CSBA webinar explores the basics of trauma-informed education

Trauma is a complex subject and the events or conditions that cause it or how it will manifest itself vary by individual.  

During CSBA’s Feb. 21 webinar “Trauma-Informed Education: What governance teams need to know,” attendees learned about principles and strategies of equity-centered, trauma-informed education that they can use in their local educational agency to support staff, students and families. While many resources related to trauma-informed education are designed for administrators or classroom educators, this forum was designed with the board member role in mind. From policy-setting to resource allocation, governance teams can support trauma-informed education. 

Though trauma is difficult to define, bestselling author and educator Alex Shevrin Venet, who moderated the event, said it “can be both an individual and/or collective response to life-threatening events, harmful conditions, or a prolonged dangerous or stressful environment.” 

Trauma can be brought on by a single instance like a natural disaster or an accident or by continuous stressful experiences or feelings of being unsafe.  

Trauma is a response that is dependent on elements such as the individual, protective factors like community support or access to resources, context and other variables, Venet said. Not all stress results in trauma, however, and what constitutes trauma is different for everyone. For example, two siblings can experience the same event or circumstance at home but respond in different ways. 

“One important thing is that we can’t ever really know for someone else whether they are experiencing something as trauma,” Venet said. 

There are a range of responses to trauma, both negative and positive, including fear, depression, memory problems, anger, lack of self-confidence, health problems, increased coping capacity, personal growth, stronger relationships and perfectionism. 

Venet added that people impacted by trauma “aren’t just one thing.” It can cause pain or disruption as well as facilitate growth and meaning and those realities can co-exist rather than cancel each other out. She also cautioned against using narratives that position individuals as damaged or broken or as a hero or someone who “overcame their trauma.”   

There are many trauma-informed education frameworks available, Venet said. For that reason, it’s important to clarify what framework or definition of trauma is being referenced during conversations on the matter. 

Venet defines trauma-informed education as “educators and schools addressing the impact of trauma that has already happened, preventing trauma inside our schools and disrupting the causes of future trauma.” It is about universal, proactive, whole-school shifts. 

Under that umbrella are trauma-specific practices, in which individuals who have experienced trauma receive support from qualified and experienced individuals or groups in a responsive and intentional way. Teachers typically shouldn’t be leading a trauma-specific plan, but instead collaborating with counselors or therapists. 

Venet has identified four proactive priorities for trauma-informed decision making: predictability, flexibility, connection and empowerment.  

Principles of equity-centered, trauma-informed education include it being anti-racist and anti-oppressive, asset-based, systems-oriented, human-centered, universal and proactive, and social-justice focused. 

Overall, trauma-informed advocates are seeking to change discipline practices and disparities, and the impacts of oppression on students and schools, school communities, mental health and well-being, working conditions and local, state and federal policies, according to Venet. 

Panel discussion  

During a wide-ranging panel discussion led by Venet on how school boards and their policy work can support those attempting to implement trauma-informed practices, Rep. Angela Arsenault (D-Vermont), who also chairs the Champlain Valley School District Board of Directors, said she is interested in centering students and understanding “how important the health of educators is to the health and well-being of students” and in working with educators in a trauma-informed way. “As we set policy as a board, it can feel very removed from the people who are actually going to be implementing the policy, and so we’ve been trying to find ways to involve more direct stakeholders in the formation of policy,” Arsenault added. 

Patrick Harris II, an award-winning middle school educator and dean of students at The Roeper School in Michigan, agreed that boards should establish relationships with school employees. To support students, he said the “Portrait of a Graduate” vision should be kept in mind. “We have to get clear about how we are including creating conditions and what our great vision is for mental health of our students,” he said. Avoiding reliance on punitive policies is also important. 

Oriana Ides, a school mental health training specialist at the Center for Applied Research Solutions and a field coach for the School Crisis Recovery & Renewal Project, noted that, for students and staff, safety is relative and each person, based on their own lived experiences, defines it for themselves. “Many of our schools do not feel safe,” she said, adding that LEA leaders should listen to their communities to define safety and then create spaces to fulfill that vision. 

A reflection process, transparency, sustainability and considering who is being empowered by decisions are factors the panelists wish boards would ponder as they consider policies or actions to boost trauma-informed practices.  

View a recording of the webinar.