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Trauma-Informed MTSS

By Jennifer Betters-Bubon, Ph.D., and Sarah Flier | March 2022

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Imagine walking into a school where trauma-informed ideals and practices are integrated throughout a multitiered system of supports (MTSS). You pop into a classroom and note social/emotional learning is integrated throughout content areas, with time dedicated to building the student/teacher relationship. Students have access to calm-down spaces and elementary school children are energetically moving through a sensory path in the hallway. Staff wellness is prioritized in the newsletters and in practice. Staff development focuses on mental health, antiracism, neurodiversity and equity.

As staff talk about students, it’s clear they recognize trauma is a lens rather than a label. Family voices are included in decisions, and educators throughout the building take time to know parents, their backgrounds and values. A flyer in the hallway advertises a family night taking place in the community rather than the school. All students, school staff and families feel welcome and valued.

Now, more than ever, school staff must consider the impact of trauma on students, staff and families. In October 2020, research from the JED Foundation found that 31 percent of parents said their child’s mental or emotional health had worsened during the pandemic. We must consider the very real trauma students and families have experienced and its impact on student learning.

Trauma-Informed Schools
Trauma is a general term describing an event experienced by an individual as physically or emotionally harmful or life threatening and that has lasting adverse effects on the individual’s functioning and mental, physical, social, emotional or spiritual well-being. Racial trauma, a form of race-based stress, refers to the mental and emotional injury caused by encounters with racial bias and ethnic discrimination, racism and hate crimes, which can be real or perceived.

It’s not uncommon for school counselors to be aware of traumatic events students have experienced. In fact, you may be the first person students open up to about their trauma.

Integrating trauma-informed approaches into schools has become more prevalent. At six elementary schools in a Wisconsin district, the school counselors participated in the Wisconsin Department of Instruction’s trauma-sensitive schools online professional development. With this learning, they educated school staff at each of the schools through professional development days. All certified and non-certified staff were invited to attend and learned about adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), trauma and brain development, and what schools can do to combat trauma’s effects on children. Afterward, school counselors had many conversations with staff about trauma and the presence of ACEs in any given classroom, and even acknowledged their own trauma. The training and conversations led to a trauma-informed lens becoming part of how the district’s school counselors understood students and family systems.

School counselors can work smarter by organizing trauma-informed approaches within MTSS. Using MTSS ensures school counselors’ efforts are integrated within a trauma-informed system.

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, trauma-informed systems are grounded in safety, trustworthiness/transparency, peer support, collaboration/mutuality, empowerment, voice and choice, and cultural issues. Creating trauma-informed MTSS starts like building any other system – by examining data. What do needs assessments, school climate surveys, office discipline referrals and student outcome data tell you?

Connecting with students, staff and families about their needs is also critically important. Trauma-informed systems must be grounded in staff wellness, so talk with your administrator about your school climate. To understand students’ needs, have minute meetings or hold focus groups, and include students on your advisory council.

A Tiered Approach
With a clear picture of needs, you can create tiered practices. Building a true trauma-informed system at Tier 1 starts with the adults in the building. You can teach staff about mental health, regulation strategies and the impact of trauma. Partner with administration to ensure relationship building is integrated into the school’s very fabric. This may look like having a morning meeting time or advisory built into the master schedule. Work alongside school staff to help them understand the effects of trauma on the brain and the impact of implicit and explicit bias and racism on students and families. Make sure all staff understand that it doesn’t matter if they know a student’s specific trauma. Instead, teachers and schools should assume every student in the room has experienced trauma. Those practices are beneficial to both students who have experienced trauma and those who haven’t.

Similar work can happen with parents, guardians and caretakers as you engage in authentic relationship building. Can school functions, such as back-to-school nights and information sessions, happen in community settings rather than school settings? Caretakers may have trauma responses from their own school experiences; acknowledge this by finding creative ways to meet caretakers where they are most comfortable.

With the foundation in place for adults, you can focus on Tier 1 supports available to all, and in trauma-informed systems, what’s good for some is good for all. As such, transformative social/emotional learning, relationships and trauma-informed regulation strategies should be integrated into what students learn each day. Offering all students opportunities to use sensory paths – both as brain breaks as a whole class and individually as needed – can teach self-regulation and positive coping skills. Another Tier 1 support can be Calm Corners in each classroom for students to use when needed.

Tier 2 practices are those are available to some students who need more support. Examine data, including universal screeners and outcome data, with school staff to determine which students may need additional support. Too often, school staff may ask, “What’s wrong with these students?” School counselors who implement trauma-informed MTSS help change that question to, “What happened to these students?” In response to data, provide individual check-ins and small-group interventions using evidence-based programs.

Within trauma-informed Tier 3, school counselors serve in collaborative and consultative roles. Relationships with families become more important, as families often provide a window into student struggles school staff may not see. Create relationships with community partners to ensure supports outside of school. Some districts are adopting the co-located mental health model, in which the school provides a space for a therapist to meet with students during the school day, although billing goes through insurance just as if the child were visiting a clinic. This allows opportunities for consistent services for families with barriers that prevent traveling to appointments.

The essence of trauma-informed systems comes down to data and relationships. Don’t overthink it; this is what we school counselors know and do. Follow your instincts. Reach out, connect and network. Take time to learn what other schools/districts have done, and check with your state school counselor association for additional local resources, contacts and ideas. With resources and teamwork, you can turn your school into one that is trauma-informed and helps all students.

Jennifer Betters-Bubon, Ph.D., is an associate professor and program coordinator (school and clinical mental health counseling) at the University of Wisconsin – Whitewater. Sarah Flier is a school counselor at Willow River Elementary School, Hudson, Wis., and a 2021 School Counselor of the Year finalist.