Trauma-Invested Care: Where Do We Start?

Posted by Ashley Landrum on 9/19/2019

“Trauma” is a term you likely hear often, especially in the world of education. Research published since the ACEs study tells us that trauma can significantly impact physical and mental health, regulation, and neurodevelopment. If you are unfamiliar with this study, I highly recommend listening to the Nadine Burke Harris TED talk. We know that trauma impacts how we function in daily life, and we know our students have experienced many types of trauma. The effects of trauma experiences vary by individual and are complex, but how we learn to support students through a trauma lens can be simple. 

I had the opportunity to attend a two-day training in Indianapolis this summer led by Kristin Van Marter Souers and Pete Hall, authors of Fostering Resilient Learners and Relationship, Responsibility, and Regulation: Trauma-Invested Practices for Fostering Resilient Learners. They both spoke of the phrase “trauma invested care”, and that it should not be viewed as a curriculum or one more component to add to our educators’ “plate” of things to do, but rather view it as the plate of its own, or the basis of how we view everything else. Trauma-invested care is a lens that helps us pause and view our students differently. The three main ideas behind this approach to education are relationships, responsibility, and regulation (or the new three R’s). The first, and arguably the most important of these, is relationships. 

Establishing relationships with students creates the foundation for your school year. All humans possess an innate need for human connection, and our students are no exception. Relationships actually improve our brain regulation. Some teachers might argue that it is their job to teach, and nothing else. However, this is not a plausible mindset. This mindset may have worked in the past, but educators teach much more than academics everyday. Other educators may not feel qualified to look beyond the academic work, but Souers writes in her second book that “connecting to kids and helping them feel safe doesn’t require extra letters to our names; it simply requires that we be human”. 

To create relationships, we must first establish trust. Any successful relationship requires trust, and for our students, that means being predictable and consistent. It means building connections through talking, nonverbal cues, classroom setup, and even how we greet students in the morning. Will there be students who you struggle to like/find positives for? Absolutely. However, we don’t get to dislike kids during the school day. I love the quote from Rita Pierson’s TED talk when she says “kids don’t learn from people they don’t like” (watch here). It is blunt and true. Most kids have more awareness than we give them credit for; and they notice when they are not connected to you. It should also be noted that some students who experience trauma may struggle to build trust in relationships. They may react negatively or be resistant to strategies you implement, but it is important to be consistent. Kids need to know that they are safe, connected, and amazing, even on the days they test our patience. 

As we develop trust, we must also reconnect with our empathy, because empathy leads to understanding and compassion. This can be difficult, as empathy requires us to step back and view the whole child. It requires us to think “what happened to you?” instead of “what’s wrong with you?”

Although it is important to connect with all of our students, there are some who might be at the forefront of your mind. Often, those students who come to mind might struggle with behavior in the classroom. How can you tell if a student might be seeking relationship connections? According to Souers and Hall, this student might:

  • Want to be physically close to you during the day;
  • Come find you in the classroom often; or
  • Need a simple touch (hug, high fives, etc)

Souers and Hall shared relationship strategies to help build connections with students. They all fall under the same category: be human. Say good morning, smile, ask questions and listen to their responses. Use a student’s name when speaking to them, and say something kind. Utilize hugs/high fives/handshakes. Be consistent every single day, even when it is difficult to do so. 

In summary, viewing students through a trauma-invested lens allows us to view the whole child and consider other factors that could be impacting their education. The first step in becoming trauma-invested is to establish relationships with students, which requires us to build trust, be human, and have empathy. The beauty of this approach is that it works for everyone, regardless of a student’s life experiences. We don’t typically need to know details surrounding a student’s trauma, we just need to focus on the relationship. When in doubt--be kind. 

Ashley Landrum
Ashley Landrum, Ed. S, School Psychologist