Lecture explores importance of trauma-sensitive schools

Post courtesy of newsroom intern Amanda N. Marino:

What teachers don’t know could be hurting their students’ educational and social development, Michael Gregory said.

Gregory, Harvard Law School professor, was the keynote speaker Thursday for the annual Martha McCarthy Education Law and Policy Institute: The Future of Professional Ethics Conference.

Michael Gregory

Michael Gregory

He addressed the issue of knowing where students come from and what their home and community environment are like when trying to help students learn.

Gregory works with the Trauma and Learning Policy Initiative, a collaboration between the Massachusetts Advocates for Children and Harvard Law School. It was founded in 2004 with the mission to “ensure that children traumatized by exposure to violence and other adverse childhood experiences succeed in schools.”

At present, the collaboration focuses on uniting schools, families and policy in a way that benefits students in schools, he said.

“I think our project is somewhat unique among advocacy organizations because we consider our constituents to be both kids and families, and schools,” Gregory said.

Co-author of the two volumes of “Helping Traumatized Children Learn,” Gregory said there are five core ideas that resonate most with educators and states. The first two points are the problem, the third is the solution and the fourth and fifth are the steps that people need to take to see results.

Looking at the issue

The first point Gregory explained was that many students have had traumatic experiences. In talking about the Adverse Experience Study, Gregory said experiences involving abuse and household dysfunctions are startlingly common.

“Staggering numbers of people have had these experiences as a kid,” he said.

The aforementioned study concluded that, of the group of people surveyed, just over half experienced at least one of the listed traumatic experiences, he said. With that kind of commonality, Gregory said every classroom everywhere has children who have endured traumatic experience.

The second point stated that trauma can impact learning, behavior and relationships at school.

Gregory explained that trauma is a response to adversity, and as such is something unique to an individual.

“Not everybody who has the same experience will respond in the same way,” he said.

People cannot be labeled by the type of trauma they may have experienced, he said. Risk factors may increase as a result of trauma, but they still cannot create a singular, ubiquitous response.

Gregory said children who have experienced trauma can often perceive threats everywhere they are, including at school. They are constantly working to find a safe environment, impeding a student’s ability to learn and form healthy relationships in school.

“For many kids, traumatic explanations might underlie the behaviors you’re seeing in schools,” he said.

From aggressors to attention seekers to perfectionists, the underlying cause of certain characteristics may not be simply “that’s just how he is.”

For this reason, Gregory said it is important that educators pay attention to students and try to understand what happens in their lives outside of school.

What can be done?

Gregory’s third point, the solution, is that trauma sensitive school can help children feel safe so they can learn.

He defined a trauma sensitive school as “one in which all students feel safe, welcomed and supported, and where addressing trauma’s impact on learning on a school wide basis is at the center or its educational mission.”

Simply put, Gregory said a trauma-sensitive school understands the whole student, not just what it sees during the school day. This understanding helps to define attributes of trauma-sensitive schools such as a shared understanding between leadership and staff of trauma’s impact on learning and the need for a holistic approach to helping students learn.

In looking at his last two points, Gregory said first that trauma sensitivity is a whole-school effort. The fourth point states that educators need a process that helps them integrate trauma sensitivity into their educational process.

Finally, Gregory said helping traumatized children learn should be a major focus of education reform. Despite its importance, though, he said it cannot be forced and morphed into a checklist.

“You can’t legislate people to care about a certain issue,” he said.

Legislation like that is not sustainable, Gregory said. Instead, the question legislators and educators will be asking themselves in the future is how law and policy can help set the conditions of but not force the requirements for a holistic and functional practice.

“Let’s give schools a common framework to work in,” he said.

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