Train Staff to Recognize Trauma in Adolescents

A trauma-informed approach starts with the four R’s.

Topics: Mental Health and Safety, Middle Level

Early adolescence is a particularly fragile period of development, and trauma can have a direct, immediate, and potentially overwhelming impact on students’ brain development, learning, and behavior. Schools and individual educators need to be prepared to recognize trauma in order to support and care for students using a trauma-informed approach.

Trauma’s complexities are best understood through the lens of three Es: Events, Experiences, and Effects. The trauma students have experienced can be a single event, a series of incidents, or a set of circumstances, physical or emotional. Second, each individual’s experience of an event is unique, and those experiences determine the potential impact of a traumatic event. Finally, trauma’s effects can be acute or chronic, manifest immediately or have a delayed onset, and be short- and/or long-term.

As an added complication, sometimes the student, family, and school might not recognize the connection between a traumatic event and its effects. Identifying and addressing the three Es can be difficult, so educators should set aside assumptions, personal biases, and even their years of experience when working with students affected by trauma.

The Four R’s

Once educators build a better understanding of trauma, they can shift their attention to reviewing individual and schoolwide practices. According to guidance from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, a trauma-informed approach seeks to:

  • Realize the widespread impact of trauma and understand paths for recovery;
  • Recognize the signs and symptoms of trauma in patients, families, and staff;
  • Respond by fully integrating knowledge about trauma into policies, procedures, and practices; and
  • Resist and avoid retraumatization.

To set the stage for such an approach, schools should start with quality training, perhaps with the support of a local mental health agency. The training can review adverse childhood experiences, the complex nature of trauma, the elements of a trauma-informed approach, trauma’s impact on the brain, the inequities of trauma, and ways to counter personal assumptions or biases.

Staff must be trained to recognize the signs and symptoms of trauma in students and their families. We are not looking to turn teachers into psychologists, but they should be prepared to dig deeper when academic and behavioral problems arise.

We also suggest that training starts by helping staff recognize their own trauma. Educators who have self-awareness and a process for self-care will be less likely to misread behaviors and more capable of assisting students.

Schools and individual educators need to review their policies, programs, and practices in order to promote a culture that enhances resilience, recovery, and healing. Finally, schools should take precautions to ensure that students are not inadvertently retraumatized at school; using isolation in discipline, for example, might be a practice that retraumatizes.

Supporting Students

At the middle level, a trauma-​informed approach often starts with one trusted adult. School staff might be the most consistent adults in the lives of students experiencing trauma, making staff natural partners in ensuring that each student feels welcome and safe. An advisory program that includes robust lessons on social-emotional learning can be an excellent venue to boost a student’s sense of belonging and individual growth.

Teaming is another great way to support students. Teachers can monitor the warning signs of trauma, create watchlists, and carry out care plans. They should never underestimate the power of connecting with students through the simple act of greeting them at the classroom or schoolhouse door, and they can create additional connections by using a check-in/check-out process with students who need more time and support.

Leaders can find guidance on practices that support middle school students who have experienced trauma in the Association for Middle Level Education’s Successful Middle School: This We Believe, such as:

  • Respecting and valuing young adolescents;
  • Creating a welcoming, inclusive, and affirming school for all;
  • Ensuring that every student’s academic and personal success is guided by an adult advocate;
  • Implementing comprehensive counseling and support services to meet the needs of young adolescents;
  • Using health, wellness, and social-emotional competencies in curricula, schoolwide programs, and related policies;
  • Implementing organizational structures that foster purposeful learning and meaningful relationships; and
  • Providing voice and choice to students.

Hopefully, every student has many connections in the school, but ensuring that each has one trusted adult and creating a system of trauma-informed supports can foster connections, model healthy relationships, and aid in the recovery process.

A trauma-informed approach can be incorporated into many school practices and help educators develop and maintain a learning environment in which all students can thrive. With a better understanding of trauma, staff can recognize its effects when academic and behavioral problems arise.

Todd Brist is principal of Watertown Middle School in Watertown, South Dakota, and a fellow with the NAESP Center for Middle-Level Leadership.

Jason Buechler is school counselor at Watertown Middle School.