Even before a lethal disaster struck my small, rural community, trauma-informed practices had been a part of our school culture. As a teacher, and now an elementary school principal, I have become increasingly aware over the years of the complex trauma many of my students face on an ongoing basis.
But while our local clinic provided medical services, the closest counseling programs were more than 40 miles away. These mental-health services were not accessible to a majority of our students and families, who could not afford the gas to make the trip. We were fortunate to begin working with outside organizations to provide much-needed professional support for our students and their families, including North Counties Family Services, the Darrington Prevention Intervention Community Coalition, Catholic Community Services, and the Sauk Suiattle Indian Tribe, whose mental-health counselor would also work with non-Native community members.
And then the tragedy on March 22, 2014, was a game-changer. Our community experienced a natural disaster that took the lives of our friends, family members, and students. Homes were destroyed and the main highway out of the community was under tons of mud. There was no landline-phone or internet service. Within hours of the slide, we had news crews from around the world, along with disaster-relief agencies descending on our town of roughly 1,400 residents.
The Highway 530 Landslide in Oso, Wash., was a traumatic event. It still is. It continues to shape the lives of not only our students, staff, and community members, but also of anyone who drives through the mudslide zone on the repaired highway. The slide is a shared traumatic event for the members of our school and community. Along with the impact of this single event, our students continue to experience difficult and stressful situations in their daily lives. And just as importantly, our staff members also experience similar complex traumas.
During the time immediately following the slide, it became apparent that we needed immediate mental-health support to work through this event. The death of two students was especially difficult. One of the students was the child of a teacher who then had to take leave, so we also lost an important member of our small staff.
As support poured in from around the county, state, and nation, and we began to process the multitude of emotions our students were experiencing, it became evident that the slide itself was just one of the traumatic events our students needed to process. The slide magnified the other circumstances that were impeding their ability to focus on school and achieve to their full potential. As I talked with the staff, it became apparent that we needed ongoing training and support to address the impact of trauma on our students.
However, students were not the only people struggling to cope with this tragedy. With the additional toll the slide took on our staff, and the secondary trauma of working with our traumatized students and families, it became obvious that our staff also needed support to process the trauma we were individually experiencing. Without the staff recognizing and using strategies to stay regulated, it would be nearly impossible to help our students move toward positive strategies.
Along with the impact of this single event, our students continue to experience difficult and stressful situations in their daily lives."
In addition to our work with Art with Heart, one such source of support was CLEAR—Collaborative Learning for Educational Achievement and Resilience—a staff-development and -support model. Through professional development and coaching for our staff, this program has provided our staff the language and strategies to use with students who are having a difficult time focusing on their schoolwork and making safe and productive decisions.
More importantly, CLEAR has empowered the staff to understand that behavior is adaptive and need-driven. It gives them the permission and space to regulate their own emotional experience first, rather than simply reacting to students’ behavior. This program promotes the idea that there is a biological basis for behavior and emphasizes the importance of teaching the brain science of the stress response to staff and students. This allows us to build safety, trust, and positive relationships within our school.
Students need to understand that what they are feeling is OK, but that they are accountable for their actions. Rather than approaching discipline with the deficit-focused and often punitive nature of most practices, we as educators must hold students to high standards and expectations, while showing grace and compassion. We must make sure all individuals in the school have the tools they need to regulate themselves, engage in teaching and learning, and be successful.
A version of this article appeared in the December 14, 2016 edition of Education Week as School Leadership in the Wake of a Natural Disaster: A School Shaped by Trauma