A VISION: Safety and Well-Being Committee

By Pete Hoepfner

Cordova School Board, Committee Member

Trauma-Informed Practices: A recommendation from the Safety and Well-Being Committee of the Alaska Education Challenge to the State Board of Education.

Last year Governor Walker initiated Alaska’s Education Challenge to address our student achievement gaps and increase graduation rates by making sure that every student across the state has equal opportunities to learn and succeed. The purpose was to search out transformational ways to address the K-12 educational process. Five separate committees, under the guidance of the Commissioner of Education, were formed and extensive discussion over six months followed with goals finalized and presented to the State Board of Education. The State Board of Education will approve final recommendations, which will be submitted to the Governor and the Alaska Legislature in December 2017.

I was one of twenty stakeholders who sat on the Safety and Well-Being Committee. One of the three goals developed to transform education from this committee was to institute trauma-informed practices in the Alaska education system, K-12.

The goal: Alaska’s schools will create a culturally humble (responsive) and safe environment that recognizes the needs of the whole child, institutes trauma-informed practices and understands the vital importance of building relationships surrounding every child to improve resiliency, health, and academic outcomes.

Action steps:
Through both expanded community and state partnerships, and ongoing professional development and support, school-wide trauma-informed practices will be developed that:

  • begin with early learning,
  • create nurturing relationships with students
  • incorporate social-emotional learning
  • establish an understanding of Adverse Childhood Experiences
  • establish reflective practices
  • develop a network of personal & professional relationships
  • integrate restorative practices

What does this mean and why does addressing trauma-informed practices in our schools become transformative?

As a school board member, I feel that one of the most important aspects of education is to increase student achievement. We all want kids to succeed, all teachers want their students to do well, principals want their schools to thrive, and superintendents want to see their districts grow academically.

Education is the great equalizer. We want education to be engaging for all children, but, we must also realize that all children don’t come to school with the same advantages.

While trying to increase student achievement, we need to look at barriers to education, from a different point of view and not just related to scores and academic achievement. We need to look at the whole child, their whole life experiences, what has gotten them to this point.

Unfortunately, Adverse Childhood Experiences or ACEs are common for our children in Alaska, as well as for children nationwide. In Alaska, for preschool children from birth to age 5, 40.2%, for elementary students age 6-11, 51.9%, and for middle and high school-aged students ages 12-18, 61.7% have already experienced at least one ACE. Educators can see the impact trauma has on children and youth every day, as they cannot help but bring it to school.

ACEs often adversely impact students’ behavior and their ability to learn, but advances in the understanding of trauma and how to address it in school settings, have emerged over the past number of years. This understanding offers public education a tremendous opportunity to improve the health and academic outcomes for countless students. Changes to current school practices, policies, and philosophy that better meet the needs of students struggling with the impacts of trauma will strengthen relationships with students, educators, families, and their communities and transform the educational experience for both vulnerable students and the school staff who support them.

We need to have an understanding of individuals and their background, while engaging parents and community in our students’ education.

The most important work for our children can start with this work, trauma-informed practices, developing the following with students, teachers, administrations, school boards and community partners:

  • Relationships
  • Planning and policy
  • Professional learning
  • School-wide practices
  • Skill instruction
  • Support services
  • Deconstructing trauma
  • Cultural integration
  • Family partnerships
  • Community co-creation

An example of a trauma-informed classroom teacher is one who recognizes that the student with his head on his desk most mornings has been up all night due to issues related to familial substance abuse. The teacher adjusts their approach to engaging this student in a class, and the student is better able to learn. Children need that strong relational attachment with their teacher and from that relationship, students can feel secure and safe at school. The importance of building these connections with students and focusing on building resiliency through creating supportive relationships with our students and families is of paramount importance in developing trauma-informed schools.

Understanding trauma is not just about acquiring knowledge, it is about changing the way you view the world. It’s about changing the helping paradigm from “What is wrong with you?” to “What happened to you?”

Trauma-informed, culturally responsive institutions focus on helping the person who has experienced trauma, rather than removing or punishing them.

The idea of a trauma-informed education system takes these ideas one step further, moving beyond the actions of individual professionals to incorporate knowledge of trauma into the policies, practices and “culture” of education.

Additionally, within the trauma-informed practices footprint is the Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) piece. The Association of Alaska School Boards (AASB) through its Initiative for Community Engagement (ICE) has been working with several school districts this last year developing and evaluating the program, Culturally Responsive Embedded Social and Emotional Learning (CRESEL). This program will evaluate whether and how culturally responsive and integrated SEL efforts have the potential to turn around persistently low-performing schools that face significant barriers to implementation of evidence-based social and emotional learning programs. Learn more from the CRESEL report.

Schools can start becoming trauma-informed through e-learning modules from the Alaska Department of education.

Learning about ACEs, studying methods of implementing SEL approaches, and becoming trauma-informed will elevate student achievement for ALL of Alaska’s children.

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The views expressed here are the writer’s and are not necessarily endorsed by the Association of Alaska School Boards. AASB welcomes diverse perspectives and civil discourse. To submit a Guest Column for consideration, see our Guest Column Guidelines and email your 400-1000 word submission HERE.