Reader's Guide / Seeing Schools as Islands of Safety - ASCD
Skip to main content
ascd logo

October 1, 2020

Reader's Guide / Seeing Schools as Islands of Safety

premium resources logo

Premium Resource

School Culture
Leadership
Reader's Guide / Seeing Schools as Islands of Safety thumbnail
Credit: Copyright(C)2000-2006 Adobe Systems, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Toward the end of The Body Keeps the Score (Viking, 2014), his influential book on trauma, the psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk calls for a broader conception of the role of schools in society. Given the prevalence of childhood trauma, he says, schools should be seen not only or primarily as academic centers but also as places where children are truly "seen and known," where they can learn self-regulation and resilience strategies, and "where they can develop a sense of self-agency." "At their best," van der Kolk writes, "schools can function as islands of safety in a chaotic world."

Educators have become increasingly vested in this more emotionally supportive conception of schools in recent years, with terms like trauma-sensitive schools, trauma-informed practices, and social-emotional learning gaining prominence in the everyday lexicon of the profession. But the idea has taken on even greater urgency—and greater complexity—this school year, amid the widespread anxiety, loss, and disruption caused by the COVID-19 crisis and the heightened tensions around racial injustice. If there was ever a time for schools to "function as islands of safety" (whether as in-person or remote-learning communities), this is it.

To support educators in this work, this issue of Educational Leadership takes a closer look at what it means for schools to be truly trauma responsive in practice. How do we create, as Kristin Souers and Pete Hall characterize it, in an echo of van der Kolk, tight-knit and compassionate "cultures of safety" where students struggling with trauma "can thrive and be their best selves"? As you read, you may find that, especially in a school year like this one, the answers are more nuanced and involve more mindset work than is commonly assumed.

In the opening article, for example, Paul Gorski argues that even schools that have adopted the nomenclature of trauma-informed education often miss sources of student trauma in their own institutional cultures and policy systems. To root out such deep-seated inconsistencies, trauma-informed education must be seen "not as a set of practices we apply selectively, but rather as a reimagining of how we relate with students and one another." This is especially applicable at a time of increased stress and fast-changing circumstances like the present.

In this connection, as University of Chicago professor Micere Keels advises, schools may need to take a hard look at discipline practices this year. Commonly relied on punitive and exclusionary practices can exacerbate trauma and stress, and are often disproportionately used with Black students, who are already more likely to be experiencing mental health effects from the pandemic. To better support all students, Keels argues, school leaders need to take steps to integrate trauma-responsive discipline throughout schools. This approach "frames the goal as moving from being emotionally reactive to being developmentally responsive to the needs of students coping with trauma"—a critical but often difficult distinction to make in the moment.

Demonstrating the breadth of trauma-responsive practice in schools, other articles detail multi-faceted support systems designed to help struggling students, from community-resource networks (Ellis) to behavioral-therapy interventions (Conn, Nelms, and Marsh). Some provide more instructionally oriented advice on supporting students with anxiety in distance learning settings (Minahan), or on empowering students through strength-based approaches (Zacarian, Alvarez-Ortiz, and Haynes).

One theme runs through the issue, however: The importance, especially this year, of prioritizing students' mental health and well-being and recognizing on a deep level that schools today have to be more than test-prep collectives. As Carol Ann Tomlinson puts it in her beautiful article on her experiences working with students in fragile states, "No academic goal is worth the soul of a child."

Educational Leadership October 2020 Reflect & Discuss Questions

➛ The first trauma-informed step, according to Gorski, is to map out all the ways students, families, and staff experience trauma at school. In what ways have you seen this happen?

➛ Is systemic oppression incorporated into your school's approach to trauma-informed education? Why or why not?

➛ Rather than "mindless[ly] applying rules" in response to student behavior, how could you "withhold judgment and show concern"?

"Trauma Is a Word—Not a Sentence" by Kristin Souers and Pete Hall

➛ What does being a trauma-invested school mean to you?

➛ What are the triggers that send you into your "downstairs brain"? What strategies do you use to emotionally regulate during stressful times?

➛ How can your school or district create a culture of safety for those living with trauma? How might this look virtually?

➛ Think about a time when you experienced compassion fatigue. What were the symptoms? How did it impact your work?

➛ Do you think it is possible to feel "compassion satisfaction" from witnessing growth in the trauma survivors you support?

➛ Johnson suggests mapping out a personal "self-care plan" that addresses six categories of self-care. Complete this exercise and note which categories need the most attention.

➛ Are teachers at your school trained for trauma-sensitive discipline, particularly seeing that "problem behaviors" may be strategies a student with a disability uses to cope? Do classroom teachers discuss behavior with special ed teachers?

➛ In what ways could creating more trauma-sensitive environments and interactions improve your school's work with students with disabilities?

"Meeting Student Trauma with an Asset-Based Approach" by Debbie Zacarian, Lourdes Alvarez-Ortiz, and Judie Haynes

➛ In what ways can you and your school more strongly emphasize the strengths and assets of all students, especially those living with trauma?

➛ How can your school provide a sense of safety and predictability in routine amidst any new health rules and regulations?

➛ Does your curriculum relate to your students' realities and experiences? If not, how can you adjust it to be more relevant to their lives?

Want to add your own highlights and notes for this article to access later?