Why Trauma-Informed Professional Development Is Necessary for All Educators

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) defines trauma as a widespread health problem that “occurs as a result of violence, traumatic experiences abuse, neglect, loss, disaster, war and other emotionally harmful experiences.” Traumatic circumstances can occur singly as an acute event or occur repeatedly as with situations of neglect and abuse. According to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, working in coordination with the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, more than 38% of children in each state have suffered a traumatic event ranging from the death of a parent to living with someone with substance addiction. These children then show up in the classroom, armed with their backpacks and pencils, as well as their fears and chronic – some experts say ‘toxic’ – stress. For this reason, educators nationwide must begin to foster trauma-sensitive classrooms where the diverse needs of children can be met with empathy and support. This is where trauma-informed professional development can come to the rescue.

What Causes Trauma?

Trauma can take a wide range of forms. As mentioned, it can stem from abuse and neglect at home, but it can also result from an assault outside of the home. According to recent statistics, four out of ten students report they’ve been the victim of an assault. One in four children say they’ve been the victim of a robbery or vandalism. Witnessing violence or other traumatic events like natural disasters can be traumatic for children.

The Trauma-Informed Approach

To better address trauma-related issues, SAMHSA has developed a framework to help trauma survivors, families, and communities understand the connections between suffered trauma and behavioral health. With the trauma-informed approach, educators learn how to identify signs of trauma as well as how to foster an environment that does not re-trigger traumatic feelings and impede healing and recovery. For classrooms to embrace this approach, administrations are tasked to support the initiative, including making provisions for class training.

6 Key Elements of a Trauma-Informed Approach

SAMHSA outlines six key elements of a trauma-informed approach that include:

  • Safety
  • Trustworthiness and Transparency
  • Peer Support
  • Collaboration
  • Empowerment, Voice, and Choice
  • Cultural, Historical, and Gender Issues

Benefits of the Trauma-Informed Approach

In classrooms that embrace a trauma-informed approach to learning, there are some key benefits for the students as well as the instructor. All students, those suffering from trauma and those who are not, benefit from a supportive environment that emphasizes empowerment, trust, safety, etc. Students who are coping with traumatic events benefit from instructors who are tuned into their needs and trained to foster collaboration. This includes looping in professional mental health providers, such as counselors, when necessary to enhance support for students who may be struggling. Teachers benefit from this collaboration. Plus, additional training helps them better manage traumatized kids, helping children avoid negative behaviors in favor of healthier coping methods.

"Incorporating trauma-informed approaches into school settings...is a viable and important way to address the multiple needs of traumatized children."

Trauma-Informed Care in Schools: Trends

There has been increased interest about trauma-informed schools according to Google Trends. Many schools are basing their decision to steer resources toward developing trauma-informed classrooms and associated programs on the increase in studies that identify the clear benefits of such efforts. One of these studies, which appeared in the Journal of School Health, concluded that, “Incorporating trauma-informed approaches into school settings, including school-based adolescent pregnancy prevention programs, is a viable and important way to address the multiple needs of traumatized children.”

Another study published in the Journal of Adolescence reported that students in disadvantaged communities with high rates of exposure to trauma experienced improved teacher-student outcomes after just 12 sessions of school-based trauma counseling. In yet another report published in School Mental Health, researchers stated that, “When school systems approach students through a trauma lens, they are better equipped to provide the educational and social–emotional supports necessary to help students reach their potential.”

As the evidence for the effectiveness of trauma-informed classrooms grows, more school districts and leaders are working to implement programs in their own schools, often in conjunction with other community stakeholders like hospitals and mental health centers. In some cases, even state legislatures are getting involved by proposing grants for program initiation. As clear benefits like students’ improved social emotional skills, behavior, and even attendance mount, schools have a responsibility to investigate how trauma-informed teaching practices could benefit their students too.

Professional Development for a Trauma-Informed Classroom

To develop a trauma-informed classroom, teachers need training. Both schools and individual teachers need to consider the many benefits of professional development in this field. For current teachers, continuing education and programs that foster trauma-informed learning environments can help. With the right training and support, teachers can expect to be able to:

  • Learn to identify traumatic behaviors in students
  • Create a consistent classroom structure
  • Teach students self-care and learn self-resilience strategies for educators
  • Design a learning environment that benefits all students, including those who have experienced trauma

According to Concordia University-Portland faculty member Andraya White, “The program should teach educators how to recognize signs of developmental trauma, and how to respond. When this is done and taught effectively, more children are served, and it is more possible to provide a solid education.”

Online education modalities for teachers – such as trauma-informed degree programs, specialized courses, and certificates – are becoming more prevalent. School districts that are contemplating this type of professional development must consider elements such as program cost and schedule, but also its accreditation and expert legitimacy. While a conference may provide excellent introductory material on the topic for educators, it’s most likely online coursework that will give districts the building blocks they need to create a comprehensive program for their schools.

According to Concordia University-Portland faculty member Kathryn Picano-Morton, “Completing a program in the area of trauma-informed practice helps build a foundational awareness of trauma-informed approaches. Such an awareness begins with formal education, and then continues to be reinforced through continuing education trainings.” Concentrated coursework gives districts the step-by-step process for designing their framework and forming partners with community-based organizations. Graduate coursework, online courses devoted to the topic, and multi-session programs are good examples of post-conference approaches to trauma-informed professional development.

Educators who are interested in developing their skills will find opportunities to do so online. There are organizations and resources available today to help teachers and schools develop trauma-informed classrooms complemented by community support through various partnerships. Take some time to learn about these various options. As a teacher, present them to your principals or school boards. For districts, consider the need in your community as you prepare the next school budget. Investigate grants offered by your state legislature, research scholarships offered by universities, and explore partnerships with the community to help pay for professional development and training. As with all good educational investments, investing in quality teacher training is positive for educators but it’s also an investment in another important group of people – the students themselves.

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