Equity-Centered Trauma-Informed Education: Chapter 1

Table of Contents for this Blog Series

As I mentioned in my previous post (Link), I’m starting to read Alex Shevrin Venet’s book Equity-Centered Trauma-Informed Education (Link) while also trying out new strategies to (hopefully!) get more out of my professional reading. These blog posts are not only designed to capture my learning from the book, but they’re also a chance to reflect on the process of trying out these reading strategies for the first time to find out what works for me as a reader.

I already did the work of preparing to read the book, which is a whole process of its own. I’ve only done that process once now, but I feel like it will be an important step in my reading going forward, even for fiction books.

To give an example, I read a fiction book this year called The Old Drift by Namwali Serpell (Link). I could tell about halfway through that I was not prepared to read this book. For the past few years I’ve been purposeful about which authors I read (namely ensuring they aren’t all white men) but that isn’t enough. I realized I cheated myself out of getting more out of this book because I didn’t know much about the author or the historical and geographic context of the book. I still might have disliked the book, who knows, but I can say with certainty I wasn’t prepared before I started reading it.

I did prepare to read Equity-Centered Trauma-Informed Education, and now I’m ready to dive in and read the book. The article I keep referencing (Link) suggests five tips to help you remember what you read:

  1. Take notes
  2. Stay focused
  3. Mark up the book
  4. Make mental links
  5. Quit books

This aligns with a lot of the advice I received on Twitter. As I read each chapter I’m going to mark up the book. Some of the suggestions in the article are:

Jot down connections and tangential thoughts, underline key passages, and make a habit of building a dialogue with the author(s).

Source

I like the idea of turning the reading into a dialogue with the author and as well as making connections. I follow the author on Twitter, so if she wants to engage in *actual* dialogue, I’m all for that, too! 🙂

After I’m done reading I’ll take notes in this blog post. I found trying to take notes on the computer while I’m in the middle of reading was overwhelming for me. I kept picking up the book, putting it down, typing something, referencing the book again, typing some more, and then trying to go back to reading. It made for a very choppy experience. Once I allowed myself to completely read a section, do all my marking up in the book, and then come over to the blog post to jot down notes, I felt a lot better. The marking up I did in the book helped me review what I read and helped me quickly get to my key takeaways from the text.

I’m only going to read a chapter at a time to help me stay focused. Life is busy so that’s probably about all the time I can commit to anyway, especially if I want to take additional time to blog about my thinking about what I read.

Okay, so enough with getting ready, time to read chapter 1!

Chapter 1 Defining Trauma-Informed Education

Venet tells the story of her brother helping farmers certify their farms as organic. To her, organic was just a term used to tell whether or not pesticides were used on a crop, but she learned from her brother that it’s really about a systemic approach to farming that is intentional about “respecting and sustaining our natural environment.” (p. 3)

The same holds true for trauma-informed education. It’s a term those outside of education may only have surface-level understandings of, but in fact there is a “system of values and beliefs underneath.” (p. 4)

This idea of expertise, and how it impacts the kind of understanding we have about a topic, reminds me of the (sometimes frustrating) conversations I have with non-educators about teaching mathematics. They have their personal experiences as students of mathematics which is a surface-level understanding of teaching and learning. Unfortunately, they tend to assume those experiences mean they have as much understanding of the depth and complexity involved as someone who’s made it their career for 20+ years.

Narrow Definitions

Education is big on buzzwords. The terms rigor and social-emotional learning (SEL) immediately come to mind. This is dangerous because once something becomes a buzzword then everyone’s using it but we’re not necessarily talking about the same thing, and as the previous section illustrates, we also come to the conversation with differing levels of expertise and understanding.

Venet shares three definitions of trauma and then synthesizes what they all have in common which is that they focus on meeting the needs of students already impacted by trauma. In this way, trauma is something you respond to, but not something you prevent. She thinks this is a huge limitation of current definitions.

Our definitions, particularly in education, tend to frame trauma “as an individual experience, resulting from factors schools cannot control.” (p. 5) As a result, educators are left to respond to trauma and try their best to stop it from negatively impacting learning. But it doesn’t have to be this way!

Adding Complexity

Venet makes it clear that there are no simple definitions and we must resist the use of trauma as a label. However, we do need some common language to describe trauma. She helps share this common language about trauma in the form of answers to the following questions:

  • What is trauma?
  • What types of events or conditions cause trauma?
  • Who experiences trauma?
  • How does trauma impact a child?

First of all it’s important to note that trauma and PTSD are not the same thing. Second, anyone can experience trauma; it can be an individual or collective experience. The pandemic comes to mind as a collective experience of trauma that we’re all facing right now. The important thing is what impact that trauma has. For some, it has minimal impact because of “protective factors that buffer the effects of trauma.” (p. 7) For others, it can impact them in a variety of ways such as “depression, anxiety, anger, aggression, hypervigilance, or physiological changes” (p. 7) There is not one uniform trauma response. These impacts may be invisible or may even be delayed until adulthood.

What I found really resonated with me is the idea of trauma as an ongoing environment. Trauma is not always a singular event in time, but rather it can be a situation or environment that persists. Not that I want to dive too deeply into my personal history with trauma, but this was pretty much what my counselor and I came to understand about my childhood experience with trauma. It wasn’t a singular event, but a persistent environment that I grew up in that lasted until I became an adult.

A Structural Lens

The goal of this chapter is to expand our definition of the term trauma. In this section, Venet urges us to adopt a structural view of trauma. When we focus on trauma as an individual issue, we may help the student cope with the ways they are being traumatized without addressing the causes of their trauma. In a way we may end up even blaming them for their own trauma which they did not cause.

Oppression, bias, discrimination, racism, islamaphobia, heterosexism, and transphobia are all causes of trauma. “Oppression causes trauma through the ways it is built into the everyday structures of school and society and how these structures have persisted through generations.” (p. 8)

To bring this into an educational context, how do schools perpetuate these sources of trauma? According to the author, schools have to reflect and decide whether they’re going to actively disrupt these sources of trauma or allow them to perpetuate. Inaction and silence are means of perpetuating trauma.

Her example of bullying at school really hit home with me considering my own experiences being bullied for years as a child. School had been a safe place for me from Kindergarten through the middle of 4th grade. For those years we lived on a military base and I went to school with other children whose parent(s) were in the military. Then we moved to a new state where I went to public school for the first time in a community that was much more affluent than where I lived before. I started getting bullied almost immediately. School became a very threatening place for me, especially because I received no support from teachers and staff. The system of schooling created an environment where I could be bullied and, through inaction, allowed it to perpetuate.

A New Definition

In this section the focus turns to the role of educators and how we can be “key agents in ending the trauma that happens within our schools and our education system.” (p. 9) In order to do this we need to shift our approach with regards to how we think about the role of trauma in our classrooms, our schools, and our communities. Sadly, “our current educational system is not set up with needs of trauma survivors in mind.” (p. 10) We have to challenge the status quo and challenge ourselves to have an embedded perspective where we strive to disassemble oppressive systems at the same time as we support those experiencing trauma. We have to get at the causes of trauma as much as we do the impacts of trauma.

Shifting Equity to the Center

After spending time defining trauma, it’s time to link it to equity. According to Venet, educational equity “is the work of ensuring that all students have access to a high-quality education and the resources they need to be successful in school.” (p. 10-11) The trouble is that the system of public education has never been and continues to not be equitable, particularly with regard to access to resources. She shares the example of school counselors. Students of color and poor students experiencing trauma are less likely to have access to school counselors, which is an equity issue. “School funding is not in the control of any students, yet students’ futures are affected by this inequitable allocation of resources.” (p. 11)

Inequity can cause or worsen trauma. We can’t un-link trauma and equity. “With the knowledge that inequities contribute to trauma, equity needs to be at the center of trauma-informed practices.” (p. 12) This means equity needs to be part of conversations across all aspects of the education system – instructional design, social-emotional learning, sports, and even the cafeteria. A guiding question as decisions are made in schools should be, “Does this practice, policy, or decision help or harm students from marginalized communities?”

“We show our values through what we choose to include.” (p. 12)

She ends this section with a table of six principles of equity-centered trauma-informed education. For each principle she shares a key understanding as well as actions that need to be taken to apply each principle:

  1. Antiracist, antioppression
  2. Asset based
  3. Systems oriented
  4. Human centered
  5. Universal and proactive
  6. Social justice focused

The Four Shifts We Need

In this section she briefly describes the four shifts that comprise the structure of the rest of the book.

  1. Shift from a reactive stance to a proactive stance. This aligns with what she already said earlier about how we have to work on preventing trauma, not just responding to it.
  2. Shift from a savior mentality toward unconditional positive regard. Our job is not to fix kids, but to be one of many caring adults in a child’s life. This reminds me of the protective factors she talked about earlier, and the role a caring community plays in mitigating the effects of trauma.
  3. Shift from viewing this work as the work of individual teachers, but rather the work of school systems, “from policies to practice.” (p. 15)
  4. Shift from how trauma affects the students in our class to how our students can help bring about change in the world around them.

Changing Practice, Pedagogy, and Policy

Throughout the book, Venet will be weaving in suggestions for transformations that need to happen across different aspects of schooling:

  • Practice – Expanding mindsets. Developing a lens so that we don’t just know better, but so that we do better.
  • Pedagogy – Changing not just what we teach, but also how we teach it
  • Policy – Creating change that outlives any individual teacher or member of the school staff

These three strands work together. For success, you can’t work on one and ignore the others. There’s interdependence. I appreciate how all three aspects are brought back at the end of each chapter as action steps. She’s very clear these will not be checklists, rather a menu to choose from. What you choose isn’t as important as making a choice and getting started. “The important thing is to begin.” (p. 17)

Start Where You Are

It can feel overwhelming, and in some ways it is, but the important thing is to acknowledge it and still take steps to create what change you can. If we throw up our hands and do nothing, then our silence and inaction are perpetuating the trauma and inequity in our schools. If we begin to do something then our actions match our values, and who knows what ripple effects our actions will have.

The action steps for this chapter are all about starting where you are:

  • Developing Your Lens (Practice)
    • Make connections with community agencies whose work involves trauma care, such as youth shelters, community mental health organizations, anti-sexual-violence organizations, or foster agencies. “Schools can provide stronger support for students when we create connections within our community.” This aligns with Shift 3 – this work isn’t the burden of individual teachers, rather something we should be doing collectively. Who knows where those initial connections will lead?
    • Keep up-to-date on developments related to trauma-informed care. It is not a static field and understandings are evolving over time. You might join a Facebook group, attend a webinar, and/or follow experts on Twitter.
  • Transform Your Classroom (Pedagogy)
    • Connect with resources within your school such as counselors or health teachers to address issues like bullying prevention, substance abuse prevention, and relationship violence prevention. Find ways to weave these topics into your curriculum. For example, I love how educator Jenna Laib’s website Slow Reveal Graphs (Link). The site shares an instructional routine that promotes sense making about data while simultaneously raising awareness of social justice issues.
  • Shift the Systems (Policy)
    • Practice using a “respond and prevent” lens. Look at policies that are already in place. Which ones respond to trauma and which ones help prevent trauma? What do you notice and wonder as you do this work?

Final Thoughts

Chapter 1 did a great job of making it clear that a term like trauma is not simple and concise. There are a lot of factors involved in defining what it is, how is it caused, who is affected, and how they are affected. I appreciate the specific focus on the importance of not just responding to trauma, but also taking steps to prevent it. I also appreciate linking trauma and equity together in such a way that you really shouldn’t talk about one without the other: inequity perpetuates trauma.

With regards to my next steps, I’m in an interesting position. My family just moved to Rochester, New York. My daughter will be starting 4th grade in our local school district in just a week and a half. Unlike in Texas where I worked in the same district she went to school in, now I’m just a parent in the district. I don’t know all the ins and outs like I used to in my previous district. My access to the system is different, but I am looking forward to seeing what I can do in my role as a parent. I’ve already made it a commitment to attend school board meetings regularly so I can stay informed about policies within the district. At the last board meeting a few weeks ago, the district released it’s strategic plan which will guide its work for the next five years. I’d like to review that with the “respond and prevent” lens to see if/how trauma and equity are centered in the district’s plan. I will also probably read through the parent/student handbook for my daughter’s new school with the same lens. I did volunteer to be a parent member of the campus planning team at my daughter’s school. I haven’t heard back yet whether I’ve been chosen to serve on it, but if I am chosen I’ll be able to contribute to the work of strategic planning at the campus for the next two years. Fingers crossed!

5 thoughts on “Equity-Centered Trauma-Informed Education: Chapter 1

  1. Pingback: Equity-Centered Trauma-Informed Education: Chapter 2 | Teaching to the Beat of a Different Drummer

  2. Pingback: Equity-Centered Trauma-Informed Education: Chapter 3 | Teaching to the Beat of a Different Drummer

  3. Pingback: Equity-Centered Trauma-Informed Education: Chapter 4 | Teaching to the Beat of a Different Drummer

  4. Pingback: Equity-Centered Trauma-Informed Education – Part 1: Preparing to Read | Teaching to the Beat of a Different Drummer

  5. Pingback: Equity-Centered Trauma-Informed Education: Chapters 5-13 | Teaching to the Beat of a Different Drummer

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