7 Steps to Help You Implement Trauma-Informed Practices at Your School

Apr 2, 2021 12:00:00 AM


The only way to implement something well is through trial and error. In 2017, I proposed to my principal that teachers should adapt to trauma-informed education.

Trauma-informed education includes examining the impact racism, poverty, community violence, bullying and peer victimization has on students. This was imperative for our students, who are 42% from economically disadvantaged families and 96 % identify as Black and Latinx.

When I got the “go ahead” from my school leader to form a Trauma-Informed Leadership Committee (TLC), I knew there was a lot of work to be done—from preparing materials, convincing my colleagues to jump in, and then getting it off the ground. First, not every single educator on our team was a firm believer in the power of trauma-informed practices, but I believed Heather Forbes—author of "Help For Billy"—when she said that you just need 75% of your team to support you initially, and trust that other 25% will come around.

Fast forward three years and the results in our schools have been extraordinary. We were able to show a 7% decrease in out-of-school suspension rates in their first year of school-wide implementation. [pullquote]Trauma-informed practices are more relevant than ever to help our students deal with the impact of this pandemic in their lives and to work together to build a more just world.[/pullquote]

Here are seven steps to help you implement trauma-informed practices at your school:

1 - Know Your Why. At my school—KIPP Collegiate High School—40% of students on the counseling caseload had an Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE) score of 4 or higher. The implications of this are huge because we know that a score of 4 or higher has serious health implications over a lifetime. Of the 100 students surveyed, only four students had an ACE score of 0. The need, and our why, was clear.

2 - Educate Yourself. No matter what level of expertise you fall into, it’s important to continue educating yourself along the way. Go to the conferences, seek out experts in the field, read all the books, listen to podcasts, dig through the research, collect your own school data, and connect with other professionals doing the work alongside you!

3 - Get Buy-In/Support From Your School Leader. This one is non-negotiable. You can have the best intentions and the greatest ideas in the whole world, but if your school leader does not support the initiative, then you will run into roadblocks. This is where your 'why' is so crucial! If you have to spend a year getting your school leader on board using research and literature, then take the time to do that before you try to implement whole-school. Trust me—the trickle-down effect is very real in the world of education.

4 - Plan, Plan, and Then Plan Some More. Start by figuring out what your two-year goal is for your school, and then work backward in the planning stages. I spent a full semester preparing materials for our TLC, and then planned out seven months of TLC meetings that would ultimately prepare us for a full roll-out in the fall of 2018. During this time, I collected previous years’ culture data, administered a Work Satisfaction Survey to use as a baseline, and clarified the goals set for the TLC.

5 - Create a Diverse Trauma-Informed Leadership Committee (TLC). Whatever you think the response will be, have faith that it will be even better than you could have expected. When I launched this opportunity to my team, eight teammates agreed to join immediately, including the school leader (support matters!), the dean of students, and the director of student support. The others were strong classroom teachers who shared a passion for supporting the whole child. We spent the spring and summer preparing to roll out for our whole team that fall, starting with a book study (educate yourself!) before beginning to create professional development sessions for the team.

6 - Develop Ongoing Professional Development (PD). In the spring of 2019, I realized that leading the TLC was not a one-woman job. This is where my colleague, Ailish Dougherty, came in. She was finishing up her first year of teaching and was eager to help. Together we planned out PD sessions for the spring semester, as well as all of the 2020-21 school year. The cadence is always doing a Trauma 101 session for new-to-us educators, and then a Trauma 201 session for the whole team. From there, they dove deeper into building out teacher toolboxes with practical classroom applications, meditation/deep breathing techniques, and self-care. Book studies have also been instrumental in creating school-wide curiosity and buy-in.

7 - Implement Sustainably. We always talk about academic data, often leaving out the social/emotional data—key in supporting the whole child. The best way to get investment from your team is through data, so collect ALL the data. Members of the TLC also used weekly grade-level team meetings to implement student-of-concern protocols, restructure their discipline systems to be more trauma-informed, and gave the educators in their building permission to be intentionally trauma-informed.

Every school and every district is unique, so it’s likely you may face your own set of challenges. However, we have been able to learn from our own experience starting from scratch and are confident that these seven steps will help you build out your own trauma-informed care plan at your school. Want to learn more? Please join Marie & Ailish on their podcast, Be The Champion, found on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, and Vurbl.

Ailish Dougherty, KIPP Nashville Collegiate High School Teacher contributed to this article.

Marie Papini

Marie Papini is a school counselor at KIPP Collegiate High School in Nashville, Tennessee.

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