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Trauma-Informed Practices

The Reparative Power of Relationships

Many schools around the country strive to support students who have experienced trauma—and that work is always rooted in strong relationships.

February 26, 2021

If there’s one common thread to be found woven throughout trauma-informed schools, it’s the awareness of the power of relationship to help students heal.

“Kids who grow up in trauma need to start the process of healing by being able to build healthy, trusting relationships with adults,” said Melissa Cole, guidance counselor at the K–8 Weathersfield School in Vermont.

Fostering those relationships takes work, and the distance learning required by Covid-19 has made it more difficult.

Andrea Fonseca, a bilingual and special needs teacher at Castle Bridge Elementary in Washington Heights, New York, says that one of her students who had always thrived in school has struggled significantly since having to spend more time learning from home.

“Virtual was so hard. She turned her camera off,” Fonseca said, pointing to a home environment in which the student was persistently scolded and undermined while trying to learn.

And even with the return to some form of in-person learning now being offered in many places, educators say nontraditional class schedules, masks, and social distancing continue to present significant challenges to fostering and sustaining the school relationships so critical to learning and social and emotional growth.

Alisha Witorski, a paraprofessional at White River Valley School, a K–8 school in South Royalton, Vermont, says one of her students pulls up his mask when he cries so no one can see his tears when he’s frustrated. “Masks make it harder to read and respond to facial expression,” she said. “If they can see you smile, they are going to carry that with them. If they can’t see your face or hug or touch you, it’s much harder.”

“We often rely on schools to do what a family can’t do. Schools provide resources and safety nets, routine and structure,” said English teacher Dan Lewis of Lincoln Sudbury High School in Massachusetts, pointing to the reality that for many trauma-impacted students the shift in routines and structure has been destabilizing.

How Trauma-Informed Schools Support Students

Despite these challenges, principals like Jeffrey J. Palladino of Fannie Lou Hamer Freedom High School in the Bronx, New York, where economically disadvantaged students are in excess of 90 percent of the school population, are finding creative, intentional ways to sustain relationships in order to meet students’ needs and help them to heal.

“Relationships have carried us,” said Palladino, whose students were among the hardest-hit population in the early stages of the pandemic and who has long attributed his school’s success to its safe and supportive family-like atmosphere. “We had the structure in place, it’s just amped up a lot,” he said of his school’s trauma-informed support system.

Noting the strength of his advisory program, which he calls “the secret army of his school,” Palladino says his school’s outreach efforts to students at their homes have been instrumental this past year. These have included the home delivery of everything from hundreds of laptops for students without computers, to pumpkin bread ingredients at Thanksgiving, to water from the Bronx River put into barrels in the back of Palladino’s truck for science experiments. For graduation last year, Palladino and others rolled through the Bronx in a caravan of 10 cars to award certificates in the middle of the street while streaming the ceremony live on Instagram.

The advisory program at the Bronx Lab School includes outreach work by parent coordinators, guidance counselors, social workers, family assistants, family workers, interns, advisers, and teachers. The school’s dean of students and families, Lionel Flax, admits that talking to families can sometimes mean walking a difficult line when student trauma involves parents. “During the pandemic it is particularly challenging to talk about what’s really going on. We know many families have, for example, several children and only two bedrooms. They may not have enough food, noise pollution, home insecurity, toxic stress, substance abuse. Research shows that people already struggling with mental health are much more likely to have those struggles exacerbated. We tread very carefully,” Flax said, pointing to the importance of providing appropriate outreach based on identified student needs.

At another Bronx school, Arturo A. Schomburg Satellite Academy, Principal Marsha Vernon and her staff are making concerted efforts to address student needs. Among her school’s trauma-informed offerings are an advisory system, SEL and restorative justice programming, bereavement groups, a cadre of clinicians and social workers, and professional coaching, mentoring, and support. In addition, her school, like others, is actively partnering with community organizations to help meet basic physical needs such as student access to laundry machines, a clothing pantry for job interviews, a Thanksgiving food pantry, and a Go Fund Me campaign that raised $4,000 for student holiday gift cards.

New York City’s Department of Education is supporting these efforts with resources that include school response clinicians, social and emotional learning programs, professional trauma-response training, outpatient mental health clinics, and mental health screenings in the neighborhoods hardest hit by Covid-19.

That kind of work should happen nationally, according to Richard Carranza, Austin Beutner, and Janice Jackson, superintendents of the nation’s three largest school districts—New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago, respectively. In a December 13 op-ed in The Washington Post, they called for establishing a Marshall Plan for schools that would include extensive mental health support for students to address the significant trauma they’re facing.

Echoing that call, Emma Rathkey, a North Carolina school psychologist in Chapel Hill–Carrboro City Schools, points out that ratios of nurses, social workers, school counselors, and psychologists, to students remain woefully inadequate nationwide. “It’s so hard for me to even say we need more mental health supports due to the pandemic,” said Rathkey, who as the only psychologist for over 1,500 students often finds that special education needs can preclude her from providing necessary mental health support. “The pandemic is just exposing the issues” that were already prevalent, she said.

“Best practices haven’t changed,” said Lindsey Minder, lead partner at the nonprofit Transforming Education. “We need to make sure students have what’s needed, to cultivate and maintain relationships, and to have programs that are trauma-informed.”

It’s Not Just Students Who Need Support

Also key to effective trauma-informed education is teacher training and support, which many suggest is not extensive enough.

“Teachers need to feel supported to maintain healthy relationships with students,” said Minder, who believes that teachers’ social and emotional health can be easily overlooked not only by schools but often by the teachers themselves.

“Many teachers are overwhelmed,” said Dr. Erin Barnett, a faculty member at the Dartmouth Trauma Interventions Research Center and Vulnerable Children’s Research Group at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center. “Secondary trauma and burnout is pervasive,” she pointed out while stressing the need for more teacher training and support.

To explain teacher needs, former Massachusetts middle school counselor Katherine Babbott uses the analogy of adults on a plane in an emergency putting on their own oxygen masks before assisting children. “If educators are to do our best work, it’s imperative that those on the front lines have plenty of oxygen in the form of self-care and of trauma-informed support by the school administration and community,” she said.

In these extremely traumatic times, when educators are going to great lengths to help students, what advice would a long-time teaching veteran offer? “For so many years, I didn’t have lunch,” said Fonseca. “We are living the pandemic. Take the time to take care of yourself.”

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