Trauma-responsive Educational Practices: Providing Schools with Tools to Address the Youth Mental Health Crisis

Anusha Chinthalapale, AYPF Spring & Summer 2022 Research and Policy Intern

By Anusha Chinthalapale, American Youth Policy Forum

Our youth are facing ever-increasing amounts of trauma and often expected to participate in classroom instruction and interact with educators, administrators, and other students as if none of the trauma exists. And the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the problem, which was a recent focus of an advisory from the U.S. Surgeon General.

“Protecting Youth Mental Health: The U.S. Surgeon General’s Advisory” (2021) 10: https://www.hhs.gov/sites/default/files/surgeon-general-youth-mental-health-advisory.pdf

The Challenge

Although “trauma is broadly experienced across the U.S. student population,” it is “disproportionately concentrated among members of racially and ethnically marginalized and lower-income communities.”

“Protecting Youth Mental Health: The U.S. Surgeon General’s Advisory” (2021) 11: https://www.hhs.gov/sites/default/files/surgeon-general-youth-mental-health-advisory.pdf

Most schools are not equipped to handle the mental health crisis facing our young people. “While most districts did have a school counselor in the 2020-21 school year, only 14 percent met the ratio of one school counselor to 250 students recommended by the American School Counselor Association. And the whiter the district’s student population, the more likely it is to meet the ideal ratios of school psychologists and counselors.” This means that students of color, students with disabilities, LGBTQIA+ students, students with pre-existing mental health conditions, and others at risk for experiencing a mental health issue–due to trauma or other life circumstance–are less likely to receive the support they need for healing and recovery. And, coupled with disproportionate school discipline, these students are facing tremendous hurdles to their well-being.

One Solution: Trauma-informed Educational Practices

The Surgeon General’s advisory also made several key recommendations on how schools can help young people during this crisis:

  • “Create positive, safe, and affirming school environments.”
  • “Expand social and emotional learning programs and other evidence-based approaches that promote healthy development.”
  • “Provide a continuum of supports to meet student mental health needs, including evidence-based prevention practices and trauma-informed mental health care.”
  • “Expand the school-based mental health workforce.”

Trauma-informed educational practices may be a key part of the solution and create the environments and continuum of support.

In the classroom, sometimes unmet mental health challenges manifest into behaviors perceived as disobedience, disrespect, or disruption. “[B]ehavior is the language of trauma; students will show you before they tell you that they are in distress.” Instead of defaulting to punitive practices embedded in traditional school discipline systems, the Trauma-Responsive Educational Practices (TREP) Project advocates for schools to employ trauma-responsive and relational discipline. TREP Founding Project Director and Associate Professor at the University of Chicago Dr. Micere Keels suggests schools prioritize “maintaining student dignity and ensuring that disciplinary interactions strengthen students’ self-regulation capacities.”

Trauma-informed educational practices consist of a positive behavior approach, acknowledgement of a racial-ethnic equity lens to help educators realize implicit biases, strengths-based responses to perceivable issues the student may have inside and outside the classroom, recognizing student dysregulation, and resisting re-traumatizing the student.

Relational discipline consists of “universal mental health precautions,” which include:

  • Displaying nonconfrontational body language
  • Maintaining normal volume and a slow, warm voice
  • Communicating desire to meet student’s needs
  • Listening first
  • Facilitating the student’s sense of safety, agency, and control
  • Authentically expressing the student’s value

Additionally, relational discipline incorporates a set of guidelines intended to engage students during instructional time, which could curb acting-out behaviors from the outset. Building positive relationships between educator and student can open pathways for clear communication about each person’s needs, while also allowing educators to become a part of their students’ support systems.

Issues rooted in trauma are more complicated than what a few clinical experts in schools can address. Rather, a holistic approach like trauma-responsive and relational discipline should be embraced by the entire school – teachers, administrators, and staff. “Schools can reduce the number of students who will need intensive interventions by increasing the capacity of classroom teachers and other non-counseling staff to implement a few of the core components of Tier 2 interventions that are effective in supporting cognitive, emotional, and behavioral regulation.”

Trauma-responsive educational practices are proven effective reforms to address the underlying issues causing hurdles to student success. The numerous resources provided by the Trauma-Responsive Educational Practices Project can be invaluable and indispensable to help schools move toward restorative practices like trauma-responsive and relational discipline. The TREP Project website also includes policy toolkits, mindfulness exercises, and professional development courses.

During the pandemic, the federal government has earmarked additional funding for K-12 schools, which can be used to implement the Surgeon General’s suggestions noted above. However, more targeted funding should be provided to ensure that schools have the resources necessary to increase the number of staff dedicated to supporting student and staff mental health and expand training for all staff to be better equipped to identify and address students’ needs.

This blog would not be possible without funding from the William T. Grant Foundation. The WT Grant Foundation also helped fund the TREP Project website featured in this blog.

To access the resource, please click here.