This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Over the last two decades, educators across the country have increasingly seen the value of recognizing how trauma affects their students and their ability to learn.
Estimates indicate that between half and two-thirds of all children experience some sort of trauma, according to the Education Law Center.
Trauma-informed practices can be as simple as the way a teacher approaches a single student who is acting out, or as comprehensive as a whole school, from extracurricular activities to lesson plans, that is based on the science behind trauma and brain development.
To try to understand the range of trauma-informed practices, we talked to people across the country about how these practices have worked in their own schools and communities and the impact they have had.
For one elementary school in Anchorage, Alaska, ensuring that schools are trauma-informed means focusing on the staff first and the students second.
A decade ago, Deanna Beck was an elementary special education teacher when she noticed that some of her students would make continuous progress on reading assessments and then suddenly drop off, a change that seemingly came out of nowhere.
“I just started asking them questions, like, OK so what happened last night?” she said.
Students replied with stories about fluid and unstable parent relationships, issues of homelessness, and struggles with hunger.
Beck kept asking questions, trying to better understand her students, and in the process built strong bonds with them, which made for a better classroom dynamic and taught her how to better serve them.
She had never heard of the groundbreaking 1998 ACES study that showed how adverse childhood experiences affect learning. She had never heard of trauma-informed education. She was simply trying to better understand her students and their needs.
But then in 2012, when Beck became the principal of Northwood ABC Elementary School in Anchorage, she realized that the issues she was seeing with her students pervaded the school – both student and staff.
So her first move was not to focus on the students and their needs; rather, she focused on the needs of the staff she was now leading.
She focused on team-building, team morale, empathy among staff members, and how to make the school an enjoyable and positive workplace. She wants her staff members to be not only colleagues, but also friends. The logic is that, without a healthy staff that feels supported, empowered, and heard, she couldn’t get that mentality to trickle down to their students.
“A teacher can definitely do this work in his or her classroom without the administrative support, but the administrator can’t do it without their teachers’ support,” Beck said.
Building that sense of community among teachers is also crucial to avoid burnout.
“There’s so much on teachers’ plates, and we’re asking them to do more and not take anything else off their plates. It’s hard. … I ask a lot of my staff and I know I do, to do this work, so I would say that would probably be a [downside], but the rewards are huge,” Beck said.
By her second year as principal, Beck had become familiar with the ACES study and the science behind what she had already discovered anecdotally through her teaching: that traumatic events during childhood affect brain development and students’ capacity to learn.
So the second year, she focused more on the students and their needs. She had trainings with teachers about how to use trauma-informed practices in the classroom and decided to start a formalized “adopt a student” strategy, where teachers would go down the entire list of students, marking the names of those with whom they had a close relationship.
After every teacher did that, they noted all of the children who had one or zero check marks. Different teachers “adopted” those kids, making a concerted effort to forge a relationship with that student, so that every child felt as if they had a caring adult and an advocate in the building.
After three years of these schoolwide practices, the school is seeing real academic growth. It took a couple of years, which Beck called “discouraging,” but this year produced significant growth in academic achievement, even with the introduction of a new curriculum.
“With the new curriculum adoption, [the District] didn’t expect to have as much growth or even fall back a little bit. But my school was showing growth overall, and so they asked me what we do differently, and I was able to point to the trauma-informed practices as being one of the things that we do differently,” Beck said.
About 80 percent of students now report on surveys that there are five or more adults who care about them in the school, up from around half. Parents have also reported significant increases in their satisfaction with the school.
After seeing the success of trauma-informed education at Northwood, the Anchorage School District has started to have districtwide workshops on trauma and education.
Beck still believes the focus on staff is the key to the school’s success. Staff members do regular team-building activities, a social team organizes opportunities for teachers to get together outside of school hours, they read books together and watch films about resilience and education, and Beck has made the commitment to trauma-informed practices a hiring priority when looking for new teachers.
The teachers “really look at that work being a social place for them as well, which I think is great, to have that mentality. That they look at the school as a family. Because we know, again, teachers aren’t getting paid a lot. You want to make sure work is enjoyable to them,” Beck said. “Teacher retention is an issue nationwide.”
There is no trauma-informed school without the buy-in from trauma-informed teachers. Additionally, teacher turnover affects student achievement.
“When students feel safe and that they can have relationships, the academics come. That’s the self-actualization piece,” Beck said.