Childhood trauma is in the news every day, from school shootings to the opioid crisis to separation at the border. While some stories are highlighted in the media, every community has children we never hear about who are dealing with violence, addiction, poverty, mental health issues, and abuse.
The good news is that the public is becoming more aware of trauma’s devastating effects. Terms like “toxic stress” and “adverse childhood experiences” (ACEs) are no longer used only by mental health professionals. This increased awareness is a critical first step to ending the epidemic of childhood trauma harming our children.
Many educators are being trained in trauma-informed practices. These practices transform schools into safe spaces for students by building relationships through social/emotional learning, repairing relationships through restorative rather than punitive disciplinary techniques, and promoting self-care to maintain relationships when dealing with trauma takes its toll. Research shows that having one supportive relationship with a caring adult can lower stress hormones and reduce the impact of trauma for children. Training teachers to prioritize relationships so they can play that role for their students is another essential part of the solution.
While these are positive steps forward, we also need to look at where we have been. We need to admit that the attack on public education is part of the reason American children are struggling. For nearly two decades schools have been turned into stress factories where relationships take a back seat to test scores. Anxiety, depression, and aggressive behavior have increased in students, and at the same time we have created a teacher shortage. If we are going to make relationships matter in schools, we must take the important step of undoing previous harmful policies and adopting policies that are more trauma informed.
Strong relationships require people, time, and trust, three things that have systematically been removed from schools. Budgets have been cut and support staff have been eliminated from many schools, requiring far more from teachers than educating their students. The use of standardized test scores to evaluate and punish schools and teachers has stolen time away from relationships and placed too much emphasis on analyzing test scores, posting data and objectives on walls, and sticking to the script. When every moment of a teacher’s time is micromanaged, there is little left for relationship building.
In the name of high expectations, policies were adopted that led to eliminating play-based learning in the early grades. Recess time dwindled, and some states cut art, music, and any other subjects not on the test. The American Academy of Pediatrics recently released a statement saying that the importance of play “cannot be overemphasized” in developing children’s brains, building relationship skills, and reducing the impact of stress. We need to bring balance back to schools and create time for play and relationships.
While teachers have always known that a child’s life outside of school has a dramatic impact on success in school, for years education policymakers disregarded their professional expertise. When schools are struggling, policymakers first ask, “What is wrong with the teachers?” instead of “What happened to the children in those schools?” This punitive culture of blame has completely eroded trust among teachers, administrators, students, and communities.
It’s time for education policymakers to do some relationship repairing of their own. They need to recognize the damage test-and-punish policies have done to professionals in our schools and the children they teach. They need to respond with policies that identify students dealing with trauma and provide the necessary support. Schools with large numbers of students in poverty need more resources because poverty often leads to adversity and trauma. Additional counselors would be a great start, but those counselors must be empowered to focus on the mental health of students rather than just on data and assessments.
To make relationships matter in schools again, we must change the policies that diminished them to begin with. Focusing on relationships doesn’t mean forgetting about academic achievement; it means being committed to building a strong foundation to get us there. We need to enable teachers to be present for their students and focus on building relationships instead of increasing test scores. If we don’t, “trauma-informed” will become just another buzzword in education, and schools will again be blamed for the resulting failure to improve.