Doing Right by Kids at the Intersection of Equity, Trauma-Informed Practice and SEL

By Sarah Pierce
August 2020
illustration of person holding a heart between two mountains

Equity. Trauma-informed practice. Social emotional learning (SEL)

It’s not hard to see overlap among these three important terms, but all too often schools and educators focus on them in silos.

In May, Education Northwest hosted a day-long workshop on the intersection of these three areas. It was an all-around great experience with a packed house of advocates. Everyone contributed to a lively discussion and greater understanding and aspired to continued progress.

We developed the workshop to build educators’ capacity to focus on equity by engaging in trauma-informed or SEL practices with their students. Since students of color are at the highest risk of being pushed out of school due to negative and exclusionary disciplinary actions, the day centered on how educators can employ trauma-informed practices to help bring students back to a place where they can engage in learning. Participants also learned how SEL, with its emphasis on factors such as social belonging, can set the tone for a supportive learning environment in which a respectful and equitable learning community can grow.

Major Takeaways from the Workshop

Students of color often experience trauma

A popular video shows how microaggressions are like mosquito bites. When students of color and students from historically underrepresented communities feel as if they are getting bitten all day long, they are not in the best position to learn.

From the science of learning and development, we know students need healthy, happy brains to engage in learning at school. However, traumatic experiences—including repeated microaggressions—have a negative effect on students’ brain development.

A key to trauma-informed practice is to build your knowledge of how trauma affects the brain. In addition, get to know kids well enough that you become familiar with what they are experiencing.

When teachers rely solely on SEL to address issues like this, they miss the more personalized approach that trauma-informed practice can provide students of color. SEL strategies work best across the learning environment, such as creating a classroom that feels consistent and safe in which all students feel like they belong.

Students of color need at least one adult they can trust in the building

Weeks ago, a girl at a Portland-area school during lunch was told by a school employee, “You’re lucky I’m not making you pick cotton and clean my house and stuff like that.” The girl then waited until hours later when she was home from school to tell her mom.

Beyond the blatant racism of the remark, the girl not feeling she had an adult ally or advocate at her school presents an equity challenge at the system level. Children need adult advocates. In many cases, kids might be too young or have not yet developed skills to advocate for themselves.

Effectively using SEL strategies can help prevent students from feeling alone at school

Creating a safe and welcoming classroom environment involves more than placing a few toys or posters around the classroom. SEL-focused learning builds on meaningful relationships between students, families, communities and educators. It addresses discipline as an opportunity to practice restorative justice and skill building. Mistakes are owned and learned from so that they are not repeated.

A quality SEL-environment increases academic achievement by building safety, trust, substance and meaning so that all students are ready to learn classroom content. Teachers ensure their classrooms are full of joy when excellence and responsibility are expectations, and all students feel that they belong.

Extending support for students across environments

Students who have experienced trauma need individualized support not just from a classroom teacher or two but also from adults across a wide range of learning environments.

One group of educators can’t do it alone in the limited amount of time they spend with young people—even with the support of school leadership. Yet collaboration and teamwork across environments has always been a challenge due to a divide between K–12 schools and the youth/community programs that serve the same kids.

It’s critical for K–12 and youth program educators to devise ways to find each other and come together to support individual kids and create safe, consistent and culturally responsive learning environments. It is also challenging to find ways to connect and learn from each other.

Our workshop was a bridge-building experience with discussions on how to overcome some of the system barriers through partnerships and with many participants exchanging contact info.

Educators have a lot to do in a day

Busy educators often are reluctant to want to take on one more thing. However, adopting an equity lens for trauma-informed practices and SEL is powerful. When you do so, you help create a learning space where kids are ready to learn and make academic gains, you spend less time focused on discipline and you can make a difference in the lives of all students—including those you might have once considered unreachable. It’s worth the time.