Opinion

Trauma-Informed Practice Is a Powerful Tool. But It's Also Incomplete

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The case for understanding the individual and systemic causes of student trauma

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Science has a pernicious history of doing violence to communities of color. Examples abound: Consider the infamous Tuskegee study in which the U.S. Public Health Service spent decades withholding treatment from hundreds of African-American men suffering from syphilis. Or consider more recent research that shows that doctors, informed by discredited theories of racial difference, are significantly less likely to prescribe pain medication to Black patients than White patients with equivalent ailments. In education as well, science can be used against communities of color.

As teacher-educators who support teachers in addressing systemic inequality and its impact on children in schools, we are frequently asked about trauma-informed teaching. Teachers and school leaders name serious challenges: children flipping over desks, screaming at teachers, running out of the school. They tell us, "We've been hearing about trauma-informed practice. Please, just tell us what to do!"

We've responded with a desire to be of service but also with trepidation. Trauma-informed practice is a powerful but incomplete tool. Powerful because it helps teachers understand the children in their classrooms and bring individualized care and attention to build resilience. Incomplete in dangerous ways because it is rarely paired with attention to naming and addressing systemic injustice and racism. We also can't help but notice that most of these pleas are in reference to children of color.

Our solution is attending to trauma both at the individual level—as is currently happening—and also at the system level.

Research confirms the serious and long-term effects that adverse childhood experiences, or ACEs, can have on children. Trauma affects the nervous system, and children's rage, impulse control, or sensitivity can also be markers of ACEs. California's Surgeon General Nadine Burke Harris reports that when a child has experienced four or more ACEs they are 32 times more likely to have learning or behavior problems in school than a child with no ACEs. Similarly, researchers Christopher Blodgett and Jane D. Lanigan found that higher ACEs in elementary-aged students were associated with a higher likelihood of poor school attendance rates, behavioral issues, and failure to meet grade-level standards.

The damage from these adverse childhood experiences also persists into adulthood, manifesting in increased risk of heart disease, diabetes, severe obesity, substance abuse, and suicide attempts. These findings have been tremendously useful to educators, deepening their understandings of their students' behaviors.

So how can findings that help us to better serve children be dangerous? We have observed that educators' awareness of trauma often results in the framing of an entire community—often communities of color—as nothing more than the trauma they have suffered. At the same time, they often only look for individual-level solutions. Individual-level responses are important, but they should be paired with attention to the systems that cause the trauma itself.

Research shows that individually based responses, such as breathing deeply, doing yoga, or listening to music, can support children who've suffered trauma. The danger is that we focus only on the individual behaviors of children, and not on the racial bias and systemic inequality that exacerbates or even causes trauma. Painting the communities most harmed by these inequalities as no more than the traumas that they face erases the beauty and the resilience that exists there as well.

We must expand trauma-informed practice to include work supported by the scholarship on systemic inequality and racism and the ways these injustices harm children. Research on ACEs demonstrates that trauma is pervasive across all demographics, but this information has landed in an inherently racist and unequal society. Thus, when children of color experience trauma, they are often read differently than White children by teachers and educators. We know this to be true—just look at research confirming a school-prison nexus, which shows that children of color are disproportionately overdisciplined compared to their White peers for the very same offenses.

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Here, then is the danger: Without a systemic lens, trauma-informed practice can draw teachers' attention to the trauma behaviors that students exhibit, potentially pathologizing children for the very behaviors that research on trauma has illuminated and then blaming their families for their trauma. Without a systemic lens, trauma-informed practice promotes solutions that are individually targeted while the trauma that children experience is rooted in systems.

Trauma-informed practice must, therefore, address the behaviors of individuals and the systems that cause trauma. To implement this broader approach to trauma-informed practice, educators should draw from the research on trauma-informed practice to observe children's behaviors and interpret them with an aim toward understanding the experiences and needs of the child and meeting those needs through teaching. We should honor and build from the ample scholarship that has confirmed the impact of school-based trauma-informed programs, as documented by Todd I. Herrenkohl and University of Michigan colleagues. But in addition, educators should look past the individual level and ask: Which systems constructed or contributed to the trauma this child is experiencing?

Most importantly, teachers and leaders should work in concert with one another to mount systemic-level responses within their school communities. We encourage educators to harness the power they have in the collective to interrupt systems that can oppress and instead build liberatory systems.

What does this look like? In addition to meeting the individual needs of students, teachers should come together to recognize and name the systems of inequality that permeate their schools and school practices. Sometimes this will mean working in partnership with other professionals, including medical practitioners, social workers, and others.

Together, these principles support educators to attend to children's trauma in just ways—by supporting individuals, but also recognizing and disrupting systems that harm children.

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