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Research-based, trauma-responsive education practices

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By Shannon Lasserre-Cortez | May 29, 2019

Creating a trauma-responsive school environment that supports implementing research-based strategies and trauma-sensitive practices requires a multitiered approach. In this post, Shannon Lasserre-Cortez, senior researcher at REL Southwest, discusses how a webinar hosted by REL Southwest addressed the current research on trauma-responsive strategies and practices and provided participants actionable steps on how to create a trauma-sensitive classroom. The event was part of an effort developed through REL Southwest’s Teacher Preparation and Professional Development (SWTPPD) Research Partnership, which supports the Louisiana Department of Education (LDOE) and its efforts to provide qualified teachers for all subjects, particularly in schools serving the highest concentrations of low-income households.

Since 2005, when Hurricanes Katrina and Rita forever changed the landscape and culture of southern Louisiana, teachers in the state have been addressing the instruction of children with traumatic experiences. While practices like improving school climate and providing mental health services to students are widely accepted, if not completely funded, teachers also recognize that students with special emotional needs might need more.

On March 28, 2019, REL Southwest’s Teacher Preparation and Professional Development (SWTPPD) Research Partnership in Louisiana conducted a webinar with the purpose of defining, discussing, and addressing trauma in schools. The event, with 619 registrants, provided educators with research-based, trauma-responsive strategies for classroom instruction that can improve the learning environment for all students. The webinar, Research-Based, Trauma-Responsive Education Practices, was created in response to Louisiana educators and school leaders who found it difficult to sift through the large amount of research on student trauma to find strategies they could use in their own schools and classrooms.

Webinar participants, including teachers, school and district administrators, and state-level staff, had the opportunity to hear from and interact with three research experts on student trauma and learn about how student trauma presents in the classroom from 2018 Louisiana Teacher of the Year, Kimberly Eckert.

A key takeaway for webinar attendees was an overview of practical trauma-sensitive practices in schools. REL Southwest’s Kathleen Guarino described practices that fall into four categories: establishing physical safety, supporting emotional safety, recognizing and reducing trauma-related triggers, and preventing and managing crises. Guarino outlined a multitiered approach to trauma where addressing trauma and building resilience is a schoolwide policy. This includes universal interventions, secondary or group interventions, and tertiary or individual interventions. According to Guarino, “In a trauma-sensitive school, all aspects of the educational environment—from workforce training to engagement with students and families to procedures and policies—are grounded in an understanding of trauma and its impact and are designed to promote resilience for all.”

The presentation also introduced a definition of Adverse Childhood Experiences, or ACEs, that expands the current widely accepted idea of trauma to include more common events, like parental divorce or an incarcerated relative, that also have adverse effects on student learning ability. REL Southwest’s Tammie Causey-Konaté discussed the impact of ACEs on student learning ability, from physiological changes in the brain, through cognitive losses and social delays, to elevated risk of mental and health problems, substance abuse, and criminal justice involvement.

Participants also learned about research on developmental trauma from a neuropsychological perspective. Amy Lansing, of the University of California, San Diego, shared statistics linking learning challenges with ACEs, neurological differences in exposure to ACEs and post-traumatic stress disorder, and research on the cumulative effects of trauma, adversity, and loss. Lansing discussed emotional triggers and how teachers can recognize and react to triggering situations and behaviors that may trigger both their students and themselves.

The bridge event concluded with an interactive discussion led by Kimberly Eckert, 2018 Louisiana Teacher of the Year and current teacher at Brusly High School, part of the West Baton Rouge Parish in Louisiana. Eckert reflected on the research and strategies presented during the webinar and how they resonate with her classroom experience in Louisiana. She discussed the strategies for trauma-sensitive teaching used in her school and classroom and related how recent natural disasters, such as flooding in 2017, have affected students in her area.

Participants were given the opportunity to comment and question the presenters during and after the webinar and to submit feedback indicating how they would use the information presented. Participants reported that, as a result of this event, they would take the following action steps:

  • Plan professional development on this topic using materials and information from the webinar
  • Review and revise current professional development practices to facilitate understanding of trauma-informed practice
  • Develop a new training model to support teachers and students
  • Incorporate the research into district reports
  • Use the information to make policy recommendations
  • Consider how to modify their own practices and become more mindful in interacting with students and other people
  • Engage in advocacy activities

REL Southwest looks forward to continued collaboration with partners from the Louisiana Department of Education and other organizations through the Teacher Preparation and Professional Development research partnership.