By Steven Webb, Guest Contributor
In her article, “When Schools Cause Trauma,” Carrie Gaffney explains: “According to a report from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), individual trauma is best understood as the result of ‘an event, series of events, or set of circumstances that is experienced by an individual as physically or emotionally harmful or life threatening and that has lasting adverse effects.'”
Educators, continuously have to navigate through our interactions with students and the adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) which they carry with them. However, even a school, which focuses on trauma-informed practice, can be re-traumatizing students and eroding the trust that must be present for students to be successful in the classroom.
Everyone has experienced a certain level of trauma in their lives, and this trauma plays a crucial role in how individuals interact with those around them. In other words, our trauma informs us about how we should trust; and the more trauma one has experienced in their life, the harder it is for that individual to form trusting relationships. There have been numerous studies which detail the link between a person’s ACE score and their ability to trust. I feel that the most notable take away from these studies is that students who have experienced a significant amount of trauma in their lives, spend a large portion of their brain energy in “fight or flight” mode as opposed to cognition mode (or learning mode).
Most educators will tell you that their job is to teach students, and the classroom should be considered a safe place for students. I would assume that most parents would state that the primary goal of sending their children to school is also for them to learn in a safe space. If both educators and parents agree that a primary goal of school is learning, what is preventing this from happening? What is breaking these students trust in that safety? What factors are causing students to put up barriers to protect themselves from re-traumatization as opposed to opening their minds to new knowledge?
Gaffney goes on to explain in her article that the first steps to helping students navigate their trauma is realizing that the trauma exists and recognizing the signs and symptoms of trauma. This realization and recognition includes schools understanding their role in causing trauma, both historically and presently, in low-income communities and communities of color.
As stated before, even schools with the best intentions could be re-hashing trauma all over again. Gaffney says that this can happen through the curriculum and/or school policies and procedures. An example that comes to mind is discipline policy that contributes to the “school to prison pipeline.” Educators teach students to recognize and accept the differences of others; however, that same recognition and acceptance is not always present when dealing with students who may be labeled “heavy hitters” or “difficult.”
I know that it would be hard for me to step into a room or building, daily, where I felt I would be singled out for being me and would be punished for expressing myself in the only way that I know. I know that I would not trust that I was safe in that environment. I would not trust that I was welcome. I would not trust that I could learn anything. Eventually, I would lose trust in myself. How traumatizing!!
Steven Webb is an Educational Leadership Master of Arts student in the IU School of Education at IUPUI.