“The principal of a small elementary school in central Massachusetts was approached by his staff with a request. They asked about their school becoming more responsive to trauma owing to the number of children in their classrooms who seemed to be facing adversity in their lives.
The principal met with the school nurse and the school district psychologist who was assigned to work with students at his rural school to discuss the matter. Together, they reviewed the records of students who were homeless or in foster care or otherwise had a known traumatic history.
“I was shocked when I realized how high the numbers were and stunned to see the overlap between these students and those who were functioning below grade level academically,” the principal stated. “While not all the children with traumatic histories were struggling, it was clear to me that adversity was a strong predictor of challenges in school and that we could not in good conscience ignore a plan for addressing the role of trauma in our school.”
That recognition was the launching point for this school making its entire environment trauma-sensitive. The effort started with setting up a learning community for staff to become more knowledgeable about how trama affects a student’s ability to focus, behave appropriately and learn. The school’s administrators, teachers and staff read Helping Traumatized Children Learn (Vol. 1) and identified their priorities, including the need for a calmer environment, a steering committee to guide the work and involvement of all staff.
Under the principal’s leadership, staff created “peace corners” — physical spaces where students could learn how to self-regulate their behavior. The number disciplinary office referrals began to drop sharply.
Creating such a school climate is not easy. Ensuring students reach their full potential requires commitment. Educators must work collaboratively to change negative cultures that often result in the overuse of expulsion as a disciplinary option, while at the same time closing the achievement gap, eliminating pernicious bullying, teaching social and emotional skills and shutting down the school-to-prison pipeline.
Clearly, a single program or a set of services is not enough to change existing school culture. A safe and supportive school climate is one where all students can learn, behave appropriately and form relationships with adults and peers.
Natalie Pohl, principal of Manthala George Jr. Elementary School in Brockton, MA has begun this challenging work to better server her 900-plus students, many of them economically disadvantaged. She was familiar with the principals of trauma-sensitive schools from her work at other Brockton schools.
“I knew that using a trauma-sensitive approach would help us create the culture and climate that our students, families and staff needed,” Pohl said.
As the steering committee of the school gained in strength under her leadership, it provided the essential guidance for becoming a safe and supportive school community. Over the past four years, Phol cites “increased staff communication and collaboration, as well as a willingness to try new ideas t support challenging students.”