Critical incidents in schools are on the rise. Between 2007 and 2018, teenage suicide increased by 60%. Between 2014 and 2019, there were nearly 350 school shootings. We know that people who complete acts of suicide and targeted violence are often dealing with some type of acute stressor.
Resilience is a critical quality when dealing with stress. Resilience is an adaptive response to a difficult situation, built over a lifetime through experience, practice, and relationships with others. Students who have experienced chronic stressors in childhood often fail to develop the resilience they need to cope with challenging situations effectively. Without supports and skills, these children may turn to extreme solutions.
Research tells us that prior to the pandemic, about 45% of kids had enough adverse childhood experiences to affect the way they think, feel, and behave. We know that number has grown significantly due to the impacts of the pandemic, political and racial tension, and natural disasters. Childhood adversity has a deleterious effect on resilience as it makes kids less prone to be able to stop and examine a stressful situation, seek help, and/or come up with a way to solve or adapt to the issue. Adverse experiences (aka trauma) make children less prone to examine their own thoughts and feelings and more prone to misinterpret situations.
How can schools use trauma-informed practices to help?
- Relationships, Relationships, Relationships: Having at least one supportive relationship with an adult is a major buffer against chronic adversity and a critical safeguard for kids who may have few other resources. When we talk about having a “good relationship” with a student, it does not necessarily mean you have lots of time to spend with them. Remember, it is the quality of the time you do spend, not the amount, that determines the bond you create. If you are fully present with a student and really take the time to listen and demonstrate your interest, you are doing more than just giving advice or support. Quality interactions with other humans help rewire the brain from trauma, provide modeling, and offer the safe experiences people need to heal.
- Focus on Regulation: Regulation is the way people manage their internal world—their thoughts, feelings, attention, and physical sensations. When people experience trauma, their internal world can feel frightening and out of control. For people experiencing chronic stress, the feelings can be overwhelming. When students begin to learn how to manage their internal experience, they can learn to cope with difficult issues by calming their nervous system down long enough to think through decisions. Regulation is important also for adults, as adults set the tone for the school environment. Adults who are stressed out or reactive to children’s behavior only contribute to the child’s stress.
- Predictability: Students who are under stress don’t react well to sudden changes or surprises. They don’t deal well with arbitrary rules or expectations that are vastly different from one teacher to the next. Strive to make the school experience solidly predictable for all students. If you do, those most vulnerable students who are sensitive to changes and have difficulty adapting will do better.
In order to successfully implement trauma-informed practices in schools, all school staff must develop a trauma-informed mindset and build a trauma-responsive skillset. Doing this will allow staff to address the growing needs of students—and help them thrive.