Trauma-Sensitive Instruction and Leadership in Schools
BY JOHN F. ELLER, PHD AND TOM HIERCK
As schools continue working through the current pandemic, lots of conversation turns to the challenges of the time and the difficulty students have experienced related to trauma. However, let’s be perfectly clear – prior to the pandemic, many of our students were facing challenging and stressful home lives. As school leaders, we can instill in our staff an understanding of the importance of noticing changes in our children and working together to address these changes.
Let’s see how one principal has instilled this value in her teaching teams: Cassia, a sixth-grade student, has been in trouble for the last two years in school. In early elementary school, teachers commented about how attentive and interested she was in learning. All of that changed at the end of her fourth-grade year. She suddenly became withdrawn and quiet. She stopped turning in assignments and kept to herself a lot. Since it was the end of the school year, Cassia’s teacher thought something had changed, but didn’t want to pry into her family situation.
During fifth grade, all the classes were departmentalized. Cassia didn’t make a meaningful connection with her teachers there and did just enough to get by.
For sixth grade, Cassia attended Floyd Middle School. At this school, the team members met every week to discuss the students and their educational progress. Floyd Middle School had adopted the care factor as a central component of its school culture. Principal Raul Haven had aligned resources to help teachers focus on students first. Teachers met in collaborative teams and structured each meeting based on the unique needs of the students and teachers.
At their third weekly team meeting, the team focused on student welfare. Team members could complete a referral and discuss student concerns at this meeting. The team members listened as Cassia’s homeroom teacher, Ms. Deacon, shared her concerns about Cassia.
After listening to her concerns, team members developed a plan to study the situation to better understand what was happening. They adopted the following elements in their plan:
As a sixth-grade team, they decided it would be important for each of them to develop a better relationship with Cassia.
Ms. Deacon would keep a log of Cassia’s classroom behaviors to see if patterns had emerged.
The collaborative team leader would keep Principal Haven informed about the data they had gathered so she could be ready to provide additional resources once the team better understood the problem.
By implementing the plan, team members were able to develop a relationship with Cassia. As a result of this relationship, they were better able to determine the patterns in her behavior while also helping her to feel more comfortable and engaged in each classroom. After gathering more information, the sixth-grade collaborative team would meet again and develop a plan for implementing strategies to help Cassia get back on track. The process would take some time, but the team knew Cassia needed that to become comfortable with them. (Eller & Hierck, 2022, pp. 1–2)
In this brief example, we see how the sixth-grade team at Floyd Middle School worked to gather data to understand the issue, then implemented a plan to begin to address the situation. Rather than try to question Cassia about what had been bothering her, they decided to first build a foundational relationship with her. They knew building this relationship would take time, but they also knew that building a relationship would help to form a trusting bond between them and Cassia. The relationship itself could make a huge difference in how Cassia felt and responded.
Principal Haven has effectively built the foundation of trauma-sensitive instruction in her staff. She has invested time and energy in helping her teachers understand trauma and how it can impact their students. She has also instituted a focus on building relationships with all students. This high level of relationship building has paid off with lower levels of conflict in the classroom and fewer referrals to the office. Now, when teachers encounter off-task behavior, they first try to understand what could be behind the behavior rather than just reacting. A second highly productive behavior Principal Haven has developed with her staff is an approach to how they resolve concerns. As a team, they get together to problem-solve when teachers see a pattern of behavior. They approach student behavior issues in a manner similar to academic concerns – they gather data and study the issue before developing a plan. In the scenario above, they began to focus on building a relationship with Cassia while gathering more information because they knew about the power of relationships in teaching. Once more data is gathered, a more detailed plan is developed.
Principal Haven has been successful in leading her teachers to become more trauma-sensitive in their approach to children. The teachers have embraced a process that allows them to feel supported while also supporting their students. We know trauma will not disappear in a post-pandemic world; the strategies we develop as school teams are necessary not only during this time but also as we continue to move forward and further develop a trauma-sensitive approach.
The impact of trauma on learning can be significant and long-lasting. Learn how you can confidently and meaningfully support your trauma-impacted students and foster trauma-informed schools with this accessible resource. The authors draw from their personal and professional experiences with trauma, mental health, and school culture to provide real insight into what you can do now to help learners build resilience, cope with adverse situations, and achieve at high levels.
Trauma-Sensitive Leadership: Creating a Safe and Predictable School Environment
Trauma-Sensitive Leadership offers research-based, practical strategies for understanding and supporting trauma-impacted students rather than fixing them. Using straightforward language, the authors illustrate how to integrate new mindsets into daily practice to get to the core of critical issues like social and emotional safety and wellness for students and adults alike.
Trauma-Sensitive Instruction: Creating a Safe and Predictable Classroom Environment
Learn how to cultivate a trauma-informed classroom environment and utilize classroom management strategies to encourage positive learning experiences for trauma-impacted students.
John F. Eller, PhD, has served as director of a doctoral program at St. Cloud State University. He is a former principal, director of a principal’s training center, and assistant superintendent.
Tom Hierck has been an educator since 1983 in a career that has spanned all grade levels. He has been a teacher, an administrator, a district leader, a department of education project leader, and an executive director.
References Eller, J.F., & Hierck, T. (2022).
Trauma-Sensitive Leadership: Creating a Safe and Predictable School Environment. Solution Tree Press.
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