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A Glimpse Inside the Transition to Trauma-Informed Practices

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A Fall-Hamilton Elementary teacher builds relationships with his students. (Edutopia)

Educators are increasingly aware of how trauma that students experience in their lives outside school affects learning in the classroom. And while this isn't new information, focusing on how to make the learning environment a safe, nurturing place where those students can succeed has become a robust topic of conversation in many districts. Some teachers worry that trauma-informed practices will mean more work for already overburdened teachers, but others respond that using a trauma-informed approach makes the rest of their job easier.

"There was a big mind shift for me especially," said Natalie Vadas, an exceptional education teacher at Fall-Hamilton Elementary School in Nashville, Tennessee. "My students might have had a bad day, something might have happened at home, no one was home last night. You can't just be like, come in and do math now. So, when they know they can trust you and they start to talk to you, their academics start to blossom."

Edutopia profiled Fall-Hamilton Elementary for a series on shifting to trauma-informed practices and the impact it has made on learning there.

"The old approach was you're at school, you need to be at school, and play school," said Fall-Hamilton Principal Mathew Portell. "And it was compliance-driven. But the trauma approach is taking a completely different lens. They have to feel safe. They have to feel nurtured. And they have to feel supported."

The school's neighborhood near downtown Nashville is seeing a lot of gentrification, which means many students and their families are being displaced. Understanding that these young people can't leave those traumas at the door, and that they are still developing emotionally and cognitively, has been a bedrock of this school's shift to trauma-informed practice.


"To be quite frank, this transformation is more about adults than it is kids," Portell said. "It's about giving the teachers the understanding and support to be able to meet the needs of the kids on a basic level."

As a whole school, the staff has focused on social and emotional learning, the learning spaces themselves, and building in structures that give students one-on-one time with adults in the building. They've also been careful to acknowledge how teaching this way affects teachers, and have had open discussions about self-care on staff.

They hired a trauma-informed practitioner who is trained in mental health and has helped the school identify and implement trauma-informed approaches. They use the Leader In Me curriculum to build a positive school culture around a common language of the seven habits of happy kids. The specials rotation includes a class on leadership, and the classrooms themselves have been painted and revamped with an eye to creating a calming, pleasant atmosphere for learning.

Every class has a Peace Corner -- a place where students have the time and space to calm down and practice the type of reflection required to build self-regulation skills.

"A Peace Corner is a place where you can just chill out," said Abby, a fourth-grader. "If I get really frustrated and feel like I'm going to yell, or when I feel really sad, about to cry, I go to the Peace Corner."

Teachers say the Peace Corner has helped students learn not to explode when they're upset. They go to the Peace Corner where they have five minutes to calm down and where they often fill out a quick reflection to identify how they feel, what choice they made, and how they can make a better choice next time. There's no stigma attached to the Peace Corner because everyone uses it.

The school also uses a check-in/check-out system where students go to an adult in the morning and set goals. At the end of the day, they evaluate together if they've met those goals and talk about how to improve tomorrow.

"You go to him and talk about your day. And if you had a problem somewhere, you see how you can fix it," said Paydon, a third-grader.

Principal Portell said this strategy has been extremely successful, largely because it has helped build positive relationships between students and staff. In a 2017 survey of students at Fall-Hamilton, 98 percent said they felt at least one adult at school cared about them.

While this school is seeing success with trauma-informed approaches, the transition hasn't been easy, Portell said. At the end of their first year, the staff was frayed and he knows he wasn't doing a good enough job supporting them. Through conversations they developed a "tap in/tap out" system to help support teachers. Teachers can call for support staff to give them a quick break if they're feeling overwhelmed.

"You sometimes just need to ask for help, and it's OK. And it's really accepted here. And it's promoted." Natalie Vadas said.

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