It’s time for the SEL movement to adopt lessons and principles from the practice of trauma-informed instruction.
In recent years, many K-12 educators have turned to social-emotional learning (SEL) as a means of providing support to students who suffer from trauma (Jagers, Rivas-Drake, & Borowski, 2018). In fact, among schools that have implemented SEL programs, the vast majority serve significant numbers of traumatized students (American Institutes for Research, 2015). Ironically, though, SEL programs themselves are not necessarily designed for this purpose.
It seems, then, that the answer is for these schools to seek out SEL programs that have been tailored specifically to meet the needs of traumatized children. However, the fact is that trauma can affect students in any school, at any time, making it impossible to predict which schools will require such a specialized approach. What’s really needed, we believe, is for all SEL programs and activities to be trauma-informed.
To a large extent, the basic tenets of SEL overlap with the principles of trauma-informed instruction. Where they have differed are on questions of intensity — both the intensity of the stress children are experiencing and the intensity of the instruction required to help them.
For individuals with trauma, ordinary emotional and social skills often are superseded by trauma-responsive survival skills (Cook et al., 2005), such as defiance, shutting down, struggling with relational boundaries, becoming overly self-reliant, or becoming too dependent on others. When a child experiences chronic stress or fear, the survival part of the brain kicks into gear, resulting in increased activation of the limbic system and the fight/flight/freeze response, and decreases in the functioning of brain areas responsible for information processing, planning, and other executive functions (Van der Kolk, 2014). Students are unable to learn new information when they continuously operate in a fear state because the brain, when affected by trauma, is significantly limited in its capacity to receive and integrate new information.
For SEL programs to be trauma-informed, then, they must take into account that many learners are experiencing strong and overwhelming emotions that may be connected to an acute traumatic occurrence or ongoing chronic stressors, both of which will limit students’ information processing ability and social-emotional functioning. Further, educators must recognize that the school setting itself may be one of high stress, not only for children but for adults, too — working in such settings, educators face vicarious traumatization through their ongoing interactions with oversight agencies, community members, stressed-out colleagues, and students affected by trauma.
Thus, we call upon educators to think of all SEL as taking place in a potentially powerful emotional context. That is, every SEL program or activity should anticipate the need to provide intensive supports to learners and to address particularly acute and chronic challenges (such as parental incarceration or hospitalization, military deployment, or threatened deportation), if that’s what the situation demands. Below, we describe what this might entail in three key areas — creating a positive school climate, focusing on emotions, and planning for implementation.
Creating a positive school climate
In recent years, SEL interventions have focused increasingly on improving school culture and climate, with the goal of integrating various social and emotional skills into the everyday fabric of the school and creating more trusting and productive relationships among students and teachers (Elias, 2009). From a trauma-informed perspective, though, “positive school climate” can have a more precise meaning. For instance, children who’ve suffered traumatic experiences often benefit from highly predictable routines, which can be effective in promoting a sense of safety and reducing fear (Blaustein & Kinniburgh, 2018). Thus, any SEL program meant to improve school climate should include the option to tighten up the schedule and activities as needed, providing more consistency for students who require it.
Further, from a trauma-informed perspective, the emotional stability of the adults in the school takes on special importance. Many students affected by trauma will have had caregivers who were unavailable or unable to provide consistent caregiving, and for these students, supportive relationships with adults at school are especially salient. Yet if the adults who are responsible for managing students’ behavioral and emotional dysregulation are themselves in a state of chronic stress or fear, it will be difficult for them to establish meaningful relationships with students and respond to them with warmth and patience. If the school takes great care to promote the well-being of teachers and staff, this will have a trickle-down effect on students’ felt sense of safety and being cared for, minimizing their perceptions of threat in the environment and allowing them to take in new information, be creative, and think before they act (Brackett, Elbertson, & Rivers, 2015). In short, any SEL program that focuses on school climate should focus on the adults in the building, and not just the students.
By creating an explicit connection between SEL interventions and trauma-informed approaches, educators can increase the effectiveness of both types of interventions.
For students affected by trauma, it tends to be particularly important to create cultural norms that emphasize individuals’ existing strengths, rather than their deficits. Among proponents of SEL, this isn’t a new idea—many programs seek to improve school culture and climate by highlighting student strengths and helping them develop a sense of positive purpose (Hatchimonji et al., 2018).
From a trauma-informed perspective, though, the need to build on strengths becomes even more urgent. Students affected by trauma often suffer social stigma and may have experienced chronic rejection and other negative consequences, both at school and elsewhere. Further, traumatized youth often experience poor self-concept and have difficulty developing a positive identity (Cook et al., 2005). Therefore, it is especially important that all school culture and climate initiatives include ample opportunities for all students to experience themselves as positive, appreciated, and effective members of the community (Blaustein & Kinniburgh, 2018). For example, this may call for frequent school-based events promoting community connectedness, as well as extracurricular activities and electives that promote student capacity in areas other than traditional academics (e.g., arts, music, and sports). The latter is most important given that students who have experienced trauma may be struggling to meet educational expectations, which could worsen their self-concept if they are not allowed to explore their interest and abilities in other areas, where they can feel effective and competent.
Focusing on emotions
SEL programs provide systematic frameworks for identifying, discussing, and practicing age-appropriate social and emotional skills. Over time, they provide both educators and students with language and strategies they can use to address specific behavioral and emotional challenges related to issues such as perspective taking, empathy, emotional regulation (including stress management), and the role of emotion in the problem-solving process.
The problem is that students’ receptiveness to social-emotional learning can be complicated by their personal histories. For example, if children have been raised by adults who regularly berate them with harsh and painful words, then they may see little reason to practice attentive listening — a strategy often encouraged in SEL programs. Yet, SEL instructors can’t afford to give up on teaching these skills. If students do not learn to listen carefully and accurately, they will be disadvantaged in many situations, in and out of school. Even if they continue to live in a dysfunctional environment, they will need to build skills they can apply elsewhere (much as they might learn to code-switch in differing language communities). Likewise, students who’ve witnessed and been subject to emotional threat and unkindness will have to learn to regulate their emotions in order to handle tests, interviews, and other high-stress situations, as well as to build and maintain close relationships.
The challenge for all SEL programs, then, is to be prepared for the level of emotional intensity that students who’ve been traumatized are likely to bring to the classroom, as well as the intensity of the instruction required to teach them effectively. Further, and perhaps most important, all SEL programs should give priority to the development of emotion-related skills. Youth who have experienced trauma tend to show significant weaknesses recognizing emotions accurately. Many are quick to identify fear and anger but slow to accurately read neutral facial expressions (Cook et al., 2005; Javdani et al., 2017; Masten et al., 2008). Additionally, students faced with chronic stress often react preemptively with strong fight or flight responses to situational stressors, rather than making informed decisions (Cook et al., 2005). This is due to a number of factors, including weakened executive functioning, experience of a traumatic trigger, and lack of adult modeling of appropriate conflict resolution (Blaustein & Kinniburgh, 2018; Cook et al., 2005). Thus, it is essential to teach nonviolent conflict-resolution and decision-making skills explicitly and continuously, allowing for the time and repeated practice that it will take for some students to improve.
Planning for implementation
Decades of research on school change point to the importance of collective buy-in. There may be a role for outside consultants, but for new ideas to really sink in and have a lasting effect on everyday practice, local educators must lead the initiative and have a sense of ownership (Elias, 2009; Kress & Elias, 2006).
For SEL programs, this can be especially challenging. For instance, school staff may be unaware of the positive effects SEL has on students, both academically and behaviorally (Durlak et al., 2015). Some teachers may feel uncomfortable teaching SEL, either because they are uncertain of their abilities or because they think that such lessons should be taught at home. Others may have bought into the SEL model but are unclear about how it stacks up against competing priorities, such as academic instruction. Even upon eliciting buy-in from school personnel, legitimate logistical questions will need to be answered about when explicit SEL instruction should take place, how it should fit into the packed school day, and who should be responsible for teaching it.
Moreover, at many schools, teachers and staff have already gone through endless rounds of reform, over many years, and no longer have much trust in the change process (Berman, Chaffee, & Sarmiento, 2018). Unfortunately, this tends to the case at the most trauma-affected schools (Blankstein, Houston, & Cole, 2009). For instance, in urban, high-poverty areas where trauma is highly prevalent, students often struggle to succeed in school; because of the school’s poor record of student success, district and state leaders often mandate that they implement new improvement plans and initiatives; then, because of the challenges the school faces, those initiatives fail and the cycle continues.
The more unstable the school environment, the more important it will be for leaders to carve out the time, space, and resources people need in order to become familiar with SEL, air their questions and concerns about it, and become invested in the work.
In short, those who design SEL programs cannot assume they will be implemented under the best of circumstances, in schools where past initiatives were introduced with great care and fidelity, and where teachers and staff remain confident in the change process. Rather, implementation plans should allow for the likelihood that local students are coping with varying kinds of trauma, and that local educators are suffering from some amount of reform fatigue.
That’s why it’s critically important for implementation efforts to be led by at least a few individuals in key leadership positions who are committed not just to bringing SEL into the school but also to pushing through initial obstacles, recognizing that overworked, overstressed, and quite possibly traumatized teachers and staff may be reluctant to sign on to something new (Elias, 2010). And the more unstable the school environment, the more important it will be for leaders to carve out the time, space, and resources people need in order to become familiar with SEL, air their questions and concerns about it, and become invested in the work. This means that while the urgency is high, the pace of change must be tempered in light of trauma-informed realities. Only slow and steady will win the race.
Making the link
Every day, millions of students bring their traumatic experiences with them to school. Teachers may not always know about that trauma, or know the full details. Nor will it be easy for teachers to adapt their SEL instruction to meet those students’ varied and varying needs.
However, by creating an explicit connection between SEL interventions and trauma-informed approaches, educators can increase the effectiveness of both types of interventions (Elias & Leverett, 2011). Just as the field of SEL has come to adopt much of the pedagogy of special education instruction (Elias, 2004), it must begin to adopt lessons and principles from trauma-informed instruction. The fact is that many of the students in our SEL programs are struggling to develop new skills under conditions of heightened emotionality. This has implications for the pacing of our curricula, the kinds of practice examples we use, the degree of mastery required to “move on” in the curriculum, and the availability of higher-tier supports for students who struggle. As a matter of standard practice in SEL and related fields, assuming the meaningful presence of trauma among students will lead to more effective pedagogical and programmatic decisions.
At the same time, no priority is more urgent than to develop better systems of support for the adults who work in schools. Teachers and staff themselves must belong to a healthy school culture, in which they can learn to regulate their own emotions, build stronger working relationships, and show students that the school is a safe place, where no further trauma will be inflicted upon them, and where they can plan for a better future in spite of what they’ve experienced in the past.
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Citation: Pawlo, E., Lorenzo, A., Eichert, B., and Ellis, M.J. (2019, Oct. 28). All SEL should be trauma-informed. Phi Delta Kappan, 101 (3), 37-41.