A publication of the Association of California School Administrators
A publication of the Association of California School Administrators
The greatest barrier to school improvement you are probably missing: trauma
Schools can address this issue — we just need to give teachers and staff the time to do it
By Matthew Fleming | January | February 2024
We spend millions of dollars on professional development every year on good programs, all in an effort to boost learning and achievement. We beat ourselves up over test scores, expulsion numbers and graduation rates, and every blip on our school’s dashboard. But are we really seeing the improvements we wanted? Are you seeing bigger challenges to academic achievement and behavior than in prior years?
You are not alone. In fact, recently published research indicates that our students lost more than their access to learning during the COVID-19 pandemic. According to one recent study, physical changes to the brain were a widespread consequence of our school closures (Gottlib, et al., 2023). These changes directly impact the mental health, maturity, behavior and cognitive function of our students. And they are physical and neurological changes. They must be addressed.
But this time, another program or curriculum is not the answer. The resources and the talent needed to address the problem are in every district and school across the state. However, it’s going to require doing something much more painful than adding another initiative. We need to cut as many initiatives as we can to allow educators time and space to address the real issue: trauma.
Childhood trauma can look like a lot of things. It can look like poverty, homelessness, food insecurity. And it can look like abuse and neglect. It can be bullying. Even immigration is a significant source of trauma. According to some researchers, significant childhood trauma affects around 12 percent of all students across the country, but depending upon your school, it could be impacting up to 20 percent of students (Ghandour et al., 2018). The sheer volume and variety of trauma sources can seem like too much. After all, where do you start? What can we really do?
To begin with, one doesn’t need to be a therapist or mental health professional. The solution really is in most classrooms and school offices already. And while mental health professionals must be part of the team to help individual students heal and cope with traumatic events, it turns out that school counselors and teachers are the best suited to identify indicators of trauma exposure in children and adolescents (Zyromski et al., 2021). However, in order to let teachers and counselors use this unique situatedness, we need to clear their plates of as much as possible. This may sound like a big step to take, but there are many reasons to consider it.
Childhood trauma is now known to predict many problems throughout life. It is correlated with health risks from heart disease, diabetes, certain cancers and decreased life span. It is also linked to anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, suicidal ideation and completion of suicide. In students with intellectual disabilities things are even worse, and researchers are only now beginning to learn how much trauma influences many life-altering and life-threatening conditions.
In school, students who have survived or are experiencing trauma exposure frequently have difficulty regulating behavior and emotions and tend to have impaired academic performance. It all makes sense, from a developmental perspective. Trauma changes biology and neurology. At the same time, priority shifts from typical development that emphasizes social, emotional and behavioral development along with things like goal setting and curiosity. Even having hope for a good future is often subsumed. Instead, the traumatized child learns to prioritize survival and avoiding painful situations.
By the time these children reach the classroom, these behaviors are frequently misinterpreted by teachers, administrators and other staff. To illustrate one way this often appears in classrooms, take the concept of avoidance, which is common among trauma survivors and is also a symptom of PTSD. Students sometimes like to avoid eye contact. They may wander into the classroom looking down, seemingly ignoring the teacher, and then slink into a desk in the back corner of the room. Then they might pull their hoodie over their head and stare at their phone or desk. Is this defiance? Is it boredom? Or is it one of the most common ways that students display avoidance and withdrawal? (Fleming, 2023)
Other frequent patterns of avoidance include leaving class, hiding and being late or truant. Sometimes, the traumatized student is involved in everything. They are in several clubs and sports. You see them on campus six days a week. They will do anything to stay away from home. They might be your valedictorian, because getting a full scholarship to a college on another coast is a great way to escape a traumatic home. But avoidance is just one sign. Students who have endured pain may be angry. They can express themselves with violence. Frequently, they shun adult overtures and take months to build any trust at all with people in authority. It is a survival mechanism.
The truth is that you cannot know for sure if the behavioral and academic cues are trauma-related or if they stem from something else. It is impossible to tell unless you engage the student. Every student needs at least one supportive adult who looks forward to seeing them every day. Someone they can trust even if they don’t realize it. And schools are full of those. Especially since it can be any adult. It can be a campus supervisor or a custodian, or it can be the food service staff, a secretary or an assistant principal. It can be a coach or a counselor. It can be anyone. But whoever it is, they need the mental and emotional space themselves to be able to perceive the needs of the student.
What could this look like? First, counselors are in a unique place, both by training and professional duties, to identify students who have experienced trauma and then find appropriate interventions and supports. But every adult in the building can learn to provide a warm, friendly, inclusive and accepting environment that feels safe. Once that is accomplished in the microcosm of every classroom, the student can begin to feel it.
Counselors are an amazing and powerful resource. They can be utilized to train staff, including classified staff, as well as teachers and administrators, about what to look for and how to foster trust among students. A good place to start is to identify counselors, teachers and other staff who have a proven track record in reaching students who have experienced trauma. Administrators can indeed learn from their teachers and counselors. It really is possible, and it is a beautiful thing!
Is this defiance? Is it boredom? Or is it one of the most common ways that students display avoidance and withdrawal?
Many districts have now created “wellness centers” or “calming centers” where students can be sent or self-elect to go and find some peace and quiet, and even professional mental health support. These centers are beginning to show true promise. But there will never be enough room for all the hurt kids. Each classroom, each common space and each office must be infused with adults who exude compassion and attention. It does not need to be every single adult. But if students go through their day with no safe place to land, they may give up.
Another recommendation is to add social and emotional health and wellness discussions to professional learning communities. Educators discuss the academic progress of their students every day. If social and emotional goals and well-being were added to these discussions, then teams of educators might begin to focus their efforts on the students who are suffering the secondary effects of trauma.
As children, we loved people like Mr. Rogers and, for those of a certain age, Captain Kangaroo. Perhaps younger educators will remember The Wiggles. These “edutainers” displayed warmth, appropriate affection, compassion, attention and care through a TV screen. Think how much more a teacher or administrator, counselor or classified staff member might be able to cross the shorter distances on our campuses.
Finally, this is not about some formula or product — not to disparage any of those. But every profession requires specific knowledge, skills and attitudes. We focus on knowledge and skills all the time. When was the last time we really discussed the attitudes we show our students? Perhaps the conversation should start there. Maybe then we could begin to demolish the invisible barriers to learning and health that keep our best efforts from creating lasting change.

Matthew Fleming is a Ph.D. candidate and has been employed as a teacher and administrator in K-12 public education in California for 30 years.