Tag Archives: trauma-informed practices

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.

Social-Emotional Needs First. Standards and Accountability Later.

Last week we connected with a frustrated school leader who has been valiantly trying to put into place a robust distance learning plan aligned with college readiness standards, all while attending to the mental health and social emotional needs of her students and staff. She shared stories of her high school students going to work to financially support their households, students serving as the primary caregivers to younger siblings, and families navigating housing insecurity and homelessness.

With the sobering reality of these basic needs juxtaposed with the virtual learning mandates coming from her district, feelings of anger, frustration, and hopelessness began to set in:

My kids are dealing with way bigger issues here. Focusing on virtual learning and an instructional plan, without paying attention to the human condition, is just plain wrong.

We know that many teachers have been saying the same thing. Across the country, schools are beginning to come to a shared understanding that pushing academic content at the pre-pandemic pace needs to stop. Instead of focusing so intently on standards and accountability, this moment calls for education leaders to reground in common sense and Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Maslow’s theory posits that basic needs must be met in order for individuals to have capacity to engage in deep cognitive thought and learning. 

Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs

We would be remiss not to acknowledge efforts by schools to address food insecurity. But at the same time, we see numerous examples of school systems who desperately continue trying to meet grade level expectations and standards in English Language Arts, Math, and Science at the expense of attending to the social-emotional health and well-being of students.

Many teachers and parents are in a hamster wheel of anxiety about somehow failing their kids if they are “not on pace” — a task the even best of teachers grapple to achieve for all of their students within pre-pandemic circumstances. In a time of stress and anxiety, we are creating more stress and anxiety, which is not conducive to teaching or learning. Continue reading

I Wish I Had Learned About the Science of the Brain and Toxic Stress

This post is part of a week-long series about educator and leader pipelines. Read the rest of the series here.

The first time I met Martin*, his fellow kindergartners were at the rug listening to a book, and he was under a chair. I was a first-year teacher visiting the students who would be in my first grade class the next year. I watched as Martin noisily crawled under desks while the teacher read aloud; she had clearly reached her limit and decided to attempt to ignore the behavior for the time being. Like me, her teacher training had not prepared her for what to do in the “child-under-desk” scenario.

I resolved that when Martin joined my class the next year, I would make sure that he participated in class activities. I spent the summer reading up on classroom management and student engagement. What I didn’t know until many years later is that there is a body of knowledge on the science of the brain and stress that would have made me a much more effective teacher to Martin — and many of the other students in my class.

The author at the graduation ceremony for her teacher preparation master’s program.

Martin, a stocky, apple-cheeked boy with a winning grin, turned out to be one of my most rewarding and challenging students. Each day that he was in my class, I braced myself for some kind of outburst or confrontation. He threw tantrums, as well as the occasional backpack, book, or pencil. He had a hard time sitting still. He picked fights. He became quickly frustrated and often refused to do work. On the other hand, he regularly made me and his classmates laugh. He relished my praise and listened attentively when I sat down with him one on one. He was so proud and delighted when he finally started to read.

I thought of Martin many times this summer as I read The Deepest Well by renowned pediatrician Nadine Burke Harris. In the book, Harris lays out in detail how adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) can have a profound impact on children’s and adults’ physical and mental health. She describes her journey to understand and incorporate into her medical practice lessons from a seminal study, published in 1998, that found longterm health effects related to ten specific ACEs: physical, emotional, or sexual abuse; physical and emotional neglect; loss of a parent to death or separation; a parent who is alcoholic, depressed, or mentally ill; or witnessing a mother being abused. Continue reading