As educators learn more about the impact of traumatic experiences in children's lives, they begin to understand that behind many behavioral and academic problems lies trauma—and that new strategies are needed.
Faculty Sal Terrasi is project director of the Lesley Institute for Trauma Sensitivity (LIFTS), which is at the forefront of the movement to create trauma-sensitive schools, and was invited to a meeting on this subject at The White House on Sept. 19.
“It struck me that our work around the impact of trauma on learning is now being recognized nationally,” Terrasi reflected. “A White House convening more than acknowledges the importance of this topic.”
The day-long summit, “Trauma-Informed Approaches in School: Supporting Girls of Color and Rethinking Discipline,” was presented by The White House Council on Women and Girls, the U.S. Department of Education, the Georgetown Law Center on Poverty and Inequality, and The National Crittenton Foundation.
This ties into Terrasi’s work with LIFTS, where educators are given strategies and techniques to understand trauma and its effect on learning in order to build conditions for each student’s success, as a growing body of research demonstrates that trauma is often identified as misbehavior, disability or social deviance.
“An open manifestation of trauma and a behavior that has been developed to ensure survival is often interpreted by teachers as, ‘She’s not paying attention, she has ODD (oppositional defiant disorder), she has ADD (attention deficit disorder), this is willful disobedience,’ rather than a manifestation of trauma,” said Terrasi. “It becomes a spiraling cycle of being referred to the principal’s office, disciplinary consequences, suspensions and on and on.”
He continued, “What we try to do is establish the concept of a trauma-sensitive school, a school in which educators understand all of this,” said Terrasi, who has also worked in the Brockton, Mass., schools for 40 years, where he is director of pupil personnel services. “Many educators don’t necessarily get this in their pre-service training, so there is a lot of good work happening through Lesley right now.”
The White House summit brought together organizations, such as Lesley, that share a commitment to promoting policies and practices that support the needs and potential of underserved populations, including marginalized girls, young women and their families. Terrasi was among senior White House and administration officials, key researchers and topic experts, multidisciplinary state teams, community organizers and non-profit organizations, according to The White House’s invitation.
“In terms of educating teachers in this critical area of developing trauma-sensitive schools, Lesley is being recognized as a leader,” said Terrasi.
Creating healthier environments to benefit all students
Established in 2009, LIFTS has recently expanded its impact, thanks to grant funding from the Oak Foundation. Last year alone, LIFTS instructed 342 public school educators, administrators, and health professionals across 11 school districts.
The institute aims to increase the number of school districts and individual schools, in Massachusetts and beyond, where the childhood trauma curriculum is offered, with a five-year goal of presenting 50 courses to 1,300 participants.
“The name of the game for us as educators is to provide students with a quality education and build conditions for their success – and teachers have to be aware of those strategies,” said Terrasi. “We strive to create classrooms in which teachers have strategies and techniques at their disposal.”
Program coursework on the impact of trauma and learning includes: classroom and student supports, flexible frameworks, action and research, and strategies for creating trauma-sensitive schools.
Educators learn to identify the signs of complex trauma and work with young people who perceive the world as something that’s doing harm to them or that has the potential of doing harm.
Traumatized students often display a hypervigilance, showing up to school ill-equipped to learn and understand. Some students can be aggressive. Others withdraw. Some struggle to form attachments. And many children don’t have the language to process any of this.
“In our society, students who are at high risk of living with complex trauma are often misunderstood by educators,” noted Patricia Crain de Galarce, director of the Center for Special Education. “So often we hear from exasperated teachers that, ‘He just doesn’t care’ or ‘She rolls her eyes when I try to help.’ Often teachers with the best intentions are responding in ways that are actually harmful and counter-productive. The critical relationships needed to facilitate learning in the classroom can be difficult to foster with students living with chronic stress.”
Dr. Crain de Galarce says there is a national push to look at the social-emotional aspects of teaching and learning, which are critical to reaching rigorous academic learning.
“We are not only recognizing the prevalence of trauma, but giving schools, districts and teachers tools to create trauma-sensitive classrooms. Educators are learning to respond in ways so that they do not inadvertently trigger students’ trauma,” said Crain de Galarce. “LIFTS is helping to create spaces for learning that give students tools, so that if trauma was to happen, they’re more apt to be able to respond in ways that aren’t going to shut down learning. They are going to approach adverse events with skills of resiliency.”
Added Juliet LeBlanc, assistant director of Lesley’s Center for Special Education, “Our work creates healthier learning environments and benefits all kids, whether they are traumatized or not.”