Social Emotional Learning, Part 2: Trauma-Informed Instruction

A Brief Overview

  • Understanding trauma and providing consistent skill building in Social Emotional Learning (SEL) can improve outcomes in education and elsewhere.
  • Washington’s Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction provides free SEL training materials for educators and families on its website: k12.wa.us.
  • Trauma-informed adults can use specific strategies to help children understand their emotions, describe what is happening, and make skillful decisions about what to do next. Read on for ideas about what works.
  • Family caregivers can ask school staff what they know about trauma-informed instruction and how their own knowledge and training in SEL informs their strategies when teaching a class or a specific student.

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 is not just about academics. Effective social interactions and emotional regulation are critical lifelong skills.

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.

OSPI also provides SEL learning activities for families and educators. OSPI addresses family caregivers directly to describe the resource: “SEL provides skills to do things like cope with feelings, set goals, and get along with others. You can help your kids work on these skills at home and have some fun along the way. It’s important to discuss the SEL skill that will be addressed in the activity (e.g., kindness, empathy, self-exploration, decision-making) to make the activity more focused and targeted on that skill.”

Statewide SEL initiatives have been boosted by a sequence of legislative actions. The 2015 legislature directed OSPI to convene an SEL Benchmarks workgroup, and subsequent bills supported development of SEL learning standards. Information about the history of the work is available through OSPI’s website: k12.wa.us. PAVE provides an article with an overview of the SEL standards and more: State Standards Guide Social Emotional Learning for all Ages and Abilities

Trauma-Informed instruction starts with SEL support for educators

Movement toward Social Emotional Learning (SEL) has grown from knowledge that trauma profoundly impacts educational outcomes. In the 1990s, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released findings about Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), which leave children less resilient and less able to manage their behavior.

Dr. Vincent Felitti, then CDC 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.

As data from the ACEs study began to circulate, educators sought new ways to help children cope at school. The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) formed in 1994 with the goal of establishing evidence based SEL as an essential part of education.

In 1997, CASEL and the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD) partnered on Promoting Social and Emotional Learning: Guidelines for Educators, with strategies for SEL programming from preschool through grade 12. “This was the first book of its kind,” CASEL states, “and it laid the foundation for the country to begin addressing the ‘missing piece’ in education.”

CASEL helped fund a February 2017 report about SEL training for teachers. To Reach the Students, Teach the Teachers examines SEL as an aspect of teacher certification and concludes that higher education has more work to do to make sure teachers are prepared:

“The implications for good teaching, and for the implementation of SEL in particular, make it clear there’s serious work to be done. If teachers are not aware of their own social and emotional development and are not taught effective instructional practices for SEL, they are less likely to educate students who thrive in school, careers, and life.”

Toxic stress results from untreated trauma

A 2016 film, Resilience, by KPJR Films, looks at an aspect of trauma called “toxic stress,” which results from exposure to strong, frequent, and/or prolonged adversity—such as physical or emotional abuse, chronic neglect, caregiver substance abuse or mental illness, violence, economic hardship, etc.

According to the film’s website, “Toxic stress can trigger hormones that wreak havoc on the brains and bodies of children, putting them at a greater risk for disease, homelessness, prison time, and early death. While the broader impacts of poverty worsen the risk, no segment of society is immune.

“Resilience, however, also chronicles the dawn of a movement that is determined to fight back. Trailblazers in pediatrics, education, and social welfare are using cutting-edge science and field-tested therapies to protect children from the insidious effects of toxic stress—and the dark legacy of a childhood that no child would choose.”

Tip: Ask about a teacher’s experience and training in SEL

Family caregivers can ask school staff what they know about trauma-informed instruction and how their own knowledge and training in SEL informs their strategies when teaching a class or a specific student.

Collaborate with the teacher to consider whether an approach at home might match what’s being used in the educational setting. Common responses and phrases will reinforce a child’s emerging SEL skills and provide predictability, which is evidence-based to comfort and calm children.

What does trauma-informed instruction mean?

Generally, trauma-informed instructional techniques help children understand their emotions, describe what is happening, and make skillful decisions about what to do next.

An agency called Edutopia provides an article that lists some common misunderstanding about trauma-informed instruction. One is that children with trauma in their past need to be “fixed.”

“Our kids are not broken, but our systems are,” the article by elementary principal Mathew Portell states. “Operating in a trauma-informed way does not fix children; it is aimed at fixing broken and unjust systems and structures that alienate and discard students who are marginalized.”

Portell, whose Nashville, Tenn., school has been spotlighted as a leader in trauma-informed strategies, points out also that staff are not acting as therapists. “Our part in helping students with trauma is focusing on relationships, just as we do with all of our students. The strong, stable, and nurturing relationships that we build with our students and families can serve as a conduit for healing.”

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 Dan Siegel, a well-known neurobiologist and author who has helped lead a movement toward science-informed practices. PAVE provides a video demonstrating the technique to avoid “flipping your lid.”

Here’s how to make and use a hand model of the brain:

  • Hold up your hand. The base of your open palm represents the brain stem, where basic functions like digestion and breathing are regulated.
  • Cross your thumb over your palm. This represents the central brain (amygdala), where emotions process.
  • Fold your four fingers down over your thumb. They represent your frontal cortex, where problem-solving and learning happen.
  • Imagine something emotional triggers you and begin to flutter or lift your fingers.
  • When you “flip your lid,” the fingers pop up all the way while emotions based in the amygdala rule. Problem behaviors may become probable as you try to cope with fight/flight instincts based in the autonomic nervous system.
  • Practice even, steady breathing to regulate the nervous system, and slowly settle the fingers back over the thumb.
  • As your fingers fold down, consider what the mind feels like when problem-solving is accessible versus how it feels when emotions disrupt clear thinking.
  • Consider how this hand model might help you or someone else recognize and manage an emotional moment.

SEL builds resilience and reduces need for discipline

A Washington agency that teaches self-awareness and resiliency is Sound Discipline, a non-profit based in Seattle. Begun by pediatrician Jody McVittie, Sound Discipline trains about 5,000 educators and parents each year, estimating to impact more than 100,000 children annually.

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.

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.”

Educational outcomes improve dramatically when students can manage themselves socially and emotionally. A measure of the impact is a reduction in suspensions and expulsions. A 2016 report from the Child Mind Institute shows that proactively teaching restorative discipline reduces school suspensions and drop-out rates:

“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.”

Trauma toolkits for educators and families

As part of its materials for school staff and families, OSPI provides a handout that focuses on culturally responsive SEL approaches. The handout states, “Culturally responsive practices are intentional in critically examining power and privilege, implicit biases, and institutional racism, which serve as barriers to realizing the full potential of transformative social emotional learning (SEL) practices.”

The National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN.org) provides articles about evidence-based practices for adults supporting children with a wide range of circumstances. The website includes links specifically for military families, for example, and includes content related to early learning, homeless youth, and for families and educators supporting children with intellectual and developmental disabilities who also have experienced trauma (I/DD Toolkit).

Adults need self-care and their own SEL to support children

Family caregivers 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.

According to Lee Collyer, OSPI’s program supervisor for special education and student support, adults may need to consider their own escalation cycles and develop a personal plan for self-control to support children. Collyer helped develop a three-part video training series for parents, especially while children are learning from home during the COVID-19 pandemic. PAVE provides a short article describing the video series, with links to each section: Webinars offer Parent Training to Support Behavior during Continuous Learning.

In Spring 2020, PAVE launched a series of mindfulness videos with short practices for all ages and abilities and an article with self-care strategies: Stay-Home Help: Get Organized, Feel Big Feelings, Breathe.

PAVE provides a list of resource links to specifically support families during the coronavirus pandemic, including this one: Washington Listens is a program to support anyone in Washington State experiencing stress due to the COVID-19 pandemic. For anonymous support, call 1-833-681-0211, Mon.– Fri., 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. and weekends 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. TTY and language access services are available.

Ideas to Support Children and Families Impacted by Abuse, Trauma and Divorce

Brief Overview

  • The National Education Association (NEA) recognizes that childhood experiences related to domestic abuse, trauma or divorce affect education. This article includes recommendations for teachers, family members or other adults who might advocate for a student who needs more help due to challenging life circumstances.
  • Researchers agree that a trauma-sensitive approach to special education can be critical and urge schools to approach discipline with caution in order to avoid re-traumatizing students.
  • After a divorce, both parents participate in educational decisions unless the divorce decree or another court action specifically removes a parent’s rights. This article includes tips for navigating those circumstances. A parenting plan that designates a primary parent for school interactions is one idea.
  • Schools can accommodate survivors of domestic abuse to help them participate safely in the special education process for their children. Alternative meeting spaces are among ideas further described below.

Full Article:

Students who experience trauma often have a rough time staying emotionally stable and keeping their behavior on track for learning at school. Research about Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) lists many childhood conditions that impact a person’s lifelong health and access to opportunities. High on the list are trauma from domestic abuse and divorce. For many families, complex trauma includes both.

A child’s response to trauma may look like disobedience or lack of motivation. A family member or teacher might notice that a child is regressing. A student may have delays in social communication or emotional regulation–skills schools teach in an emerging area of education called Social Emotional Learning. Some children survive severe distress but don’t demonstrate obvious changes in behavior or disrupt the classroom. In all cases, figuring out what’s happened and how to help requires a thoughtful, individualized process.

A family member, school employee or any concerned adult can respond by seeking an evaluation to determine whether the student has a disability and qualifies for services delivered through an Individualized Education Program (IEP) or a Section 504 plan.

Note: Section 504 is part of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which protects individuals with a disabling condition that impact a “major life activity.” An article on PAVE’s website further describes Section 504 and the differences between a 504 Plan and an IEP. PAVE also provides comprehensive articles and on-demand webinars about special education process, the IDEA, evaluation, and other topics listed under Learning in School at wapave.org.

A behavioral or emotional disability that significantly impacts access to learning can qualify a student for an IEP under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) if the student demonstrates a need for Specially Designed Instruction (SDI). Among the IDEA’s 14 qualifying categories of disability are Emotional Disturbance, which captures a variety of behavioral health conditions, and Other Health Impairment, which sometimes captures conditions related to attention deficit, anxiety or depression. A child who isn’t found to have a qualifying disability might benefit from a behavior support plan or counseling services at school. 

Supporting and educating students with trauma histories has become a priority for the National Education Association (NEA), with a specific focus on students who have experienced or witnessed domestic violence, sexual abuse and related traumas.

The problems are widespread: More than half of women who experience domestic violence have children younger than 12, and data indicate that nearly half of those children witnessed the abuse.

Response to a child’s symptoms may be complicated by cultural considerations: Some cultures may be more accepting of abuse, less trusting of authorities or afraid of the fallout within the community. An agency in Washington that helps when multicultural issues create barriers is Open Doors for Multicultural Families.

Best Practice Strategies to Help

On its website, the NEA offers an article: Best practices for supporting and educating students who have experienced domestic violence or sexual victimization. The article provides strategies to support traumatized students. Here is a summary of some points:

  • Provide structure, a sense of security and a safety plan: “Children who experience abuse often yearn for structure and predictability.”
  • Help students understand available support and the teacher’s role as a mandated reporter: “The larger the number of people available to listen to a student, the more likely that student is to disclose abuse.”
  • Validate and reassure the student: “Provide non-judgmental, validating statements if a student discloses information. Sample statements include That must have been scary or It must be difficult to see that happening.”
  • Identify triggers of anxiety or challenging behavior: “…be prepared for negative emotions and behaviors from the student in response to triggers.”
  • Use a daily Check In to provide a solid foundation for relationship building: “It can be helpful to use pictures or a rating scale to help students identify and label their emotional states.”
  • Directly teach problem solving skills: “Be honest with students about how you’re feeling and talk through your actions in response to challenging situations.”

Domestic Abuse is Common

Understanding the nature and prevalence of domestic abuse can grow compassion, combat stigma and promote shared problem-solving. The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence (NCADV), defines domestic violence as “willful intimidation, physical assault, battery, sexual assault, and/or other abusive behavior as part of a systematic pattern of power and control perpetrated by one intimate partner against another.”

Acts of domestic violence can be physical, sexual, threatening, emotional or psychological.  Statistically, 1 in 4 women and 1 in 9 men experience some form of domestic violence; its prevalence is noted among all people regardless of age, socio-economic status, sexual orientation, gender, race, religion, or nationality.

How to Notice Something is Wrong

When domestic abuse impacts a child’s access to education, figuring out how to help requires thoughtful consideration. The NEA describes specific characteristics of children who have experienced trauma and how their ability to function is compromised. Here is a summary from NEA’s article:

Regulation

  • Children may find it hard to explain their emotional reactions to situations and events.
  • They may appear inattentive or hyperactive—or fluctuate between both.
  • Loud or busy activities can trigger a confusing reaction: a child might lose control about something that is usually a favorite.

Social Skills

  • Children may have “disordered social skills,” playing inappropriately or lacking typical boundaries.
  • They may withdraw socially or try to control situations in ways that seem rude or look like bullying.
  • They might develop “friendships” based on negativity and be unable to develop high-quality, appropriate friends.

Cognitive Function

  • Children impacted by trauma may be mentally overwhelmed and struggle to follow directions or shift from one activity to another, even with prompting. (Adults may mislabel these cognitive inabilities as deliberate or defiant behaviors.)
  • Children may overly depend on others but struggle to ask for help.
  • An impaired working memory can make it difficult for the child to start or finish a task, pay attention and/or concentrate.

Evaluate with Trauma in Mind

The Federation for Children with Special Needs provides a downloadable article called Trauma Sensitivity During the IEP Process. The article provides suggestions for making the evaluation process trauma sensitive and includes this statement:

“By becoming aware that violence may be at the heart of many of the child’s learning and behavioral difficulties, school personnel may be able to mitigate much of the lasting impact of trauma.”

The federation urges schools to approach discipline with caution in order to avoid re-traumatizing students and encourages use of the Functional Behavioral Assessment tool and a framework of Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS):

“Self-regulation describes the ability of a child to ‘put the brakes on’ in times of emotional stress. Traumatized children are hyper-aroused; they view their world as dangerous and unpredictable and they are prepared to react in a moment’s notice, usually in inappropriate (and possibly unsafe) ways…IEP Team Meeting members can go a long way towards ameliorating this hyper-arousal by asking for Functional Behavioral Assessments to ascertain the reason for the inappropriate reactions as well as ways to replace the behaviors with better coping skills and strategies.”

A trauma-informed approach at school meetings can help the team figure out why unexpected behaviors happen or why academic progress seems so hard to achieve. Promoting healthy relationships by designing intentional time with trusted adults and developing a creative strategy for Social Emotional Learning (SEL) at school are strategies the team can discuss. A trauma-informed approach, the federation contends, “encourages educators to ask, What happened to you? instead of What’s wrong with you?

When Divorce Complicates Work with the School

Another domestic issue that sometimes complicates circumstances for families navigating special education is divorce. The US Department of Education stresses that parents or legal guardians are decision-makers for their children. Whether parents are married or separated, they both are equal decision-makers in special education process unless the divorce decree or another court action specifically removes that right.

A parenting plan can be written with specific instructions about which parent is the educational decision maker.

The school needs a copy of the parenting plan in order to follow it. Without a plan in place, either parent who shares joint legal custody can sign an educational document that requires parental consent, even if the student lives full time with only one parent. Parental rights include access to records and educational information about the student. A non-custodial parent has the right to be informed of meetings and attend meetings.

Parents with joint custody who share parenting decisions may want to draft an agreement with the school to specify how the child’s time is divided and which parent is responsible for specific days, activities or meetings.

Schools Can Offer Safe Space

If one partner has been abused and there is no restraining order to prevent the non-custodial parent from attending school meetings, schools can accommodate the domestic abuse survivor by offering a separate meeting in a different space, at a separate time.

If a parent is bound by a restraining order, the IEP team will need to determine whether the order limits access to the school building and whether the order specifies that the parent has lost rights under the IDEA. If the order limits building access, but does not limit IDEA rights, then that parent has the right to attend a meeting in another space or by phone. A restraining order might include “no contact” with the child, and the meeting must ensure that the child’s safe distance from the parent is protected.  

Visit the following websites for additional information:

Access Rights of Parents of Students Eligible for Special Education (Washington State)

Best practices for supporting and educating students who have experienced domestic violence or sexual victimization.

In the Best Interests of the Child: Individualized Education Program (IEP) Meetings When Parents Are In Conflict (PDF)

Divorce: It Can Complicate Children’s Special Education Issues

Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs)

Trauma Sensitivity During the IEP Process (PDF)

Trauma Informed Schools Resources (OSPI)