The Infrastructure of Trauma-Informed Schools Requires a Human Scaffold

United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA) released a viral video called “I am a teacher and you want to arm me?” in which the teacher’s union calls for more school psychologists, counselors, social workers, and nurses – rather than arming educators – to meet the needs of students and schools. Support personnel-student ratios were the subject of a Washington Post article calling these professionals “part of the human scaffolding constructed around students to help them do their best in school.”

Seeing my field of school psychology uplifted during this public discourse on school safety and crisis response brings me hope for the future direction of reform efforts focused on students’ emotional wellbeing. This is already a focus for schools through efforts such as school-wide positive behavior support (SWPBIS) and social-emotional learning (SEL). Trauma-sensitive schooling is another movement on the rise, helping those who work with students realize the educational and health impacts of exposure to adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) without adequate adult support.

While ACEs are far too common, enough so that trauma has been called a public health issue, the call for consistent, caring adult support for students is backed by research for improving student resilience. As Dr. Bruce Perry often says, “there is no more effective neurobiological intervention than a safe relationship.” All adults in a school, including teachers, play a role in creating strong and supportive relationships with students.

So, what are the challenges to answering this call?

Among them, a shortage of support personnel to serve as human scaffolding and the compassion fatigue of teachers desperately trying to address student needs in the classroom without them.

Shortage of School Psychologists

According to the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP), shortages in school psychology and related professions undermine the availability of needed services in schools. There are shortages in both the number of qualified school psychologists and positions available given the needs of students. NASP recommends strategies focused on both recruitment and retention of school psychologists, many of which would improve the overall working conditions of school personnel.

For instance, allowing school psychologists to practice across their full range of skills (beyond assessment for special education) – including, but not limited to, consulting with teachers – reduces burnout for school psychologists and provides much-needed support to the caring adults with whom students spend most of their time.

Compassion Fatigue of Teachers

Teachers are stressed out. A survey by the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) found that 61% of educators find work “always” or “often” stressful, which is double the rate of other workers. Those in helping positions are thought to gain satisfaction from their work as well as fatigue due to their work, client, and personal environments. In more extreme cases, helpers can be traumatized through their work due to primary or secondary exposure. If we apply this idea to teachers, who work with trauma-affected students daily without the background of mental health training, it is no wonder that more than half of the educators (58%) in the AFT survey said their mental health was “not good” for seven or more of the previous 30 days. Contrary to the myth that just about anyone can teach, effective emotion regulation is a requirement for successful teaching and burnout prevention.

Another major stressor for educators cited in the AFT survey was “the adoption of new initiatives without proper training or professional development.” It goes against the very foundations of the trauma-sensitive school movement to stress teachers out and expect better outcomes for students. And yet, whole school efforts to respond sensitively to trauma-affected students are the exception rather than the norm.

I say this not to belittle the well-intended efforts of many who provide trauma-informed trainings to teachers, who recognize the urgent need for teaching practices that address the impacts of trauma on learning, but to help us think more critically about unintended effects of “one-shot” professional development sessions that may create more stress than they resolve.

Trauma-Informed Professional Development

Many of the findings about professional development on academic instructions (i.e., distributed and ongoing learning, help with implementation, utilization of coaches, mentors, and/or learning communities) can be extended to trauma-informed teaching strategies, with the important caveat about the toll that trauma exposure can take for even for those just learning about it.

Guidelines for trauma-informed educational practice provide a starting point for thinking about how to “practice what we preach” when teaching about trauma. Instructors must consider participant characteristics, the material and its context, assignment requirements, classroom behavior and interaction, the classroom setting, and self-care practices. For instance, in my development of training materials, I tend to avoid the “gory” details of a trauma experience unless it has direct educational relevance. Even then, warnings about the content and resources for individuals who may be affected should be provided.

One factor found to be protective for teachers providing support to students after trauma is support from colleagues, indicating that this element of good professional development on trauma will facilitate an open and collaborative approach to student support.

Building the Human Scaffold

Remember the central message of trauma-informed care from Dr. Perry, that the best intervention is a safe relationship. Three key ideas from this article can contribute to the human scaffold of relationships with students affected by trauma.

1. Embed trauma-informed strategies.

Without well-resourced support, don’t add to the alphabet soup. Remember that teachers need proper professional development to implement new ways of teaching. If your school can dedicate adequate time and resources to a trauma-informed school initiative, do so! Resources like the Compassionate Schools Handbook, Helping Traumatized Children Learn, and Creating Healing School Communities: School-Based Interventions for Students Exposed to Trauma are great places to start.

If a whole school initiative is not currently feasible, start somewhere by embedding trauma-informed strategies into existing professional development opportunities, with support for implementation. My dissertation study takes this approach by providing brief modules in a series on Scaffolding Regulation Skills, through which current or future teachers are taught why students who are affected by trauma might struggle with self-regulation and what they can do in their classroom to help.

2. Utilize the expertise of student support personnel in supporting students AND teachers during implementation of trauma-informed teaching.

It’s true that there are shortages of support personnel and funding for those personnel who can provide in-school mental health interventions for students affected by trauma. Given these shortages, it is essential that current school psychologists, counselors, social workers, and nurses are well-utilized and valued for all of their training. Although these personnel should not be expected to support the mental health of teachers directly given the potential for dual relationships, they can serve as professional development providers and implementation coaches within their school. For instance, the Scaffolding Regulation Skills training series is designed for delivery with a group of teachers over time by a facilitator such as a school psychologist. As Dr. Catherine DeCarlo Santiago said in a recent interview, “strong partnerships between teachers and school-based mental health providers promote trauma-focused interventions long-term.”

You wouldn’t ask a contractor to build a house on half a scaffold. Don’t expect teachers to address the needs of trauma-affected students without support.

3. Know the signs of trauma and secondary traumatic stress.

Sometimes, the impact of trauma extends beyond what a school can be reasonably expected to address – for both students and school personnel. Educators should be aware of the signs of secondary traumatic stress and should have access to resources like community mental health providers if needed.


About the Author

Megan is a fourth-year doctoral student in the School Psychology program at Penn State. She previously worked as an Implementation Specialist at the Clearinghouse for Military Family Readiness, where she assisted professionals with program evaluation. Megan has always had a passion for the prevention of childhood maltreatment, and her dissertation research combines this interest and skill set to offer strategies to current and future school personnel for scaffolding regulation skills with trauma-affected students. Next year, Megan will complete an internship with Fairfax County Public Schools in Virginia. In her free time, Megan enjoys cooking, volunteering, and re-watching The Office on Netflix.

1 Comment on "The Infrastructure of Trauma-Informed Schools Requires a Human Scaffold"

  1. Avatar Ogidinta David C. | May 10, 2018 at 6:20 am |

    This is indeed a major gap in educational development, which when addressed will yield the much needed change. Thanks for sharing.

Comments are closed.