Enhancing Understanding of the Nature of Supportive School-Based Relationships for Youth Who Have Experienced Trauma

Article excerpt

Introduction

A traumatic experience impacts the entire person - the way we think, the way we learn, the way we remember things, the way we feel about ourselves, the way we feel about other people and the way we make sense of the world. (Sandra Bloom, 1999, p.2)

Throughout the literature we read how critical student-teacher relationships are to student engagement and success. Students and teachers emphasize the importance of caring and support in the school context, and recommendations for teacher practice highlight building relationships with students (Klem & Connell, 2004). There is little however detailing what aspects of these relationships are most beneficial and for whom. For youth* who have experienced traumatic life events, relational resources can be foundational to healing, post traumatic growth, and positive outcomes (Bloom, 1999; Meichenbaum, 2006). Trauma, particularly when involving maltreatment, can interfere with students' ability to build relationships, create significant challenges for teachers, and leave students who most need these school-based relationships without them (Perry, 2002). Given the critical role of healthy relationships to positive outcomes for students who have experienced trauma, it is essential that we deepen our understanding of vital aspects of student-teacher relationships for these students. Bringing the perspectives of youth to the discussion is essential to supporting student well-being.

Overview of Trauma

Psychological trauma during childhood is not rare, with 25-45% of all youth, and 68% of youth who self-report emotional and behavioural symptoms having experienced one or more traumatic events before the age of 16 (Copeland, Keeler, Angold, & Costello, 2007; Yule, 2001). Trauma occurs when an event like abuse, assault, war, or a natural disaster threatens one's physical or psychological safety, causing feelings of terror, and helplessness (Terr, 1991). The psychological and physiological stress created by trauma can interfere with all aspects of a youth's life. The resulting stress can significantly impact academic functioning and more importantly psychosocial well-being, putting these youth at greater risk for delinquency, substance abuse, mental, physical, and behavioural health problems, and diminished educational and employment success (Bond, Butler, Thomas et al., 2007; Edwards, Anda, Felittit, & Dube, 2004; Fergusson, & Horwood, 2007). While some students with trauma histories present as typically at-risk with absenteeism or failing grades, others struggle socially, emotionally, or behaviourally (van der kolk, Pynosos, Chicchetti et al., 2009). Youth may lack role models and skills, required for developing healthy relationships, particularly when the trauma was perpetrated by adults the youth trusted. As the majority of adolescents attend school, educators have a critical role in developing supportive student-teacher relationships to help mitigate the negative impact of trauma, improve mental health and well-being, and optimize academic and social success (Mihalas, Morse, Allsopp, & McHatton, 2009; Shochet, Dadds, Ham & Montague, 2006; Walter, Gouze & Lim, 2006).

While school connectedness has provided a general framework for supporting all youth (Blum, 2005, McNeeley, 2005; Whitlock, 2006), there is a paucity of research that examines what aspects of school-based relationships enhance the well-being of youth who have experienced trauma. As 50% of youth with emotional or behavioural problems leave school before graduating, there is an urgent need to deepen our understanding of the school's role in supporting students who have experienced trauma (Ferguson, Tilleczek, Boydell, Rummens, Cote & Roth-Edney, 2005 ; Meichenbaum, 2006).

Student-Teacher Relationships.

Of the components of school connectedness examined by McNeeley (2005), student-teacher relationship was found to be the key predictor of decreased at-risk behaviour. …