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Lessening the Blow: How Schools Can Help with Childhood Trauma

According to studies, nearly one-third of public school students suffer some sort of brain impairment due to trauma.

We won’t break down the science here—Education Week’s does a great job of that here. Suffice it to say that traumatic events that include some form of physical, sexual, or mental abuse dramatically alter student brain development and brain function.

Socioeconomic factors, such as homelessness, and a lack of basic health and hygiene can have a similar impact, researchers say.

While schools can’t prevent trauma from happening, they can help prevent its long-lasting effects, writes Tiffany Anderson, superintendent of the Topeka Public Schools in Kansas, in a blog post for Education Week.

In her 23 years as an educator and school leader, Anderson writes, “I have learned that it’s possible to replicate effective systems of trauma support from one school district to another.”

Anderson outlines several steps school leaders should take to support victims of childhood trauma in school. Good communication and effective engagement lie at the heart of each of them.

Here’s a few key takeaways from Anderson’s list and what it means for your schools.

1. Understand the community and the schools you serve

This is especially important for incoming leaders.

Get the lay of the land of current support systems and make an effort to understand the types of trauma students face.

For instance, is there a significant poor or homeless student population in your district? What kind of community programs are in place to support students and families living in poverty?

The key is to listen and learn, writes Anderson:

“When I arrived in Topeka, the district’s principals and I held community meetings and made home visits, including one to the local shelter, to gain an understanding of our schools’ homeless families. I also held discussions with teachers to learn more about issues they faced in the classroom.”

And gather data on a larger scale. Full staff, student, or community surveys can help you understand some of these challenges more clearly.

2. Equip teachers and parents to support students

The effects of trauma are often masked as misbehavior. So, it’s essential that teachers learn to identify signs of student distress.

Anderson suggests in-depth professional development on trauma specifically, and mental health generally. When teachers understand the mental process that contributes to misbehavior, chronic absences, or worse, they can develop more timely interventions.

Parents are often critical to this process.

Anderson directed teachers in her district to visit at-risk students at home. While making house calls, teachers delivered difficult-to-access resources and checked in on students who had long or repeated absences.

By focusing on “positive parent contact,” staff are able to recognize when students need help and to equip parents to support students during stressful periods, she writes.

3. Set aside time and space to address student trauma

Tackling trauma takes time and resources—two qualities often in short supply in schools.

But, educators shouldn’t see trauma programs and interventions as extra work, they should see them as essential to student success, writes Anderson.

In Topeka, Anderson’s staff sets aside rooms, or sections of rooms, where upset students can go to calm down after outbursts. They also set aside time to chat with at-risk students about school and other issues.

School leaders can also create online spaces for students and parents to safely and privately share their experiences and feelings.

The key is for staff to listen and provide support whenever and wherever families need it.

How do you identify and support students who deal with trauma in your schools? Tell us in the comments.

Want more ideas to help you tackle student trauma? Read Building resilience: How to fight the effects of childhood trauma.