How do we best support all students in developing the social skills needed for life in our schools and classrooms, especially if our students have experienced trauma? Social and emotional learning (SEL) and trauma-informed educational practices are commonly on top of the list of solutions. Although these two educational practices are directly aligned, examining the synergistic intertwining of how both fit together to produce improved outcomes for students’ health, well-being, social interactions, and academic success is crucial.
Aligning SEL With Trauma-Informed Practices
Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) defines SEL as “the process through which all young people and adults acquire and apply the knowledge, skills, and attitudes to develop healthy identities, manage emotions and achieve personal and collective goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain supportive relationships, and make responsible and caring decisions,” which translates into five core competencies or outcomes that support students’ needs:
3. Responsible decision-making
4. Relationship skills
5. Social awareness
Alex Shevrin Venet defines trauma in Equity-Centered Trauma-Informed Education as “an individual and collective response to life-threatening events, harmful conditions, or prolonged stressful environments.” The large body of research also clarifies that trauma is not the event(s) itself but the impact physiologically, neurologically, psychologically, and emotionally. Shevrin Venet goes on to define trauma-informed education “as practices that respond to the impact of trauma on the entire school community and prevent future trauma from occurring.”
There is a delicate but necessary symbiosis between SEL and trauma-informed education. It is essential to align the two by looking at trauma-informed education as a lens that adults can utilize to provide appropriate supports and interventions to build students’ capacity to acquire the five core competencies of SEL. Trauma-informed education is genuinely about the educators/adults in schools thoroughly understanding the impact that stress and trauma play on students’ physiological, psychological, neurological, and emotional responses.
Embracing the Paradigm Shift From Punishment to Support
This understanding leads to developing practice, policy, and procedures built to teach and support everyone and prevent or mitigate the perpetuation of traumatization inside and outside schools. This movement is a paradigm shift from the behavioristic idea that has been in education for centuries, which prioritizes punishment to extinguish undesired behavior.
For example, I have heard educators many times in my career say, “All I asked them to do is get their pencil out and get ready to work. The next thing I knew, the child was throwing objects and running out of the room.” Without an appropriate trauma-informed lens, this response could appear on the surface as a choice to avoid work or defiance. However, suppose we understand the impact of when the nervous system’s stress response is overstimulated. In that case, we can then truly support the student in building their capacity in the five core SEL competencies by providing support, not punishment, when we see students showing signs of dysregulation.
It’s important to get to the cause and not simply focus on the symptoms. A great example of this process is Dr. Ross Green’s Collaborative and Proactive Solutions (CPS). The CPS model is a departure from using punishment to extinguish behaviors and moves into the idea of working with students collaboratively to build their skill set (five core SEL competencies) and self-awareness of their nervous system’s stress responses. It takes strong adult-student relationships along with collaboration and support so that students can become problem solvers and skill builders.
Involving the Whole School Community
Schools across the globe are utilizing unique strategies to marry both SEL and trauma-informed education. Fall-Hamilton Elementary uses many trauma-informed approaches to build SEL competencies. For example, BeWell in School helps to proactively build students’, faculty, staff, and parents’ agency to decrease their nervous system’s stress response symptoms. It teaches ways to mindfully understand the signs that our brains and bodies produce when we feel overwhelmed or stressed by utilizing the power of breath and movement to self-regulate.
As you might have noticed, the supports included everyone, all stakeholders. Again, for students to build their capacity in SEL, it’s important to utilize a trauma-informed lens to ensure that their stress responses are manageable.
As schools journey into SEL and trauma-informed work, there are many overlapping neurodevelopment-aligned practices that can be used to support students’ collective and individual social and emotional growth. Here are a few to consider implementing in your own school:
- Relational connection—Ensure that every student is known, seen, and valued through the strategy focused on building a connection with adults and the school community.
- Predictability—The brain likes and settles down with predictability. It’s important for students to know the routines and expectations of the school and classroom.
- Empowerment—Education is not something we do to kids; we do it with kids. All kids possess genius, and it is our job as educators to help students identify their geniuses and build their capacity to discover their passions.
As educators continue to explore how SEL and trauma-informed education exist synergistically, it’s important that relationships be the cohesive basis to align all practices. The Science of Learning and Development is very clear that safe, stable, positive, nurturing relationships serve as the primary driver for effective student support. As the paradigm shifts in education to move from compliance to connection, schools must dig deeper into how stress and trauma impact students and use the power of relationships to ensure that students have the appropriate supports and interventions to build their capacity in the five core competencies.