informed school models. In Ohio, where I taught, the Department of Education provides resources for a sustainable implementation of the trauma-informed model, and nationally, the Trauma and Learning Policy Initiative offers guidance on the six elements of school operations involved in building a trauma-informed school.  

COVID-19 has exacerbated the nationwide shortage of school-based mental-health providers. My former students and fellow educators in Cleveland are simultaneously combating ACEs from before the pandemic and the trauma incited by the “new normal,” which is full of uncertainty around reopening plans in the fall. But students and educators need support to monitor and combat ACEs no matter the instructional format. 

Even as schools navigate budget cuts, I encourage leaders, educators, community partners, and families to consider implementation of the trauma-informed school model. I know my students would have benefited during my time in the classroom.