Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

ALL SELL SHOULD BE TRAUMA-INFORMED: It's Time for the SEL Movement to Adopt Lessons and Principles from the Practice of Trauma-Informed Instruction

Academic journal article Phi Delta Kappan

ALL SELL SHOULD BE TRAUMA-INFORMED: It's Time for the SEL Movement to Adopt Lessons and Principles from the Practice of Trauma-Informed Instruction

Article excerpt

In recent years, many K-12 educators have turned to social-emotional learning (SEL) as a means of providing support to students who suffer from trauma (Jagers, Rivas-Drake, & Borowski, 2018). In fact, among schools that have implemented SEL programs, the vast majority serve significant numbers of traumatized students (American Institutes for Research, 2015). Ironically, though, SEL programs themselves are not necessarily designed for this purpose.

It seems, then, that the answer is for these schools to seek out SEL programs that have been tailored specifically to meet the needs of traumatized children. However, the fact is that trauma can affect students in any school, at any time, making it impossible to predict which schools will require such a specialized approach. What's really needed, we believe, is for all SEL programs and activities to be trauma-informed.

Intensity matters

To a large extent, the basic tenets of SEL overlap with the principles of trauma-informed instruction. Where they have differed are on questions of intensity--both the intensity of the stress children are experiencing and the intensity of the instruction required to help them.

For individuals with trauma, ordinary emotional and social skills often are superseded by trauma-responsive survival skills (Cook et al., 2005), such as defiance, shutting down, struggling with relational boundaries, becoming overly self-reliant, or becoming too dependent on others. When a child experiences chronic stress or fear, the survival part of the brain kicks into gear, resulting in increased activation of the limbic system and the fight/flight/freeze response, and decreases in the functioning of brain areas responsible for information processing, planning, and other executive functions (Van der Kolk, 2014). Students are unable to learn new information when they continuously operate in a fear state because the brain, when affected by trauma, is significantly limited in its capacity to receive and integrate new information.

For SEL programs to be trauma-informed, then, they must take into account that many learners are experiencing strong and overwhelming emotions that may be connected to an acute traumatic occurrence or ongoing chronic stressors, both of which will limit students' information processing ability and social-emotional functioning. Further, educators must recognize that the school setting itself may be one of high stress, not only for children but for adults, too--working in such settings, educators face vicarious traumatization through their ongoing interactions with oversight agencies, community members, stressed-out colleagues, and students affected by trauma.

Thus, we call upon educators to think of all SEL as taking place in a potentially powerful emotional context. That is, every SEL program or activity should anticipate the need to provide intensive supports to learners and to address particularly acute and chronic challenges (such as parental incarceration or hospitalization, military deployment, or threatened deportation), if that's what the situation demands. Below, we describe what this might entail in three key areas--creating a positive school climate, focusing on emotions, and planning for implementation.

Creating a positive school climate

In recent years, SEL interventions have focused increasingly on improving school culture and climate, with the goal of integrating various social and emotional skills into the everyday fabric of the school and creating more trusting and productive relationships among students and teachers (Elias, 2009). From a trauma-informed perspective, though, "positive school climate" can have a more precise meaning. For instance, children who've suffered traumatic experiences often benefit from highly predictable routines, which can be effective in promoting a sense of safety and reducing fear (Blaustein & Kinniburgh, 2018). Thus, any SEL program meant to improve school climate should include the option to tighten up the schedule and activities as needed, providing more consistency for students who require it. …

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