Schools in high-poverty communities are more likely to serve families that have experienced trauma. Whether families deal with homelessness, lack of access to such basic resources as food and health care, or unsafe neighborhoods with high crime rates, these adverse experiences trigger toxic stress—which has an impact on a child’s developing brain. If children do not receive support to deal with this stress, they are more likely to experience long-term academic and social-development delays.
Students from low-income backgrounds have represented the majority population of public schools (51 percent) since 2013, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. School leaders must equip themselves with the skills to lead schools where many children have experienced trauma and be prepared to develop solutions.
When I began serving as the superintendent in Jennings, Mo., in 2012, the district—one of the lowest-performing in the state—was at risk for losing its provisional accreditation. We served more than 2,500 students who qualified for free lunch, and whose situations had an impact on their attendance and behavior. During my tenure, Jennings became nationally recognized for its work to serve students in poverty as the first trauma-informed school district in the county of St. Louis. Educators in our schools focused on services to reduce instability in students’ lives, and the district redirected funds in order to support these resources. By the time I left in 2016, the district had reached full accreditation status with a 95.4 percent four-year graduation rate and a 100 percent college- and career-placement rate.
Now, as the first African-American female superintendent to serve the Topeka, Kan., public schools and a 23-year educator who has spent a majority of that time as a school leader, I have learned that it’s possible to replicate effective systems of trauma support from one school district to another. There are several steps leaders should take to successfully build trauma-informed schools in their districts, including:
• Get to know the community and schools you serve.
Before setting a clear vision for working with trauma, leaders must understand the needs and feelings of the community. As a new superintendent, it’s important to understand what systems are already in place and build on existing work before identifying gaps that call for new initiatives. When I arrived in Topeka, the district’s principals and I held community meetings and made home visits, including one to the local shelter, to gain an understanding of our schools’ homeless families. I also held discussions with teachers to learn more about issues they faced in the classroom through an informal “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” hour. New leaders must be accessible to staff and students to foster relationships that serve as an important support system.
• Build teacher and parent capacity for understanding the effects of trauma.
Understanding the stories of trauma behind student behavior empowers educators and school leaders to brainstorm solutions. One step is to ensure teachers and leaders make positive parent contact. For example, teachers in Topeka deliver difficult-to-access school resources to students’ homes, and staff members make home visits for lengthy student absences. Educators across the district, including me, are in a yearlong mental-health training for the neurosequential model in education, or NME. This helps educators apply knowledge of brain development, trauma, and student behavior to the teaching process, and also supports the well-being of staff members. I also meet with principals and community agencies to examine best on-the-ground practices for dealing with trauma and learn ways to build resiliency in schools.
• Use data to drive interventions.
As schools in Topeka began to use data dashboards to look at student trends in academic performance, behavior, and absences, I set the tone that this utilization is for information and transformation, not judgment and evaluation. Schools should review students’ academic history and develop intervention plans that treat trauma and academic health in the most effective manner. Once a month, members of the central office meet with each principal to review adverse childhood experience, or ACE, indicators—such as poor attendance, discipline, and academics—for students who may be experiencing trauma.
In 2015, Tiffany Anderson, then the superintendent of Jennings, Mo., was named one of Education Week’s Leaders to Learn From. Read more about her work to transform Jennings into the first trauma-informed school district in St. Louis.
• Engage community partnerships.
In Jennings, the district partnered with the local community to offer support services. Business leaders mentored individual students yearlong; mental-health agencies had offices in our schools; and local universities helped implement pediatric services in schools. To provide full-time support, the district also converted several buildings into a food pantry and homeless shelter for youths and opened schools on Saturdays or during the winter when services were normally closed.
• Make space and time for well-being.
While schools often feel they don’t have time for extra responsibilities that trauma-informed settings require, leaders can set goals and expectations for their schools. Educators play a critical role in helping children cope with adverse experiences. Staff members, including the principal, serve as support in separate well-being rooms, and peace corners designated in the classroom enable teachers to help children de-escalate their behavior. Some schools in the district, such as French Middle School, also utilize therapy animals with students and circle gatherings for educators. I serve as a support in classrooms and the lunchroom for ongoing opportunities to interact with students. Leaders must have high visibility in schools to identify ways they themselves can provide direct support.
School leaders must become trauma-informed leaders who can address the complex needs of young people entering schools. Through a systematic approach, which integrates trauma-informed practices within existing structures, school leaders can provide unique support to students and families—an approach that makes all the difference.
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A version of this article appeared in the December 14, 2016 edition of Education Week as What Trauma-Informed Leadership Looks Like