Why is trauma-informed education not on the agenda at today’s National Safe School Reopening Summit? U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona plans to host panels on school operations, Centers for Disease Control guidance, and another on advancing equity. All are vitally important, but the reality is that COVID-19 remains a devastating pandemic with massive health, economic and social disparities faced by our most marginalized students.
Experts are documenting high rates of depression, anxiety and suicidal ideation among school-age children. The ACE framework, a tool educators can use to measure students’ traumatic experiences, makes it clear: A year of children enduring a global pandemic has exposed students to multiple forms of trauma.
To reopen schools safely, educators need trauma-informed resources to effectively address the social, emotional, and psychological concerns of students.
When I began my teaching career in D.C. Public Schools in the mid-1990s, I quickly learned that my students needed more than a dynamic lesson plan to heal their traumas. I remember the student who was diagnosed with a chronic illness in fifth-grade, and the one who threw chairs when they reached frustration, and the child who kept starting fights when trying to make friends. Back then I tried to reach those students with compassion and patience.
My effectiveness deepened when I learned how their traumatic experiences shaped their behaviors, and that addressing students’ sense of safety, belonging, and well-being through established best practices was more critical than delivering a standard academic lesson. I could not remove their pain, but with training and support, I learned how to respond with both sensitivity and effectiveness.
Now as a faculty member at American University’s School of Education, I help raise the next generation of teachers, policymakers and school leaders to advance equity by building the capacity for trauma-informed education.
Humanizing the Pain Experienced By Students
Teachers who are trained in addressing trauma humanize the pain experienced by students. They are equipped to collaborate with psychologists, counselors, and therapists. Students are taught to build classrooms as communities of support, and address conflicts through restorative justice. School leaders who prioritize humanizing the impacts of trauma leverage both federal and local funding sources, combined with community resources, to address the comprehensive healing that students and their families need.
Educators know the necessity of addressing trauma in the classroom. Recall the times before the pandemic. After school shootings, schools offered additional resources to provide grief counseling and post-traumatic therapy. And after natural disasters, schools are transformed into community shelters and food banks. In these situations, instructional services are put on hold until students’ basic needs can be met. After trauma, educators are always tasked with prioritizing the social-emotional needs of students while creating the conditions for academic instruction to safely resume. This is the embodiment of trauma-informed education.
We Can’t Reopen Without Trauma-Informed Education
Teachers cannot be expected to reopen classrooms and simply pick up where they left off. Urban classrooms, with typically large numbers of students disproportionately impacted by the pandemic, are often led by novice classroom teachers, less skilled to handle students’ responses to trauma. These same schools face high rates of teacher turnover, leaving students without trusted adult relationships critical to the healing process. And urban school leaders struggle to address a national teacher shortage, leaving many students in classrooms led by a succession of inadequately trained substitute teachers.
We must call for national attention to trauma-informed education to provide the necessary training and resources for classroom educators to construct a comprehensive return-to-school response that addresses the social and emotional needs of America’s students.
The trauma students are experiencing, and how schools, teachers and leaders can respond, are not being adequately addressed by the news media. The Biden administration continues to promote school re-openings coupled with the expectation to resume state-standardized assessments. The media politicizes schools’ COVID response plans and fails to report on the health and education experts calling for trauma-informed services as schools reopen. I urge school leaders to reject the public narrative that narrowly defines the reopening of schools based on access to vaccines and testing protocols and reframe it as the critical issue to fund training, personnel, and resources to address students’ trauma.
To be clear, I want our schools to reopen, and I am eager to see students in classrooms with their teachers. Efforts to provide operations guidance and technical assistance are critical to orchestrating a safe return. But school leaders, particularly those serving communities deeply impacted by COVID-19, must shape the public discourse from one that oversimplifies the reopening of schools to amplifying the social and emotional needs of students at this time. Teachers must be equipped with training and resources to implement trauma-informed education.
At the National Safe School Reopening Summit, school leaders must call for national leadership to address the ongoing needs of students impacted by trauma and reopen classrooms as sites of healing for all students.
Amaarah DeCuir, Ed.D. is a professorial lecturer at American University's School of Education. She is an education leadership scholar whose work focuses on the intersections of leadership, gender, and diverse cultural contexts to advance social justice.