Applying a Trauma-Sensitive Approach to a District-Wide Model
By Lisa Riggs
With burgeoning awareness of the profound and life-long impacts of childhood trauma, districts across the country are becoming more proactive about caring for students who have suffered trauma and improving their learning environments. It is the intent to provide professional learning and support to teachers to address their students’ emotional challenges and corresponding academic struggles. The Gresham-Barlow School District in Oregon is prioritizing the development of trauma-sensitive learning environments that boost overall student well-being, while also supporting self-regulation and coping skills.
Educators are not therapists or counselors, but they can help ensure that learning environments are safe and not affected by secondary issues. Gresham-Barlow has undertaken training to help educators understand what trauma looks like and how to address trauma in a classroom.
Integrating a trauma-sensitive approach into the learning model
Adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) include abuse, neglect, and household dysfunction, and can affect students’ academic and emotional well-being. ACEs increase the likelihood of chronic disease, mental health problems, addiction, violence and victimization, workplace absenteeism, and numerous other problems. Classroom settings can be adapted to mitigate the impact of childhood trauma, heading off its adverse effects by increasing students’ resilience, teaching necessary skills, and offering a reprieve from struggles in other environments.
Our district has 11,879 students from a wide range of cultural backgrounds and financial statuses, with over 53 languages spoken and a marked increase in immigrant populations, increasing vulnerability to related trauma and informing our response. Providing a trauma-sensitive learning environment, as well as SEL, is part of our learning model and has been embraced throughout the district. Gresham-Barlow’s model includes significant training and is founded on the premise of effective assistance following the popular airplane metaphor of “putting on your mask first, before the child’s.” We are first teaching adults to make sure that their social and emotional needs are met, so they can effectively support the needs of all students. Our focus is on interventions at the teacher level which can be thoroughly applied in classrooms by next year.
Starting in the spring of 2019, we began participating in the RULER program developed at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence. The RULER program is an evidence-based approach for integrating SEL into schools. It applies “hard science” to the teaching of what has often been referred to as “soft skills.” The program provides multiple days of training from coaches who address a RULER cohort involving representatives from a variety of district schools. The trained administrators then return to educate the remaining schools through applied staff meetings and Professional Learning Communities (PLCs). Administrators learn how to address the needs of adult learners (staff) who will provide trauma-sensitive interventions and environments. The RULER methodology is intertwined with the overall district-wide improvement plan because leadership recognizes that the best improvements arrive through the right types of SEL.
A statewide program with Zaretta Hammond, author of Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain, is another key component of the equity and inclusion training integrated into our district’s learning model. Hammond’s methods utilize neuroscience (specifically, an understanding of how trauma impacts the brain), and emphasize creating the right conditions for maximizing the oxytocin/bonding hormones and decreasing cortisol stresses students experience. Hammond has acted as a keynote for the Confederation of Oregon School Administrators (COSA), sharing from her book and podcasts, and has helped Gresham-Barlow educators implement her strategies.
Gresham-Barlow’s educators have also learned additional strategies from Patricia A. Jennings’ book, The Trauma-Sensitive Classroom: Building Resilience with Compassionate Teaching on trauma-sensitive schools. Knowledge gained from Jennings’ work helps educators support students’ healing, build their resilience, and foster compassion in the classroom.
Addressing trauma at the individual and classroom level
Each student comes from a unique situation with a variety of factors affecting his or her emotions, behaviors, and cognitive skills. Educators need support and sensitivity to teach individual coping skills to students, as well as to adjust their approach to each student’s needs. Behaviors such as inattentiveness, defiance, or tantrums can be a trauma-response and can be addressed with sensitivity instead of punished as misbehavior. It is also important for educators to determine whether or not a student is experiencing a harmful environment requiring further intervention or support from outside organizations such as social services.
In addition to implementing the RULER method through cohorts and applying the work of Zaretta Hammond, we are using response methodologies that stop the escalation effect inside classrooms by using the following techniques:
- Teaching students to slow down their breath.
- Providing a soft start in the morning with quiet music and breathing exercises because school environments might look different than students’ home environments. A school environment can escalate emotional intensity or cause students to feel overwhelmed by abrupt transitions such as moving from a bright gym to a dark classroom. For this reason, teachers at Hall and Hogan Cedars Elementary emphasize soft starts from the playground to the classroom.
- Repeating positive mantras, such as, “I can do this,” “I’m proud of my work,” “I’m smart, and I can do anything.” Such messaging can positively affect student self-esteem and success in the classroom.
- Using a “mood meter” with students to help them self-report feelings—red to orange represents higher energy or anger and green indicates peaceful energy. The mood meter and the scripter help students identify their emotions and express them.
- Create a “Charter” that students in each classroom write together. This collaborative document conveys how members of the community want to feel in the community and provides a stronger SEL focus than rules or norms may include.
Our emphasis on culturally responsive teaching practices informed by our RULER training and the work of experts such as Hammond and Jennings is giving educators the tools and shared language to create classrooms that help counteract trauma. By being intentional in how we train our teachers and support our students in the classroom, we can view the needs of our students through a trauma-informed lens and be more sensitive to the unique needs of each learner.
About the Author
Lisa Riggs is Assistant Superintendent, Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment, for Gresham-Barlow School District in Oregon.
This article was originally published by The Learning Counsel, a research institute and news media hub focused on providing context for the shift in education to digital curriculum.