Healing-centered schools

By Amanda Adams

Imagine pulling into a school parking lot and seeing a garden full of flowers, fruit and vegetables, a spacious playground and well-paved walkways to several building entrances. As you get out of your car and approach the building there is clear signage, in multiple languages, to help you find the main entrance with welcoming and uplifting messages for students and their parents.

When you walk in the building there is soft music playing over the intercom and someone is near the door to welcome you, students and their parents into the building. When you walk into the main office you are greeted with a smile and attended to.

Trauma-informed vs. healing-centered schools

“Trauma-Informed schools” are becoming the new hot topic in education. According to Dr. Shawn Ginwright in The Future of Healing: Shifting from Trauma Informed Care to Healing Centered Engagement (2018), “trauma-informed care broadly refers to a set of principles that guide and direct how we view the impact of severe harm on young people’s mental, physical and emotional health.”

Through his research and work with young adult Black men, he learned that trauma-informed care focuses mainly on the harm, injury and trauma of the individual and not on the totality of the experiences of the individual. In much of Ginwright’s writing, he urges us to consider trauma as a collective experience, not an individual one.

Ginwright coined the term “Healing-Centered Engagement” which is “a healing-centered approach that is holistic involving culture, spirituality, civic action and collective healing.”

This model acknowledges that no matter what experiences someone has lived through, there are qualities within them that they can build on to thrive. They can be “agents in the creation of their own well-being.” Relationship building is at the core of policymaking and rule development. Culture, faith and community values of the individuals within the school community are not just acknowledged but elevated, and woven through the school’s traditions, celebrations, curriculum and discipline practices.

Freedom dreaming for healing

Let’s continue our journey through a healing-centered school. Imagine a classroom where there is soft music playing, lighting that is calming and possibly a gentle scent that sets the tone for comfort, focus and trust. Every classroom has a special area for students to go when they need a break, to self-regulate or just reflect on the day.

The classroom is the place where problems are solved among students. In a circle, with community agreements in place, support, trust and authenticity build community rather than create an exclusionary and punitive environment in the school disciplinarian’s office. When challenging behaviors arise in classrooms, the school psychologist, the nurse, or the guidance counselor are called to offer support through a trauma-informed lens, supported with healing-centered strategies for well-being.

Imagine educators with strong enough relationships with each other that systems are in place for adults to take a break when needed, that teachers eat together, take walks together and meet not just to talk about students and work but to regularly celebrate each other. Imagine a school where parents are moving freely through the building to observe, learn, help and support their children and the educators working with them.

A healing-centered school offers the training that educators, students and parents need to build those relationships, develop the tools and skills needed to work together and create mutual systems of support.

Healing-centered engagement, according to Ginwright’s research, acknowledges a shift from clinical work to political work—work that prepares and advocates for the improvement of the root causes of the collective trauma in the community. Protests, community organizing and school walkouts to improve water quality, create community gardens, start school clubs based on student interests or affinity groups, etc. are restorative and promote the well-being of students and the school community.

Healing-centered engagement is also grounded in culture and a sense of belonging through a shared identity such as race, gender and sexual orientation. It focuses on the well-being we want, rather than the adversity we are trying to overcome. And finally, healing-centered engagement supports adult caregivers—educators and parents—in their own healing. As poet and activist Audre Lord said, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”

As minds shift, language changes, and new questions arise, educators and the communities they serve can lead to improving the sense of agency and control, health and well-being of young people. Now imagine that by attending healing centered-schools, the overall health of a community improves because everyone in it is involved in its improvement. 

Amanda Adams is an associate director in the NJEA Professional Development and Instructional Issues Division and a coordinator for the NJEA Priority Schools Initiative (PSI).
She can be reached at aadams@njea.org.