In the wake of another national tragedy, it is more apparent than ever that our schools must embrace a stronger role in supporting the mental health of our youth by developing trauma-sensitive schools. The mass shooting in Newtown, Connecticut that killed several staff and 20 elementary school students came less than two months after Hurricane Sandy, a storm that brought devastation and displacement to tens of thousands of people in the Northeast. Both events offer stark reminders of the acute stress our students may face when experiencing cataclysmic events. However, even in the absence of such tragedies, many of our nation’s children are in chronic distress.
Despite our collective efforts, youth continue to have adverse and traumatic experiences, such as chronic child maltreatment, domestic and community violence, homelessness, natural disasters, parental substance abuse, death of a loved one, and the list goes on. These experiences can significantly undermine the ability to learn, form relationships, and manage emotions and behavior; all critical components of succeeding in school and in life. To improve our country’s education system, we must first address these barriers to progress; and schools remain the most logical place to do it.
As a school psychologist, I have had the privilege of working with students, parents, and fellow educators to help students learn, develop, and grow in a healthy environment. I have also had the challenge of identifying the mental health problems that impede learning where all too often, the initial question is, “What’s wrong with you?” rather than “What happened to you?” or “How can we help?” Some believe that schools are in the business of educating, not mental health. On the contrary, supporting student mental health is a pre-requisite to learning, not an afterthought.
Interestingly, while only a fraction of kids who need mental health care actually receive it, 70-80% of those that do receive it get it at school. Schools often have a cadre of health and mental health supports available. For example, in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, the NYC Department of Education mobilized their staff with an all hands on deck approach. However, even with the most talented and ambitious group of mental health professionals in a school system, it’s unlikely that they can provide the full range of mental health supports to every student in need. A main challenge is first identifying students in need when a stressor is not as obvious as a hurricane or a school shooting. Moreover, some symptoms of childhood trauma may not fully manifest until adolescence, at a time where some may view that behavior as an unrelated outcome of that early experience.
Trauma-sensitive classrooms and schools provide an environment where all adults in the building have an awareness and sensitivity to the potential impact of trauma and adverse experiences on students’ lives. The initial thinking behind low academic performance or bad behavior is not automatically that the student is willfully disobedient, unmotivated, and unintelligent. Trauma-sensitive schools are places where all youth feel safe, connected, and supported — not just the youth who don’t need mental health care or those that need it most. Trauma-sensitive schools augment and supplement the herculean efforts of the school-based mental health professionals and in a sense, provide a continuous and universal mental health intervention system.
Creating trauma-sensitive schools requires a great deal of commitment. First, we know that most, if not all, teacher preparation programs don’t include training to prepare teachers to identify, teach, and support traumatized students. This is a problem, particularly given the demands on teacher preparation programs, and teachers themselves. The duties of a teacher are added on with regularity, and rarely removed. Therefore, we must infuse some content on the impacts of trauma and mental health on learning throughout teacher preparation and professional development programs.
Second, we must leverage the existing mental health professionals that exist in schools, including school psychologists, school counselors, school social workers, school nurses, and other school-based mental health providers. Utilizing them more effectively could include more regular consultation with teachers and administrators on developing trauma-sensitive strategies and perspectives. These individuals can also provide in-services to staff at no additional cost. Meeting this demand also means properly funding enough positions to provide these services along with the intensive direct services to students in need.
Finally, this requires a culture change — often more easily said than done. Luckily, some groups have emerged as leaders in creating trauma-sensitive schools, including the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and the State of Washington Office of the Superintendant of Public Education. Much can be learned from the efforts of these pioneer systems.
Many of our kids are in distress, and our schools remain our frontline opportunity to support them.
Eric Rossen is the co-editor of Supporting and Educating Traumatized Students: A Guide for School-Based Professionals with Robert Hull. Eric Rossen, Ph.D., is a nationally certified school psychologist and licensed psychologist in Maryland. He currently serves as Director of Professional Development and Standards at the National Association of School Psychologists. Robert Hull, Ed.S., MHS, is a school psychologist in Prince George’s County Public Schools, Maryland, serves on the faculty at the University of Missouri, and holds a position as adjunct faculty at Goucher College.