Neutralizing Trauma from the Learning Equation
By Dr. Sandy Addis
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ducation experts estimate that more than 50 percent of K-12 students have been impacted by some form of trauma, including poverty, food insecurity, homelessness, domestic violence, and substance abuse. These students are more likely to act out, struggle academically, and drop out than other students. This is not a new problem. What is new is the way some educators and schools are addressing it. In many if not most cases, what we’ve found is that the students who are not graduating are trauma-impacted individuals who have not been able to move beyond that trauma in order to do other things successfully. Fortunately, many students who have experienced trauma do succeed. You can’t undo the trauma, but you can help students to get past it.

In many, if not most cases, what we have found is that the students who are not graduating, which is about 15 percent to 16 percent nationally, are trauma-impacted individuals who have not been able to move beyond that trauma in order to do other things successfully. Fortunately, many students who have experienced trauma do succeed. You cannot undo the trauma, but you can help students to get past it.

What can we do to help them succeed?

Why do some trauma-impacted students succeed while others fail? One of the keys to helping trauma-impacted students succeed is “meaningful, caring adults” who help these students learn resiliency traits that enable them to move beyond the trauma they have experienced. There is no single formula for helping students overcome trauma. In fact, just the opposite is true, but it can be done.

If you look at how schools around the country are addressing trauma, you will find a wide range of approaches. Being trauma-informed needs to mean we will do something specific in the school to address it.

Unfortunately, not every school is getting it right. When some schools say they are going to be trauma-informed, what they really mean, is that they are going to mandate an hour of training per year for all educators. Having done that, they feel like they have done all they need to do. That is a necessary step, but it is only a first step.

Hopefully, being trauma-informed also means that now we decide what to do next. We need to translate it into action. We need to have action steps at the school. We need to have services. And we need to make sure all educational personnel, not just teachers, know how to do their job in a more appropriate way and know how to create a climate that builds or rebuilds resiliency.

The FIVE resiliency traits

After working with a number of trauma-informed instructional models around the country, The National Dropout Prevention Center has zeroed in on five critical factors, or traits, in building resiliency and helping students move beyond trauma to success: Connection, Security, Achievement, Autonomy, Fulfillment.

Many trauma-impacted students have trouble making connections. They have had fewer connections or bad connections, so they are less likely to connect with adults in a positive, meaningful way. They are harder to connect with, yet making such connections are critical to the student’s success.

Woman consoling another woman
Young man
It can be a heavy lift for teachers to establish or reestablish those connections. And they may be resistant at first, because they may see it as one more thing they need to do, as if they do not have enough to do already. But rather than a burden, it is an opportunity.

This is not another plate of broccoli to eat. It is a better way to enjoy vegetables. It is a whole different way to go about it.

The importance of intervention

Intervention is one of the most important skills The National Dropout Prevention Center teaches. Educators need to know how and when to intervene. They need to spot trauma flare-ups early, intervene, and minimize.

Every educator is different. Some educators can spot a spark a mile away. Others wait until it becomes a flame and throw gasoline on it. So, we need to teach educators how to intervene differently.

Take a bus driver as an example. A bus driver can look in the mirror and see an older child speaking loudly or maybe starting to bully a younger child. The driver can watch until it becomes a discipline incident and report it, or she can say to the child, “I want you to come up here and sit with me, because I need you to help me watch for traffic congestion.”

In that example, the bus driver has not only intervened early, she has also helped that child develop a sense of fulfillment, one of the resiliency traits, meaning the student can do good for others and feel good about it.

Three steps for school success
  1. Make sure all staff members, not just the teachers, have a foundation of training in trauma information and knowledge, so they understand how trauma affects behavior and learning.
  2. Schools need to look at their climate and culture and determine how to create or redefine those, in order to provide every opportunity for resiliency building in those five critical areas.
  3. All educators need to master these basic skills: how to minimize, how to intervene, how to help a class recover, and how to make a referral to a professional when necessary.

In order to implement a successful trauma-informed instruction program, it is important to get complete buy-in from all personnel, especially teachers. A typical teacher reaction is, “You want to make me a therapist.” A proper response might be, “No, we want to make you better at behavior management and learning and imparting.”

A successful instruction program is not a specific type of intervention for trauma-impacted students, but rather, as a baseline level of support for all students; and it is not necessary to know who the trauma-impacted students are to accomplish that.

If 50 percent of my students are visually impaired, I do not have to write in large print on the board for them and small print for everybody else, since large print will be fine for everyone. In this situation, if we know certain things work and do not work, then let us just do the things that work for all students.

The National Dropout Prevention Center has started using the term “trauma-skilled.” It is intended to convey that educators and schools need training to understand and be sensitive to trauma; they need to modify their internal culture and climate to build resiliency, and they need to take appropriate actions to address it and support the students who have been impacted by it.

About the author

Dr. Sandy Addis joined the National Dropout Prevention Center staff in May of 2013 and currently serves as Chairman. He has 44 years of experience in public education in a variety of roles that include teacher, counselor, coach, principal, system-level administrator, and director of a regional educational service agency. He has designed and administered a variety of dropout prevention initiatives that include after-school programs, counseling, and service-learning. Dr. Addis has served on numerous professional boards, testified before legislative committees, and recently chaired the Educator Ethics Task Force of the Georgia Professional Standards Commission.

In many, if not most cases, what we have found is that the students who are not graduating, which is about 15 percent to 16 percent nationally, are trauma-impacted individuals who have not been able to move beyond that trauma in order to do other things successfully.