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Tackling Student Trauma: Topeka Schools' Achievement Boost

Childhood trauma comes in many forms.

Whether it’s the shock of a friend’s sudden death or violence in school, we’ve heard far too many stories about students having to recover from traumatic events.

But trauma can also rear its head in more subtle ways.

It’s easy to write off a misbehaving student as “troubled.” But often, this behavior is a direct result of continued trauma at home. Abuse, neglect, struggles with poverty are all part of a particular type of trauma called Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs). When schools fail to understand and adequately consider these experiences, they miss a big opportunity to improve student behavior and success.

At Topeka Unified School District 501 in Kansas, faculty and staff use a “trauma-informed” strategy to mitigate the effects of ACEs, Superintendent Tiffany Anderson tells American School Board Journal (ASBJ) in a new video report:

“Trauma can affect anyone, any age, anywhere, which is why it is really important to understand mental health and make sure that mental health is incorporated in classrooms and schools from pre-school all the way to 12th grade, for both students and adults.”

In a district where 77 percent of students eat free or reduced-price lunch and nearly 600 are homeless, Anderson and her staff say this focus on mental health and trauma helps students succeed, despite the myriad challenges many face outside of school.

While the relationship between trauma and student performance is complicated, the method schools use to contend with different forms of trauma don’t necessarily have to be. Through arts and music classes, kinesthetic movement exercises, peace spaces designed to give both students and parents a place for quiet reflection, and other methods, Topeka is proving that schools can tackle the challenges presented by ACEs with simple, practical, and cost-effective strategies.

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Says Anderson:

“I always get bothered when people use resources as an excuse as to why they can’t serve kids well. We can and must serve kids well and resources can’t be an excuse as to why that can’t happen. Many of the things that I’ve talked about in terms of trauma-informed strategies don’t cost a lot.”

And the trauma-informed approach seems to be working. This year, for the first time in the history of the district, academic performance increased in every content area and at every grade level.

For more on how the district is using trauma-informed strategies to boost student achievement, check out the full ASBJ video report below:

Does your district use a trauma-informed approach? How do you ensure students overcome challenges to succeed in the classroom? Tell us in the comments.