Trauma-informed practices in schools are often framed as educational justice imperatives and have become a central focus of education reform over the last decade. As models for trauma-informed education emerge, there has been a tendency to focus heavily on training oriented toward increasing awareness of the prevalence and impact of trauma in order to influence teacher attitudes. Despite the rapid proliferation of such training, there is little research on its effect. This qualitative study sought to assess how teachers understand the impact of trauma on their students and the role of schools in responding, in order to inform approaches to training and development in trauma-informed education.
An online survey was distributed to approximately 1500 teachers in a mid-sized school district in the southwest United States. Respondents had not received systematic training around trauma in schools, although some had participated in limited trauma-informed professional development. 112 teachers provided open-ended responses to the questions: “How do you see trauma impacting your students? What role, if any, should schools play in addressing this?” Responses were analyzed using a two-step coding methodology. Discrete textual units were coded as belonging to one of three key areas: 1) Impact of Trauma, 2) Role of School, 3) Needed Resources/Supports. Subsequently, textual units within each area were inductively coded to identify novel themes. Textual units that reflected negative reactions or resistance toward the notion school or teacher involvement in responses to trauma were highlighted but coded with other responses.
Respondents readily identified a number of ways in which trauma impacted their students. Common themes observed within the area of impact included (in order of number of items coded): 1) Survival skills and Resilience 2) Motivation and Focus, 3) Academics/Work quality, 4) Relationships, 5) Depression and Anxiety, and 6) Behavior Concerns and Discipline. Common themes noted in relation to the role of schools included: 1) Empathy and Understanding, 2) Holistic supports, 3) Mental health services, and 4) Parental Support. In the area of supports or resources identified by teachers, two key themes emerged in approximately equal numbers: 1) Training and tools for all, and 2) More trained professionals.
Conclusions and Implications
Data reflected consensus that teachers have a strong understanding of the impact of trauma on their students and support school-based responses; only four of 289 textual units reflected resistance toward the notion that schools have a role in responding to student trauma. Furthermore, Behavior/Discipline was among the least frequently observed impact themes while Empathy was the most frequently observed school role theme. Some division emerged between those who saw responding to trauma as “everyone’s job” and those who saw it as the realm of mental health providers, suggesting that there was space in which to cultivate school-wide commitment to trauma-informed responses. Overall, data suggested that efforts to develop trauma-informed practices in schools might best be oriented toward development and implementation of resources, practices, and systems rather than influencing teacher attitudes that are already inclined toward understanding and supporting trauma-related needs.