Trauma-Engaged Toolkit Featured as Promising Practice for Improving Education Outcomes
The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), in a recent report, featured Alaska’s Trauma-Engaged Toolkit as a case study of effective practice for improving education outcomes for students who have experienced trauma and adversity.
Released in 2019, the Transforming Schools: Trauma-Engaged Toolkit was co-developed by the Association of Alaska School Boards (AASB) in partnership with the Department of Education and Early Development (DEED), Alaska school district boards and staff, community partners, and education organizations. DEED reports that more than 3,000 copies of the framework have been requested and provided to educators, administrators, and school staff.
The OECD report, Improving education outcomes for students who have experienced trauma and/or adversity, examined the best available research on the causes and effects of adversity and trauma in children, specifically factors that increase poor educational experiences and outcomes, as well as factors that support resilience.
Alaska’s Transforming Schools framework is featured in the report as an effective practice by an education system to improve supports and outcomes for students who have experienced trauma.
The report notes that “Given their substantial role in children’s lives, educational institutions and systems are in a unique position to help buffer children from the negative effects of adversity and/or trauma,” and seeks to help educate policymakers on how to better support students and build their resilience.
The following excerpt from the OECD report provides an overview of Alaska’s Trauma-Engaged Toolkit and its potential for national scalability.
OECD REPORT EXCERPT
Improving education outcomes for students who have experienced trauma and/or adversity
Case study 1: Alaska’s transforming schools framework
The Transforming Schools Framework in Alaska in the United States was developed over several years and underwent extensive review by more than 200 community members, school board members, school staff, counselors, nurses and administrators before being made publicly available in January 2019 (Fishel et al., 2019. It was designed and implemented to improve student well-being and academic outcomes by implementing trauma-engaged policies and practices in Alaskan primary, lower secondary and upper secondary schools, and in communities. The framework was designed in alignment with contextual factors that are important in the education of Alaska Native students, including the need for culturally specific programs and policies and the integration of best practices developed and identified by elders and community members. In addition, the framework focuses on the need for school administrators, educators and policymakers to understand how trauma can affect children’s learning and well-being, and the need for positive and healthy relationships to promote learning and healing for students.
Many Alaska Native communities experience intergenerational trauma that originated in the late 19th century, following the forced removal of children from their homes and communities to boarding schools that were often abusive and sought to erase the children’s Alaska Native culture. Schools are uniquely positioned to disrupt patterns of intergenerational trauma and its effects as they sit at the intersection of students, families and communities. Alaska’s Transforming Schools Framework pays special attention to the experiences and impacts of historical trauma among Alaska Native people. Its approach recognizes the systemic impacts of prior policies that did not attend to culture, language, history, resilience and ways of life, and posits that taking a culturally relevant and responsive approach is necessary for trauma-engaged and transformative school settings.
Objectives and intended beneficiaries
This framework is a resource for Alaskan educators, parents and community members who want to help make their schools places of positive transformation and learning for all children.
How Alaska’s transforming schools framework works
The framework consists of 11 modules that highlight policies and practices that teachers, school administrators, school district officials and caregivers can adopt in order to create supportive environments within schools. Developers of the framework provide guidance on how to adapt these modules, allowing them to be used independently or in conjunction with one another, and in a way that meets context- and population-specific needs. These modules include the following:
- Deconstructing trauma: This module focuses on defining and explaining the biology of stress in order to help teachers and other school staff understand the relationship between childhood stress and undesirable behaviours and outcomes, and to provide a guide for how they might interrupt those pathways to help repair damaged neural pathways and increase capacity for self-regulation. Suggestions are made for how to assess current discipline policies and practices, identify and augment supports and resources available to students at school and in the community, and share this information more broadly.
- Relationship building: Positive and authentic relationships at all levels – among peers, adults in schools, between students and adults, and with family and community members – can positively influence student outcomes and counter the negative impacts of developmental trauma. Guiding principles for building meaningful relationships with students are provided in this framework, focusing on empowerment, unconditional positive regard, high expectations and more.
- Policy considerations: This module explains how different policy choices at the federal, state, district and school level might impact student outcomes. The module also gives examples of various state policies that try to address child development and childhood adversity. The module lists key areas for policymakers to consider when enacting policy for Alaska schools.
- Planning and coordination of school-wide efforts: Community partners, school staff and families are engaged collaboratively and intentionally in the planning process to create buy-in, integrate different perspectives and engage the broader community in trauma-engaged practice.
- Professional learning: This trauma-engaged approach highlights the importance of ongoing and embedded professional learning for all school staff, as well as for all adults in a school community, from tribes and elders to school administration and teachers, cafeteria staff, coaches and school board members.
- School-wide practices and climate: Creating a predictable and stable environment allows students who have experienced trauma to focus on learning because their core safety needs are being met. School-wide strategies, structures and routines help create a safe learning environment.
- Skill instruction: This module reviews the importance of providing opportunities for students to develop a foundation of social and emotional skills and self-regulation skills, using culturally relevant and place-based approaches in order to make learning more effective.
- Support services: Support service providers such as counsellors, nurses and social workers play critical roles in trauma-engaged schools, but Alaska districts often face shortages in these areas. Schools are encouraged to address gaps in support services and work collaboratively to increase and diversify support systems in the school environment.
- Cultural integration and community co-creation: Collaboration with community members better allows for integration of cultural knowledge and practices, which in turn supports student achievement and reduces disparities in education. School staff should feel prepared and supported to integrate cultural knowledge into educational content and behavior management strategies.
- Family partnership: Schools and districts should invest in connecting with family members with humility and respect, while seeking understanding and establishing strong and two-directional communication in order to support students’ ability to navigate school and heal from trauma.
- Self-care: In order to prevent secondary trauma and burnout, adults working with traumatized students are encouraged to engage in self-care practices to tend to their own emotional well-being and provide support and positive role modelling for students.
Alaska’s Transforming Schools Framework is built upon an evidence base, with each individual module supported by key research findings. For example, the Deconstructing Trauma module is developed based on neurobiology and developmental trauma research conducted by the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University. Similarly, the module on Relationship Building is based on studies that have shown that positive and authentic relationships can counter negative impacts of childhood trauma. In addition to research support for this framework, the developers engaged more than 200 community members, school staff and school board members in the crafting of this framework.
The state of Alaska has 54 school districts, all of which have had exposure to this framework as it has been made widely available during educational summits and gatherings. Additionally, in collaboration with the Association of Alaska School Boards (AASB), an online toolkit to accompany the framework has been provided during weekly professional learning events. Currently, the Alaska Department of Education reports that more than 3,000 copies of the framework have been requested and provided to educators, administrators and school staff. A grant provided by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration through Project AWARE (Advancing Wellness and Resilience in Education) will also allow for a formal evaluation of the framework.
Scalability and sustainability
This framework is designed to respond to the needs of Alaskan schools, students, teachers, caregivers and communities. However, the evidence supporting the framework is based on studies conducted in various parts of the United States. Some of the steps and practices recommended in the study are specific to the Alaskan context, recognizing the unique history of Alaskan Native people. If properly adapted, these steps can be implemented in other contexts, and considerations are provided throughout the framework in the form of reflective questions, assessment questions and adaptable suggested steps for each module.
The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) is an international organization that works to shape a range of policies that foster prosperity, equality, opportunity and well-being for all.
Tanyu, M., et al. (2020), “Improving education outcomes for students who have experienced trauma and/or adversity”, OECD Education Working Papers, No. 242, OECD Publishing, Paris, https://doi.org/10.1787/54d45980-en.