Last week we received an email from an administrator of a middle school in an urban school district. The administrator explained they had behavioral challenges in their school and wondered if trauma-informed training would help them meet their needs. We sat down with the administrative team and learned that over the course of the first few weeks of the school year, a half-dozen or more fights had erupted and they were seeing a troubling number of weapons making their way into the school building. Teachers reported struggling to manage behaviors in their classrooms and had expressed feelings of frustration and desperation as they asked for support. Teachers, however, were not the only ones feeling the pressure; administrators were encountering surprisingly hostile and aggressive parents.
This school and their experiences are not unique. In fact, in a survey of 205 teachers, administrators, and instructional assistants in a rural school district, an overwhelming majority shared concerns and challenges very similar to those of their urban counterparts (Berardi & Morton, 2017 a; Morton & Berardi, 2018). They created a list of troubling behaviors and described how it felt like these behaviors had significantly escalated over the last 5 to 7 years. Behaviors, however, were not the only focus. Poverty and mental health rounded out their top three concerns. Clearly, something is going on, and it calls for immediate action.
The experiences of these 205 teachers and administrators are not an anomaly. Walk into any public school in the United States and talk to teachers. They will share with you their concern for their students, how their job has changed, how students are shouldering tremendous pressures and chronic stress, and the impact it is having on academic achievement and social functioning. These school experiences, cries for help from students, parents, communities, and educators, are what prompted our work, the identification of trauma-informed educator standards of practice, and this implementation guide.
Toward Building Trauma-Informed Educator Competencies
Advances in traumatology and neurobiology, along with longitudinal data confirming the generational impact of stress and trauma on lifespan psychosocial and physical health, have created a seismic shift in how we conceptualize and respond to the needs of children and adults seeking services within our communities (Carrion & Wong, 2012; Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, 2015; Cozolino, 2014; Felitti et al., 1998; Porges, 2011). This includes institutional settings such as hospitals, residential care facilities, prisons, and educational environments, including P-16 settings (Cozolino, 2013; Massachusetts Advocates for Children, 2005; SAMSHA, 2014). Educators, and the systems in which we provide our services, can no longer assume that our traditional ways of approaching the learning process are congruent with current knowledge and best practices. In response, this textbook is designed to assist educators in building trauma-informed competencies, including its systemic application in all aspects of the school environment. The integration of knowledge, skills, and dispositions congruent with trauma-informed competencies comprises Trauma-Informed School Practices (TISP; Berardi & Morton, 2017; Morton & Berardi, 2017; Morton & Berardi, 2018), our initial training method to assist educators transitioning to trauma-informed practice. In this text we present the Trauma-Informed School Practices Tri-Phasic Model, our model detailing educator competencies needed to create effective trauma-informed learning communities. In this text we present the Trauma-Informed School Practices Tri-Phasic Model, our model detailing educator competencies needed to create effective trauma-informed learning communities.
Trauma-informed competencies are a new content and skill domain for educators. They require a revisiting of theoretical constructs already familiar to educators, but integrated with and perhaps even transformed by new fields of study traditionally found in the social and behavioral science professions. And herein lies the key: Trauma-informed competencies require a cross-collaboration of both content and practice domains of education professionals and mental health professionals (Morton & Berardi, 2017).
While many education professionals and mental health professionals might be alarmed by this statement, the authors intend to demonstrate that trauma-informed (TI) practices require a shared content domain with role-specific application. Mental health providers cannot be of service to this process unless they too have demonstrated acquisition of trauma-informed competencies, which in and of itself includes an understanding that trauma-informed practice is a helpful, if not necessary, form of service delivery across multiple professions. Likewise, education professionals may be reticent to dig deep to learn this new domain for fear that they will be expected to serve as mental health professionals rather than educators.
We acknowledge that this reticence may exist for many current educators. We invite you to take note of your concerns and revisit these thoughts after you have worked through this text. To assist in this process, we invite you to take the TISP Pre-Survey (https://goo.gl/forms/JHDI5jeZJznwnMRY2) before moving further along. It will only take a few minutes. At the end of the text or your course, you will be invited to take the survey again. You will then have access to a comparison between your pre- and post-course thoughts. After you take the initial survey, read on for how and why we will incorporate parallel self-application and awareness exercises throughout the text.
Many educators may be hesitant to use the term trauma as part of the title of a protocol implemented within their schools, opting for other titles less suggestive of abuse or mental health struggle. We agree! First, let’s differentiate between trauma-informed as an educator competency versus the title of a program.
TISP, and its application as the TISP Tri-Phasic Model, is not a program in the same way Mind Up, or AVID might be. Rather, it is a roadmap to creating safe and effective trauma-informed learning environments. To acquire the necessary competencies, we have identified the knowledge, skills, and dispositions of a trauma-informed educator, and presented these competencies as a scaffolded guide to creating trauma-informed learning communities. It is a metamodel based on trauma-informed theories, research, and best practices. The TISP Tri-Phasic Model includes practical recommendations for implementation, and equips educators with the ability to evaluate any program, whether promoted as trauma-informed or not, for its congruence with trauma-informed practice.
We caution educators not to minimize the importance of developing trauma-informed competencies, and to name them as such. This includes continued discernment regarding implementation language sensitive to social context.
Trauma-Informed educators do not advocate identifying or diagnosing students as traumatized. We embrace a guiding value of the mental health professions to avoid labeling students according to an ACE score, or any other psychosocial measure designed to provide insight into the world and experience of a student. Rather, TISP teaches educators how to listen to their students’ stories, only hinted at in an ACE score, and mostly revealed through the context of our relationships with them, as well as their academic and social functioning at school.
Trauma-informed principles also reflect that this approach to learning is a universal design, appropriate for all students regardless of psychosocial stressors or cognitive strengths and limitations; it is good practice for promoting the cognitive and social-emotional growth of all students, as we will further unpack in the chapters ahead.