“Trauma Informed Practices in Schools: Understanding Racial Trauma and Cultivating Wellness,” presented by Mental Health America, explored the importance of racial-trauma informed schools from the classroom to district level. Sponsored by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), the webinar featured speakers Dr. Jamie Freeny and Art McCoy, Ph.D. Dr. Freeny works with Mental Health America of Greater Houston, serving as director at the Center for School Behavioral Health. Dr. McCoy is the Jennings School District Superintendent Emeritus & Saint Louis University Distinguished Fellow.

Trauma affects children’s cognitive, emotional, and behavioral development and can affect student learning and performance. Educating school administrators and staff on racial trauma and its impact on children can create a healthier, safer environment for students and empowers them to succeed.

Effects of Trauma

Trauma-informed approaches underscore the need to interpret behavior as a communication. Children often do not have the education necessary to understand that they’ve experienced trauma, let alone the verbiage to communicate that. To become equitable, school staff require education on recognizing signs of trauma and responding in a way that helps children instead of further hurting them.

Trauma impacts the body in many ways from physically shrinking the architecture in areas like the prefrontal cortex to throwing the nervous system off balance. Neural pathways are engrained in old thought patterns and habits tied to the trauma and compound as more traumas occur. Neurotransmitters become vulnerable to addiction, which often cooccurs with trauma and can worsen health and emotional issues. The immune system may see lower cortisol causing unchecked inflammation, leading to a variety of diseases including asthma and arthritis.

Because racism is chronic, the negative impacts compound to create racial trauma. Racial trauma is experienced in daily microaggressions, in subtle and stark situations throughout a person’s lifetime, and spans generations. Black and Indigenous people of color (BIPOC) experience racism from the day they are born until they pass; the generations of family before and after them do also. This lifetime of racial trauma can have severe negative impacts including mental health concerns, low feelings of self-worth and belonging, and physical complications like low cortisol levels being passed to children during pregnancy.

Racism in health care also affects treatment of behavioral health issues. Implicit bias towards Black children, young Black boys especially, often leads to misdiagnoses or insufficient treatment. Anger, hyperactivity, and emotional outbursts may be written off as a personal attitude rather than a symptom of trauma. Failing to recognize the difference, and judging the child in the process, can create numerous problems including the child being reticent to seeking support from adults in the future.

Trauma’s Impact on Education

According to Dr. Freeny, there is also a direct relationship between adverse childhood experiences and academic performance. Exposure to trauma can have negative impacts on their development, educational performance, and ultimately their future. “It’s important for us to understand, especially as leaders of schools and districts, that mental health does matter and plays a huge role in the outcome of students within the district,” she said. “There is a need to prioritize the mental health needs of students.”

Poor performance or behavior in school can also lead to suspensions or expulsions which can further worsen academic participation and relationships with school staff. If a trauma-informed approach is not used to address concerns with students, those with a history of trauma can potentially be triggered by interactions with administrators.

Acknowledging the relationship between trauma, in all forms, and children’s performance in school is the first step to creating a safer, more comfortable environment in which students can thrive. The benefits of a racial-trauma informed school include significant behavioral and academic improvements, including fewer suspensions and expulsions. Becoming trauma-informed requires staff education and implementation of positive and culturally responsive policies and practices, leading to a decrease in race and ethnicity gaps as well.

Overall, trauma-informed approaches in schools provide physical, social, and emotional safety for students. Improving the educational environment allows children to not only improve academically but to build stronger rapport with school administrators and staff. Understanding the impact of trauma on students as well as facilitating positive connections with them improves staff response to crisis and may help identify future challenges as they arise.

The Emotional Backpack Program

The Center for School Behavioral Health’s mission is to improve the prevention, early identification, intervention, and treatment of behavioral health issues among youths. Their Emotional Backpack Program includes a series of trainings on a variety of topics including children’s mental health, youth suicide prevention, and self-care for educators. The goal of the program is to practice empathy and cultural responsiveness, recognize implicit bias and promote equity, and resist re-traumatization.

According to the training curriculum, becoming trauma-informed achieves three goals: reducing the school-to-prison pipeline for students of color, reducing mental health stigma, and contributing to feelings of belonging and community among students and faculty. Recognizing and working to close disparity gaps in discipline and achievement helps redirect the school-to-prison pipeline and recognize and validate existing student needs. District-level administrators should first review current policies and practices, revise codes of conduct to be equity-driven, and continuously conduct equity audits on racial inequality.

Because trauma and other mental health issues are stigmatized, community education is an important component of support for students. Schools are encouraged to offer opportunities for families, students, and communities to receive culturally responsive education about signs of behavioral health concerns in students. Providing mental health education in a school setting not only helps break down the taboo but also allows students to see staff as an extension of support. Education should also include providing the community with access to support groups, behavioral health services, and other resources.

According to Dr. Freeny, cultivating healing and wellness help promote not only student engagement but teacher efficacy as well. While the center prioritizes student wellbeing, it also recognizes the need for staff care, especially administrators who are BIPOC. Recruiting and retaining BIPOC educators, as well as prioritizing their teacher preparation, autonomy, and equal pay, are recommended to make staff feel valued and perform their best.

“You want everyone on that campus to feel that they belong. Not that they have to change to fit in, but that they belong as who they are without any modifications,” Dr. Freeny said. She also recommends providing ongoing validation and recognition, promoting self-care in teachers, and building positive interconnected relationships among teachers and staff.

Trauma-Informed Support for Children

Becoming trauma-informed and truly equitable requires building and nurturing an environment where students feel comfortable and safe, especially in terms of seeking help. “If you’re struggling, let’s make sure we know it so we can give you the power and strategies to express it, get help, cope, have resilience, and be seen and supported,” he said.

Other recommendations for trauma-informed child support, both immediate and long term, include:

  • Create safety: Assess the child’s current situation and behaviors and give them a relaxing, private space to compose themselves.
  • Regulate the nervous system: Stress causes responses like hyperarousal (jittery, irritable) or hypoarousal (depressed, withdrawn). Work with the child to determine what they need in this moment.
  • Build relationships: Being around people who care about us produces oxytocin, the hormone that calms the nervous system. Nurturing staff-student relationships over time helps ease everyone in times of stress.
  • Support development of a coherent narrative: Children, especially those experiencing trauma, often feel overwhelmed or out of control. Create predictability through structure, routines, and reliable adults to reduce chaos they may feel.

Trauma brings a sense of loss of power or control. When children feel someone is exerting power over them, especially authority figures such as school staff, severe feelings of shame from the original trauma can come flooding back. Adults working with children need a power-with approach, rather than power-over, to determine what each child needs. Children need to be shown that they are worthy of being treated with dignity and respect, even by adults and authority figures.

In times of crisis, Dr. McCoy recommends identifying children’s needs using HALT – are they hungry, angry, tired, or lonely? “Suicide, anxiety, and depression often deal with loneliness,” he said. “Sometimes, you can be around a million people and still feel lonely. You can be in a classroom and feel like, ‘Nobody sees me for the real me, I want to be seen!’ We have to say, I see you.”

Dr. McCoy’s approach to becoming trauma-informed focuses on the empowerment he finds comes with shifting from a “ME” to “WE” perspective. According to Dr. McCoy, collaboratively learning how to care for each other and navigate relationships post-trauma helps build social and emotional resiliency skills. Fostering growth in these skills helps improve problem solving, planning, maintaining focus, and feeling comfortable seeking support.

View a recording of the webinar and download the PowerPoint presentation here: http://www.nasmhpd.org/content/ta-coalition-webinar-trauma-informed-practices-schools-understanding-racial-trauma-and.