Misconceptions about trauma-informed education

In October 2020, we started a series on becoming a trauma-informed educator with a list of tips. One take-away message was that being trauma-informed requires change in the educator’s mindset. However, our list is by no means a set of instructions. Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) and toxic levels of stress can affect normal child development and compromise the child’s cognitive functions and emotional regulation. Positive experiences in education settings and a caring caregiver or educator can have a buffering effect on the amount of stress a child experiences, potentially preventing and even healing trauma.
This week, we will explore some frequent myths about trauma-informed education.

1. “Trauma-informed education is about fixing children.”

That’s a common misconception. Trauma-informed approaches in healthcare or education (and in general, actually) are not about fixing. They are about being aware that you are in contact with someone who might have faced or might still be facing toxic stress and trauma. We do not necessarily have to know the student’s background in order to set up interventions. Children do not need to be fixed. Children can become resilient; they can learn strategies and techniques to cope with trauma. Our job as adults is to teach them the strategies needed to build resilience and to instill in them hope, not to fix them.

2. “Trauma-informed education means that there will be no boundaries in the classroom. The students will experience no consequences for their inappropriate behaviours.”

Quite the opposite actually! Traditional discipline techniques using punishment, rewards, forced compliance, and consequences imply that children misbehave and do so intentionally. The idea is that the behaviour stands on its own and children need to be either coaxed or coerced into showing appropriate behaviours. Trauma-informed practices aim to foster relationships and connection. Children then become socially competent, joyfully creative, and then constructively cooperative for individual and shared goals when they feel safe and secure with the adults around them. This will tremendously help you as an educator in establishing group dynamics that allow all children in your class to feel motivated to try and reach their learning goals.
This does not mean that you will never intervene when students show inappropriate behaviours. Responding in a trauma-informed way would mean that you would first observe the incident (what is happening?). Then you would ask yourself what happened before the inappropriate behaviour took place (what triggered it?). Next, you would think of the consequences it should have (how can I correct this?).

3. “Becoming trauma-informed means that I need to invest a lot of time to learn new theories and approaches and re-evaluate my whole teaching style. I don’t have time for that!”

The heart of trauma-informed approaches is responding with compassion and kindness. For trauma-informed education this means that you respond to all students from a place of understanding and empathy. Many trauma-informed professionals mention that once they got exposed to this approach, they started seeing everything through a trauma lens. Many of the behaviours they were observing, which sometimes seemed out of place or inexplicable, were now understandable. They learned to see that behaviour comes from an emotion and that the emotion is a representation of an underlying (mostly unmet) need. Reading books and articles and exposing yourself to trauma-informed theory and practices is encouraged for your professional development. However, remembering the core elements of this approach and looking through your trauma lens are tools that do not need much reading, as they mostly need practice.

4. “I cannot be trauma-informed on my own! We need an approach that involves the whole school. Change comes from above.”

All of this information may sound overwhelming, especially if you work in educational settings that do not yet follow trauma-informed approaches. Support of your colleagues and even the school leaders would of course be ideal. Trauma-informed schools offer training to their personnel (from the teacher to the school bus driver or the janitor). They have appointed areas where students can go for self-regulation and stress decompression and they have furniture and decorations or plants that aid in calming the nervous system. In such a setting, the whole school’s culture aims at regularly checking in with each other. Teachers regularly discuss incidents they experienced and how they reacted; they give one another feedback on what they did well and what they could change in the future. If you happen to be the only teacher who has been exposed to this knowledge, it is good to remember that you can still make a huge, life-saving difference for individual students. To increase your own and the school’s impact of trauma-informed approaches, you might want to raise awareness among your colleagues, have a trusted and eager or trauma-informed colleague to help you and check on you, or think of ways you might present this to your school’s management. One way could be getting them in contact with ACE Aware NL.

5. “I am not a therapist. I am just a teacher!”

You are right! You are not a therapist, nor will you be asked to diagnose or treat mental diseases. However, your role can be just as important to a child’s life. You can reach so many children, before any therapist ever does! As they say sometimes: ‘You don’t need to be a therapist to have a therapeutic effect!’ You could be the adult that offers the buffering protection on a child’s toxic stress levels. This does not mean that you will have your student lay on a couch and narrate his life’s problems. It might mean that you will include this child in school and classroom activities and that you will introduce them to subjects that can be therapeutic for a person facing adversity (like art, drama or roleplay). It could mean that you choose materials for all students that instill hope and resilience and that when you see a need to ‘discipline’ them, you will use your trauma-informed lens. (We will get back to the aspect of discipline next week.) As you can see, your work as a trauma-informed educator is not significantly different from the work you might be doing now. It’s the approach and the basic assumptions you make that will have shifted.

6. “We need to know each student’s individual ACE score in order to react appropriately and work one-on-one with that particular student.”

You don’t need to know a student’s individual ACE-score in order to adapt your teaching methods to that particular child. Robert Anda, one of the researchers of the original ACE-study, as well as other scholars, have often discussed whether the ACEs-questionnaire is useful as a diagnostic tool. While the questionnaire looks very attractive because of its simplicity, it leaves out contextual information, including but not limited to the positive experiences that the child might be experiencing alongside the negative ones. These are called Positive Childhood Experiences (PCEs). This is a topic we will dive into next week.

There are many areas where your work can truly make a difference in a child’s life. Hopefully, this blog was helpful in shedding some light on how your trauma-informed educational approach can mean the world for a child!

Posted in Theory.