Trauma. As educators and activists fighting for the schools our students deserve, trauma has got to be talked about. Most teachers I know get that. It's obvious in our day to day interactions with children that some of our little ones need far more help than we can provide.
Which is why I am heartened by the rumblings of "trauma-informed" schooling. The idea that we would build schools around the needs of our kids who have experienced all kinds of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs): poverty, hunger, homelessness, violence, police brutality, the impact of mass incarceration, racism. The list goes on and on, but the basic idea is that schools could be safe spaces for kids who have experienced trauma.
In my vision, a trauma-informed school would be a school that commits to being a low-stress, stable, low-competition, highly joyful place, with ample arts, music, dance, and sports as positive outlets. Testing would be outlawed replaced by low-stress, creative projects. Young children would have ample time to play and socialize. Class sizes would be low to foster positive relationships. Curriculum would be culturally-relevant, and students would tackle subjects like racism and injustice, but there would also be plenty of silliness and laughter. There would be full-time mental health workers who spend time in classrooms weekly teaching coping skills and appropriate ways to handle strong emotions, and would be available for emergency interventions as needed. An on-site clinic with a full-time nurse practitioner would also be a staple for these schools. The staff would be trained in de-esclation techniques, educated about signs to look for and ways to intervene successfully with kids in crisis. And most importantly, staff would be given lessened workloads and time schedules as working with kids with mental illness takes a greater personal toll. Staff would need to treated with extra care in order to give the extra care that our kiddos experiencing a hard life need.
I hope we can move to this approach and center the idea of "trauma-informed" schools. But, (there's always a "but")....I want to make this abundantly clear....trauma informed-schools are much much more than just some extra teacher trainings.
No. Stop. We have put too much on teachers already. We cannot treat this as one more item that teachers have to "deal with" in their classrooms. Alone. Unsupported. Even as every other support crumbles around them. No.
I always tell teachers who are exasperated with the difficult behaviors in their classrooms of kids clearly affected by trauma about my time teaching at a psych hospital. There, I worked with an entire multi-disciplinary team including doctors, nurses, social workers, mental health professionals, teachers, etc. And even with every intervention on hand, doing everything "right", we could not prevent the crises children with mental health issues experienced. We simply dealt with the crises.
Yet somehow we expect teachers to learn a few tricks that will magically fix truly debilitating classroom behavior? Cut it out....
So much of what teachers are experiencing is outside their control. Here in Chicago, we are reeling from the horrors of terrible "school choice" policy that has led to further segregating schools by income, race, and ability. Some neighborhood schools get dubbed the "dumping" schools where high numbers of kids with ACEs and associated mental health issues are concentrated in the same space. These are also the exact same schools more likely to experience disruptive school closings or turnarounds, massive budget cuts and staff layoffs, and to have the democratic processes of Local School Councils stripped away. Meanwhile, teachers in the schools are given far less autonomy, fewer resources, and less time to plan for their growing number of kids with significant mental health challenges. They are forced into the bad practices of using wildly unreasonable curriculum based on developmentally inappropriate standards that are tied to high-stress, high-stakes tests. These "non-negotiables" place teachers in the awful position of forcing kids experiencing trauma into toxic classroom cultures where teachers have to crack down on behaviors instead of taking the time to support kids through troubled moments. Without resources or other options, teachers are left with few ways to control the chaos.
All of this frightening school-level harm is coupled with state and federal level defunding of vital supports such as mental health services. At the psych hospital, kids used to stay for months until they were stable and then move on to step-down services before carefully reentering school. Today, kids are lucky to get five days of hospitalization time, and we often discharge kids suffering massive trauma with extreme behaviors right back into some unsuspecting teacher's classroom the very next day. These are kids who, less than 24 hours before, required locked, inpatient care with no access to sharp objects such as pencils or paper clips, and around-the-clock care being thrown, unceremoniously, into a general education classroom. And we tell teachers to just deal with it? To use the magic words that calm a kid that couldn't be soothed in the most restrictive environment? I could add defunding of DCFS, the CHA sitting on hundreds of millions instead of providing housing, police brutality, growing poverty, lead poisoning, spikes in violence, the brokenness of our foster care system, and a mass incarceration system touching millions of families and children. Teachers can't be expected to be able to do their jobs in the middle of these multiple crises.
But...and here's the kicker...no matter what kind of quality schools we would be able to design even if the political will existed to create and fund these place-our first act should be to protect kids from trauma in the first place. My experience working in the hospital taught me that you don't fix trauma, the best you can hope for is to learn to cope with it. Which is why every dollar of public money should be flowing to protect kids from poverty, making sure their families have the support they need, shoring up public services like DCFS, giving all who need it access to quality affordable housing, living-wage jobs, and health-care, and supporting policies dismantling the carceral state.
Stop putting EVERYTHING on the backs of teachers. No one is going to be willing to work in the schools that need stability the most. When your evaluation focuses on test scores and a standardized rubric designed for mentally stable children, no teacher will be willing to risk their jobs to work with our neediest kids. Plus, it's too damn hard working with tough behaviors AND navigating the impossible workloads with no autonomy or joy. You can't control the outbursts of our kids. You can't control peer effects that happen when a tipping point is reached of negative behaviors in a classroom, and kids are re-triggering each others' trauma daily. Our teachers are exhausted by all of society's ills playing out in their classrooms.
These fragile children are the ones harmed the most by bad policy. Anyone serious about creating true "trauma-informed" schools needs to join teachers, parents, and students on the streets to end neoliberal edreform and to force politicians to fund the services and supports every person deserves. Fight the system and in the meantime, do everything in your power to uplift and support teachers trying to do the best they can in this broken system. Please....