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The case for creating trauma-sensitive schools

By Eric Rossen


In the wake of another national tragedy, it is more apparent than ever that our schools must embrace a stronger role in supporting the mental health of our youth by developing trauma-sensitive schools. The mass shooting in Newtown, Connecticut that killed several staff and 20 elementary school students came less than two months after Hurricane Sandy, a storm that brought devastation and displacement to tens of thousands of people in the Northeast. Both events offer stark reminders of the acute stress our students may face when experiencing cataclysmic events. However, even in the absence of such tragedies, many of our nation’s children are in chronic distress.

Despite our collective efforts, youth continue to have adverse and traumatic experiences, such as chronic child maltreatment, domestic and community violence, homelessness, natural disasters, parental substance abuse, death of a loved one, and the list goes on. These experiences can significantly undermine the ability to learn, form relationships, and manage emotions and behavior; all critical components of succeeding in school and in life. To improve our country’s education system, we must first address these barriers to progress; and schools remain the most logical place to do it.

As a school psychologist, I have had the privilege of working with students, parents, and fellow educators to help students learn, develop, and grow in a healthy environment. I have also had the challenge of identifying the mental health problems that impede learning where all too often, the initial question is, “What’s wrong with you?” rather than “What happened to you?” or “How can we help?” Some believe that schools are in the business of educating, not mental health. On the contrary, supporting student mental health is a pre-requisite to learning, not an afterthought.

Interestingly, while only a fraction of kids who need mental health care actually receive it, 70-80% of those that do receive it get it at school. Schools often have a cadre of health and mental health supports available. For example, in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, the NYC Department of Education mobilized their staff with an all hands on deck approach. However, even with the most talented and ambitious group of mental health professionals in a school system, it’s unlikely that they can provide the full range of mental health supports to every student in need. A main challenge is first identifying students in need when a stressor is not as obvious as a hurricane or a school shooting. Moreover, some symptoms of childhood trauma may not fully manifest until adolescence, at a time where some may view that behavior as an unrelated outcome of that early experience.

Trauma-sensitive classrooms and schools provide an environment where all adults in the building have an awareness and sensitivity to the potential impact of trauma and adverse experiences on students’ lives. The initial thinking behind low academic performance or bad behavior is not automatically that the student is willfully disobedient, unmotivated, and unintelligent. Trauma-sensitive schools are places where all youth feel safe, connected, and supported — not just the youth who don’t need mental health care or those that need it most. Trauma-sensitive schools augment and supplement the herculean efforts of the school-based mental health professionals and in a sense, provide a continuous and universal mental health intervention system.

Creating trauma-sensitive schools requires a great deal of commitment. First, we know that most, if not all, teacher preparation programs don’t include training to prepare teachers to identify, teach, and support traumatized students. This is a problem, particularly given the demands on teacher preparation programs, and teachers themselves. The duties of a teacher are added on with regularity, and rarely removed. Therefore, we must infuse some content on the impacts of trauma and mental health on learning throughout teacher preparation and professional development programs.

Second, we must leverage the existing mental health professionals that exist in schools, including school psychologists, school counselors, school social workers, school nurses, and other school-based mental health providers. Utilizing them more effectively could include more regular consultation with teachers and administrators on developing trauma-sensitive strategies and perspectives. These individuals can also provide in-services to staff at no additional cost. Meeting this demand also means properly funding enough positions to provide these services along with the intensive direct services to students in need.

Finally, this requires a culture change — often more easily said than done. Luckily, some groups have emerged as leaders in creating trauma-sensitive schools, including the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and the State of Washington Office of the Superintendant of Public Education. Much can be learned from the efforts of these pioneer systems.

Many of our kids are in distress, and our schools remain our frontline opportunity to support them.

Eric Rossen is the co-editor of Supporting and Educating Traumatized Students: A Guide for School-Based Professionals with Robert Hull. Eric Rossen, Ph.D., is a nationally certified school psychologist and licensed psychologist in Maryland. He currently serves as Director of Professional Development and Standards at the National Association of School Psychologists. Robert Hull, Ed.S., MHS, is a school psychologist in Prince George’s County Public Schools, Maryland, serves on the faculty at the University of Missouri, and holds a position as adjunct faculty at Goucher College.

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Recent Comments

  1. Robert Hull

    This looks like a great post Eric

  2. Jim Sporleder

    Eric, this is one of the best posts that I have seen in regards to the horrible violence that was acted out in Newton, CT. You have immediately addressed the problem and have brought attention to the main core of our nation’s challenges….we don’t protect the rights of children, we protect the right of the parent to create a toxic stress home environment, and cause damaged brain development as well as added additional stress that will be manifested in behaviors not acceptable for school. As you articulated so well, these trauma impacted students are quick to be labeled in school as disrupters, unmotivated, disorganized, unable to retain knowledge, anti social…and the list goes on. The student falls into the shadow and soon vanishes away. Leaving without hope, feeling like a failure, feeling like every opportunity has been closed on them.

    Eric, you articulate all the valid reasons why we need trauma sensitive schools. However, as stated….it takes a paradigm shift and a new lens to look through to develop our new approch and new strategies to working withbare high stresss kids. Changing our reactive model to one that seeks out the cause of the behavior to demonstrate empathy and teach resilience skills.

    Washington State leading the way with spreading the information through out our state networks and communities about adverers childhood experiences. Ron Hertel is working hard to expand the compassionate school model to our schools, but his hands are tied and he has no power to address the current challenge we are facing with the class of 2013. There are 16,000 students in the state of Washington that are on track to graduate. They have done everything we have asked them to do, putting their trust in their teachers, school counselors, coaches, mentors, and administrators. The class of 2013 has 16,000 students that will have everything completed…..and if they don’t pass one of the math exams or Collection of Evidence……they will be denied their high their high school diploma, because they happen to struggle with math.

    Think about it, a students K-12 educational experience is defined by on test……math. All the brain research calls this a punitive consequence for the toxic stress impacted student. Dr Teicher has called students with high ACE’s as having a neurological disability. These kids are not protected by an IEP. Washington State needs to take the lead and consider the research data and the brain research before writing policies that go into law with out the consideration of the punitive consequences that are before us.

    Erica, thank you for having the courage not to get sucked into the political debate, and keeping your focus on the task ahead of us…..damaged children can be become damaged adults. Acting out their pain in horrific violence against the innocent. Keep up the good work.

    Jim Sporleder
    Principal Limcoln High School, “Trauma Sensitive School” ( three years of staff training in Complex Trauma)
    Walla Walla, Wa

  3. Jim Sporleder

    Eric, this is the first post I have come across that addresses the core area of our society in which the seed of violence is planted. The horrible tragedy in Newtown CT has ripped at the core of every community across our nation. However, we are a reactive nation and the national discussion has become a political debate, clouding the questions, what are we doing to protect our Nation’s children? Children growing up in toxic stress environments are robbed of their right to be loved, nurtured and with normal brain development. Damaged children grow up to be damaged adults….who main act out their pain in violence on the innocent. Thank you for bringing attention to the call for trauma sensitive schools. Until we protect our children, our opportunitumitu to teach hope and resilence through a trauma lens. Excellent post. Jim Sporleder, Lincoln High School, Walla Walla, Wa. Trauma Sensitive School.

  4. Eric Rossen

    Dear Jim-

    Thank you for your passionate reply. It’s easy to tell how committed you are, and as mentioned in my post, Washington State is clearly a pioneer. In fact, Ron Hertel is an author of one of the chapters in the book referenced here, and he has shared some of the excellent initiatives occurring in WA. Keep up the great work. Our collective commitment will pay off.
    Eric

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  6. [...] The case for creating trauma-sensitive schools Oxford University Press blog: In the wake of another national tragedy, it is more apparent than ever that our schools must embrace a stronger role in supporting the mental health of our youth by developing trauma-sensitive schools. The mass shooting in Newtown, Connecticut that killed several staff and 20 elementary school students came less than two months after Hurricane Sandy, a storm that brought devastation and displacement to tens of thousands of people in the Northeast. Both events offer stark reminders of the acute stress our students may face when experiencing cataclysmic events. However, even in the absence of such tragedies, many of our nation’s children are in chronic distress. [...]

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