The School District of Philadelphia serves more than 128,000 students across 221 schools. As such, our student population represents a wide variety of socioeconomic backgrounds. Unfortunately, we live in the poorest big city in America and a significant number of Philadelphia’s children face this challenge of urban poverty.
These students are exposed to community violence, poverty, hunger, maltreatment and neglect, and unstable or transient living conditions, which can make the very act of showing up to school every day a victory in and of itself.
While trauma can negatively impact any child, what is commonly misunderstood is that students experiencing chronic trauma are in a state of toxic stress all the time. Toxic stress can lead to changes in how the brain develops and can compromise their health. Students experiencing chronic trauma arrive to school tired, stressed, and on edge. Their brains, bodies, and nervous system can make them edgy, overreact to things that seem minor to others, lash out at others, or withdraw and isolate themselves. They are in constant “fight or flight” mode, and unlike their peers, can find simple, expected tasks like receiving and retaining knowledge, or even interacting in a normal, productive way with teachers and peers, extremely challenging.
Until recently, this has been poorly understood and even more poorly handled. These are students experiencing underlying trauma, and they show surface behaviors that are misunderstood and incorrectly punished. The recent evolution of trauma-informed practices aims to address this, by providing these vulnerable populations with a more compassionate, tailored approach that includes relationship-building and limit-setting, ensuring an environment that is physically, emotionally, and psychologically safe, and using strategies that calm and regulate the nervous system and brain such as mindfulness, meditation, and breathing exercises.
We are integrating these strategies into the classroom. For example, we hired a Director for Trauma-Informed Practices who comes with over 18 years of experience providing direct care or leadership oversight to schools and community settings to support the behavioral health needs of students to spearhead our efforts, which include training and coaching staff. We have partnered with the renowned Lakeside Global Institute to lend best practices and provide consultation and training.
All of these efforts are focused ultimately on helping our teachers. We help them recognize behaviors based on stress and correctly interpret and manage them successfully and with compassion. That can include anything from simply taking a momentary break, to creating a contract with the student that provides empowerment of choice — choice of activity, of consequence, or of exercise — to restorative practices that allow for conflict follow-up and repairing of relationships. The goal is simple: appropriate consequences for inappropriate behaviors, using the opportunity to teach and model appropriate behavior, while still maintaining structure and upholding clear expectations.
These practices have an immediate impact, seen by teachers and students alike; absenteeism goes down, achievement goes up. Students feel cared for, feel better about themselves, and have hope.
And it’s making a difference. Our teachers, previously surprised when the techniques they learned in college or graduate school don’t work in classrooms, quickly see positive results both for their students and for themselves. But that just proves that we are tackling this midstream.
What we really need is for current and incoming teachers to have these trauma-informed strategies incorporated into their education, so they come to our schools with the resources and tools to be successful, from day one. It is essential for proponents of higher education who instruct our educators, especially those who work with vulnerable populations, to integrate and incorporate curriculum about early childhood adversity, the impact of trauma and using trauma-informed practices in the classroom. This would enable us to refocus our current energies into customized, in-classroom coaching to attend to individual student and teacher needs in a truly targeted way.
Philadelphia is the city of “brotherly love.” We know that the love and compassion students receive in their classrooms each day can offset, even heal, trauma. We believe in every student’s capacity to learn, and to succeed. By building more awareness and integrating more strategies in trauma-informed schools, we can change the lives of our students and give them the chance at a brighter future.
Karyn T. Lynch is the chief of Student Support Services for the School District of Philadelphia.