School as a Place of Healing & Hope for Students Impacted by Trauma
by Jenny Williams, SCSBC Director of Educational Support Services; and Amanda Broadway, Director of Student Support, High School Campus, Duncan Christian School ◊
Schools are well-positioned to support children who have lived through trauma. Trauma-informed practices in safe, caring, and relationally supportive schools can help promote healthier brain development and improve learning, social, and health outcomes for children and youth. In Isaiah 61:1 (NLT) we are called to comfort the brokenhearted.
Trauma is not defined by the events one experiences, such as natural disasters, war, abuse, bullying, loss, neglect, pain, serious injury, discrimination, or witnessing or experiencing violence. Trauma is our body’s stress responses to events that surpass our nervous system’s ability to cope. Constant or prolonged trauma is toxic to the brain; it can impact brain development, gene expression, and learning ability (Burke-Harris 2018).
Symptoms of Trauma
When children experience prolonged trauma, the result is toxic stress in the brain. In this state, the thinking brain goes offline, and the brain stem takes over and responds as though there is an ongoing threat. The nervous system is kept in a constant state of dysregulation, leading to flight, freeze, or fight responses that may manifest as (Brummer & Thorsborne, 2022):
- Flight Responses
Bolting out of the classroom
or school grounds
Running away from the situation/person
Hiding in the bathroom
Hiding under a desk
- Freeze Responses
Head on desk
Inability to move
Refusal to answer questions
or follow commands
- Fight Responses
Outbursts of anger
Arguing or threats
Disrespectful language, swearing
Refusal to comply or defiance
Throwing objects or slamming doors
The above list of stress responses is not exhaustive, and some symptoms of toxic stress do not fit into the flight, freeze, or fight categories. Other developmental and psychological impacts of trauma may be observed (Cole et al. 2005):
- Learners may regress to behaviours seen in younger children
- Learners may re-live trauma during flashbacks, which look like disengagement
- Learners may startle easily or appear jumpy
- Learners may seem scared or have physical signs of anxiety, such as fast heart rate, sweating, shaking, nausea, and shortness of breath
- Learners may experience crying and sadness and have no interest in playing with others or engaging in previously enjoyed activities
- Learners may have sleep problems
Amanda Broadway is a high school teacher, Indigenous outreach teacher, and inclusive educator. As an outreach teacher, her role was to locate students who had stopped attending school and offer them an alternative graduation program. One of Amanda’s outreach students impacted by trauma was interviewed following graduation. Part of this interview is shared with permission.
Student: My anxiety used to be very bad. It is better now, but I still struggle. Most of the students in this outreach program suffer from anxiety.
Outreach Teacher: Where did it start?
Student: Well, we [outreach students] all hang out and talk about this. It starts from the family unit. Starts from having your security taken from you as a child. For example, my dad left when I was young. My mom asked him to choose cocaine or me and my sister. He chose cocaine. He left. We haven’t really spoken to him since. As far as we know, he still does cocaine. Those experiences change a little kid’s world. We grew up in poverty, and mom tried her best to raise us. She left us alone for long periods of time to work. We now have no parents. Kids need parents. Most of us [outreach students] experienced this.
Outreach Teacher: How does this affect you at school?
Student: You start missing a few days of class. Then you feel bad cause now you are behind. You come back, and the teacher gets mad at you. You miss more days. You don’t want to get into more trouble, and the missed work becomes like a snowball to the anxiety. Self-esteem is low as it is. You go to a party, and a kid offers you weed or other drugs. You do it and say yes because you want these people to like you. When you are at a party and doing drugs, you are having a common interest. You have instant friends. You now have people to connect with.
Outreach Teacher: What can we do as a school?
Student: We all say what you want to hear in the moment at school. We feel bad. We want you to like us, but we will go back to the same things when we are out. When I am at school, I feel bad ’cause teachers don’t like me or say hi to me. We screw up, but I won’t return if teachers are mad at us.
Outreach Teacher: How should we respond to you?
Student: Don’t be mad at us when we screw up. We already feel bad.
Outreach Teacher: Anything else we can do? As teachers? As a school?
Student: Notice the kids who are not attending early. Especially the grades in 5, 6, and 7. These kids need adults in their lives to connect with. A role model.
This conversation provided the school staff with valuable insights into how trauma may affect students and how educators can respond more effectively by connecting with students, looking past their behaviour to learn more about their stories, showing care, and providing positive role models.
Key Components of a Trauma-Informed Approach
Desautels developed trauma-informed approach in schools (Desautels 2020):
- Create strategies and processes that help learners perceive their environment as safe and non-threatening, such as predictable routines and creating safe and welcoming spaces in the school. The perception of safety is vital for the brain and nervous system to function in a way that allows for learning to occur.
- Build strong, positive, and supportive relationships among staff, students, and students. Relationships perceived as safe, supportive, and unconditional can be a source of healing for trauma-impacted learners. Research shows that, even under stressful conditions, consistent support from caring adults perceived as safe and supportive can help prevent or reverse the damaging effects of the toxic stress response.
- Develop processes to help learners understand brain development, how stress impacts the brain, and strategies to increase their capacity for executive function and self-regulation. Emotional dysregulation can lead to challenging behaviours and disengagement from learning and relationships.
Ten Trauma-Informed Guidelines for Schools
Dr. Judith Howard synthesized key research findings in trauma-informed practices to develop ten trauma-informed guidelines for schools outlined in the Australian National Guidelines for Trauma-Aware Education (Howard 2021)
- Effective trauma-informed practice in schools relies on leaders who are trauma-informed and can lead trauma-informed thinking, processes, and services at school.
- Schools engage in high-quality, whole staff training in trauma-informed education to help educators gain the knowledge, understanding, and consistent approaches that effectively support students who have experienced trauma.
- Identify learners impacted by trauma and ensure that trauma-informed practices and supports are available to these learners.
- Seek to involve the children and youth impacted by trauma in designing and evaluating activities and supports intended to meet their needs.
- Use trauma-informed practices to support all learners, as these practices will benefit all learners, including those learners who remain unidentified.
- Emphasize the importance of developing constructive working relationships with parents and guardians of those with trauma.
- Develop working relationships with local child and youth agencies and specialists who provide services to their learners.
- Develop a schoolwide multi-tiered system of support for students and educators.
- Provide support for educators’ professional and personal well-being that proactively addresses the potential impact of supporting traumatized children and youth. Providing educators with the time and processes for collaboration, support, supervision, and reflection on practice will help to build educator capacity and resilience.
- Develop and revise policies that impact and address trauma-informed education, such as creating positive and instructive discipline policies and practices.
Adopting a trauma-informed approach and practices can improve academic, behaviour, well-being, and life outcomes for trauma-impacted learners and their classmates. All children and youth benefit from feeling safe, having positive relationships, and engaging in effective self-regulating activities. As articulated so powerfully by the outreach student, students will be more likely to engage in school when they feel like they belong and staff care about them.
Brummer, J., & Thorsborne, M. (2021). Building A Trauma-Informed Restorative School: Skills and Approaches for Improving Culture and Behaviour. Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
Burke-Harris, N. (2018). The Deepest Well: Healing the Long-Term Effects of Childhood Adversity. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Cole, S., Greenwald O’Brien, J., & Gadd, M. (2005). Helping traumatized children learn: Supportive school environments for children traumatized by family violence. Massachusetts Advocates for Children. Retrieved December 16, 2022 from https://traumasensitiveschools.org/tlpi-publications/download-a-free-copy-of-helping-traumatized-children-learn/
Desautels, L. L. (2020). Connections over compliance: Rewiring our perceptions of discipline. Wyatt-MacKenzie Publishing.
Howard, J. (2021). National Guidelines for Trauma Aware Education. Queensland University of Technology and Australian Childhood Foundation.