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Editor’s Note: School children spend at least as much time at school with teachers and peers than home with their families during the school year. Students are not only expected to focus attention and learn new information, but to negotiate social relationships with adults and peers and regulate their emotions and behavior in specific ways. Few school staff understand the many ways that trauma affects children’s functioning at school, let alone have specific techniques for teaching traumatized children. In Massachusetts, that is changing. In this article, Jenny Caldwell Curtin, coordinator of Alternative Education and Trauma Sensitive Schools for the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, discusses what trauma-sensitive schools look like, and how they are becoming a reality in Massachusetts. - Kathy Becker-Blease, PhD, Traumatic StressPoints Contributing Editor

In the United States, most educators understand and acknowledge that students bring a diversity of experiences when they enter the classroom. However, teachers may not know that a child is a victim of trauma or acknowledge that trauma may be impeding a student’s ability to learn.

An estimated one out of four children in the United States will experience a traumatic event before the age of 16 (Understanding Child Traumatic Stress¸ The National Child Traumatic Stress Network). Types of events that may produce a traumatic response in children include: child abuse and neglect, school and community violence, domestic violence, homelessness, bullying, traumatic loss, medical trauma, natural disaster, terrorism, and war.

Educators may not be aware that a student is learning or responding under a trauma response. Teachers and school administrators may misinterpret or mislabel students’ behaviors, learning patterns, or social skills. Traumatized children are vulnerable; teachers are the critical link to intervene with sensitivity and awareness. Best practices create an environment where students can learn in a safe and positive environment.

Trauma sensitive practice is a must for every educator's toolkit. Trauma can have profound effects on a child's ability to participate and process the regular school day, which may lead to significant achievement gaps for these students. Educators have an opportunity to intervene and advocate on behalf of their students with trauma-sensitive practice and awareness.

About Trauma: Effects on Children
As with adults, traumatic events can have profound effects on children. A chronic state of fear can impede development of critical brain functions (e.g., memory, language, problem solving, higher order thinking). There are several factors that influence the gravity of the trauma in children, including the child’s age, personality, family supports, culture, and the frequency and severity of the exposure.

Traumatized children may experience barriers in several school-related areas – academic performance, classroom behavior, and relationships. Examples of the academic performance potential factors include: disruption of language and communication skills, difficulty organizing narrative material, comprehension of cause-and-effect relationships, difficulty with taking another person’s perspective, trouble with attending to classroom tasks, barriers with self-regulating or modulating emotions, and reduced motivation for academic engagement.

Furthermore, the school environment may have the unintended consequence of triggering harmful responses in traumatized students. Examples of possible triggers include sensory experiences (e.g. sights, sounds, smells, touch, tastes) and emotional experiences (anxiety, fear, anticipation of the unknown, vulnerability, being overwhelmed, shame, loss). Triggers may be either known or unknown to the student and outside observers.

Creating Trauma-Sensitive Environments for Students
Children affected by trauma may not see school as a safe haven or "different place" than the one where they experienced trauma. There are a number of activities schools can initiate to create more trauma-sensitive environment. The following is a brief list of the range of activities schools should consider implementing to reduce trauma as a barrier to learning.

  • Comprehensive professional development for teachers and other staff on the effects of trauma and techniques for teaching traumatized students
  • An established team of school personnel to assess individual student cases through a trauma-sensitive lens
  • Expanded counseling services for students with known or suspected trauma histories 
  • Referrals to outside support services for both students and their families
  • Parent and family workshops on the effects of trauma on student learning and
  • Conflict resolution training for both teachers and students
  • Consultation with local hospitals, mental health facilities, women's shelters, and other community-based organizations
  • Academic instruction techniques for teaching traumatized students – including building on areas of competence, creating a more predictable school environment, and presenting information in a variety of formats
  • Development or revision of school policies (e.g., discipline policies, safety planning) to be more trauma-sensitive 

Massachusetts State Grant Program
The Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education is committed to providing for the needs of every child and recognizes the need to acknowledge trauma sensitive practice in schools. The purpose of the Safe and Supportive Learning Environments (also referred to as “trauma-sensitive schools”) state grant program is to assist school districts with the development and establishment of in-school regular education programs and services to address the educational and psycho-social needs of children who behavior interferes with learning, particularly those who are suffering from the traumatic effects of violence.

In addition to working with the recipients of the state grant program, the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education also provides information and technical assistance to other school districts interested in the “trauma-sensitive schools” framework through a state trauma-sensitive schools website and training opportunities. The Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education organized the third annual statewide trauma-sensitive schools conference on May 6, 2008, and had over 300 educators and community partners from across the state attend the event. The annual state conference provides information on best practices and strategies for creating a safe and supportive school environment that holds all students to high expectations and reduces non-academic barriers to learning.

Outcomes from the Fiscal Year 2007 Massachusetts State Grant Recipients
The following is a brief summary of the outcomes from the 23 Massachusetts state grant recipients in fiscal year 2007 (2006-07 school year): 

  • More than 700 teachers and staff across the grantees received training on the effects of trauma on learning and development, the identification of signs of trauma, and classroom management strategies to create safe learning environments.
  • Sixteen grantees implemented programs or small group interventions that help students develop skills in regulating or modulating their behavior and emotions fostering healthy relationships. Examples of these activities include: anti-bullying and violence curriculums, student peer mediation programs, and martial arts programs. These school-wide, classroom, and individual trauma-sensitive programs and activities impacted approximately 15,992 students.
  • Thirteen grantees engaged in activities to help establish or maintain linkages between school staff and mental health professionals both inside and outside the school environment.
  • Thirteen grantees formed leadership teams or committees to strategically plan how to incorporate trauma sensitive policies, programs, and activities into the classrooms and the school-wide environment.
  • Ten grantees incorporated parent training and educational workshops to help encourage parents to become engaged in their children’s learning and educate them on issues that impact student achievement.
  • Seven grantees incorporated strategies to improve academic instruction of traumatized children, including equipping teachers with classroom resources to help them create a trauma sensitive classroom.
  • Twelve grantees established or revised school polices, procedures, and systems to support efforts to establish trauma sensitive environments, both in the classroom and school-wide. 

As educators and professionals that partner with schools, we must be aware of the prevalence of trauma in the lives of the children. Children experiencing some type of trauma are likely to struggle in school with language and communication, attentiveness to classroom tasks, regulating emotions, and engaging in the curriculum. Although current research does not provide the complete picture on children affected by events leading to trauma, we do know that there are children who experience trauma every day in schools throughout the United States.

Massachusetts State Trauma-Sensitive Schools.

Helping Traumatized Children Learn: A Report and Policy Agenda, Massachusetts Advocates for Children, 2005.

Understanding Child Traumatic Stress¸ The National Child Traumatic Stress Network, 2005.