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April 9, 2020

How Leadership Principles Can Relieve Trauma

One of the key assertions of trauma-informed education is that a stressed brain can't learn. This claim is backed by compelling brain research, which tells us what happens to our cognitive functioning when we sense danger (Burke Harris, 2014). Our hypothalamus and pituitary gland collaborate to release stress hormones. Our heart begins to pound, releasing blood from our frontal cortex—the portion of our brain responsible for critical thinking and emotional regulation—to our large muscles so we can get ready for a fight-or-flight response. When your life's on the line, the priority is getting to safety. Simply put, stressed brains can't learn because they're too busy figuring out how to stay alive.
The trouble is that our schools and classrooms are filled with stressed brains, even when there is no immediately obvious danger. Two decades ago, the seminal Adverse Childhood Experiences study revealed that over 50 percent of the 17,000 adults surveyed had experienced childhood adversity (Felitti, 1998). As national awareness of childhood trauma has increased, so has our understanding of effective strategies and supports that can help put students and their brains at ease, to allow for optimal learning. Perhaps even more critically, providing trauma-informed interventions can reverse the impact of trauma and increase resilience—an essential part of the healing required for future growth and development.
The federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Act provides a list of six trauma-informed principles that can support professionals in meeting the needs of trauma-impacted youth: (1) safety, (2) trustworthiness and transparency, (3) peer support, (4) collaboration and mutuality, (5) empowerment, voice, and choice, and (6) historical, cultural, and gender issues (SAMHSA, 2014).

Six Trauma-Informed Principles at Play

Schools that prioritize trauma-informed principles are better positioned to meet the needs of their students, but doing so successfully is a challenge. In addition to the necessary skills and mindsets, integrating trauma-informed principles relies on teachers having the emotional bandwidth to respond differently to students who may disrupt, threaten, or engage in self-harm when in crisis. Yet, teachers who work with trauma-impacted youth often experience secondary traumatic stress themselves (Lander, 2018). Even if they understand that a student's disruptive or aggressive behavior has its origins in trauma, they may nonetheless be triggered when the behavior occurs in their class.
School leaders committed to creating learning environments accessible to trauma-impacted students must consider the needs of teachers from a trauma-informed lens as well. It is not possible to encourage teachers to be more patient, curious, and kind toward students by chastising them for not doing enough. Instead, if teachers are to utilize trauma-informed principles with their students, these principles must also be modeled in the interactions they themselves have with administrators and staff. Let's explore how each of the trauma-informed principles might look in practice with adults.
Safety. In order to avoid the common pitfall of mistaking trauma-informed principles for a permissive, "anything goes" culture, effective leaders prioritize safety for students and staff alike. They ensure teachers and staff are widely trained on early behavioral interventions and address concerns promptly through schoolwide systems and responses. Likewise, leaders focus on developing relationships in which teachers feel safe voicing vulnerabilities, struggles, or fears.
Trustworthiness and transparency. We all benefit from transparency about what is happening and what we can expect next, particularly when experiencing significant stress. Communicating with staff regularly through multiple channels and managing expectations by being honest about what is and is not possible goes a long way to developing trust, as does efficient and effective follow-through and responsiveness to concerns. Rituals such as morning huddles or weekly principals' newsletters, regular opportunities for face-to-face conversations, and feedback can build trust and transparency.
Peer support. Under duress, it is easy to become isolated and perseverate on what's going wrong. It is important to create systems of peer support, such as mentoring relationships, non-evaluative coaching, affinity groups, or communities of practice for both leaders and teachers. Doing so makes space to establish genuine connections and develop trusted allies. Exposing teachers to the power of such alliances can translate into supporting students in building similar connections with others.
Collaboration and mutuality. Stress can make us feel powerless and alone. Creating opportunities for meaningful collaboration, including in matters related to key decision-making, gives teachers agency over their current circumstances and reduces feelings of isolation. Leaders can create the conditions for sustained teacher collaboration by repurposing common planning time, professional development, and meetings and instead have open-ended discussions to brainstorm solutions to relevant stressors in the classroom. Sharing stories of common challenges will help teachers feel less alone and use their collective knowledge to make improvements.
Empowerment, voice, and choice. Building a trauma-informed community starts with attending to the needs of those most stressed by the limitations of the current system. Yet, those who know these shortcomings best are too often sidelined or rely on leaders to center their perspectives when making decisions. Trauma-informed leaders encourage staff to self-organize around areas of passion. They partner with their teams to create committees, invite participation in strategic planning, and equalize access to existing leadership structures (such as instructional leadership teams, school site council, or coordination of services teams). Doing so demonstrates respect for teachers' strengths and insights and empowers them to share their voice and find agency in addressing complex student needs.
Historical, cultural, and gender issues. Individual experiences of trauma occur within a larger system. Effective leaders must consider the effects of historical, cultural, and gender issues on the experience of both individual team members and whole communities. This includes attending to implicit biases and changing inequitable policies, practices, and processes. Reflecting on personal identity, conducting equity audits, and disaggregating data by teacher and student demographics can inform a leader's actionable space. Examining the role "-isms" play in perpetuating trauma promotes understanding of its complexity and leverages the healing power of cultural connection.
Together, these six principles minimize the impacts of trauma for students and teachers alike, increasing access to rigorous learning and opening up opportunities for healing and long-term wellness. Improving the school team's capacity to recognize trauma and respond effectively requires lessening the effects of educators' trauma or toxic stress. As such, leaders who focus on teacher experiences in parallel with those of their students are on the path to creating and sustaining a truly trauma-informed community.

Burke Harris, N. (2014, September 15). How childhood trauma affects health across a lifetime. [Video].

Felitti, V. J. (1998). The relationship of adult health status to childhood abuse and household dysfunction. American Journal of Preventive Medicine 14: 245-258.

Lander, J. (2018). Helping teachers manage the weight of trauma. Useable Knowledge.

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2014). SAMHSA's concept of trauma and guidance

 Lihi Rosenthal is the director of the University of California, Berkeley's LEAD EdD program, which aims to prepare school systems leaders for the challenges of leading for equity.

 Iracema Hromnik is a school principal who has worked with students who have significant trauma histories and specialized needs.

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