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Trauma-informed practices make a difference

One Professional Learning Community (PLC) at Bellaire Education Center (BEC) and WELS-N has spent the 2016-17 school year educating themselves, their teams and their students on how trauma in a child’s life can impact their outcomes at school -- and how adults can support them better.


People can experience trauma in a lot of different ways. Physical or emotional neglect, parental substance abuse, incarceration, divorce, and violence are all examples of experiences that can impact a student’s behavior, relationships, and academic progress in school. If a person experiences four or more of these Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) in their lifetime, they are many times more likely to attempt suicide, be victim of physical or sexual abuse, use illegal drugs, and be diagnosed with cancer. People with four or more ACEs, on average, die 20 years earlier than their peers who do not.


Students at BEC and WELS-N are many times more likely than the general population to fit this profile. The educators, social workers, and other school staff are determined to change the direction of their future.


Trauma-informed care is an approach to engaging people with histories of trauma that recognizes the presence of trauma symptoms and acknowledges the role that trauma has played in their lives. “What this means in practice is having a more gentle approach with students, modeling empathy and a calm demeanor,” said Sarah Urban, one of the schools’ social workers. “These sorts of practices can actually rewire a student’s brain, having a positive effect on them for years to come.”


Staff are asked to show students respect and understanding in moments when they feel misunderstood, upset or frustrated. A student’s expression of emotion is treated as an opportunity for intimacy and teaching. Each adult working with any student should provide unconditional respect and be careful not to challenge them in ways that produce shame and humiliation. “It is important to validate their emotions and guide them with trust and affection,” said Amy Runningen, another social worker at the schools.


For example, if an adult sees a student in a hallway when they are not supposed to be there, they used to ask an accusatory question, like “where are you supposed to be?” Now, that same adult might ask, “do you mind if I walk with you to class?”


None of this means that students are not held responsible for their behavior. But they might reflect on that behavior a day or two after the event, when they are more calm and can think through things logically. Staff also help students develop empathy towards their peers, so they understand each other better and have fewer conflicts. “When students understand how trauma affects their lives and their peers, they are better able to approach the effects of this trauma in a reflective, problem-solving way,” said Social Worker Kelly Krumrie. “Students feel less isolated, less alienated, and more connected to each other and their community.”


Data shows that trauma-informed care is working. A survey that students took in the fall and spring of this year shows that students are now much more likely to say that staff make them feel good, help them make progress, and understand that they are trying to get better. They also say that school is more predictable and safe, and that they know what is expected of them.


This shift has given staff a renewed perspective on their work. “We all work in this environment for the same reasons, because we care about the kids,” said Sarah. “In a heated moment it is easy to forget that, so trauma-informed practice reminds us that our purpose is to make a difference.”


The PLC is made up of social workers, a school nurse, a mental health specialist and other valuable members.