Social Emotional Learning, Part 2: Trauma-Informed Instruction

A Brief Overview

  • Washington State has made trauma-informed instruction a priority. The Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) has a new online training program to equip school staff with Social Emotional Learning (SEL) techniques and tools.
  • Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) make children much more likely to struggle with troubling behaviors and school suspensions. Understanding trauma and addressing it with your child’s school can help improve outcomes.
  • A trauma-informed teacher establishes specific methods for helping children understand their emotions and identify what’s happening and what to do next.
  • Data indicate that restorative practices work. The 2016 Mental Health Report from the Child Mind Institute shows that proactively teaching “restorative discipline” reduced school suspensions by nearly 50 percent.
  • PAVE published Part 1 of this article series last fall, The Importance of Compassionate-Schools.

Full Article

 “Being at school in a traumatized state is like playing chess in a hurricane.” This statement, from Mount Vernon high-school teacher Kenneth Fox, provides a vivid reminder that learning in school isn’t just about academics. Effective social interactions and emotional regulation are critical life skills and are part of formal learning in today’s schools.  

Fox’s quote is highlighted in a free guidebook offered by Washington’s Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI). “The Heart of Learning and Teaching: Compassion, Resiliency, and Academic Success,” is part of an emerging effort to help children who struggle to thrive in difficult lives. Also part of that effort is a five-part online training module that OSPI added to its website last September to help school staff support children with behavioral health challenges. The Social-Emotional Learning Module is free and accessible to anyone wanting new tools for helping children manage themselves and their emotions more skillfully. OSPI’s introductory page to the training includes the following statement:

“When we think of educating the whole child, social and emotional development must be considered as a part of overall instruction. SEL is broadly understood as a process through which individuals build awareness and skills in managing emotions, setting goals, establishing relationships, and making responsible decisions that support success in school and in life.”

OSPI has been developing this program since the 2015 Washington State Legislature directed OSPI to convene an SEL Benchmarks workgroup. The full report, along with notes from previous meetings are available on the SEL Benchmarks Workgroup Website. Last year’s legislature followed up by directing OSPI to create the training modules, and work is ongoing to develop a model of best practices and report on progress by June 30, 2019.

The Washington State Board of Education in its Legislative Priorities for the 2018 Legislative Session included a statement that “urges the Legislature to invest in social-emotional and trauma-informed educational approaches.”

The movement toward Social Emotional Learning (SEL) has grown from knowledge that trauma profoundly impacts educational outcomes. In the late 1990s, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released its first report about Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs). Dr. Vincent Felitti, then the CDC’s chief of preventive medicine, boldly proclaimed childhood trauma a national health crisis. The report led to development of an ACEs survey, which scores a person’s likelihood of suffering lifelong physical and mental health impairments resulting from trauma. An ACEs score of 4, the study found, makes a child 32 times more likely to have behavior problems at school.

The data inspired researchers and educators to seek new ways to help children cope so they can manage themselves at school—and in life. A variety of training programs have become available, and a new conversation has begun about how schools can help children build resiliency.

Generally, a trauma-informed teacher or school establishes specific instructional techniques to help children understand their emotions and identify what’s happening and what to do next. Schoolwide programs are becoming more common, and special education students may have specific Social Emotional Learning (SEL) goals within the Individualized Education Program (IEP). For children who need extra support in this area, a Functional Behavior Assessment (FBA) can provide data for generating a Behavior Intervention Plan (BIP). The Parent Center Hub provides detailed information on this process.

A trauma-informed instructor might use a specific tool to help the child label an episode of dysregulation, such as the Zones of Regulation, which encourage self-observation and emotional awareness. Another good example is the “brain-hand model” described by Dr. Dan Siegel, a well-known neurobiologist and author who has helped lead a movement toward science-informed practices. The basic premise is this:

  1. Hold up your hand. The base of your open palm represents the brain stem, where basic functions like digestion and breathing are regulated.
  2. Cross your thumb over your palm. This represents the central brain (amygdala), where emotions are processed.
  3. Fold your four fingers across your thumb. They represent your frontal cortex, where problem-solving and learning happen.
  4. Imagine something emotional triggers you, and lift your fingers. When you “flip your lid,” emotions rule. Problem behaviors become probable as you try to cope with fight/flight instincts. You won’t make much sense until regulation is restored—and your fingers can fold over again.

One agency that teaches this self-awareness tool is Sound Discipline, a non-profit based in Seattle that offers a training called “Building Resiliency: Reaching Children Through Connection and Care.” Begun by pediatrician Jody McVittie, Sound Discipline has provided training for dozens of Washington schools and hopes to reach 100 schools statewide by 2021. A principal goal is to train professionals and parents to collaborate with students in problem solving. Helping a student repair damage from a behavior incident, for example, teaches resilience and develops mental agility. “Children don’t want to be inappropriate,” McVittie emphasizes. “They are doing the best they can in the moment.”

Like similar programs, Sound Discipline describes “problem” behaviors as coping mechanisms. Acting out is a child’s attempt to manage stress or confusing emotions, and stern punishments can re-ignite the trauma, making the behavior worse instead of better.

The data clearly indicate that educational outcomes improve dramatically when students can manage themselves socially and emotionally. A critical measure of the impact is a reduction in suspensions and expulsions. The 2016 Children’s Mental Health Report from the Child Mind Institute shows that proactively teaching “restorative discipline” reduced school suspensions by nearly 50 percent.

The report states: “Restorative Discipline/Justice includes strategies to both prevent children from breaking the rules and intervene after an infraction has occurred. Some elements are focused on reducing the likelihood of student rule breaking (proactive circles where students and teachers talk about their feelings and expectations) and others on intervening afterwards (e.g., restorative conferences where the parties talk about what happened). In all cases the focus is on avoiding punishment for the sake of punishment.”

Parents can play an important role in furthering trauma-informed approaches by learning about and healing their own trauma experiences, applying trauma-informed principles in their parenting and by learning how to talk about these approaches with schools. Here are a few ideas:

  • Ask teachers and district officials to describe how social and emotional learning are integrated into general and individualized programming.
  • Ask whether the school is using restorative methods to help children learn from their mistakes.
  • Ask about people at the school who regularly check in and show caring respect toward your child. Dr. Bruce Perry, whose research supports trauma-informed initiatives, says, “Relationships are the agents of change and the most powerful therapy is human love.”

Here are a few resources for more information about adverse childhood experiences and trauma-informed practices:

CDC ACE Report
Resilience: The Biology of Stress and the Science of Hope, a film by KPJR
Sound Discipline
Dan Siegel’s Hand Model of the Brain
Edutopia.org/Creating More Compassionate Classrooms—Joshua Block
2016 Children’s Mental Health Report
The Heart of Learning and Teaching: Compassionate Schools
Aces Too High
The National Child Traumatic Stress Network Learning Center
The National Institute for Trauma and Loss in Children
Why Schools Need to be Trauma Informed
OSPI k12.wa.us/Student Support/SEL