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Teachers tackle student trauma

Educators learn informed approaches to supporting children in need.

January 21, 2019

By Matt Watson

Imagine trying to focus on work immediately after the death of a loved one. Or trying to interact with an authority figure after having been abused by one. Or just trying to get through the day, knowing at the end of it you’ll return to a home struggling under the weight of drug addiction.

Now imagine you’re an 8-year-old. Who is there to help you navigate the intricacies and impacts of trauma?

That responsibility increasingly falls on teachers, the adults who spend the most time with children outside of their primary caregivers.

Research published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine found that more than half of school-age children experience trauma, defined in that study as psychological, physical or sexual abuse; violence against the mother; or living with household members who were substance abusers, mentally ill or suicidal, or imprisoned.

The repercussions have been found to be severe and long-lasting: People who noted multiple forms of childhood trauma in that study were found to have a higher likelihood of health issues such as heart disease, liver disease, cancer or other adverse conditions later in life. In the short term, unaddressed trauma can hurt school performance, causing more absences, problems with attention and reasoning, lower GPAs and a higher risk of dropping out.

Part II: Who takes care of teachers?

Despite the data, a dearth of trauma-informed adults who are able to recognize these issues in children remains part of the problem. A 2018 report from two counseling organizations, the National Association of College Admission Counseling and the American School Counselor Association, found the national student-to-counselor ratio in K-12 schools is 482-to-1, well above the ASCA’s recommended standard of 250-to-1. Colorado’s ratio (383-to-1) was better than average but still well short of the recommendation in the most recent data.

It’s not that students experiencing trauma need “saving,” but educators are sounding the alarm that helping them requires more well-informed teachers who are willing to change their frame of mind and classroom practices.

Megan Brennan, co-founder of Resilient Futures, educates a group of teacher education students at MSU Denver on trauma-informed teaching practices. Photo by Alyson McClaran.
Megan Brennan, co-founder of Resilient Futures, educates a group of teacher education students at MSU Denver on trauma-informed teaching practices. Photo by Alyson McClaran.

How to support students who have experienced trauma

For Megan Brennan, co-founder of Denver-based nonprofit Resilient Futures, the heart of trauma-informed practices isn’t based in the heart at all. It’s more a matter of neuroscience.

“Often, what we see is students’ behavior at school is just misapplied survival skills. Those skills are adaptive for survival in traumatic environments but maladaptive in schools,” Brennan said. “When a student’s had trauma, they spend a lot of time in the survival part of their brain. When they spend time in that part of the brain, the higher-functioning abilities of regulating and controlling impulses really go offline.”

Resilient Futures educates teachers, administrators and others with a model called Healthy Environments and Response to Trauma in Schools, or HEARTS, which was developed by the University of California San Francisco. UCSF implemented the model in San Francisco-area schools and documented decreases in behavioral problems in schools, positive academic outcomes, improved school engagement and increased parent satisfaction in the years following training.


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“What they wanted to do was help schools understand the impact of trauma on student learning and behavior and start to make systemic changes so students could receive the support they needed to be more successful in the school environment and be able to learn and thrive without their behavior getting in the way,” Brennan said.

Kathryn Young, Ph.D., associate professor of secondary education at Metropolitan State University of Denver, says it’s easy to get people on board with treating children with physical issues. Making accommodations for behavioral and emotional issues often requires a broader culture shift.

“If you have a broken leg and you have crutches, you need to get out of class five minutes early to get to your next class, and everybody’s OK with that. That’s not ‘special treatment.’ That’s just what you need to get to your next class,” Young said.

Young was one of the faculty members who brought urgency to teaching students in MSU Denver’s educator-preparation programs about trauma-informed practices. Assistant professor of elementary education Ofelia Schepers, Ph.D., also encouraged the practice in part because of her research into secondary traumatic stress affecting teachers because of their work with students who have been traumatized.

The University partnered with Resilient Futures and the National Mental Health Innovation Center at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus last fall to better prepare future teachers to support their students. It’s a hot topic in education – last August, donors gave a $1 million gift to Denver Public Schools to fund training for DPS teachers on this very issue.

“Kids are identified as having emotional and behavioral disorders. If you’re called that term, you might act out too,” Young said. “We can think about it another way: They’re acting out because they’ve had trauma in their lives. It’s a really different mindset for us about how to approach kids.

“One is saying you are bad, and the other says you’ve been harmed.”

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