5 Myths about Trauma-Informed Schools

As I have started sharing publicly about this new adventure I have gotten questions about what a trauma-informed school really is. And while I give my elevator speech that reviews the research on Adverse Childhood Experiences, neuroscience, toxic stress, social-emotional learning and multi-tiered systems of support, for those out of education, I think sometimes my response still leaves them wondering. So like our brains are designed to do, they start to compare what I am sharing to other ideas to help it make sense to them. Sometimes those correlations are positive, but sometimes the concept of trauma-informed schools  is translated to being a school without rules and expectations that social workers in high-priority schools do.

Which is totally not what a trauma-informed schools is.

A trauma-informed school realizes the prevalence and impact of trauma and responds by building resilience, relationships and safety for students, families and staff.

I want to dive in to 5 common myths about trauma-informed schools and explain why these ideas do not match with what trauma-informed schools are about.

Myth #1: Trauma-Informed Schools is a model for high-poverty schools.

Yes, students residing in high poverty neighborhoods experience adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) at a higher incidence rate that those who reside in more affluent areas, but the rates of ACEs in children overall is still an astonishing 26% by age 5. ACEs are not just something that impact schools and neighborhoods with high rates of poverty and we must confront the sometime uncomfortable fact that ACEs happen in all communities.

Myth #2: There are no rules and kids can “get away” with misbehavior.

When students have experienced development trauma, their brains need the external structure of routines and consistent expectations to regulate their overstimulated nervous system. Instead of no rules, students actually benefit from clearly stated, developmentally appropriate expectations that are positively taught and enforced by adults that care for them.

Sometimes where things are seen differently is in the response when expectations are not met and a student behavior occurs that is unsafe or hurtful to someone else. While a traditional school model would utilize punishment and removal of a student, a trauma-informed school focuses on reteaching behavior expectations, practicing alternate behaviors and restoring the relationships that may have been damaged. Trauma-informed schools operate with the belief described by Rose Greene (2014) that “kids do well if they can” and that if they are not then as adults, we need to figure out what skills, setting and relationships they need so they can do better.

Myth #3: Trauma-Informed Schools have lower academic expectations.

Studies involving brain imaging has shown that the cognitive structure of the brain can be altered because of trauma and toxic stress (credit). Brains can heal and engaging instruction actually builds more neural pathways that students need. Instruction also provides many natural opportunities to teach academic behaviors that are required in our culture, such as asking questions, critical thinking and asking for help.

Myth #4: Trauma-informed schools is something social workers do.

In order to implement a trauma-informed model it requires an intentional system level approach to doing things differently. While social workers, counselors, psychologist and many other student support professions are invaluable resources to students and families, the relationship that matters the most is with the classroom teacher. If a student feels that a student likes them and cares about how they do in school, they are more likely to do be successful in school (credit). While individuals in a school can implement practices like mindfulness, yoga, deep breathing, and social-emotional learning and students will benefit, to really shift into a trauma-informed model building-wide practices have to be the focus. However, individuals in a school that are passionate about making these changes and start implementing in their own sphere of influence are often the spark that is needed to ignite change in a larger context in the building.

Myth #5: Trauma-informed schools is just for students who have experienced trauma.

We don’t have the privilege of always knowing the past experiences of our students. While some adverse childhood experiences may be more likely to be known by school staff, there are others like substance abuse, maternal depression and domestic violence that are often hidden. And the beauty of this model is that we do not need to know a specifics of a student’s past experiences because relationships, resilience and safety are good for everyone. All of us do better when we are in an environment that is supportive, healing and where kindness is valued. For students who have experienced trauma, they just need that experience more to heal and trust.