Equity-Centered Trauma-Informed Education: Chapter 4

I’m currently reading and blogging about Equity-Centered Trauma-Informed Education by Alex Shevrin Venet.

Here are links if you’d like to check out previous posts in my series of reading summaries and reflections:

Chapter 4 Trauma Is a Lens, Not a Label

“Equity-centered trauma-informed practices should be both proactive and universal.” (p. 55) These practices are not just about fixing problems in our schools. Rather, they are about creating “affirming, invigorating educational experience[s]” for all students. What would a school environment, culture, and community look like and feel like that prevents problems before they even start?

How Is Trauma Present in Our School?

We can get stuck in the weeds if all we try to do is label/identify individual students who are experiencing trauma. We need to pull back and get a big picture view by asking, “How is trauma present in our schools?” We need a universal approach where we look at all levels of our school community: How does trauma affect our students, staff, and caregivers? This practice will help us develop our trauma lens. “If we can’t see trauma, we can struggle to change our teaching practice.” (p. 56) Once we learn to recognize trauma in our schools, then we will be in a place to “consider what it will take to create safe and affirming environments.” (p. 57)

Fostering Critical Wellness

Schools should be places where teachers and students can bring their whole selves. If we are unwell in some way, we can’t just check that at the door. “…[S]chools need to be places that increase our personal and community wellness, not deplete it.” (p. 58)

Wellness is a community effort, and it’s created through actions as well as structures and policies within the school environment. A critical way adults in the school environment can help cultivate wellness is by working to dismantle structures that are harming others. “It’s impossible to encourage individuals to foster wellness if we ignore the structures and historical context that impact each of us and our capacity to be well.” (p. 59)

If school is a place you have to “survive,” then it cannot be a place where you can thrive and be well. This goes for teachers and students. This immediately makes me think of the numerous tweets I’ve been seeing on Twitter over the past month from teachers who already felt overwhelmed last year and are feeling like they’re drowning this year. They’re receiving empty messages of wellness within their school communities and when some turn to Twitter for support they’re confronted with messages of toxic positivity. Where do you go for help when you can’t find wellness in either community?

Universal Is Not One-Size-Fits-All

This section focuses on social-emotional learning (SEL). I remember first hearing this term when I started teaching at The University of Texas Elementary School back in 2006, and now it seems to be everywhere. You can’t throw a rock on Twitter without hitting a tweet or three about SEL.

The author cautions us that SEL is not always trauma-informed. “On the surface, SEL is a powerful idea.” (p. 60) “But on its own SEL doesn’t actually address trauma, racism, or inequity. In fact, implementing SEL can perpetuate traumatic environments if we focus too much on giving students the tools to manage their traumatic stress rather than addressing the causes of that stress.” (p. 61) I appreciate this because I find value in SEL, but I also find value in critically analyzing what’s good and what’s bad about the things I believe in. Knowing the good, the bad, and the ugly about an idea helps me be more intentional and thoughtful about when and how to use it.

A recurring theme in the book is that we need to be proactive, not just reactive about addressing trauma in our schools. I can’t help but think of the intense focus on SEL in so many schools as students return to learning in-person. It’s important, yes, but we have to keep in mind this is being reactive. It’s not enough. What are we going to do to proactively support our school community to prevent future trauma in and out of school? Otherwise some people might think these are practices they can eventually drop because the pandemic is “over.”

Responsive Supports for All

One way preventing future trauma is by ensuring all students have access to resources and services regardless of whether we’ve determined they need them. A universal approach means access to resources is barrier-free and we invite all students to take part. “Proactive approaches work best when paired with a robust and flexible set of responsive approaches…These supports are not just about trauma but about mental health and wellness more broadly.” (p. 62) Trauma is one reason a person may need mental health services, for example, but it’s not the only reason they may need these services.

A quote that really resonated with me in this section is, “Children affected by trauma need an environment that is based on consent, not coercion.” (p. 63) This quote is in response to a preceding discussion of programs in schools such as multitiered systems of support (MTSS) and positive behavioral interventions and supports (PBIS). While these programs do want to bring about positive change, their focus on behavior modification is incompatible with trauma-informed practices. When you create tiered systems of support that focus on labeling students, it is not universal or barrier free.

The reason the quote resonated with me is because I’ve been in many school buildings over the years, and when you’re on a campus with a coercive culture, you can feel it. It’s stifling. Schools should be a place where there is joy and curiosity around learning, but when the focus is on controlling behavior, you get a very different vibe. I saw a tweet recently where someone shared that a student described school as a colorful prison, and that sounds about right for a few campuses I’ve visited. I’m angry that this is the day-to-day, year-to-year school experience for some children.

Support for Students Who Will Never Ask

Being proactive and universal helps us avoid needing to label our students. It also supports those students who wouldn’t ask for help otherwise. Instead they can receive support by virtue of being members of a community built around affirming each other’s humanity and fostering wellness for everyone.

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