Implementing trauma-informed practices during COVID-19

By Becky Stern, NC Resilience & Learning Project Consultant 

Last year, when Principal Stefanie Clarke listened to a school-wide training on the impact of trauma on a child’s ability to learn, it was a lightbulb moment for her. 

“This puts a name to what we’ve all known and felt, but didn’t have the words for,” said Clarke. “This is the missing piece to all of our work.”

Reflecting on the new perspective the training offered when it comes to understanding and responding to disruptive student behavior, Principal Clarke was eager to move forward with forming a Resilience Team at Bullock Elementary in Lee County. The team comprises a steering committee led by a coach from the Public School Forum of NC’s Resilience & Learning Project that works to take the next step beyond training and awareness by creating an action plan of trauma-informed strategies to be implemented school-wide. 

Ms. Clarke chose the members of her SIT (School Improvement Team) to form the Resilience Team, because this group already comprised teachers from grades K-5, who were leaders in their respective grade levels. The group also included the school’s counselor, speech/language pathologist, a district social worker, the assistant principal and principal, and a parent with three children in the school — it was a very representative group of stakeholders! As Rachel Sullivan, the school counselor, put it: “Our team is made up of people with diverse roles in the school, so all of our grade levels and support areas have a voice in the group.”

I was fortunate to be given the opportunity to be their Resilience Team Coach, and our first task was to identify an area of primary focus for the year. That initial process of narrowing down all the possibilities to one or two concrete, observable, measurable goals is critical. We began by looking at four different areas or “buckets” that are all necessary components of a trauma-informed school: staff support; a structured environment; warm, supportive relationships between staff and students; and skill-building and coaching in emotional self-regulation skills for students. Bullock is a stand-out school by any measure, and so they were already quite strong in all areas. It’s the kind of school where all students are told “I love you!” multiple times daily, and hugs are given freely and often (in pre-Covid times!). The team’s greatest concern, however, was that small minority of kids who struggled to succeed in school, despite everyone’s best efforts. The kids who were repeatedly out of class for behavioral infractions or melt-downs — the kids sometimes referred to as the “high fliers.” Most of the students in this group had significant adverse childhood experiences, or ACEs, and the team wanted to do more for them, but didn’t know what that “more” should look like.

The first strategy the team decided upon was to eliminate negative feedback on daily trackers of behavior for this select group of students. They reached this decision after we discussed that for those kids, receiving any kind of negative feedback, even something like a “frowny face” on a behavior chart, was enough to trigger a meltdown, resulting in behavior like lying down on the floor, crying, and screaming. After three weeks of trying out this new strategy, the team had to conclude that it did not have its intended effect — no decrease in meltdowns. We reasoned in hindsight that the lackluster result was actually not too surprising, given the amount of stress these kids were carrying with them on any given day — there could be many factors causing them to fall apart in class, not just whether or not they received some negative feedback from a teacher. It’s important to note that even though this first strategy was not successful (according to the data we tracked), the conversations we had that resulted in the new strategy AND the debriefing discussion we had in concluding it had not reduced meltdowns were nevertheless vitally important to our group.

This idea is crucial for any Resilience Team to embrace and internalize: this work is hard and there will be strategies that flounder or outright fail. This is to be expected and even welcomed, because every attempted strategy that doesn’t work leads to deeper reflection and understanding of the issue under discussion — the important thing is being willing to try something new and to have the hard conversations. It is not a journey of one year that a school undertakes when beginning on this path; it is a journey that is on-going. Bullock’s team process perfectly exemplifies this truth.  

In the discussion of where to go next with our attempt to help these students who are continually struggling, we began to explore what opportunities these children had to practice expressing themselves and reflecting on their own feelings and actions. For example, if a child was assigned to ISS (in-school suspension) what did they spend their time doing while there? Upon being allowed to return to the classroom, was there an opportunity for the teacher and the student to repair their relationship before both being expected to resume teaching and learning as usual? Asking these questions led the team to realize that not much valuable work was being produced by the child in ISS, and preparing that work was perceived as burdensome to the classroom teacher. Further, there was no formal mechanism or process in place for repairing the teacher/student relationship before the child returned to class. At that point, some members pondered whether students were even capable of reflecting on their actions. How could we be sure the disciplinary action for misbehavior actually resulted in new knowledge for the students, so they could respond differently the next time they got angry or overwhelmed? One group member suggested it was not surprising that many students are incapable of articulating their feelings — especially if no one has ever asked them to do that before. She pointed out that the language of what we might call emotional self-regulation — Why did I just do that? What was I feeling? Why was I feeling that way? What could I have done differently? — is in fact a very sophisticated skill and if we want kids to learn it, we need to set aside time to teach them how.

By this point, the team was fired up about exploring new strategies to teach emotional self-regulation skills to all students, not just the ones who were always in trouble. To that end, one teacher and counselor decided to pilot a morning meeting program in her classroom with an exclusive focus on social and emotional learning. The rest of the group was excited to dive into readings exploring restorative justice practices, to think about how they might revise the disciplinary process when students act out or violate the community expectations for appropriate behavior. These were the conversations the team was having last March prior to schools closing…and then Covid-19 happened, the schools shut down, and the work was necessarily put on pause, as all of us adjusted to the new reality we are currently living with.  

However, now that Bullock has welcomed back roughly half the student body for in-person learning, while simultaneously offering virtual instruction to the other half, the group is ready to dive back in. The first morning meeting in Ms. Parker’s 1st grade class took place on Monday, October 26th. The focus of the group has necessarily shifted from how to implement restorative justice practices to how to forge connections with all students, after so much uncertainty and enforced isolation. The staff knows that the priority right now is making sure students feel secure and supported by their school family. 

The Resilience Team is the perfect tool for examining the strength of those teacher-student bonds, and for making sure the faculty are taking care of themselves, so they aren’t too depleted to keep being that compassionate and comforting presence for the kids. These are the issues on their minds anyway; the structure of a recurring Resilience Team meeting gives them the dedicated time to share their thoughts and problem solve together. “With each meeting, it felt like we took a huge step in the right direction in supporting our students, especially our children that are at-risk,” said Ms. Sullivan, when reflecting on the group process. 

The Resilience Team meeting is the place where the conversations that teachers have with each other all the time — in the teacher lounge, in the mailroom, or touching base in the hallway after school — get to be center stage. If the team feels comfortable enough with one another to be vulnerable, and to disagree with each other with respect and cordiality, real change can occur. Just in the relatively short time the Bullock team members have been meeting together, they have grappled with the sometimes competing ideas of what the school’s primary role in a student’s life should be. Teachers at Bullock know they provide their students with a supportive and loving environment. At the same time, they worry: what will happen to these cherished students when they go to middle school? What if the governing philosophy of the next school is more focused on compliance, and less on understanding the complexities of the whole child? Are they in fact doing their students a disservice by failing to prepare them for the upper grades where they may not be given multiple chances to try again? This tension is expressed by teachers in many of our participating schools, and they need space to explore it together, as they figure out collectively what it means to be a trauma-informed school.  

“Trauma-informed” does NOT mean that students are not held to high expectations of conduct and achievement. So what do consequences look like in a trauma-informed school? How do we make sure that discipline results in the student learning a new skill or strategy rather than simply getting a punishment that removes them from the learning environment altogether? These are the kinds of questions that a Resilience Team embraces and works through together. The Bullock team inspires me every time we meet; I know they will tackle the hard questions, and I know they will continue to have a positive impact on the lives of the students entrusted to their care.

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