By Dana Asby, CEI Director of Innovation & Research Support
In addition to healing from public health and mental health crises brought on by COVID-19, America is also reckoning with an increased awareness and acknowledgement of the trauma that racial violence has caused and is causing Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC). Schools can no longer ignore the impact this trauma has on the teachers, students, and families in their communities. Educators and administrators are becoming more cognizant of the fact that like all systems in our countries, the education system itself perpetuates racism, inequity, and trauma. While individual anti-racist teachers, principals, and superintendents have done incredible work to increase equity for their BIPOC students over the past year, there is a long road to travel to make our vision of a truly anti-racist education system a reality. When we intentionally create spaces that prioritize equity and safety, we come closer to realizing that vision.
Schools as Safe Spaces for All Students and Families
For many students who have experienced or are currently experiencing trauma in their home environments, school may be the only place they feel safe—and a kind teacher may be the only adult that makes them feel secure. This sense of safety is often supported by the fact that schools rely on routines and consistency to educate and manage large numbers of students. Students impacted by trauma crave predictability to feel safe in their bodies and emotional lives. Part of the healing process is rebuilding that sense of expected security that trauma takes from us; this is infinitely easier when done in the context of a compassionate community offering supports rather than creating roadblocks.
Schools have been unable to ignore the media attention that trauma-informed education has received during these collective traumas we have experienced over the past eighteen months. While many schools embrace trauma-informed, trauma-conscious, and trauma-skilled practices, policies, and procedures, not all of them are approaching this important work through a lens of equity. Evidence-based practices in trauma-informed care and education have been shown to improve the well-being of students affected by trauma; however, not all of these practices work identically with all populations. When we approach care and education with cultural humility, we pause to ask if our recommendations are what is most useful to an individual or family—and if they are not, we work with that family to identify ones that are.
Safety for all begins with an openness and curiosity that recognizes the various intersecting contexts—school and home environments, family dynamics, cultural and religious norms, learning disabilities, physical or mental health conditions—that impact a child’s behavior.
Creating Routines to Foster Safety and Increase Equity
During COVID-19, many of us have found comfort in the routine of washing our hands. Scientific research convinced us early in the pandemic that washing our hands was one of the most effective ways of reducing the transfer of the virus from the outside world into our homes. Even after newer research showed that the chance of transferring the COVID-19 virus via touch was much lower than the transfer via aerosol droplets, the act of running our soapy hands under water did not lose its comfort. Human brains depend on pattern recognition to make sense of the world. The more often we create predictable patterns for ourselves, the more at ease we are, especially if we are healing from trauma.
We challenge schools to return to old routines and create new ones, but to approach this work with equity in mind. In our Equity in Education series, we have given schools a number of suggestions to increase equity in their schools, including reflection and finding common strengths-based language, examining biases, explicitly teaching students about equity, analyzing and changing our education system to better meet the needs of diverse populations, and creating a culture of belonging. When we do these things consistently, our routines become habits and these principles of equity are woven into the rhythm of our lives.
Try some of these routines to create a culture of safety for all members of your school community:
Greet students with joy each morning. Administrators can stay posted at entrances at the beginning of the school day to give a smile to each child that passes through the door. Teachers can create their own routines for connecting with each student, including offering choices for how students want to be greeted once physical touch is once more safe: a high five, handshake, hug, or other special greeting.
Help students check in with their bodies, minds, and spirits regularly. Teachers can help youth learn about how emotions affect our brains and the rest of our bodies, how we learn, and how we feel—using age appropriate language and visuals. Students can reflect on their feelings through writing, art, dance, etc. Providing a prompt such as, “I wish my teacher knew…” can help students feel more comfortable sharing their challenges.
Provide regular opportunities for students and families to give feedback. Educators and administrators may not be aware of how the policies and procedures they have developed affect students and their families. Create space and time, in a variety of formats like town halls and brief surveys or comment boxes, for members of the school community to share their opinions.
As we plan for a return to the classroom this fall, we must think about the diversity of needs that our staff, students, and their families will return with. To create a school culture that provides a sense of safety for all students, we must take intentional actions to increase equity for BIPOC students.