As the principal of an urban alternative ed high school with 100% of our children on free and reduced lunch, more than 70% of our children with single parents and an easy 60+% of our female population dealing with sexual assault, learning about trauma is essential. Compound that with the current pandemic and every single student, their families, and the entire staff will be coping with trauma. Knowing that is, and will be the case, going into the 20-21 school year I’ve learned 3 important things about trauma.
First, If I were to put the definition of trauma into my own words,
trauma: a dramatic event that is perceived by an individual to be physically, mentally and/or emotionally damaging.
The reason this description is somewhat vague is that all of us have different barometers of how a specific event could be negatively impactful.
Below are the first three things that I learned after the definition.
This is the type of trauma someone experiences one time. An example of this could be a car accident, a single fight, or the peaceful passing away of a loved one. These are events that occur once in isolation. Covid 19, for some, may be this type of trauma. Especially if you’re privileged enough to escape any immediate personal impact. For an individual in a stable environment the effects of this type of traumatic event passes over time. As a principal observing our students and staff we might not notice a big change in behavior.
Based on student behavior, trauma that falls under this heading is more easily visible. Trauma in this category is repeated. It could be something like domestic violence or street violence. It also doesn’t have to be physically experienced. It can be observed. Students who are experiencing chronic trauma may be distractible and have a hard time transitioning from one activity to another. For those stuck at home due to the coronavirus there may be an increase of this type of trauma. As principals these are often the students that end up in our office for being non compliant and refusing to follow directions. As we move into next year there may be an increase in this type of behavior.
Knowing this and having a plan to proactively address these situations is key. That’s why creating a safe space and listening without judgement is important as it can help students get to a place where they can think logically. Remembering that staff may also display some of this behavior in more subtle ways is also important and having a way for them to take a break is a priority.
Complex trauma is an interpersonal, continuous cascade of traumatic events. Students living in this type of situation have normalized these events and have developed coping mechanisms that help them survive in those elements. Being able to switch from those defensive maneuvers to acceptable school behaviors is a challenge. These students are also spending time in the office and disrupting the school environment. You’ll see noncompliance and oppositional defiance, as well as anger, agitation and irritability. Again, we may see even more of this from both staff and students. As the principal creating an opportunity for these students and staff to practice mindfulness and/or yoga might be a way to help mitigate some of these behaviors.
As the leader of the building we need to be able to recognize when our staff and students are working through trauma. Knowing how acute, chronic, and complex trauma manifests can help as we work to provide the best environment for our community.
What experiences have you had teaching and or creating an environment that supports traumatized students and staff? Share your tips in the comment section below.
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I'm a Principal and an Entrepreneur. I'm the former owner of a food venture Hustling Hoagies, the author of the children's picture books Detective Dwayne Drake and the Alphabet Thief, Detective Dwayne Drake and The Case of the Mathematical Misfit and the ebook Making it as a Male Model in Michigan. I've worked professionally as a model and commercial actor......