Exploring Equity Issues - Blog
Trauma and Resiliency: Best Practices in Schools
by Pamela Mathews, MEd
Special Education, Hinesburg, VT
I am a Vermont educator licensed in Elementary, Special, and Early Education. Recently, I’ve been filling long-term sub positions. The work is always challenging and I like that I am helping to support children and schools. One of the benefits of taking on these positions is that I get to see and compare different approaches to education and methodologies for addressing issues in schools. If L-T subbing offered more stability and economic security, I’d recommend everyone try it. It has really helped me to step out of one space and see the broader picture.
Vermont schools have seen a big increase in trauma-related incidents in recent years. Factors like economic inequality, the opioid crisis, and refugee resettlement all contribute to challenges students and, in turn, educators work to cope with daily. Dealing with trauma can be incredibly taxing, not only to the children who have to live with it, but also on the entire school community who cares about them. It’s a pervasive element in our society, and increasingly among children. And the effects are felt every day in schools. The good news is that many schools in Vermont are taking a proactive approach to doing something about it!
Over these past couple of years, in each of the districts where I’ve worked, I have been fortunate to attend several staff trainings on trauma and resiliency. The delivery method differed across districts yet all of the trainings were extremely enlightening. I can honestly say learning about the effects of trauma, and strategies for trauma-informed teaching, has dramatically improved the way I approach my work. Here are some of the key takeaways:
Trauma creates a physiological response. This is useful when we’re face-to-face with a bear cub and her mother; it helps us to react instantly in the moment. But when a person experiences severe trauma, psychological effects linger and the physiological response can be triggered unexpectedly. When stress hormones flood the body, they shut down our capacity for higher-level thinking. For students, this makes learning or even processing information impossible in these moments. Trauma-informed teaching involves recognizing the signs and effects of trauma and applying strategies that calm the body, de-escalate the trauma-response, and bring students back into the moment. In a classroom this might look like brief whole-class mindfulness minutes daily and even in the middle of lessons, or creating a safe space where children can take a break when they need to. It means listening without judging, and creating small opportunities where students can experience success.
Teachers and staff benefit directly from trauma and resiliency trainings. Resiliency and trauma trainings help adults understand how stress affects them and their capacity to work and thrive. Some levels of stress can be good and help us to focus on tasks at hand. But in moments when trauma related incidents happen unexpectedly, our unconscious physiological reaction is to rise to the level of the stress we are encountering. This adversely affects our high-level functioning and ability to perform. Resiliency and trauma trainings inform our practice and remind us to take care of ourselves so we can take care of the children we serve.
Children who experience trauma have difficulty viewing their world as fundamentally safe and predictable. Adopting school-wide collaborative approaches to support students across settings helps minimize some of the effects trauma has on individuals and the larger school community. Consistent approaches to student support and behavior management provide a level of predictability and security that all children thrive on, and some so desperately need simply to make it through the day. Some of the policies I’ve seen and applied in Vermont schools include Multi-tiered Systems of Support and positive behavior intervention support strategies (MTSS and PBIS, respectively). They work best when all adults opt in and use consistent language across settings.
Trauma and resiliency trainings can take on many forms. I have sat in lectures by prominent psychologists and attended workshops presented by a small group of educators who were sent to conferences to learn and report back to districts. I found each delivery relevant, timely and valuable. When school districts invest the time and energy in trainings centered on trauma-informed teaching and resiliency, the whole community benefits.
The Center for Education Equity (CEE) at MAEC is inviting members of our advisory board, partners, and other colleagues to share their views on current equity issues. Their opinions do not necessarily reflect CEE’s views or those of the Department of Education and we do not necessarily endorse any products or resources they promote.