Toxic stress is in our schools. While the number of Adverse Childhood Experiences and the number of students trying to learn in spite of them vary from classroom to classroom, there is one thing that science has told us is certain. There are students in our schools that are doing the best they can to learn with brains that have been rewired by toxic stress. This significantly impacts how they learn and interact with the world. In education we are to meet students where they are at. The reality is this is where a large number of our students are at every day. With that, schools around the country have been embracing the change needed to be a trauma-informed school.
To help us meet our students where they are at, Jim Sporleder, National Trauma-Sensitive School speaker and consultant, who was principal at Lincoln High School when it was featured in the film Paper Tigers, and Heather T. Forbes, the author of Help for Billy, give us this gift of The Trauma-Informed School: A Step-by Step Implementation Guide for Administrators and School Personnel.
“I was hunting everywhere for the curriculum, it’s not a curriculum. So I was finally trying to figure out, how do you take this theory and put it into practice.” -Jim Sporleder in Paper Tigers
The problem that The Trauma-Informed School: A Step-by Step Implementation Guide for Administrators and School Personnel sets out to solve is the “how” of taking the knowledge we have of Adverse Childhood Experiences and Toxic Stress, and putting it into practice in our schools. Trauma-informed practices have been in place in mental health circles for a number of years. Full-on implementation in schools is relatively new. Part of the reason to this is not a lack of recognizing the need, or how the relationship-based culture is really best practice. It is more of a need for having a template so to speak of how to go about it, from people that have done it and have the data to show for it.
“The bottom line was that as we addressed the social/emotional needs of the students and once the relationships were built, the data came naturally. And I believe it all happened because of what our students found—and that was hope.” -Jim Sporleder
Jim Sporleder brings a unique qualification to this book as someone who has accomplished implementation from the role of school administrator. Once he recognized that a stressed brain cannot learn, he set in motion changes in his school that would see an alarming decrease in suspensions, expulsions, and office referrals. In return, graduation rates and test scores significantly increase. In this book he teams with Heather T. Forbes, whose book Help for Billy has become the blueprint for working with children in schools that have experienced complex trauma and toxic stress. Concepts from her previous work are delivered here in the context of the why for creating a trauma-informed school.
The topic of Adverse Childhood Experiences, Toxic Stress, and Trauma-Informed Care can be delivered through a scientific lens that can be difficult for some to either grasp, or maintain attention. The material in The Trauma-Informed School: A Step-by Step Implementation Guide for Administrators and School Personnel is delivered in logical and practical ways that anyone who works with children can understand. It does not read as a curriculum or textbook as much as it does as if you are in a conversation with the authors.
When first in a position where my job was to support school personnel in the implementation of trauma-informed care, I spent much of my days digging into the research and literature that was largely aimed at the mental health field. From there I would “translate” so to speak the language into school terms and work with staff making it applicable to the school setting. In the last year I took on a position where I was going to have to do this on a larger scale in a public school district. From the moment I opened The Trauma-Informed School: A Step-by Step Implementation Guide for Administrators and School Personnel at the end of last school year, I knew that this was the tool that was going to drive how work was done with students moving forward. Over the last year we were able to use the book as a framework in our school district, knowing that it is being brought to us from an educator with data backing the words.
What we are getting is not a curriculum, but a blueprint for building a foundation and structure of hope. As Jim Sporleder often points out, being trauma-informed is not something you do. It isn’t a checklist. Being trauma-informed is who you are. It will walk you through step by step on actions to take throughout the school year to send your building in the right direction of building a relationship-based culture that works for all students.
“Creating a trauma-informed school isn’t about teachers becoming therapists. It’s about creating an environment that focuses on relationship, trust, and emotional safety.” -Heather T. Forbes, LCSW
The book begins with an overview of Toxic Stress and Adverse Childhood Experiences, which is critical in understanding “The Why” when implementing a trauma-informed school model. There is some time spent on looking at the differences in how the brain works for the typical student in contrast to the student who has experiences toxic stress. It touches on why we need a new approach in our schools and how we get to the end result we strive, and that is fostering resilient learners.
Within the book you will find direction on building action teams that will support school staff in implementation. How to create calm rooms and In-School Suspension rooms that fit within the model. You will get an overview of what data to track and how. It wraps up with practical relationship and classroom strategies that educators can use today as they set the book down.
To identify my favorite parts of the book I would point to chapters on accountability and the step-by step actions to implementation. Lack of accountability is one of the biggest misconceptions of a trauma-informed approach. Sporleder and Forbes address here how students are actually held to a higher level of accountability with a balanced approach to school discipline that drives connection rather than disconnection and comes through the context of relationships. The chapter that gives a step-by-step walkthrough of a school year tells not only what to do, but why and how to do it with different checkpoints throughout the school year. The reader is then guided on how to use their own data to inform the next steps going into the following school year.
While I would say that this book would be beneficial to anyone that works with children in schools, I would recommend that this book be on the desk of every school administrator. I feel better knowing that it is in the hands of not only every administrator in our district, but also every action team member. We know that we are using a tool that is informed by research and data to meet all kids where they are at. That’s what we do as educators, right?
Other Resources Mentioned:
Help for Billy by Heather T. Forbes
More resources on implementing a trauma-sensitive approach in schools can be found HERE.