Building a trauma-sensitive school

Trauma-Informed Education at Dakota Memorial School

Building a trauma-sensitive school

By Tina DeGree, Principal
Dakota Memorial School, Minot

"How do you run a school where every child is a trauma survivor?"

Most of us remember school as Math, Science, Social Studies, PE, and other classes where we sat down, listened to a teacher give a lecture, and waited for the bell to ring so we could walk out the door for our next class period. School days were full of routine, had few disruptions, and most days were similar. We had teachers who inspired us, helped us determine our future path, and provided critical feedback as we navigated this world.

Dakota Memorial School (DMS) does all of this with a significant difference; every student in our building is a trauma survivor. Trauma takes a considerable toll on children, taking away hope, and making every day seem overwhelming and unstable. The trauma faced by Ranch children is unique to each child, but can include serious neglect or physical abuse, sexual trauma, hunger, domestic violence, and exposure to community/family violence.

Every day, students who have little hope, confidence, or self-worth walk through our doors. At DMS, we know and understand that while trauma impacts so many aspects of a child's life, it doesn't have to determine their future. Each child is created and loved by Christ, and deserves our care, love, and support as they journey past their trauma.

Providing the support our students need to become more than their traumatic pasts takes a lot of hard work. It starts with professional learning for our teachers and staff. In reading and discussing the book, Fostering Resilient Learners: Strategies for Creating Trauma-Sensitive Classrooms, by Kristin Sours with Pete Hall, teachers and staff at DMS have all learned it is essential to acknowledge these fundamental truths:

  1. Trauma is real.
  2. Trauma is prevalent. In fact, it is likely much more common than we care to admit.
  3. Trauma is toxic to the brain and can affect development and learning in many ways.
  4. In our schools, we need to be prepared to support students who have experienced trauma.
  5. Children are resilient, and they can grow, learn, and succeed with positive learning environments.

Ours is a culture where we trust each other as professionals, believe in these fundamental truths, and meet each child where they are by asking, "What do you need right now?" instead of "What's wrong with you?"

Human brains are wired for survival first, and then learning. When humans sense danger, our brains go into survival mode, triggering a fight, flight, or freeze response. Each student perceives danger differently, and it is not the same for everyone. Danger could be an inability to communicate frustration, anxiety in social situations, an upcoming meeting, or a math test. If a student experiences any thoughts of past trauma, the brain automatically shifts into the limbic area or "downstairs" brain. Learning cannot occur at this time.

At DMS, we are all trained to help our students shift back to the "upstairs" brain, where they can focus on more than their trauma and pain and get back to learning. It starts by building individual relationships with our students and being present with them; and continues with us teaching them the skills they need to get back to a place where they can learn.

Sours and Hall's fundamental truths provide a lens for us to model the value of learning and personal relationships with each student. Positive and authentic relationships are the difference for the students at Dakota Memorial School.

This professional learning, our foundation of Christ, and collaboration with therapists, nurses, occupational therapists, and other Ranch professionals all enable us to provide a school where students who have all experienced significant trauma can learn, grow, and thrive.

This article was originally published in Ranch Voice: Summer 2021.

Read more stories like this and explore other issues of Ranch Voice here.

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