Trauma: A Barrier to Student Achievement

By Pete Hoepfner

AASB Board President

All school boards want to increase student achievement. We want all of Alaskan’s children to succeed, and we want to remove any barrier that stands in the way of their education. Over the last number of years, one barrier has been identified that inhibits success: Trauma.

Trauma is different from regular life stressors because it causes a sense of intense fear, terror, and helplessness that is beyond the normal range for typical experiences. This trauma has been shown to negatively impact early brain development, cognitive development, learning, social-emotional development, the ability to develop secure attachments to others, and physical health. However, each child’s reaction to trauma is unique and depends on the nature of the trauma, characteristics of the child and family, and the overall balance of risk and protective factors in the child’s life. While almost all children experience distress immediately after a traumatic event, most return to their typical functioning over time with supports from parents and other caregivers.

A traumatic event can seriously interrupt the school routine and the processes of teaching and learning. There are usually high levels of emotional upset, potential for disruptive behavior, or loss of student attendance unless efforts are made to reach out to students and staff with additional information and services. Students traumatized by exposure to violence have been shown to have lower grade point averages, more negative remarks in their cumulative records, and more reported absences from school than other students. They may have increased difficulties concentrating and learning at school and may engage in unusually reckless or aggressive behavior.

We know from the following data, that Alaskan children by age group, are affected by trauma.

  • Birth to age 5 (Early Education) 40.2%
  • Age 6 to 11 (Elementary Education) 51.9%
  • Age 12-17 (Middle & High School) 61.7%
    (This shows the percentage of Alaskan children with at least one Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs)- trauma)

By addressing the following three areas, this would increase the availability of and access to high-quality, trauma-informed education and related supports for young children’s healthy development:

  1. Strengthen the education workforce by increasing professionals’ capacity to provide trauma-informed care.
  2. Expand initiatives that help education programs connect families with community services.
  3. Provide children who have experienced trauma with high-quality, stable education and strong early learning supports.

Trauma informed practices is coming to the forefront of educational issues, and in addressing student achievement. The Department of Education and Early Development in Alaska is creating three different e-learning modules, with step one already created, step two this fall, and step three occurring in January 2018.

Step one: Trauma Awareness Course
Overcoming ACE’s in Alaskan Schools: Childhood Trauma and its Impact on Learning

  • Understanding of the impact of high levels of childhood trauma and stress on the developing brain.
  • Understanding that ACE’s are common events in the lives of all Alaskans.
  • Understanding of how to recognize behaviors that may be the product of a traumatized child’s experiences.
  • Limited introduction to some trauma informed teaching practices.

Step two: Trauma Sensitive course
“Trauma Sensitive Schools”

  • Explanation of how to recognize behaviors that maybe the product of a traumatized child’s experiences.
  • Understanding of what can be done in a school to help a traumatized child.
  • Explanation about the differences of what you might observe in how children present themselves in the classroom at different age levels.
  • Information about the basics for educator self-care no compassion fatigue.

Step three: Trauma Practice course
“How to go from a Trauma Informed School to a Trauma Practicing School”

  • Tools for teachers to use in the classroom to include restorative practices, mindfulness activities, co & self-regulation, social and emotional learning, multi-tiered system of supports.
  • Overview the process of being a “trauma informed school” and the steps for moving from “trauma aware” to “trauma informed practice”.

All children can achieve success. Sometimes barriers can prevent and distract students from “success”. Trauma informed care supports children’s recovery and resilience. By addressing the whole child and realizing that trauma affects a portion of our students, we can elevate student achievement.

Remember to sign up for the AASB Annual Conference November 9-12, as the registration has opened.

Please note that on Thursday November 9th the Experienced Board Member Academy will be focusing on: “Trauma Informed Schools”

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