Submitted by Stacey Plotner and Roy Blakeney
If students come to school lacking the crucial skills of responsibility, respect, resilience and relationship, how can a school’s faculty and staff respond to raise levels of academic achievement for every student? An increasing number of students are affected by toxic stress caused by trauma and deep wounds brought on by abuse, neglect, and violence. The faculty and staff at Dreher High School realize that childhood adversity affects one’s opportunity to learn and be successful in school; therefore, the faculty and staff have embarked on a journey to be trauma-sensitive. The PDS team has led the charge, following the flexible framework for trauma-sensitive schools developed by the Trauma and Learning Policy Initiative.
A trauma-sensitive school is one in which “all students feel safe, welcomed, and supported and where addressing trauma’s impact on learning on a school-wide basis is at the center of its educational mission. An ongoing, inquiry-based process allows for the necessary teamwork, coordination, creativity, and sharing of responsibility for all students” (Cole, Eisner, Gregory, & Ristuccia, 2013, p. 11).
To assess the sense of urgency of the faculty and staff, the PDS Liaison developed and administered a questionnaire to examine perceptions and preparedness of trauma-informed competencies and practices. The findings revealed that the respondents believed trauma-informed practices and competencies were extremely important, but they felt unprepared to use many practices. For example, 90% of the respondents felt the competence “understand how traumatic experiences affect one’s ability to concentrate and focus” is extremely important, but only 3% felt extremely prepared in that competency. The findings revealed that the respondents with special education certification felt the most prepared and had the most training in trauma-informed practices. Further, 80% of the respondents believed trauma-informed care training would be beneficial for them. Finally, the findings showed that training is needed on the effects of trauma on cognitive development and trauma-informed teaching practices and strategies.
Next, the Assistant Principal and the PDS Liaison conducted professional development sessions to raise awareness of the prevalence of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) and the impact of ACEs on the architecture of the brain, emphasizing the effects on learning, self-regulation, and behavior. Looking at students with a trauma-informed lens means changing our perspective. Instead of asking “What’s wrong with this child?” we ask, “What happened to this child?” Perhaps the most important realization is that the intervention is building relationships. The faculty/staff were left asking for more after the introduction to ACEs and toxic stress caused by trauma. They wanted to know, “What’s next? and “What can we do to support, encourage, and respond to our students without re-traumatizing them?”
Our next PD session will focus on these next steps: the characteristics of trauma-sensitive learning environments and teaching strategies and practices that are for ALL learners, regardless of one’s trauma history. Our newly formed steering committee, made up of the faculty/staff, the PDS team, and the social worker, will also meet to continue the process, following the guidance of the Trauma and Learning Policy Initiative. They will assess the leadership needed to create infrastructure and culture, the continued need for professional development and skill building, access to resources and services, an evaluation of policies, procedures and protocols; and a plan for improved collaboration with families and the community.
Dreher High School is in the beginning stages of the process of becoming trauma-sensitive, but with the combined support of the district leadership, the school administrators, the University, and the most important factor, the faculty and staff, change is on the horizon.