Maine Schools in Focus: Becoming Trauma-Informed — Risks and Responsibilities
Maria Frankland, Ph.D. candidate in educational leadership, University of Maine | School Counselor, Narraguagus Jr/Sr High School
Sharon Pelletier-Ayer, Ed.S. candidate in prevention and intervention, University of Maine | School Counselor, Bangor High School
Childhood traumatic experiences affect our schoolchildren at an alarming rate. The lives of 46 million children — almost 50 percent of youth under age 18 — are impacted by trauma every year (Listenbee et al., 2012; Sacks & Murphey, 2018). Commonly referred to as adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), potentially traumatic events include violence, mental illness, and/or substance abuse in the home; psychological, physical, or sexual abuse; and neglect. The effects of ACEs compound to create complex trauma when multiple ACEs co-occur and/or exposure to a single adverse experience is prolonged or chronic.
The number of ACEs (often reported as an ACE score on a scale of 0-10) correlates positively with undesirable effects including physical illness, increased risk of mental health problems, and diminished ability to form and maintain social relationships. In the school setting, negative outcomes associated with ACEs include lower academic performance; increased rates of referral for special education services; more instances of exclusionary discipline such as office referral, suspension, or expulsion; increased absenteeism; and higher drop-out rates (National Child Traumatic Stress Network, 2014). Given the spate of negative outcomes across the lifespan that may result from the toxic stress associated with complex trauma and high ACE scores, early intervention is key (Center for Youth and Wellness, 2019).
Recently, the benefits of childhood trauma screening have captured nationwide attention. California primary care providers are being trained — and paid — to implement universal childhood trauma screening procedures. Other screening methods, such as those advocated in a recent Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD) publication (Souers & Hall, 2016), suggest that teachers should try to determine students’ ACE scores based on their preexisting and/or anecdotal knowledge of the student and his/her family circumstances. We applaud these efforts to ensure that students who have experienced traumatic events have the opportunity for early interventions that may mitigate undesirable outcomes. However, because a trauma history does not dictate a student’s future, we are concerned that universal screenings may lead to unintended consequences.
The American School Counselor Association (ASCA) cautions that “asking others to identify needs based on their perspective as a first step of data collection provides limited data and is problematic” (ASCA, 2019, p. 38). Students who experience trauma are at risk of being labeled and re-traumatized. These are often the students who are perceived to be difficult. Their attendance may be poor and, when they are in school, they may be disruptive. They may be impulsive, angry, frustrated, and disengaged. Add additional stressors such as tests and peer relationships, and these students may spiral out of control. Exclusionary discipline practices such as office referrals and suspensions not only impact academics by diminishing time spent in the classroom but also reinforce students’ poor self-image and weak self-efficacy beliefs. Ultimately, this cycle contributes to a higher risk of dropping out. Trauma screenings intended to lead to early intervention may instead reinforce the “difficult” label, leading to more exclusionary discipline from teachers and bullying from peers. Absent a trauma-informed school climate, the student may experience re-traumatization.
While understanding that trauma has significant consequences, it is equally important to remember that recovery is possible and that students can achieve successful and productive lives. School climate plays a significant role in helping all students to develop adaptively, including those who have faced trauma. Research has identified several key foundational tenets that are needed for creating trauma-sensitive schools:
- Effective professional development. Teachers and staff need training on understanding the profound impact of trauma and the variability of the symptoms. Educators must be armed with effective evidence-based strategies to respond to the social and emotional needs of all students. Professional development should also include education about secondary stress and the impact on the caretaker. Schools should emphasize self-care for all staff.
- Avoid re-traumatizing students. Ensure that disciplinary action takes into account the possible re-traumatization of individual students. Restorative practice is a non-punitive approach to addressing conflict that has shown to reduce disciplinary issues, improve relationships and build a positive school climate (International Institute for Restorative Practices).
- Teach social-emotional skills through evidence-based programs. Giving students the tools to interact adaptively has been shown to reduce bullying, externalizing and internalizing problems, and discipline incidents in schools (Durlak, Weissberg, Dymnicki, Taylor, & Schellinger, 2011).
- Provide mental health supports. School counselors, social workers, and school nurses are trained professionals who can provide students with additional social and emotional supports. In addition, schools can also coordinate with community agencies to provide additional services.
- Nurture relationships. Connections can actually help reverse the impacts of trauma. Louis Cozolino is an American psychologist who has researched child abuse and brain development. In 2006, he wrote that “the greatest contributor to neural plasticity is love. Good relationships re-work the circuitry of the prefrontal cortex.” Genuine, positive relationships with students can increase resilience and lead to good outcomes.
The process of creating trauma-sensitive schools will look different across Maine schools due to the wide variety of settings and resources available. It is important to remember that it is not just a matter of providing a program. Schools should use the current research on trauma-informed practice to develop a system of interventions and supports to respond to the specific needs of students in the district.
Resources for Schools
Information about ACEs:
Developmental Assets Framework:
Evidence-based Social and Emotional Learning:
Resources for Educators: The National Child Traumatic Stress Network
Trauma and Learning Policy Initiative:
American School Counselor Association. (2019). The ASCA National Model: A framework for school counseling programs (4th ed.). Alexandria, VA: Author
Center for Youth and Wellness. (2019). ACES and toxic stress. Retrieved from https://centerforyouthwellness.org/
Cozolino, L. (2006). The neuroscience of human relationships: Attachment and the developing social brain. New York, NY: W.W. Norton
Durlak, J. A., Weissberg, R. P., Dymnicki, A. B., Taylor, R. D. & Schellinger, K. B. (2011). The impact of enhancing students’ social and emotional learning: A meta-analysis of school-based universal interventions. Child Development, 82: 405–432
Listenbee, R. L., Torre, J., Boyle, G., Cooper, S. W., Deer, S., Durfee, D. T., . . . Taguba, A. (2012). Report of the attorney general’s national task force on children exposed to violence. Retrieved from https://www.justice.gov/defendingchildhood/cev-rpt-full.pdf
National Child Traumatic Stress Network. (2014). Complex trauma: Facts for educators. National Center for Child Traumatic Stress. Retrieved from https://www.nctsn.org/resources/complex-trauma-facts-educators
Sacks, V., & Murphey, D. (2018). The prevalence of adverse childhood experiences, nationally, by state, and by race or ethnicity. Retrieved from https://www.childtrends.org/publications/prevalence-adverse-childhood-experiences-nationally-state-race-ethnicity
Souers, K., & Hall, P. (2016). Fostering resilient learners: Strategies for creating a trauma-sensitive classroom. Alexandria, VA: ASCD
Any opinions, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in the Maine Schools in Focus briefs are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect institutional positions or views of the College of Education and Human Development or the University of Maine.