“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.
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.