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NewsSep 27, 2019

Creating supportive classrooms for children impacted by trauma

A new Oak Foundation grant helps Lesley train more educators

Children sitting in a circle on the floor

The experience of childhood trauma — including abuse, neglect, family dysfunction or violence — can profoundly affect students’ ability to learn. Lesley’s Institute for Trauma Sensitivity (LIfTS) was created to help educators better understand the relationship between trauma and learning, while giving them practical steps to create safe and supportive classrooms for children experiencing trauma. A new grant from the Oak Foundation of $731,595 will help support important program enhancements over the next four years, making this essential training available to a wider range of educators in the U.S. and abroad.

"The funds that we have recently received from the Oak Foundation will enable LIfTS to expand its work of deepening educators' understanding of complex trauma, how it manifests in school-age children and how trauma-sensitive schools can help provide children with better access to education,” said program director Dr. Sal Terrasi.

According to studies, in a typical classroom of 25, at least four students have experienced complex trauma. These children often have trouble concentrating, regulating their behavior, building relationships and developing other skills that lead to success in the classroom. Children may have disruptive outbursts at school or they may be withdrawn or unfocused.

“These children can be perceived by educators as not paying attention,” Terrasi explained. “They are paying attention, but to something else. These children are expecting harm from the world.”

Educators who don’t understand the symptoms and effects of trauma often dismiss students as badly behaved or misdiagnose them as special needs, creating even more obstacles for students who are already struggling.

But educating teachers and administrators to recognize the effects of trauma on their students can have a major impact on their teaching. The center’s pioneering work in training educators to understand the impact of childhood trauma has put Lesley at the forefront of an important and growing field of study.

“I’m not aware of any other colleges or universities that are doing what LIfTS and our partner, the Trauma and Learning Policy Initiative, are doing in this field," said Joel Ristuccia, lead instructor/mentor for LIfTS.

Over 1,500 educators, administrators and other school professionals have participated in trauma-focused course-work since the institute was founded in 2010, and courses have been held in more than 30 Massachusetts districts as well as other parts of the U.S. The effects can be felt in participants’ classrooms.

I’m not aware of any other colleges or universities that are doing what LIfTS and our partner, the Trauma and Learning Policy Initiative, are doing in this field.
Joel Ristuccia, Lesley’s Institute for Trauma Sensitivity

“I can’t tell you how helpful this has been in my daily practice,” one teacher commented. “It truly has added a whole new lens on how I look at students that I serve, and it gives me a whole new layer of perspective and tools.”

As more educators discover how understanding the effects of trauma can lead to breakthroughs in their classrooms, interest in the program is growing rapidly. Professor Meenakshi Chhabra, director of Lesley’s Global Interdisciplinary Studies Program, has led trauma and resilience workshops for educators from Palestine and Egypt. A biannual, low-residency program, designed to develop and mentor teachers who will then become Lesley adjuncts in their local districts, has attracted educators from Illinois, Maine, New Hampshire, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee and Washington, D.C. The new Oak Foundation grant will support the development of distance learning courses to allow more educators to access LIfTS content across the U.S. and internationally.

LIfTS currently offers four graduate-level courses designed for teachers and administrators. The grant will enable the program to strengthen its focus on helping teachers to design classrooms that are more inclusive and to catalyze whole school change. At the same time, LIfTS will develop a fifth elective course that promotes a more culturally responsive perspective.

“The grant will support our scholarship to better understand the role of community, culture, and equity when discussing trauma and resilience,” said Patricia Crain De Galarce, director of the Center for Inclusive and Special Education, and associate dean of Lesley’s Graduate School of Education.

The grant will also lead to a stronger network among educators creating trauma-sensitive schools through the launch of a new LIfTS website as well as regional gatherings of practitioners.

Helping educators learn how to develop trauma-sensitive schools directly reflects Lesley’s mission to offer a more inclusive education model that benefits all children.

Said Terrasi, “This important work is very much aligned with Lesley University's historical and ongoing commitment to social justice.”