Every morning when students and staff walk through the front doors of our schools, they are entering safe, trauma-sensitive spaces.
We don’t always know what they have experienced before school starts, so over the years schools have become more proactive in creating a positive learning environment that integrates a trauma-sensitive approach into all aspects of the school day.
In the most basic of terms, trauma is a person’s response to a difficult event, often leading to repeated visualized memories, difficulty functioning, a negative worldview, specific fears and repetitive behaviours. Trauma shrinks the brain, and due to a variety of physiological responses leaves individuals in a state of hyperarousal making it very difficult to get along with others and to focus on their own learning. Of course, students come to school to learn, and when trauma interferes with this ability the repercussions can be phenomenal.
If students can’t acquire new language skills, they will have a very difficult time advancing to higher grade levels, graduating, going to post-secondary school and obtaining good employment. The benefits of a well-rounded education will follow students throughout their lives, which is why we do everything we can to support students to succeed from their very first day.
Trauma is particularly prevalent in Northern Canada. Statistics Canada tells us residents here are three times more likely to be the victim of a sexual assault, robbery, or physical assault than their provincial counterparts. In the Northwest Territories, 40 per cent of residents 15 years and older were victimized at least once in the past 12 months.
So how can schools best respond, and prepare students to create their futures by ensuring higher levels of learning for all? We need to treat everyone with kindness and sensitivity. Sometimes we may never know who is experiencing a trauma, making compassion an important part of every interaction.
One of the best things that can be done is to foster healthy relationships with students through building social competency.
Strategies such as mindfulness, relaxation and visualization are very effective if practised consistently in reversing the negative effects of trauma. Students learn to become in tune with their feelings, manage their emotions and remain calm, alert and ready to learn. Many teachers are introducing “soft starts” to the beginning of their morning, which incorporate routine, calming activities to help students settle comfortably into their day.
Students are also encouraged to express themselves through art, music, drama and play – activities that do not necessarily require language, which is compromised when someone is experiencing a traumatic event. Allowing expression without pressure helps students to relax and be themselves.
While at times supporting trauma-sensitive individuals can seem overwhelming, there is hope. We know that the supports that we provide to students and staff are making a positive difference. We know that by helping to raise awareness we can contribute to change and improvement.
If you or someone you know is struggling, please encourage them to reach out to supports in the community. For young people, the best place to turn is to a calm and caring adult.
Sarah Pruys is the public affairs coordinator for the South Slave Divisional Education Council.