The blog of the Urban Institute
December 9, 2019

How Understanding Trauma Can Help Students Achieve

December 9, 2019

For many Alaska Native families, a colonial history has created generational trauma that, until recently, has gone unrecognized by government institutions. Communities are still healing from systemic oppression, such as the removal of children from their homes for forced schooling and the use of violence to prevent children from speaking their native language.

At the US Department of Education’s Promise Neighborhoods National Network Conference last month, Lisa X'unyéil Worl, coordinator of Supporting Transitions and Educational Promise Southeast Alaska, explained that violent actions taken generations ago against families like hers, part of the Tlingit tribe, still have an impact today.

Understanding these effects can help local educators, most not native to Alaska, understand families’ continued mistrust of institutions and address adverse outcomes like high student dropout rates. And these lessons can help educators working in other areas that have experienced community-wide trauma.

What is childhood trauma?

Childhood trauma comes from negative experiences like abuse, neglect, or witnessing violence. Some children—like many Alaska Natives—have also experienced historical or systemic trauma, including those who identify as LGBTQ, have interacted with the juvenile justice or foster care systems, and have experienced racism, poverty, or violence.

Research on childhood brain development shows that stress and trauma can inhibit development of parts of the brain that regulate emotions and behavior. Understanding the impact of childhood trauma on brain development can help educators and other adults understand certain student behaviors that are often punished in schools.

Strategies for a trauma-sensitive approach

The first step is acknowledging the trauma and moving away from disciplinary practices that might punish students for their experiences, which can retraumatize them. “A trauma-informed approach helps educators distinguish between so-called bad behavior and pain,” said Worl.

But this is easier said than done. Most teachers are trained in traditional methods of school discipline, which fail to connect certain behaviors with the impact of trauma.

“People have to accept and believe the coping skills children have,” said Amanda Delabar, principal of Harriet Tubman Elementary School in Washington, DC. “Those skills have served them well and come from a place of survival.”

Tubman Elementary has been using a trauma-informed approach for six years. Delabar has nixed color charts, a typical elementary classroom management tool that assigns colors according to a student’s behavior. Her school has designated a “safe zone” where students can go for support when their emotions are elevated. When hiring for new positions at Tubman, Delabar is up front about the challenges with her approach and looks for candidates who are willing to reflect on their identity, race, and personal trauma.

An alternate response to trauma involves asset-based thinking, or valuing what students, families, and communities bring to the table. This requires a mind-set shift from deficit thinking, or identifying the “problems” with a kid or family.

Robert Woodson, founder and president of the Woodson Center, said solutions to poverty and violence in Black communities require local ownership.

“If you assume nothing is there until you show up, you will never seek solutions from within,” said Woodson. “Rather than seeking people who can earn the trust of the people, why not recruit people from that community who already have the trust of the people?”

Woodson’s Violence Free Zone model identifies people who have themselves experienced trauma and trains them to become resources in schools. These leaders help mediate student conflict and mentor younger community members. Evaluations of the program have shown reductions in suspensions and better student attendance.

Worl and Delabar both use community surveys to gather input from students and families on how to support them. In a recent Association of Alaska School Boards (AASB) survey, 83 percent of educators said their schools value students’ language and culture, but only 56 percent of students said the same. Based on this feedback, the AASB initiated changes to better reflect students’ culture at school, including bringing community Elders into the classroom, offering classes on Native languages, and singing traditional songs at assemblies.

Although data are forthcoming, Worl and Delabar have seen increases in student and family satisfaction and family engagement, which are important steps to academic achievement.

Balancing acknowledgement of trauma and high expectations

A trauma-informed approach does not mean academic expectations are lower for some students. Adults should acknowledge trauma but also communicate their confidence in students’ abilities and provide strategies to help them succeed.

“Sometimes a person is defined by the worst moment in their life,” said Kyla Liggett-Creel, assistant clinical professor at the University of Maryland School of Social Work and director of research and evaluation at Promise Heights. “A child who has experienced trauma is put in a disempowered position because they didn’t have control in the situation. Defining them by their trauma continues the pattern.”

Acknowledging trauma as a community helps avoid stigmatizing and retraumatizing individual students. This is especially relevant in marginalized communities who experience trauma as the result of systemic racism.

Liggett-Creel uses healing-centered engagement, a strategy that focuses on students’ strengths. Students use art, civic action, and community engagement to gather information about their community’s experiences and build resilience.

“We want students to be agents of change in their own life, so they can improve their lives and others,” she said.

Students walk through the hallway at Cesar Chavez Elementary School in San Francisco, CA as they participate in the after-school enrichment program run by Jamestown Community Center, one of Mission Promise Neighborhood’s partner organizations. The program began at Cesar Chavez Elementary School 25 years ago. Photo by Lydia Thompson for the Urban Institute.

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