“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.
While Chapters 1 and 2 focused on developing a common understanding of trauma and equity, the rest of the book is organized around four shifts in practice that are needed in order to move toward equity-centered trauma-informed education:
Shift 1 Adopt a Universal Approach
Shift 2 Rethink Your Role as an Educator
Shift 3 Move from Mindset to Systems Change
Shift 4 Change the World from Inside Your Classroom
Adopting a universal approach is important because we can’t tell who has experienced trauma or how it has impacted those who have experienced it just by looking at the people around us. When we adopt a universal approach, we treat trauma as a lens, not a label. We recognize that any one of our students may have experienced (or may be experiencing) trauma. “We recognize that trauma-informed practices are universal and benefit everyone.” The goal is to be proactive rather than reactive.
Chapter 3 Trauma Is More Than a Number
This chapter focuses on a common tool called the adverse childhood experience (ACE) score that has been used to label and sort children based on their experiences. The research behind ACE “validates what so many of us have observed in our own students over the years: trauma has long-lasting and powerful impacts on the minds and bodies of children, long after the traumatic event has ended.” (p. 47) The idea is that if educators can identify who has experienced trauma, they can provide those students the support they need to avoid negative outcomes in the future.
The Trouble with ACEs
The first issue is that even if two people have the same experience, it doesn’t mean it affects them the same way. Some people may be traumatized by an experience while others are not. The ACE checklist does not take this into account; it just identifies whether the person has experienced certain things or not. It does not provide much-needed context about each person’s experience with trauma. If you get an ACE score of 3 and I get an ACE score of 3, they may mean very different things for us.
Another issue is that the checklist only focuses on adversity experienced in the home. It does not include adversity experienced at school, even though we know schools can be a source of trauma. The checklist doesn’t give us the whole picture. It tries to make something very complex and nuanced into something simple. “Unfortunately, there is no way to simplify trauma.” (p. 51)
ACE Checklists in Action
It is particularly problematic for school staff such as teachers to administer an ACE checklist in school. “While it may seem simple to run through a checklist of yes/no questions, therapeutic screening requires skills and expertise. Clinicians need to choose research-validated tools (which the ACE checklist is not), consider legal and ethical issues such as parental and child consent, and understand the difference between screening and diagnosis.” (p. 51)
Even if the checklist is offered just “for informational purposes,” we have to consider how the act of working through the checklist can be re-traumatizing for individuals. I can speak to this from personal experience. When I was going through required training to become a foster parent, one of the sessions focused on the ACE Study, and as part of the session we were all given an ACE checklist to fill out. Discovering that I have a high ACE score is not something I wanted to find out in a room full of strangers. I was embarrassed and confused about what it meant about me as a person and future foster parent. There was no contextualizing my score or helping me understand what it did or did not ultimately mean about me. They opened a can of worms and sent me on my way with a, “See you next week!”
From a Checklist to a Universal Approach
Rather than trying to diagnose students first before providing support, the shift we need to make is toward being preventative and holistic. “One of the goals of trauma-informed practices is to decrease the stigma about trauma.” (p. 52) Since anyone can experience trauma in their lives, whether it’s at home or at school, everyone can benefit from a trauma-informed environment.
How does inequity in school cause or worsen student trauma?
Is school equitable for students who struggle with the impact of trauma in their lives? (Spoiler alert: It’s not)
This chapter will also expand on Principle 1 from the Principles of Equity-Centered Trauma-Informed Education (See table 1.1 on p. 13-14):
Principle 1 – Trauma-informed education is antiracist and against all forms of oppression.
I. What Is Equity?
“All students are capable of learning and should have access to an education that helps them grow and learn.” (p. 21) This is what we all want to believe, but biases, systems, and policies all demonstrate that this belief is not a reality for so many students. If this belief were true then we wouldn’t be able to predict students’ academic success based solely on where they live. (Here’s an article that talks about this idea more: Student Success Comes Down to Zip Code)
Educational Equity – “the process of ensuring that all students can access high-quality education, that they are fully included in their school communities, that they are able to engage in meaningful and challenging academic work, and that they can do all of this in an environment that values them as people” (p. 22) (Children are not cogs in the school machine. Rather, they’re human beings and their humanity should be front and center with regards to resources provided for them and decisions made about them.)
Equity (as defined by the National Equity Project) – “all children receiving ‘what they need to develop to their full academic and social potential'” (p. 22) (This needs to be sustainable change, not a one-off intervention or support. This is why we have to look at changing systems, not just actions of individuals.)
Equality – Treating everyone the same (Not everyone needs the same things to be successful and some need more than others. This seems to be a sticking point with many people who challenge equity with calls for “fairness.” They believe it’s unfair for one group to be given “more” than another, not recognizing that one group already has so much more than the other from the get go. Another fear is having to give up something in order to provide for others. At a recent school board meeting, a community member gave a rambling speech about the problem with equity efforts in our district and specifically shared her fear that talented students will lose access to AP classes as a result. As far as I know, there are no calls to reduce the number of AP classes offered.)
To bring about sustainable, meaningful change, we have to look at systems as interrelated – schools, healthcare, and the economy. I attended a State Board of Education panel discussion in Texas a couple of years ago where they talked about the idea of incorporating mental health services within school buildings because their data showed teenagers are one of the largest populations that needs these services. If the services are close at hand, they are more likely to be utilized and the negative impacts on student learning will be lessened.
A. Equity Literacy
We can’t just snap our fingers (or read one book!) and suddenly our teaching practices will become more equitable. It is a learning process that takes “time, new knowledge, and skills development.” (p. 23) Venet suggests viewing this process as an action-research project where we work in cycles of continuous improvement. We need “practice, coaching, role models, and time” (p. 24) but more importantly we have to get started. “Our students can’t wait for us to become experts before we act.” (p. 24) Embrace failing forward.
B. Equity and Holding Many Perspectives at Once
We have to practice looking beyond individuals and instead look through systemic and structural lenses. This involves asking a lot of questions. If you see an issue that appears inequitable, you need to interrogate it to understand why it’s happening and you have to ask those questions at multiple levels because chances are there is no simple answer, rather a multi-faceted one. Learning to see these many levels and perspectives helps us develop an equity lens. We start to understand there are many factors that contribute to each student’s success (or lack thereof) in school.
This section reminded me of the work my previous district undertook to tackle inequity issues in advanced math class enrollment in one of our high school feeder patterns. A variety of stakeholders in our district partnered with E3 Alliance to analyze data and interrogate the current system to identify the kinds of changes that needed to be made in order to increase enrollment particularly for Black students and other students of color. Here’s a short video that talks about the changes they made:
II. The Equity-Centered Trauma-Informed Connection
“…traditional structures of school can be, at best, trauma-indifferent and, at worst, trauma-inducing.” (p. 27)
A. Inequity in Schools Can Cause and Worsen Trauma
It’s a limited view to assume that trauma only occurs outside of schools. It’s an uncomfortable truth that schools can cause trauma. These causes can include teachers, policies, and other students. While hearing this may make teachers feel uncomfortable, looking away and ignoring it doesn’t help anyone. We need “to reckon with practices and attitudes currently causing harm.” (p. 28) Here are three examples of how schools can cause trauma:
1. Bullying and Harassment
Bullying and harassment can have lasting negative consequences for students. While some might characterize this behavior as “kids being kids” it’s really not because not all kids are equally susceptible to bullying and harassment. Students who are more likely to be bullied or harassed are LGBTQ students, students with disabilities, and students of color. Bullying is about power.
Many anti-bullying campaigns focus on being kind or teaching students not to be bystanders, but these strategies don’t work because they’re not systemic. They’re relying on the actions of individuals. Instead, we need to work to create “equitable, affirming school environments. Our efforts toward equity can help decrease bullying as as a potential source of trauma.” (p. 29)
“School leaders and teachers, while not wholly responsible for the existence of racism and bias in society, are responsible for how racism and bias are interrupted and dismantled in our schools.” (p. 29) Inaction and silence perpetuate trauma and inequity.
2. Police and Zero-Tolerance Policies
Bringing police into schools is done out of a desire for safety, but safety for whom? If we use our equity lens and look at this from multiple levels we see that for Black students the police are not considered safe when so many Black people are shot and killed by police officers with an alarming frequency. Having police present in schools is a daily reminder of this collective trauma and can cause further harm.
“…mere interactions with officers can lead to lasting psychological stress.” (p. 31) I remember driving on Riverside Drive in Austin one evening during college and the sudden panic I felt when a police car turned on its lights behind me. I quickly pulled over, my heart racing and panic setting in. I frantically asked myself, “What did I do? I have no idea what I was doing wrong.” The police officer walked over to my car and said, “I know this isn’t really appropriate, but I had to know is your license plate inspired by Star Trek?” I’ll admit that I felt immediate relief knowing that I wasn’t in trouble for anything, but at the same time I was angry that I was made to feel so scared and anxious all to satisfy a cop’s curiosity. Some students feel similar feelings on a daily basis just being in their schools even if they don’t have to interact with the police.
Police officers in schools are often not trained appropriately to work in this setting. While most have training in school shooting prevention, “only 54% are trained in interacting with students with disabilities, and fewer than 40% have received training in understanding child trauma.” (p. 29) This can lead to traumatic interactions between students and police officers. Venet shares several examples of 6-8(!) year old Black girls who were arrested at their schools. Black girls are disproportionately judged to be a threat or safety issue by their teachers and involving police can cause real harm to these children.
Venet goes on to talk about how the presence of police officers in schools contributes to the school-to-prison pipeline. Teachers have to make judgments about when to involve the police, and small decisions can escalate typical behavior that school personnel should handle into criminalized behavior that involves the police and possible criminal penalties.
I’m reminded of an issue in my former district where three high school students received class C misdemeanor citations for stealing animal crackers out of the faculty lounge. You can read a local news story about the incident here. Did the police really need to be involved in this incident or could the staff have handled the discipline on their own with a punishment like detention? As adults, we have to consider the impact of our decisions about how we respond to student behavior.
You might even say there is a school-to-prison nexus because some schools appear to operate as prisons. The students have to wear uniforms, put up with random searches, get punished for not walking on the lines in the hallways or for not staying silent at lunch. “These conditions are not trauma-informed; they are trauma-inducing.” (p. 31) This reminds me of a story my colleague told me about her daughter when she was in 1st grade. She had to take her to the doctor because she was having severe stomach pain. The doctor couldn’t find anything physically wrong with her. Eventually they were able to figure out that her stomach was hurting from all the anxiety she was feeling at school because she was never allowed to talk. Her teacher required the students to constantly work in silence, and the whole school was suffering through silent lunches because the lunch monitors felt like it was too loud in the cafeteria. The only time the students could be themselves and express themselves during their 7 hour school day was during their 15 minutes of recess everyday. Bottling it in all day, day after day, and being afraid of getting in trouble was physically hurting her daughter.
3. Curriculum Violence and Racial Trauma
We’ve looked at how other students and even the police can be sources of trauma at school, but in this final example we turn the lens on ourselves and look at how teachers can be a source of trauma for students. One way is through the lessons we teach. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve come across a Twitter thread about the latest simulation or experiential lesson that causes harm. Here’s a 2019 article from Learning for Justice that shares a specific example of this kind of curriculum violence:
Once again, a U.S. school is in the news for a classroom slavery lesson gone horribly wrong. According to one black student in a fifth-grade class at The Chapel School in Bronxville, New York, last week his teacher had all the black students go into the hallway so she could “put imaginary chains along our necks and wrists, and shackles on our ankles.”
The students were then allegedly led back into the classroom, where their white classmates were encouraged to “bid” on them in a mock auction.
We have to acknowledge that schools can be a source of trauma for our students, and that the harm is made worse because students often expect schools to be a place of safety. We also have to accept responsibility for our role, not just as individuals but also as a system, in causing trauma and harm to our students. It might make us feel shame or regret, and that’s okay, but we have to work through it. “Understanding the harm our students experience in our schools is essential for us to take action to make things better.” (p. 34)
B. School Isn’t Equitable for Trauma-Affected Students
“Schools can be indifferent to how trauma affects children, even outright retraumatizing and harmful.” (p. 34)
Trauma’s Impact on Learning
This section focuses on the way students who are impacted by trauma can sometimes have an easily triggered fight or flight response. This can impact learning because when the response is triggered the student may be unable to focus on complex tasks. It is important to note that this can result in poor school performance, but this does not mean that these students are poor learners. Rather, these students just need responses from teachers that are considerate of their specific needs in order to be successful learners. Unfortunately, it all comes down to how teachers and other adults interpret student behavior, particularly students experiencing trauma who are triggered.
Punitive Discipline, Seclusion, and Restraint
“Teachers can perpetuate inequity when we choose to see student behavior as defiant or unruly rather than a normal response to stress and trauma.” (p. 36)
This idea of how we interpret student behavior is really powerful and begs the question: What impacts the way teachers interpret student behavior differently? If we can better understand what is causing educators to view student behavior in certain ways, we can try to counter those interpretations to help steer these adults into providing more trauma-informed responses. Otherwise these teachers may respond in ways that are trauma-indifferent or trauma-inducing, particularly when responses such as physical restraint are used. We can end up creating cycles of trauma that causes further harm to our students.
This section ends with one suggestion for how we can respond to student behavior in a trauma-informed way: restorative justice. This is a “paradigm shift that focuses on building community and repairing harm between people, rather than compliance and obedience based on rules.” (p. 38)
Don’t Fall Into a Deficit Trap
“It can feel like a contradiction to hear ‘don’t ignore the impact of trauma’ and also ‘don’t define a child by trauma,’ but both things can be true at once.” (p. 39)
III. Creating Trauma-Informed Systems, Not Fixing Kids
This section reinforces the idea that we have to prevent trauma, not just respond to it. Often we put the burden on students, focusing on building their resilience to trauma. Unfortunately this doesn’t remove the traumatic experiences from their lives. “The thing is, the problem isn’t ever the children themselves: the problem is the adults who choose to harm children, or the conditions that adults create that cause harm to children.” (p. 40)
Focusing on resilience is an “equity detour” that distracts us. Yes, we need to help students impacted by unjust systems within and outside of schools, but we also need to work on dismantling those systems to prevent the trauma in the first place. We need resilient systems, not just resilient children.
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:
Mark up the book
Make mental links
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).
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.
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!
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:
Universal and proactive
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.
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.
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.
Shift from viewing this work as the work of individual teachers, but rather the work of school systems, “from policies to practice.” (p. 15)
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?
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!
I recently asked on Twitter for advice about how other people engage with professional reading. I got a lot of great advice! To add to my good fortune, a few days later I came across this helpful article (Link) called “How to Remember What You Read” which included even more great advice. So, to put what I’m learning into practice, I’m going to apply it while I read my next book, Equity-Centered Trauma-Informed Education (Link) by Alex Shevrin Venet.
Today I’m going to prepare to read the book which is something I’ll admit I’ve never done before. From the article I read: “A lot of success in reading boils down to preparation. What you do before you read matters more than you think.” I’m curious to see how I feel about that statement after I’m done preparing to read this book.
The article shares five strategies for this step in the reading process:
Get some context
Know your why
Match your book to your environment
I’m going to focus on numbers 2-4 in this post.
Get some context
I actually feel like I’ve already got some context on this book:
I’ve followed the author on Twitter (Link) for a while now, which is why this book was on my radar in the first place.
Equity has been a theme in my work as a district curriculum coordinator supporting 34 elementary schools serving roughly 20,000 students. And I wasn’t alone! The entire curriculum department made equity a focus of our learning and planning together during the last few years I was in the role.
I don’t have a ton of experience with trauma-informed education, but I did learn about trauma-informed care when I was preparing to become a foster parent. I’ll be curious to see what’s the same/different as trauma-informed care applies to education.
Know your why
Why am I reading this book? Now that I’ve moved to New York, I’m hoping to get a position where I work with students and teachers more directly. I learned a lot being a district leader, but I want a job in a school building right now. I’ve already applied to be a substitute teacher while I work on getting my Texas teacher certificate transferred to New York. I’m also interesting in being a classroom teacher again since I haven’t had my own classroom since 2009. Because I want to work more closely with students, I want to ensure I have a solid skill set for building community, engaging with students, providing them the support they need, and being very considerate of their backgrounds and experiences. Out of all the books I could have chosen, I was drawn to this one because I really valued what I learned about trauma-informed care as I was becoming a foster parent. I immediately realized this was knowledge that would have helped me be a better, more compassionate teacher.
The article shared ideas for how to do this. I also like the way Dr. Andy Mitchell described his version of it on Twitter:
For my intelligent skim, I’m going to read and reflect on the back of the book, the table of contents, the introduction, and the conclusion.
Back of the Book
Just in case you’re interested in knowing what this book is about, I’ll copy the blurb from the back of the book and then reflect on it.
In this comprehensive guide, Alex Shevrin Venet urges educators to adopt trauma-informed practices as part of a systemic effort to advance social justice rather than as a set of peripheral moves intended to help selected students who are perceived to be in need of rescue. Using a framework of six principles, Venet offers practical action steps that teachers and school leaders can take from any starting point, making shifts in practice, pedagogy, and policy to address underlying inequities that can cause or heighten trauma. Teachers are able to do more than they realize from within their own classrooms to shift equity to the center, and to help prevent the trauma that originates inside schools. This book shows them how.
Equity-Centered Trauma-Informed Education
I’m definitely interested in the idea of making systemic change. At a district leadership event a couple of years ago, one of the speakers told the story of baking a cake without sugar and trying to make up for it by sprinkling sugar on top. The cake is still going to taste bad! He said we need to view equity the same way. If equity is not baked into our systems of education, but rather sprinkled on, it’s not going to make the system better. The term “equity sprinkles” became a popular phrase in our district after that: Are you intentionally baking equity into your decisions or are you just adding equity sprinkles?
Table of contents
Bringing Equity to the Center
Chapter 1: Defining Trauma-Informed Education
Chapter 2: Defining Equity
I like how the first two chapters are about definitions – what is trauma-informed education and what is equity? Even though I have thoughts about the meanings of those two terms, I look forward to reading the author’s definitions to help us get on the same page before going further.
The book is organized around four shifts in practice:
Shift 1: Adopt a Universal Approach
Chapter 3: Trauma is More Than a Number
Chapter 4: Trauma is a Lens, Not a Label
Chapter 5: Four Proactive Priorities for Decision Making
This is intriguing. I’m curious how I’ll view my role differently after reading this section. I might need to reflect on what I think my current role is as an educator before I read this section. At the moment I would say my role is to support my students in knowing more and being able to do more than they could before working with me. I want to help them develop positive identities around learning and doing a wide variety of things. I want to help them feel like they are part of a community where everyone belongs and supports one another. I want to create a space where they feel safe and cared for.
Shift 3: Move from Mindset to Systems Change
Chapter 9: Support Teacher Wellness
Chapter 10: Foster Professional Growth
Chapter 11: Work Toward Policy Change
I’m looking forward to this section! Many of the issues we have with racism and white supremacy in our country are rooted in systems that have been in place for a long time. I look forward to learning what advice she has for how educators can help to change these systems.
Shift 4: Change the World from Inside Your Classroom
Chapter 12: Examine the Curriculum, Disrupt Harmful Narratives
Chapter 13: Get to Work: Activism and Action as Healing
As a former curriculum coordinator, I understand how important it is to examine the curriculum. In mathematics, some of the harmful narratives have to do with who does math? I found it interesting in Texas that there are state science standards that require teachers to teach about scientists:
1st Grade Science TEKS – Describe what scientists do
2nd Grade Science TEKS – Identify what a scientist is and explore what different scientists do
3rd-5th Grade Science TEKS – Connect grade-level appropriate science concepts with the history of science, science careers, and contributions of scientists
But there are no comparable math standards, at least not at the elementary level. It’s almost like the people involved in mathematics are erased. Rather than being a living, breathing subject that people study and use in careers today*, it’s just a collection of knowledge and skills everyone has to learn.
* There’s one math standard that lightly touches on this: “Apply mathematics to problems arising in everyday life, society, and the workplace,” but it’s about applying mathematics rather than learning about the history of math, math careers, and contributions of mathematicians.
Page xiii – Appearances can be deceiving. – We can’t know how our students are doing just by looking at them. We don’t know what’s happening at home or elsewhere in school or how they’re feeling.
Page xiv – Childhood trauma does not guarantee a life of failure and struggle. – But it does impact who children become as adults.
Page xiv – Prevailing view in the past “Kids are resilient. They’ll get over it.” – Kids are resilient, but “They’ll get over it” isn’t the right attitude.
Page xiv – About half of all children in the US will experience at least one potentially traumatic event before age 18. Because so many students are possibly exposed to trauma, I wonder if this is why we want to make trauma-informed education a central part of our work because we never know when it’s happening or to whom, but we can agree it’s not some rare event that only inflicts a special few.
Page xiv – Child trauma is hard to measure because of where it happens (behind closed doors) and inability/unwillingness to talk about it. It also doesn’t only happen at home.
[Internal monologue: I’m not liking thisapproach to skimming. It doesn’t feel like skimming at all. I feel like I’m stoppingconstantlyand writing down way too much. I’m going to try reading each section and then summarize it for myself and see if that feels better. I also need to find a balance between marking in the book and recording in my blog post. I don’t necessarily need to transcribe everything into my blog post so long as I can refer to the book later.]
Take 2: I continued reading this section and focused on jotting in my book rather than coming back to the blog post to capture my ideas. Here’s what I took away as I skimmed the rest of this section:
Not every student is hurt long-term by trauma, most likely because they have systems of care including family, community, and access to resources.
Other students do have trauma which the author describes as “enduring negative psychological, physical, and spiritual harm.’
A person can’t just “push through trauma.” Rather there are several factors involved in healing from trauma:
A feeling of safety, emotional and psychological
Building relationships with trusted people
A feeling of unconditional acceptance
Therapy can be helpful but is not enough on its own, we also need a community that cares about us
Trauma can happen in and out of school – Schools can be places of trauma for some students.
The author shared her personal experience working at an alternative school that redesigned things from the ground up. They had a mission “grounded in unconditional care” for their students that guided all of their decision making. However, outside of this context, she realized there are many of the same old attitudes and beliefs out there that result in trauma not being identified or addressed, often because teachers don’t feel equipped to do anything about it.
What the author has learned over time:
School can be a site of growth and support for students surviving the most challenging circumstances
School can be structured in intentional ways to promote this growth
Together, educators can advocate for systems change that addresses and prevents trauma
[Internal monologue: This went much smoother. I was able to focus on reading andthen when I was done it was really easy to capture the key points in the blog post. Let’s stick with that!]
Trauma-Informed Education: A Healing Force or a Buzzword?
There’s a lot more awareness of trauma and trauma-informed practices in our culture today, but we run the risk of it becoming a buzzword without meaning, or worse, causing harm for students because it results in a deficit model where the “trauma kids” are treated differently than the other kids in the school. Also, there’s a lot of trauma caused by the inequalities in our systems, and if we don’t link trauma-informed care with equity and social justice, then we may do more harm than good.
One problem the author notes is that there are individual teachers and programs that have been studied, but not enough work has been done to identify what’s working at a whole-school or -district level. These approaches seem to work for some but not others. We need to understand why so that these practices aren’t abandoned because we just assume they don’t work or aren’t worth the time.
Goal of the book: My hope for you as the reader is that you will finish this book with a more complex understanding of trauma-informed education and a drive to bring your own trauma-informed work to the next level, with equity at the center.
This book is not “Trauma 101.” The author is assuming you have some understanding of trauma and trauma-informed care before reading since her focus is instead on the work of connecting these practices to equity work. She also makes it clear that she’s coming at this from the lens of an educator, not a clinician, though she recommends partnering with school and community mental health experts in this work.
The book is a mix of education research, philosophy, and rubber-meets-the-road strategies. She makes it clear that some ideas she hopes you can take away and apply immediately while others will take time and effort, but hopefully you’ll be inspired to start the work by the time you’re done reading.
The focus is on the adults in a school building, not the students. What work do we need to do as adults to create an equity-centered trauma-informed environment for our students?
Chapter 1: Expanded definition of trauma-informed practices
Chapter 2: Two big ideas (1) inequity causes trauma and (2) School isn’t equitable for trauma-affected students
Chapter 3: Diving deeper into the adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) framework
Chapter 4: Making sure universal interventions are helpful not harmful
Chapter 5: Four priorities for infusing an understanding of trauma into our decision making
Chapters 6-8: Unconditional positive regard – Making sure we don’t position ourselves as saviors
Chapters 9-11: Focus on school leadership and policies
Chapters 12-13: Focus on classroom pedagogy
It’s funny. When I read research articles, I almost always skip down to the discussion and conclusion sections to hear what the researchers found out and what they recommend. I’ve never done this with a nonfiction book before though. Now that I’ve read the table of contents and introduction, I’m kind of interested to read her concluding thoughts before diving into the chapters in between.
To be trauma informed is to be committed to the end of the conditions that cause trauma. Venet’s concluding chapter is a rallying cry to get started on the work. No single one of us is going to solve all the problems our students face or fix all the systems that create and perpetuate trauma, but that shouldn’t stop us from beginning the work and doing our part to help move toward the kind of world our students deserve.
She’s clear that she has no easy answer for the reader, and definitely no checklists! Rather, she provides a list of questions to get the reader wondering, planning, and dreaming about what is possible.
An important point in the last chapter is standing in solidarity with our students. Letting them know, “I am with you and I will fight for you.” Some specific areas where we can make a stand are demanding the removal of police from our schools, fully funding counselors and mental health support, and ending token economy behavior systems such as PBIS. She acknowledges there’s risk in standing up for our students and demanding change, and we have to reflect on how much risk we’re willing to shoulder for our students and then whatever amount that is we have to be willing to take it on.
Ready to Read!
That was an experience. I don’t think I’ve ever spent so much time before preparing to read a book. It definitely felt different. I’ll be the first to admit it’s time consuming, but at the same time I feel way more engaged with the book than if I’d just cracked it open and started in on chapter 1. I feel like I’ve seen the big picture and now I can dive in and look more closely at the details with a greater appreciation for what they mean.
I’m not sure I would do this for every book I read, but another piece of advice from the article I read is that we really should be much choosier, not just about which books we read but about which books we finish.
“Life is much too short to finish a bad book. You need to be ruthless and heartless. Don’t let sunk costs guilt you into wasting your time.”
So far I’m excited by Venet’s book and I look forward to diving into the remaining chapters. As she says in the concluding chapter, this is urgent work, and I am definitely ready to learn and get started.