This post is an excerpt from Alex Shevrin Venet’s new book, Equity-Centered Trauma-Informed Education (W. W. Norton).
Once students have experienced trauma, how is their access to and experience of their education affected? Based on what we know about how trauma impacts student learning, we can see that school isn’t equitable for trauma-affected students. Schools can be indifferent to how trauma affects children, even outright retraumatizing and harmful. If we want school to be equitable for students who have experienced trauma, we need to rethink how common practices in schools are failing our trauma-affected students.
Trauma’s Impact on Learning
Imagine you are driving in your car when all of a sudden, a deer leaps out into the road. You slam your foot on the brake pedal and the car stops short. The deer leaps away, and you are unharmed.
How does your body feel in that moment, just after you’ve slammed on the brakes? Your heart may be racing. You might feel sweaty and flushed. There could be a ringing in your ears, or a general feeling of anxiety and panic. Your stomach might feel like it dropped. In the moment you hit the brakes, you may have shouted out something you otherwise wouldn’t say, like swearing at the person sitting next to you. If you have a passenger in the car, you might snap at them even if you weren’t in a bad mood beforehand.
These responses all connect to the body’s stress-response system. When our brain recognizes that we are in danger, such as being seconds from a car crash, it activates our sympathetic nervous system, which in turn activates our bodies to fight the danger or flee from it (Van der Kolk, 2015). For simplicity’s sake, let’s call this survival mode. Survival mode is something we’ve all experienced, even if for just that moment after we avoided a car crash.
It typically takes something intense to trigger survival mode, when safety is the default state. Once danger has passed, people with a baseline of safety can return to a feeling of calm and move forward. In contrast, for children who experience trauma, especially chronic trauma, survival mode is activated much more easily. After the stress-response system is activated, they struggle to turn it off if there is no actual danger (Perry & Szalavitz, 2017). Trauma-affected children become finely tuned detectors of their environments. They constantly scan their surroundings for any tiny cue that would help them determine “I am safe” or “I am not safe,” even if those cues seem insignificant to others. For example, a student might hear an unexpected banging sound from another classroom. A child who is not in a state of hypervigilance might take a moment to interpret the sound, wonder what’s causing it, or simply ignore it. A trauma-affected child’s brain says, “Better safe than sorry” and activates the stress-response system.
When a child in the classroom goes into survival mode, the stress response system diverts resources from the parts of the brain and body that do anything other than key survival functions, so complex tasks become out of the question. This doesn’t mean that trauma-affected children cannot learn, but children impacted by trauma tend to do worse on markers of academic achievement, such as reading and math scores, and may have challenges with memory, attention, and language skills (Perfect et al., 2016). We should understand this not as evidence that trauma-affected students are poor learners but as evidence that schools need to do more to understand their needs and design instruction that meets those needs while prioritizing a sense of safety.
Yet all too often this doesn’t happen. Instead, our choices as educators contribute to our students becoming triggered. Imagine a student walking between classes who is running late. As he is jogging a little bit to get to class on time, the uniformed school resource officer crosses his path and scolds the student for running in the hallway. The student sees the officer’s holstered Taser and hears the harsh tone of his voice, and all of a sudden he is overcome with memories of times when the police have threatened him and his family members in their neighborhood. As the student enters his math class, his brain floods with fear. He feels nauseous and anxious and can barely listen to the instructions being given by his teacher, and he fails the quiz at the end of the period. Is school equitable for this student? Did the leaders of his school set him up for success? How might his teacher have structured the class in ways that helped him regain a sense of safety? How could the student’s distress have been prevented in the first place?…
Don’t Fall Into a Deficit Trap
Even when students aren’t actively in survival mode, trauma has been shown to impact other key functions, including sensorimotor development, attention and memory, and executive functioning skills (Craig, 2016). When all of these are combined, students experiencing trauma may face barriers to engaging in their learning if we don’t consciously design our classrooms and schools with their needs in mind.
As we acknowledge the truth of these struggles, we also need to be careful how we apply our understanding of survival mode and the potential impacts of trauma on learning. Students who are made to feel unsafe at school are still capable of learning, of building relationships, and of advocating for themselves. We can’t view or treat children as though they are permanently damaged by trauma. It can feel like a contradiction to hear “don’t ignore the impact of trauma” and also “don’t define a child by trauma,” but both things can be true at once.
Creating Trauma-Informed Systems, Not Fixing Kids
One of the principles of equity literacy is “fix injustice, not kids” (Gorski, 2019, p. 61). As we seek to address equity issues through our trauma-informed work, we should be aware of how we address the systems that need to change while at the same time we support individual students. Remembering our example of the organic farm, we can’t just wash the pesticides off the tomato to make it organic: the soil it grows in needs to change. As teachers, we are responsible for the kids in front of us, and yet it’s not enough to focus only on those students. In her article “Mindfulness Won’t Save Us. Fixing the System Will” (2019) middle school teacher Christina Torres wrote about this tension:
Teaching students to meditate will help manage their anger or frustration, but it won’t remove a system that mass incarcerates their neighbors and family members. Giving students skills in socioemotional learning can help students better process and express their opinions, but it won’t erase a system that was built not only to their disadvantage, but also sometimes actively set up to see them fail. Yoga can help a child feel present in their body, but it won’t change the fact that our society places different values on different bodies. (para. 5)
As Torres described, classroom-level social-emotional interventions can provide needed skills and support, but they aren’t enough. It can foster a deficit mindset when we look only at how we can help students be more resilient, without considering why they need resilience. This mindset says: “If only these kids were more resilient, they wouldn’t struggle with trauma so much!” It fools us into thinking that, if students simply had more skills to cope with the pain, that would solve the problem. The thing is, the problem isn’t ever the children themselves: the problem is the adults who choose to harm children, or the conditions that adults create that cause harm to children.
This focus on building resilience in individual students is an “equity detour” that allows educators and schools to feel like they are making progress on equity without actually addressing the conditions that cause inequity (Gorski, 2019). Of course, it’s wonderful to want to build resilience in students. Resilience against the impacts of trauma is an excellent goal, and all students should have access to strategies that help them bounce back from hard times. I’m not arguing against teaching students social-emotional skills. Instead, I’m advocating that educators hold two approaches at the same time: dismantling unjust systems within and outside of our schools, while also helping students who are currently impacted by these systems. Teaching LGBTQ students to be resilient in the face of homophobic bullying isn’t equity— ending homophobia is.
What if, along with teaching mindfulness so that students can cope with the inequitable conditions at school, we help them learn things like grassroots organizing and political advocacy to end those conditions? While mindfulness alone won’t fix injustice, it might help trauma-affected students feel emotionally grounded as they step into advocacy work. And while we should support student activism, adults in schools must take the lead in creating equitable conditions. Equity-centered trauma-informed work is about creating resilient schools and systems, not only supporting resilience in individual children.
Craig, S. E. (2016). Trauma-sensitive schools: Learning communities transforming children’s lives, K-5. Teachers College Press.
Gorski, P. (2019). Avoiding racial equity detours. Educational Leadership, 76(7), 56–61.
Perfect, M. M., Turley, M. R., Carlson, J. S., Yohanna, J., & Saint Gilles, M. P. (2016). School-related outcomes of traumatic event exposure and traumatic stress symptoms in students: A systematic review of research from 1990 to 2015. School Mental Health, 8(1), 7–43. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12310-016-9175-2
Perry, B. D., & Szalavitz, M. (2017). The boy who was raised as a dog, and other stories from a child psychiatrist’s notebook: What traumatized children can teach us about loss, love, and healing. Basic Books.
Torres, C. (2019). Mindfulness won’t save us. Fixing the system will. ASCD Education Update, 61(5). http://www.ascd.org/publications/newsletters/education- update/may19/vol61/num05/Mindfulness-Won’t-Save-Us.-Fixing-the-System-Will..aspx
Van der Kolk, B. A. (2015). The body keeps the score: Brain, mind and body in the healing of trauma. Penguin Books.
Alex Shevrin Venet, a former teacher and leader at a therapeutic school, provides professional development for schools and communities. An adjunct professor at several universities, she resides in Winooski, Vermont. She is the author of the forthcoming Norton book Equity-Centered Trauma-Informed Education.