This blog is the third part of a series that began in November of 2021 to chronicle the journey of building a trauma-informed school at Loper Elementary School in Shelbyville, IN. The first part of the series focused on the mindsets and components of building a program. The second part focused on how to use opportunities, knowledge, allies, and experiences to implement a program. This blog will identify some of the difficulties one might encounter in building a trauma-informed program. A good way to think of these difficulties is as bumps, roadblocks, and detours.
One of the biggest challenges is homeostasis, which occurs naturally in all systems. Organizations strive to maintain a balance. As a comparison, our bodies strive to maintain a constant temperature of around 98.6 degrees. If we become overheated, we sweat. If we become too cold, we shiver. Organizations also take measures to remain the same. This is a predictable reaction to change. It is not something to fear or to be surprised about; it just means we need to make adjustments to our implementation plans. If we move too quickly with new practices, the system will react with resistance. If we move too slowly, our program will stagnate. The challenge of homeostasis is best met with making a plan for a reasonable pace of implementation and in seeking constant feedback from the players involved. It is also vital that one works with a team on strategies for implementation. The team may be the social worker/counselor and the building administrators. The team may also include teachers and other staff. At Loper Elementary, the team was my building administrators and me, the school social worker.
Another part of dealing with homeostasis is to know the players involved and the system as a whole. If you are new to the school, take time to get to know each staff member, observe how the school system works, and get a general feel for the climate of the school. If the staff seems ready to embrace trauma-informed practices, implementation can move forward at a good pace. If the staff has more of a mindset of traditional discipline or academics only, you will have to work hard to provide a well-grounded base of knowledge before any efforts to introduce specific practices can be made. And as mentioned in part 2 of this series, always look for allies in this work. Use the staff who seem most ready to change to pave the way for the changes that you hope to make.
Another bump you may encounter, especially if you are new, is it is easy to unintentionally “step on the toes” of other staff members. By nature, humans are territorial, especially with their work. To give an example of this, at Loper I was told I could use a room for our regulation room. This room had been used by a group of other teachers at one time, but their program had not been active for a couple of years. When I started setting up the regulation room and asked about supplies that were left in the room, I “stepped on their toes.” My error was that I had approval from my principal for the regulation room, but we had not taken the step for him to tell the group of teachers this. It took some effort to repair the damage, but one of the best things that helped was my principal supporting me with the regulation room being in this space. So, it is important to always have principal approval for the interventions you want to start. It is best if you are making a change which may intrude on another’s perceived territory that the introduction about the change comes from the building administrator first.
At times, you may also encounter “a detour” along the journey to build a trauma-informed school. It is always wise to be attuned to these perceived detours. In the end, the detour may actually be the best path to take for your school and staff. For example, at Loper after presenting two PDs about SEL and trauma, the staff was asking, “But what does a trauma-informed school look like?” Although my choice would have been to first lay the foundation for the program a block at a time, I chose to make my third PD an overview of trauma-informed interventions. This was exactly the road to take for this school as the PD provided a roadmap for the staff of what we hoped to achieve together.
It is important you are dedicated to the work, and you have an attitude of perseverance.
Building a trauma-informed school is challenging work. It is important you are dedicated to the work, and you have an attitude of perseverance. It is also important to accept change is not easy for individuals and for systems. Each person will come to the table with a different perspective of change. Some love change and some hate change. It is part of their personality and how they cope with life. For some staff, the very minor changes they are able to make, will be great successes for your program. You can also expect even the most changing-loving staff to go back and forth with how they view students. At Loper, I remember having a conversation with a wonderful teacher about one of her most challenging students who had experienced significant trauma. In the course of a ten-minute conversation, she swung back and forth between seeing his behavior as trauma-related and as defiant. This is common for teachers as they grapple with changing their view of students and how to address behaviors.
Change is never lineage. The road to change is full of hills, curves, bumps, detours, and roadblocks. At times, change even goes backwards, taking you back 100 feet after 200 feet of progress. This path to change is predictable and expected. Do not be discouraged by the difficulties along the way to building a trauma-informed school. It is a process to build a trauma-informed program. Rejoice in each step along the way that takes you a step closer to where you hope your school can be. It takes at least four years to build a trauma-informed school. Give yourself and your staff grace along the way. Your destination will be well worth every ounce of effort that it takes.
Your destination will be well worth every ounce of effort it takes.
For the final blog in this series, the focus will be on the impact of trauma-informed school practices through both qualitative and quantitative data. You will learn data can be your friend, and you will hear some amazing testimony from teachers about the impact of the initiatives on their students and on themselves.