We know that traumatic stress can have long-term health effects on developing brains, and as a result, districts across the United States are acknowledging the role that trauma plays in students’ achievement opportunities. But, the question is how well are districts defining and dealing with trauma? How we address trauma within our school districts depends on how well educators understand what it means to practice trauma-informed pedagogy.
What frequently gets overlooked is the fact that students who are experiencing trauma can get retraumatized in school through poorly chosen readings, activities, and assignments. If we are encouraging trauma-informed practices and not addressing the injustices that occur in our schools in policy and practice, then we are not being intentional about the issue. The fact is that leaving societal issues unaddressed and treating individual traumas without naming systematic injustices poses the risk of leaving trama unrecognized and retraumatizing students. As we have stated in our previous blogs, a large part of learning is to create an environment conducive to learning and acquiring new information. This involves addressing certain issues that affect students' livelihood and using an assets-based approach to teaching students the connections between their reality and the past. See, it is not only important to have a trauma-informed approach to education but it is essential that we also apply them accurately.
3 Common Ways that Schools Traumatize/Retraumatize Students
Without a deeper understanding of trauma and how it affects students' lives, one can not understand how to address these issues effectively in the classroom. According to a report from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), trauma is best understood as, “an event, series of events, or set of circumstances that is experienced by an individual as physically or emotionally harmful or life-threatening and that has lasting adverse effects.” As we dive deeper into this trauma series, here are 3 of the common ways that schools can traumatize or retraumatize students.
- Curriculum about Racism: In the face of students who are still struggling to build positive self-identity materials in the classroom that address race, gender, etc. have a retraumatizing effect on students. Learning about what happened to people in the past while experiencing it and being forced to refer to this event as “past tense” can affect students. This is an implicit suggestion that their reality is somehow in their imagination. As a result, this can add to the experience of racism. When students are not allowed to explore injustices, it adds to the trauma that schools are trying to address.
- Tracking: Tracking is the process of sorting and separating students based on perceived academic ability. Instead of offering extra support as intended, the message that it sends to students is not supportive. For students struggling to build a positive self-identity, it is damaging for them to be labeled “not smart” especially in the face of dehumanizing systems such as racism. This is a very common policy that a consultant for Teachers College Inclusive Classroom Projects found that harm students and create traumatic experiences.
- Behavioral or Disciplinary Policies: Policies that cloak districts' inflexibility for a lesson in responsibility harm students because it minimizes people who are marginalized in and outside of the school. Paul C. Gorski, founder of the Equity Literacy Institute and EdChange explains:
“When [educators] are worried about teaching kids ‘responsibility without mention of the systemic challenges and barriers they experience, it is a deficit mindset.”
This is based on the idea that it is the students who need fixing, and not the systems and policies that focus disproportionately on student responsibility often sustain the same unjust structures that created the trauma initially. Most of the consequences for behavioral issues lead to children being embarrassed by adults, and this, as a result, is violence towards kids and can cause trauma.
A trauma-informed organization 1.) realizes the widespread impact of trauma and potential paths for recovery, 2.) recognizes the signs and symptoms of trauma in students or anyone involved, and lastly, 3.) responds to trauma by integrating knowledge about trauma into practices and procedures to prevent re-traumatization.
Schools as Healing Spaces
Inviting change into schools that promote healing requires that we review policies, curricula, and practices that may be traumatizing or retraumatizing our students. The process of school growth depends on how well we learn new information and begin to apply it to our policies and curricula to create better learning experiences for students. Things to consider may be how teachers structure their classrooms/periods. Making school a more human experience giving more time for students who came home hungry, sleep-deprived, or in extreme traumatizing situations to accomplish learning objectives sets them up for success.
Structuring a curriculum around helping students navigate the issues they are facing in their communities is a way to adapt content to the classes according to Cornelius Minor. He explains that through the lens of curiosity and critical inquiry students could explore their own lived experiences. This way they will recognize their voice and maybe bring new ideas and knowledge around the issues. However, to make a difference there has to be a sense of equity within schools policy, procedures, and practices. We have to be proactive about trauma especially since it affects student learning.
This blog series will touch on the impact and influence of trauma in education. Each week we will touch on how trauma affects effective instruction through teachers, students, and administrators. We aim to inform educators of the threats that trauma has on student learning and hope to continue discussing how we can provide equitable access to quality learning within our schools. We can’t eliminate traumatic experiences outside of our schools; however, we can do our best to provide a safe place and healing experiences for our students by recognizing the impact of trauma and educating and inspiring new knowledge.
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