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Transitioning to Trauma-Informed Care: One Elementary School Culture Transformation

By Dana Asby, CEI Intern Low-income urban youth have one of the highest rates of adverse childhood experience (ACE) prevalence, with one study reporting that more than 67% of the population have experienced at least one or more ACE and 12% have experienced 4 or more (Burke, Hellman, Scott, Weems, & Carrion, 2011). ACEs include:

  1.  physical, emotional, or sexual abuse

  2. emotional or physical neglect

  3. homelessness or extreme poverty

  4. traumatic incidents

  5. witnessing violence.

Adverse Childhood Experiences Effects on Brain, Behavior, and Learning 

Because children who have experienced an ACE have grown up frequently witnessing or experiencing stressful situations that don’t have healthy resolutions, their flight, fight, or freeze response systems to stress are overwhelmed. This causes their amygdala’s reactivity to be on overdrive, so they are more likely to react to non-threatening situations with aggression (Javanbakht, 2015). A study of children living in urban environments showed that those who had experienced one or more ACE were more likely to have reduced connectivity between the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex, the pathway that leads to the emotional regulation that could prevent these incidents of aggression (Thomason et. al., 2015).

Emotional Regulation Emotional regulation is one of the core skills taught in socio-emotional learning (SEL) programs. Principals and others are increasingly realizing that what developmental psychologists championing SEL and trauma-informed care have been saying about emotional regulation skills is right. Before students can be expected to have academic success, they must first learn how to control their own emotions so that they aren’t a barrier to learning. Because poor emotional regulation skills can lead to low efficiency in working memory (Malagoli & Usai, 2018), crucial periods of neuroplasticity that occur when children are in preschool and elementary school are the ideal time to teach children how to regulate their emotions. According to a meta-study conducted in 2012, students who had the ability to understand their emotions and find effective regulation strategies were less likely to exhibit poor behavior in the classroom (Lopes Mestre, Kremenitzer, & Salovey, 2012).

Transforming School Culture in a Nashville Elementary School 

Administrators like Downtown Nashville’s Fall Hamilton Elementary School’s principal Matthew Portell understand that their students need a more holistic approach to learning and are shifting from a ‘compliance-driven’ method to a trauma-informed one. Mr. Portell recognized that the recent and rapid gentrification their neighborhood was experiencing was one source of trauma for his students. Furthermore, 60% of children living in Nashville have experienced at least one ACE (Berger, 2018). After undergoing trauma-informed care training, he now understands that his students must feel safe, nurtured, and supported to excel in their socio-emotional and academic lives. Mr. Portell also acknowledges that the onus for this school culture and climate shift lies with the adults in the building. Falls Hamilton Elementary demonstrated that it is fully committed to trauma-informed care by making the following changes:

  1. Implemented the social-emotional learning curriculum Leader in Me, one that uses the seven habits of happy kids method

  2. Created learning spaces, including the Peace Corner, a place for students to practice the self-regulation skills they have been taught

  3. Renovated classroom aesthetics to create a calm environment

  4. Included a class about leadership in their specials rotation.

  5. Emphasized the importance of self-care for staff

  6. Hired a trauma-informed mental health practitioner

  7. Re-worked school systems to allow for one-on-one time with adults for students who are struggling with emotional regulation (Schwartz, 2018)

Goal Setting Another aspect of the Falls Hamilton school culture’s transformation was goal setting. Falls Hamilton staff developed a ‘check-in/check-out’ system where students share their daily goal with an adult each morning and reflect together at the end of the day on whether or not they have achieved their goal. Trusted adults help students build confidence not only by offering praise when goals are met and encouragement when students fall short of achieving them, but also by guiding the students through a problem-solving process to figure out how they can meet their goal the next day if they didn’t today. In a survey last year, 98% of students at Falls Hamilton reported that there was at least one adult at the school who cared about them. Teachers at Falls Hamilton have found that by practicing more compassion, that students started to improve academically. Natalie Vadas, a Falls Hamilton exceptional education teacher had a mind shift that allowed her to practice more compassion with her students and build a sense of trust with them so that they felt comfortable talking with her about home problems. As a result of this, ‘their academics start to blossom’ (Schwartz, 2018).

The Challenges of Radical Transformation Mr. Portell warns that this transformation is not easy. Initially, there were differing attitudes from teachers. Some thought it would be yet another burden on their time, while others believed it would make their job easier. Both he and the teachers were stretched a little thin by the end of the first school year of implementation because of all the emotional work and restructuring that transitioning to a trauma-informed approach required. Recognizing that they must all work collaboratively, the school implemented a ‘tap in/tap out’ system where teachers could ask for a break from support staff when they began to feel overwhelmed. The school culture has shifted not just for students, but also for teachers. Everyone in the building feels comfortable recognizing when they need help and asking for it.

If you are interested in leading your school through a radical culture transformation like Falls Hamilton Elementary, you can read more about using mindfulness to revamp your school’s climate so that everyone is using a trauma-informed approach to learning in CEI’s upcoming book Mindfulness Practices: Cultivating Heart Centered Communities Where Students Focus and Flourish, which you can order here!

References Berger, T. (2018). An inside look at trauma-informed practices. Edutopia.

Burke, N.J., Hellman, J.L., Scott, B.G., Weems, C.F., & Carrion, V.G. (2011). The impact of adverse childhood experiences on an urban pediatric population. Child Abuse & Neglect, 35, 408-413.

Javanbakht, A., King, A.P., Evans, G.E., Swain, J.E., Angstadt, M., Phan, K.L., & Liberzon, I. (2015). Childhood poverty predicts adult amygdala and frontal activity and connectivity in response to emotional faces. Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience, 9, 154-161. DOI: 10.3389/fnbeh.2015.00154

Lopes, P.N., Mestre, J.M., Kremenitzer, J.P., & Salovey, P. (2012). The role of knowledge and skills for managing emotions in adaption to school: Social behavior and misconduct in the classroom. American Educational Research Journal, 49 (4), 710-742. DOI: 10.3102/0002831212443077

Malagoli, C. & Usai, M.C. (2018). Working memory in adolescence: What is the relationship with emotional regulation and behavioral outcomes? Frontiers in Psychology, 29. DOI: 10.3389/fpsyg.2018.00844

Schwartz, K. (2018). A glimpse inside the transition to trauma-informed practices. KQED News.

Thomason, M.E., Marusak, H.A., Tocco, M.A., Vila, A.M., McGarragle, O., & Rosenberg, D.R. (2015). Altered amygdala connectivity in urban youth exposed to trauma. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 10, 1460-1468. DOI: 10.1093/scan/nsv030


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