Although school counselors are major players in developing a trauma-sensitive school, districts must provide the necessary tools for this important work. Schools are forever adapting to the needs of their students and families while also dealing with outside influences. In Denver Public Schools in Denver, Colo., where almost 70 percent of students live in poverty and students struggle to cope with racial tensions or intolerant political messages, trauma has a permanent presence.
Many building and district leaders aren’t aware of this pervasive trauma. Student behaviors may appear to be attention deficit, anger, depression or disengagement. However, if the cause isn’t appropriately identified, schools may be trying to address a challenge that isn’t actually present.
Trauma can be, but is not necessarily, related to one significant event. Trauma is more related to a student’s ability to cope with highly stressful experiences. Our students often witness violence in the community or on the news, and regularly experience lockdown drills. Homelessness and transience can create inconsistent home and school environments, gaps in learning and low social supports.
The District Role
District leaders are tasked with getting schools and students the support and access they need. Many districts focus on a college-going culture in which all schools ensure students access and opportunity. Much like creating a college-going culture, however, all staff, from building maintenance staff to administrators, need to be trained to be trauma-sensitive. At Denver Public Schools, we’ve been working on developing this message across all schools serving our 92,000 students.
Our district personnel work to train all staff in all schools about how trauma affects our students and learning environments. We focus on giving schools flexibility to assess students’ needs and create trauma-informed practices that fit in their individual schools. This flexibility is important in implementing genuine and effective systems. District staff can help standardize the minimum level of care and provide resources for all schools while helping individual schools assess their culture and needs. We also work to support collaborative thinking between schools, which can help creativity and allows best practices to emerge. Supporting this expertise is an easy way to get voices in the room, build engagement and investment among staff and allow school counselors from across the district to share resources and programming that’s working for them.
School counselors provide training to school staff and set the norm while also preparing teachers to be more patient with students in heated moments. This universal understanding requires administrative support and highly prepared school counselors ready to use their expertise with examples and explanations.
As a district coordinator, I support school counselors in understanding trauma-informed practices and provide the resources they need as they prepare the school and support their staff during implementation. This whole-school approach is important; a school culture is negatively affected if staff are quick to discipline students, causing students to disconnect further from their education and the school environment.
Like school culture, staff culture is important to a trauma-informed system. If staff members have a low tolerance for frustration, they may face challenges when students disengage, aren’t able to focus or act out of anger. As a district, it is important to evaluate staff quality of life. If staff satisfaction or evaluations are low, there may be struggles implementing a trauma-sensitive programming.
Ultimately, districts can take several actions to evaluate and support their students. Denver Public Schools has worked hard and is still working to decrease suspension rates and support restorative justice practices. This patience with students is paramount to supporting positive school culture and reengaging students who feel uninvited to our education systems.
Building Community Connection
Districts should specifically work to find resources in the community to support traumatized students and their families to increase access to mental health resources. Denver Public Schools works closely with multiple community organizations to bring positive adults and much-needed resources into students’ lives while also providing convenience to families. Many community resources are housed in the school buildings for families and students to access easily.
School counselors are vital in the referral to outside resources for long-term services. Although it is our role to provide immediate intervention, it is outside our role to provide the long-term counseling some students need to overcome trauma. In this work, it may be necessary for school counselors to help families understand their children’s symptoms and need for assistance. One struggle we have yet to solve is access to culturally and linguistically diverse services for our highly diverse student population. We are proud of the varying backgrounds our students and families bring to our school communities and hope to provide resources that engage our families.
Districts can also work to increase access to opportunities in the community for positive and engaging learning experiences. We have expanded our career-focused education and opportunities for mentoring, work experience, internships and apprenticeships in career pathways that align with students’ career goals. Working to re-engage students who have felt disconnected from their education through positive relationships with adults in the community can help restore students’ interest in their education and expose them to positive environments. Confidentiality can be a challenge for these systems; however, also engaging the parents in these relationships can create a caring and comprehensive support system. Supporting student engagement in school requires a strengths-based approach and adults who make students excited about their future again. Although this may be a slow process for students who are still learning to cope with trauma, patience is key. Denver Public Schools students who experience these options graduate at a higher rate than those who might follow a more traditional high school course plan.
Working toward a holistic, trauma-sensitive system is paramount to our students’ success. This system is still developing in some of our schools, and we continue to adapt to our students’ sudden and unexpected needs.
This emphasis on validating and supporting student trauma has helped us significantly decrease our suspension and dropout rates and increase our graduation rates among all subgroups in recent years. Overall, this means more of our students are accessing and completing their education, allowing them to reach the successful life we want for our students.
Samantha Haviland, Ph.D., is the director of counseling for Denver Public Schools in Colorado. She also works as an adjunct professor for the University of Northern Colorado and is on the board for the Colorado School Counselor Association. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.