Throughout this textbook concepts and terms inherent to trauma-informed educator competencies will be introduced and defined. We begin by defining key terms related to the overall objective of this textbook.
Stress and Trauma
TI expertise reflects mastery of a new content domain for educators. It is not a passing fad. Educators are constantly introduced to new programs trying to gain traction and interest. Sometimes educators are exhausted by all the new initiatives, knowing funding, hope, and hype are likely to be replaced with broken budgets, disappointing outcomes, and apathy.
Trauma-informed competencies allow the educator to evaluate the fit of any new program by examining its ethos, system-wide practices, and direct interactions with students. That shiny new penny may be something innovative or just a repackaging of a preexisting program. Regardless, the trauma-informed educator will know how to discern its merit based on a conceptual framework integrating the latest research and best practice strategies from neurobiology, attachment, traumatology, cognitive development and learning, and psychosocial theories related to recovering from the impact of unmitigated stress and trauma in order to maximize their success in the school environment.
Stress and trauma are universal human experiences, yet definitions can differ widely depending on the context in which the terms are used. For example, a researcher analyzing factors that help persons survive and thrive in the aftermath of a stressful event will aim for very precise definitions regarding what is a stressor event versus what is a traumatic incident. Meanwhile, in clinical mental health settings, practitioners understand that stressful and traumatic events are often subjectively experienced: What might be traumatic for one person, whether a perceived or real event, may only be mildly or temporarily stressful for another.
In Chapter 3, we will unpack the essence of stress and trauma as it is understood through a metatheory detailing what makes each of us vulnerable to events being traumatic versus merely stressful or challenging, and how the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Survey is renewing our understanding regarding why some stressful events are more impactful than others. But for now, trauma is simply a term to describe the aftermath or impact of an event, whether real or perceived, that interrupts a person’s ability to maintain a sense of psychological and/or physical safety and well-being. When we use the term trauma, as in “She has experienced a lot of trauma in her life,” it is shorthand for saying that certain events were overly stressful, hurtful, and/or terrorizing; these events were traumatic for that person, and have impacted who they are today and how they function in the world.
The impact or aftermath of such events can be short-lived, resolving fairly easily, becoming merely one event in a person’s life history. Or the event may require long-term recovery, setting off additional biopsychosocial vulnerabilities, and perhaps becoming a chronic event defining a person’s sense of self and functioning. Stressful and traumatic events can lead to growth and wisdom, or bitterness and despair. Persons able to seize the wisdom path may still suffer chronic side effects, while persons unable to make peace or coexist with the memory of the trauma may show no outward social or physical health impact.
Often throughout this text we will refer to “unmitigated stress and trauma” precisely because most of us, including our students, have the capacity to find our way through stressful or traumatic events with only temporary disruptions if we are embedded in strong communities of care. In the absence of a strong relational community, our stressors and traumas often go unnoticed. The impact of these events lingers and festers, and soon, along comes another stressor piling on insult to injury. This ongoing process of not being attuned to and mentored through these stressful events leads to a state of unmitigated stress and trauma that chips away at our resilience, creating chronic trauma-induced injury.
We go to great lengths explaining that not all stressful events become trauma, and not all trauma leads to predictable and irretractable consequences, and sometimes minor stressors can interfere with our health and well-being just as much as a full-blown traumatic event, in order to caution you not to make assumptions about the well-being of those who survive traumatic events (neither minimizing nor catastrophizing). Rather, we want to increase your insight and empathy into just exactly what stressful events—whether mild or severe enough to be classified as a trauma—do to us: how such events immediately impact us physically, emotionally, cognitively, and socially. We want to deepen your awareness of the systemic factors—the pre- and post-trauma environmental factors that make some of us more at risk or more resilient. We also want you to grasp how TISP is a universal-access approach as it serves the well-being of all students. And most importantly, we want you to fully grasp how our capacity to heal and grow from stress and trauma is linked, in large part, to how we as a community wrap ourselves around each other before and in the aftermath of such events in order to maximize health and wellbeing as evidenced in a student’s academic and social functioning.
The term trauma-informed care arose within mental health research and practitioner circles to denote advances in our understanding regarding how trauma impacts persons and communities, and best practices in response (SAMSHA, 2014; Siegel, 2012; van der Kolk, 2014). Trauma-informed denotes an ever-emerging body of literature and practice representing the convergence of various disciplines, such as research in the fields of traumatology and neurobiology, as well as concepts gleaned from various developmental theories such as attachment and cognitive development, combined with emerging data regarding intervention methods most effective at helping persons heal and resume their development (Berardi & Morton, 2017). Trauma-informed denotes an ever-emerging body of literature and practice representing the convergence of various disciplines, such as research in the fields of traumatology and neurobiology, as well as concepts gleaned from various developmental theories such as attachment and cognitive development, combined with emerging data regarding intervention methods most effective at helping persons heal and resume their development (Berardi & Morton, 2017).
Not all mental health professionals (MHPs) can claim trauma-informed competencies, even though the heart of MHP work is helping alleviate the effects of trauma (Morton & Berardi, 2017). Attending a conference or reading a text on trauma-informed processes does not create a trauma-informed professional. It takes a deep dive into the literature integrating advancements in our understanding of the role of attachment in building neurological networks, the role of these networks in being able to meet life’s challenges, and what happens to our body and mind when overwhelmed with unmitigated stress and trauma. This knowledge helps us make sense of intervention methods in response. Then we dig into best practices congruent with our role even while seeking additional training, supervision, and peer collaboration as we practice these emerging dispositions and skills.
This text aims to give you an overview of the conceptual elements informing trauma-informed school practices. We will bring you into the literature and provide direction for deeper reading. We will then identify best-practice interventions congruent with your role as educators. As you embark on this deep dive, and put into practice what you are learning within a community of educators doing the same, you will then be able to claim trauma-informed competencies.
Trauma-Informed Educator Competencies
Education professionals have unifying concepts for defining what constitutes competencies. For example, it is widely understood that education competencies are not merely demonstrating a knowledge base but are exemplified in practice. And good practice is not merely memorizing a script—do “this” when “that” occurs. An educator needs guiding principles to discern how to stand beside students and walk them through the psychosocial and learning challenges of the moment. This requires educators to embody a mindset, a set of guiding principles and values—dispositions—congruent with the competency. Hence, trauma-informed educator competency is displayed through the intersection of knowledge, skills, and dispositions.
In mental health practice, competency is developed by building perceptual, conceptual, executive, and professional skills (Bernard & Goodyear, 2018; Falender & Shafranske, 2004; Morgan & Sprenkle, 2007). While all four work in tandem, the first two are most clearly linked. An MHP practices increasing their attunement not only to what is being said and who is doing what, but to the underlying meaning fueling the interactions as revealed in non-verbal body language, the tone, volume, and pitch of spoken words, the person’s history, and narratives regarding hopes, fears, and worldviews. All of this perceptual data is taken in and organized according to conceptual elements from the social and behavioral sciences informing the therapeutic process. The third element used to assess MHP competencies is executive skill, the actual actions of the practitioner, including the MHP’s ability to reflect on what they are doing and why.
The fourth category often used to assess MHP competency is a heading often simply called professional competencies. This includes the application of legal and ethical principles as it informs professional functioning, not just when providing direct service to clients. But it also includes the practitioner’s self-awareness of their own functioning, the capacity to self-regulate when stressed or triggered, and the commitment to regularly self-evaluate and seek appropriate self-corrective measures as needed. It is an acknowledgement that much of the success of our work depends on our awareness that the role of self—who I am and how I function in the world—is a vital part of what helps us be effective.
Reflecting the heart of Erikson’s (1964) developmental hypothesis that insight leads to the capacity to act responsibly lest we merely react to our environment due to unconscious neural networks (which we explain in Chapter 2), educators and MHPs help our constituents understand what drives their behavior. To embrace this task effectively, we must travel the same road of self-exploration and ownership. This process is often referred to as the Self of the Therapist, or Person of the Therapist/Counselor, in acknowledgement that the psychosocial maturity of the practitioner is vital to effective professional functioning.
Trauma-informed educator competencies requires educators to engage in this same process: As you are recognizing the role of psychosocial stressors and trauma on development over the lifespan, so too will you increase your own awareness of how stress and trauma has shaped you. And in order to respond effectively to your students, as with MHPs, we will invite you to engage in an insight and self-care process. Throughout this text we will provide exercises and tips on how to engage in Person of the Educator processes.