Colonial IU 20: Viewing behaviors through a trauma lens

Teachers have long meted out discipline to deal with disruptive or disengaged students. Now, Colonial IU 20 is helping educators turn down the volume on student disruptions and amp up the sense of security by understanding the impact of trauma on behavior and brain development.

The IU’s training in Trauma-Informed Care and Trauma-Informed Schools is improving classroom atmospheres and could boost academic achievement.

Children may experience trauma through sexual or physical abuse, witnessing domestic violence, fleeing violence as refugees, natural disasters, and other forces beyond their control. For some, the brain adopts a constant fight-or-flight mode, causing withdrawal or behaviors that look like ADHD, dissociation, or other mental health challenges.

“Once you get that label, it starts to dictate a path in which the professionals, the kids, and the families not only see themselves but also how we interact,” said Colonial IU 20’s Director of Resolve Behavioral Health Services James McDonald. “Through this training, teachers see behaviors through a trauma lens.”

Training in Trauma-Informed Care takes a three-step approach:
  1. Understanding that trauma impacts everyone and can alter the brain’s adaptive systems. “Some days, kids are able to learn,” said Supervisor of Clinical Support Nikki Baker. “Other days, they’re not.
  2. Learning to build appropriate relationships and signal that the child is safe.
  3. Self-care for school personnel who, like emergency first responders, experience trauma vicariously and may be subject to burnout.

Trauma-informed care helps address the academic consequences of significant trauma that include interfering with a “learning-ready brain” and contributing to chronic absence, lower grades, and higher risk of dropping out. Some research has shown that a focus on social and emotional learning improved academic outcomes by 11 percent to 17 percent, according to Lehigh University researcher Dr. Christopher Liang. (1)

Demand for the training is growing, and increasingly, schools are instilling trauma-informed care among all staff, from teachers to cafeteria workers. Some districts are building continuums into their systems, assuring that children progress from elementary to middle to high school in trauma-informed atmospheres.

“Through the decades, education has been grounded in consequence-based interventions, like suspension, expulsion, and detention,” said McDonald. “Trauma-informed care pushes people to shift their mindset to reinforcement-based intervention and individualized-based intervention. That’s a huge paradigm shift. It’s tough for some people, and others get to it easily and gracefully, but when they do, oftentimes the behaviors we’re talking about go dramatically down.”

(1): https://www.cde.state.co.us/cdesped/springdirmtg2017_2d_hearts_ppt_transformingtrauma


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