In order to address the sudden uptick in suicide threat assessments on campus, Riley read the CDC’s Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) study and was struck by the connection between childhood trauma and health problems later in life. Trauma can be invisible, and one’s experience with it can vary; an event that might cause trauma to a certain individual might not cause trauma to another individual.
A schoolwide approach to trauma
Riley saw the benefit of recognizing how childhood trauma – such as neglect, food insecurity, and homelessness – may manifest in the children around her, but decided against using the ACEs survey to collect data on students. “We thought it would be triggering,” said Riley.
Instead, she chose to focus on educating the school staff and faculty about ACEs and the variety of outcomes and experiences of their students. They had the urgent goal of bringing down the number of suicide threat assessments and improve the mental health outcomes for all students.
According to the CDC, one of the ways to mitigate ACEs is to “connect youth to caring adults and activities.” At Riley’s school, she and several colleagues went through a list of all students and matched them with a caring adult on campus, regardless of academics. This kind of adult-student matching is a practice recommended by other educators.
While she recognized that teachers are a vital piece of a student’s experience in a school setting, Riley made sure to include other faculty and staff like bus drivers, custodians and lunchroom workers. “We are all on this journey of trying to help our students, helping the whole child,” she said.
She saw the difference a schoolwide program could make and said it was a necessity to improve the mental health and mental health response for all students.
As a school counselor, Riley is used to seeing students in her office, who use her sensory wall and de-escalation techniques to regulate their nervous systems and return to the classroom after a triggering event. While Riley tends to see students in her office who have already been triggered, the schoolwide approach is meant to train other adults to recognize and anticipate potential triggers to ensure that students are being cared for in all areas of their school environment.
Faculty and staff must also do things that seem obvious and appropriate in working with other people: like using a child’s name every day; no raised voices, ever; and having predictable daily routines. She found that these steps helped the kids better regulate themselves and created a more supportive environment.
Confronting alarming behavior can be tough for adults, too, so she recommended guided language – such as “[student name] is having a hard day” – for faculty and staff to use as a more caring way to alert other adults to concerns about a particular student instead of relying on labels or conjecture.
These schoolwide practices are based on the national initiative by the U.S. Administration for Children and Families’ “Handle with Care” program. HWC provides a systematic approach to informing the responsible adults around children who have experienced a traumatic event or trigger. For Riley and Mercer County Intermediate School, this framework provided the benefit of communication without breaking down the necessary barriers of student confidentiality. According to Riley, the school’s student suicide threat assessments lowered from 52 to 14 in the following 2022-2023 school year thanks, in part, to this program.
In Nashville, Tennessee, Mathew Portell also saw an increase in suicide threat assessments and suicidal ideation in students as young as five during the 2021-2022 school year. Portell is the founder of the Trauma Informed Education Network and a former elementary school principal.
When Portell’s school resumed in person learning, he was disappointed in the state’s approach to the effects of the pandemic on students. It was “the opposite of what we wish would have happened in trauma-informed work,” he said, noting an increase in exclusionary practices and punishment. He and other educators had to manage disruptive behavior from both students and parents. “We have needed a trauma-informed paradigm shift for decades,” Portell said.
“We had higher percentages of kids that were coming back dysregulated, are feeling symptoms of stress, even depression, even trauma,” he continued. “There’s an idea that kids don’t know what’s going on; it’s not impacting them; they’re too little. It’s all misinformation. I mean, that’s just not how our bodies and brains operate.”
As teachers in his network identified effective strategies to mitigate triggered student behavior, Portell found that routines and predictability made a big difference. “We know that [for] kids who have heightened senses of stress or trauma, predictability allows the brain to get into a state of learning,” he said.
Supporting teachers to support kids
What does it take for a schoolwide trauma-informed program to work? Riley said programs must be intentional and have buy-in from educators and school staff. Those programs must also have school-wide support beyond instructional periods, including during meal times and school bus rides.
“A big part of trauma-informed schools is making sure that the teachers feel grounded and supported,” said Alex Shevrin Venet, educator, professional development facilitator and author of Equity-Centered Trauma-Informed Education.
Portell recommends that school counselors and administrators start with a “why” when presenting a new trauma-informed practice program to teachers in order to shift their thinking. “Start with the adults” and create “systems of support that support the adults equally or as much as you support the kids,” he said.
One way Portell has supported teachers is by using what he calls a “tap in and tap out process.” Teachers would communicate via a text chain in the app GroupMe, keeping their phone numbers anonymous. A teacher might say, “I need to tap out,” in which case two other teachers would “tap in” and help with the students and offer support to the teacher.
Portell, like many other educators, noticed an immediate need for “collective care” after the first year of the pandemic. “Post-pandemic, post racial reckoning, post all of the increase of school shootings, there [was an] insurmountable, incomprehensible amount of stress on teachers,” said Portell. “We’re in a situation where we can’t just self-care our way out of where we’re in right now in education,” he added.
By beginning with the “why” and emphasizing collective care, Portell was able to create buy-in from teachers. However, Portell also values positivity. “As a school culture, you have to have fun through this process. We’ve lost this idea of fun in the community,” he said.
In Kentucky, Riley created a process for onboarding all staff and faculty involved in a student’s learning day including lunchroom workers and bus drivers. Implementing trauma-informed practices as a new and unfamiliar initiative takes some creativity, so here are some ways that Riley has achieved this:
- Changing discipline practices inside and outside the classroom
- Positive messages in bathroom stalls
- A sensory room
- Advanced notice of potentially triggering events
- Allowing access to animals for students on the campus farm
- Allowing for alternative ways for students to participate in assemblies
- A family resource center
- Awareness during natural disaster anniversaries
- 504s and IEP plans for trauma
Portell recommends Lori Desautels’ books Connection Over Compliance and Intentional Neuroplasticity: Moving Our Nervous Systems and Educational System Toward Post-Traumatic Growth, both of which provide practical application strategies for trauma-informed practices.
The first step a teacher can take toward trauma-informed practices is to start viewing disruptive or emotionally heightened behavior “skill gaps,” said Portell. He recommends that teachers build in “pause time” to their daily planning which can help to address students who might feel overwhelmed. This can be as simple as a morning meeting, or with younger learners, circle time for morning greetings.
Another trauma-informed strategy that teachers can use in the classroom is to name and teach de-escalation strategies. Portell suggested looking up de-escalation strategy videos online. His favorites are simple breathing strategies, like star breath and rainbow breath. Once the students are taught these self-regulation strategies, teachers can post simple instructions in the classroom so that students can reference them when needed.
For little to no cost, teachers can also create space in their room for students to go when they are feeling overwhelmed. “We refer to them as peace corners,” said Portell.
“Be who children need right now,” said Portell. “Meeting that child where they are is more important than the objective you’re trying to teach.”
“I see a trend that trauma-informed work is not only a necessity, it’s imperative,” he added. “If we know what we’re doing isn’t working, then we have to do something else.”