If you could re-invent school, what would you do?

“If you could re-invent school, what would you do?” That’s the question staff ask students at Seattle Public Schools’ Interagency Academy. The answer is surprising in its simplicity. “Almost to a person,” says Marcus Harden, a Student Family Advocate at Interagency, “students say they would make school a place where everybody knows you and everybody cares, all the time.”

Harden is among a growing number of school staff using brain science to help teachers and staff build positive relationships with students and their families. Shifting focus away from punitive and exclusionary discipline and rigid classroom structures, their approach recognizes that experiences of trauma or adversity impact how children, young people, families, and even staff themselves experience school.

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A trauma-informed approach helps students learn to regulate their own emotions. (Courtesy of the Seattle Times.)

Sometimes called a trauma-informed or restorative approach, teachers and staff focus on creating welcoming environments that allow students to bring their whole selves to the classroom: their unique strengths, social and emotional needs, and lived experiences. “What we’re teaching is not so much tools, but teaching teachers to open their minds and be more flexible,” says Laura Bermes, a School Counselor at West Seattle Elementary School. “Being trauma-informed allows us to ground ourselves in relationships. It’s a shift in practice and thinking.”

The science behind resilience

Over two decades of epidemiological research show just how common experiencing trauma and adversity in childhood is. These experiences have staggering impacts on health and well-being. Experiencing trauma or adversity is common across demographic and socio-economic groups; however, the impact of these experiences falls most heavily on those experiencing poverty, racism, and other forms of oppression. That’s because these communities experience barriers to the protective factors that can help children and young people build resilience to overcome trauma and adversity.

Trauma-informed practices can tip the balance toward protective factors.

Children and young adults with unpredictable, ongoing stress in their lives may act out or withdraw in school—commonly called fight, flight, or freeze mode. This heightened response often leads to conflict at school and punitive, exclusionary disciplinary measures like detention or suspension. For these students, a trauma-informed approach can have a significant impact on their ability to repair relationships and build resilience. By focusing on predictable, reliable environments and strong, trusting relationships with adults, schools can build resilience in their students.

Building students’ capacity to overcome adversity or other challenges provides a platform for success in school and life. Bermes recalls a 5th grade student who had been through multiple schools before coming to West Seattle Elementary.  She was prone to losing her temper with teachers and other students. At West Seattle, when she feels she might lose her temper, she’s allowed to get up and leave to find one of two designated school staff to check in with. With their help, she can regulate her feelings and return to the classroom, usually within 5 minutes. “That was a student that typically would have gone through a lot of suspensions,” says Bermes. Today she’s one of the school’s top students.

What happens when conflict arises?

Trauma-informed approaches go a long way toward reducing conflict in school. Inevitably, however, conflicts do arise. When they do, resolving conflict and repairing relationships through a restorative approach, rather than punitive discipline, can shift a school’s entire culture.

Every week at Interagency Academy’s sites, students gather for school-wide restorative circles. In a safe space, students have the opportunity to share and heal, discussing everything from individual feelings to conflicts between students and staff. According to Marcus Harden, since beginning restorative circles several years ago, Interagency has seen far less conflict and a large-scale shift in school culture toward a caring, welcoming environment.

Restorative approaches to conflict can shift a school’s culture. (Courtesy of Resolutions Northwest.)

“Kids respond to support,” says Harden. “I haven’t met one yet who doesn’t want to do better.” By developing a shared understanding among staff and students of core concepts about brain development, adversity, trauma, and resilience, schools can build on the amazing capacity that children and young people have to improve, even when facing adversity.

“It’s subtle. The work is in the little things: seeing kids, and allowing them to bring their whole selves to the classroom,” says Harden. “Kids don’t need saving. We’re there to be a reflection to them of what they already have in themselves, but don’t know it yet.”

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