Patricia Benitez Hemans is a former secondary educator who is currently completing a Ph.D. in education studies at the University of California, San Diego.
Adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), which are various forms of abuse, neglect, and household dysfunction, are estimated to affect almost two-thirds of the U.S. population. This statistic has massive implications for our P-12 students. Trauma has been shown to negatively impact students’ cognitive functioning, such as reasoning, memory, and attention and social-emotional behavioral functioning, like regulating emotions and interpersonal behavior. This means that what we often perceive as deliberate negative choices and actions or low ability of students are actually symptoms of trauma.
Since trauma is so prevalent and has so many negative impacts, it is imperative that schools address the health and well-being of traumatized students, mainly because schools are the most common way students access mental-health services. Trauma-informed practices mitigate the trauma students experience and promote their well-being and success in school.
Because I mainly taught students who had many challenges in their lives—from immigrating to the United States to escape war and poverty, to enduring the foster system or juvenile detention, to living in communities where violence was normalized, I applied for and was awarded a Fulbright Distinguished Award in Teaching, which allowed me to research trauma-informed practices in three alternative school settings in New Zealand. Here are four lessons I learned that provide a foundation for addressing student trauma in schools:
Healthy attachments with adults are important for every child to succeed, especially for those who have experienced trauma. Authentic relationships between educators and students provide a solid foundation for both academic and emotional work. At the three small schools I observed, the high-school-aged students called the teachers and all staff members by their first names, as a way to break down formal barriers. Students and school staff members also shared their breaks and meals together, sharing food and interacting with one another. Each student had an Individual Education Plan (IEP) that included both personalized academic and social goals.
Lessons for U.S. educators
To build relationships with students, consider having youths call you by your first name. Make a point to chat with students each day during lunch, break, or recess times. Have students in your advisory or homeroom set personal goals for the year and then check on their progress periodically. Write down important information about the students’ lives that they disclose so you can follow up with them.
Collaboration is necessary for promoting student well-being.
One person alone does not have the capacity to help every student who is affected by trauma; community care is more effective and sustainable. In New Zealand, every morning the whole school staff would come together to discuss important items for the day, including the needs of specific students. Much of the conversation about these students were regarding personal issues that may be affecting them and how school staff could help support those students.
Lessons for U.S. educators
If your school doesn’t currently have a regular time for staff to meet and discuss specific students’ academic or social-skills progress, create that time, either informally or formally. Finding time to collaborate even with just a few others who can support your students can make a huge difference in getting them the resources or attention they need.
Schools should serve as a hub for resources.
The most successful schools offered wraparound services to students affected by trauma. Each school I went to in New Zealand had a part- or full-time social worker on site, in addition to a school counselor or youth worker (the closest U.S. equivalent to this would be a youth mentor). Other wraparound services that schools offered were mental-health and medical services, child care, child and family counseling, dental and vision care, and self-regulation activities such as mindfulness and yoga. To make it more likely that students would get the needed supports, one school eliminated transportation barriers by making the services available on site during the school day.
Lessons for U.S. educators
Work with others in your school to understand partnerships with external agencies and all the services the school offers—you may be surprised what you find! If required services are not able to be offered on site, have a resource director or a wellness fair so students and families can either learn about or get the needed services. Also, use your own community connections with local organizations and invite community members into the classroom as another way for students and families to learn about local resources.
Well-being is tied to cultural identity.
Connecting with cultural identity is key in holistically attending to students’ well-being, whether or not they have experienced trauma. At the schools I observed in New Zealand, an effort was made to embrace Hauora, the Maori philosophy of health that includes physical, mental and emotional, social, and spiritual well-being. I saw Hauora in the goal-setting in students’ IEPs, within the school curricula, and in the Maori-specific resources and services that students could access. A couple of the school sites started and ended the school day with a schoolwide karakia (a spiritual chant) recited in te reo (“the language” in Maori), which set the tone for each day, recognizing and normalizing Maori culture for all students.
What I learned from this was that healing from trauma is tied to one’s culture. As an educator, I needed to learn ways of well-being that were outside of the dominant culture of wellness, which reflects mainly white, middle- or upper-class values. Recognizing each culture can be challenging. However, efforts must be made to understand students’ cultural backgrounds.
Rethinking Schools and Teaching Tolerance are amazing online resources you could use in doing the initial work, but finding ways to get to know how students understand their own cultures is equally important. This goes back to the first lesson, on building relationships with students, which should be done through getting to know your students, listening to them, believing them, and empowering them.
Image created on Pablo.
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