How to be a Trauma-Informed School Social Worker by Eileen Dombo

Trauma, Children, and Schools

Our world is an increasingly scary place for children. Shootings, natural disasters, immigration raids, community violence, poverty, bullying, and the high incidence of child abuse and neglect mean that many children and teens are exposed to direct and indirect forms of trauma. These conditions, borne of socio-economic and political discord, create the need for school social workers to address various mental health needs while promoting successful school experiences. Research shows that upwards of 70% of children in school settings report experiencing at least one traumatic event before age 16 (Layne et. al., 2011). Professionals who work with children and teens in schools are regularly faced with situations where trauma plays a key role in educational disruptions, yet they often lack the tools to deal with them effectively. Students struggle to regulate their emotions and behaviors, producing obstacles to their learning capacities. Classrooms and learning groups are unable to stay on task. Students who act out disorder schoolrooms and study groups, interfering with the teaching-learning experience for educators and students. School communities see trauma-driven difficulties translated into home-school-community problems. Graduation rates, expulsion, discipline issues, and poor academic scores are taxing available resources in the school and community. Since the correlation between high rates of trauma exposure and poor academic performance is established in the scholarly literature (Perfect et al., 2016), and the creation of trauma-informed schools and communities has been offered as a solution to this problem (Walkley & Cox, 2013), this blog post will address strategies and techniques for helping your school become trauma-informed.

What Does It Mean to Be Trauma-Informed?

As a school social worker, being trauma-informed means that you approach your work with the understanding that the kids in schools who are having social, emotional, and learning difficulties are highly likely to have current or past traumatic experiences. It means that you operate from the mindset that the behaviors you see are ways the individual has learned to cope and adapt as a result of trauma. The effects of exposure to traumatic events varies for each individual. A traumatic experience can be temporarily distressing, or have longer-lasting, more destabilizing effects. Much of this depends on the risk and protective factors present, as well as the presence of strengths and resilience. The hallmark of trauma is that the experience overwhelms one’s normal capacity to cope, so the sequela, or the after-effects of the event, are subjective and unique for each individual. Roughly 50% of children and adolescents who experience trauma develop Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, commonly referred to as PTSD (Afifi et al., 2011). The progression from experience to disorder is connected to the type, duration and severity of the traumatic experiences, with rates of re-victimizing being upwards of a 69% chance for children with multiple forms of maltreatment (Pears, Kim, & Fisher, 2008). Intense and prolonged exposure is associated with more profound sequela (Lawson, 2009). Often traumatic experiences are divided between those that are interpersonal in nature (neglect, physical abuse, sexual abuse), and those that are not (natural disasters, accidents). With interpersonal trauma, the experience of abuse from someone they are supposed to be able to trust and rely upon can create sequela know as complex trauma. As these experiences arise during development, the impact on the child’s ability to manage emotions and develop safe and secure relationships can be profound (Cook et al., 2005). Estimates of substantiated childhood abuse reports in the United States hover around one million annually (D’Andrea et al., 2012). Therefore, being trauma-informed means that your awareness that trauma is a subjective experience; each individual will experience and react to trauma in their own unique way, will guide what you do, and