By Amanda Adams

Every day, children come to school with their own unique worldview shaped by their experiences and relationships. The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study confirms, with scientific evidence that adversity during development increases the risk of physical, mental and behavioral problems later in life. What gets experienced the most tends to lead to more robust connections in the brain. Over time, these connections grow stronger while the neural connections from what gets experienced the least tend to diminish at about the time of puberty.

Educators are in children’s lives during a critical time of development. Children between the ages of 3 and 17 years old spend the bulk of their day at school with educators who create experiences for their students in their school buildings. Teacher leaders build those experiences with the knowledge that relationships matter. Trauma-informed care and practice builds on strengths rather than deficits. It is grounded in an understanding of and responsiveness to the impact of trauma. It emphasizes physical, psychological and emotional safety for both providers and students. This creates opportunities for rebuilding a sense of control and healing.

By recognizing the signs and symptoms of trauma in students, families, staff and others involved in the system, teacher leaders can respond. By developing skills and abilities and fully integrating knowledge about trauma into policies, procedures and practices those skills and abilities will promote resiliency to resist the recurrence of trauma, contribute to healing from trauma and improve educational outcomes.

ACE Interface, the leading experts in the ACE study, identify three core protective systems that interact and guide positive adaptation to trauma:

  The positive individual capabilities in staff, students, and parents.

  The attachment and belonging of children to a caring and competent adult

  Collective efficacy within the community, and a sense of agency in their faith, and cultural processes.

Teachers also come through the school doors with their own worldview. Very rarely are teachers called to build relationships with each other through a trauma-informed lens. The NJEA Teacher Leadership Academy identifies teacher leaders as educators who lead from the classroom, and many components of the program are aligned with the three core protective systems previously identified above. Teacher leadership supports the personal growth of educators by cultivating their self-awareness of their strengths and challenges in developing strategies for personal growth and in the development of new knowledge.

When teacher leaders create a community of educators who learn together through authentic dialogue, a sense of collective efficacy develops, and the entire school community flourishes. Collaborative conversations begin to elicit curiosity, wisdom, and clarity around how to best meet the needs of their students and their families.

Because of their close contact with students, the teacher leader is in a unique position to effectively analyze their needs and be a resource to the community. Teacher leaders are making the shift to become liaisons that identify leaders in the community and create safe and regularly scheduled ways of coming together for belonging and cooperative action.

True collaboration between educators and their students’ families produces rich results in complex situations where multilayered challenges need to be met simultaneously.

Educators already have many of the skills needed to help traumatized children learn. Some teachers are particularly skilled at presenting information in a variety of ways, others are quite consistent, some are highly organized, and there are those who form positive ongoing relationships with students beyond the classroom. All these are among an array of strengths that teacher leaders can reinforce and expand upon with an awareness of how they can be useful in dealing with traumatized children.

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

Teacher leadership is a unique opportunity to not only improve teacher practice but also to support the building of a thriving community. By acknowledging and addressing the impact of trauma, and developing individual, cultural, and community agency among the staff, students and families, everyone in the school benefits— those whose trauma history is known, those whose trauma will never be clearly identified, and those who may be affected by their traumatized classmates and students.

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