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A holistic approach to addressing trauma in schools

Three Georgia Southern COE professors are working together to better prepare teachers for trauma seen in students

Georgia Southern University College of Education professors surveyed school professionals in Georgia to determine next steps for implementing trauma informed practices in schools.

Regina Rahimi, Ed.D., professor of middle grades and secondary education; Delores Liston, Ph.D., professor of curriculum studies; and Amee Adkins, Ph.D., professor and department chair of middle grades and secondary education, agree that a lack of mental health professionals and support in schools coupled with elevated levels of trauma children are experiencing has fueled their passion for making a change.

Trauma informed practice provides structure or framework that helps adults to understand, recognize and respond to the effects of various forms of trauma that youth may be experiencing.

“Research demonstrates to us that experience of trauma in youth is ubiquitous,” said Adkins. “If you look at a room of 20 people, you can safely assume that most of them, upwards of 60% of them, experienced trauma in their youth. As adults, they may or may not have had help mitigating that trauma. When they are children, we should assume that they don’t have help mitigating the effects of that trauma and that their lives will be better if they get some help. So trauma informed practice, whether you are in social work, mental health services or an educator, says start with the assumption that you may have youth who are living with trauma, and asks what can you do to create a soothing, peaceful, functioning environment for them.”

Tactics could be as simple as giving the student a sense of control through allowing choices, evoking stability and routine, or providing a safe, predictable environment. Other examples include room lighting, providing quiet spaces and de-escalation tactics such as breathing exercises.

The COE team worked together to disseminate a survey to educators in the state of Georgia, receiving nearly 800 responses. The results indicated that teachers are generally aware of trauma amongst their students, but their typical response is to refer them to the counselor. While a great resource, many schools are understaffed in mental health professionals, meaning that the students may not receive immediate care.

“There is a woeful need for more mental health care, more counselors and more adults in general that can speak to these issues,” said Rahimi. “This is what has led to the passion we have for this project. Where there is an absence of counselors, we need to help teachers understand the consequences of trauma and some of the social and emotional needs of students.”

“We are not trying to turn teachers into counselors,” added Liston. “We want to equip teachers with tools to identify students who are facing these difficulties as well as recognize that certain behaviors or patterns could, in fact, be indicators of trauma. Then, we can help them understand tactics to not compound the problem.”

Utilizing data from their research, Rahimi, Liston and Adkins are working to create a professional learning network that captures national research and engagement and brings it down to a local level. The team plans to utilize a central website along with various social media platforms to share and connect individuals with resources and information about trauma in students.

“Based on the survey alone, there is a real interest and a real need in Georgia schools,” said Rahimi. “We want to extend this beyond teachers so that we can create a network where we tap into the expertise outside of schools and collaborate to sustain trauma informed practices in the community.”

“Long term, ultimate goals would include communities beyond education–mental health, criminal justice, recreational,” added Adkins. “Trauma informed practices should be adopted in all areas that serve youth.”

The mitigation of stress and trauma will, ultimately, place youth in a better position for future life outcomes as adults. “Think of this in terms of safer schools and ultimately a safer society,” said Liston. “There is a sea of fear that today that exists in schools that creates a vicarious trauma. We should always be thinking through making safer spaces and de-escalating that trauma.” 
Want to join the conversation about trauma informed practices? Contact ? to become a part of the professional learning network contact Rahimi, lead investigator, at rrahimi@georgiasouthern.edu.

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