Trauma is the throughline

Trauma-responsivity is the throughline for multiple types of responsive, integrative teaching (ex. race & ethnicity, gender & sexuality, ability, neurodiversity, and so on). It includes and embraces all of these elements as integral to its purpose of ending educational trauma, whatever its form or substance.

Finding the starting point

When I wrote Building a Trauma-Responsive Educational Practice: Lessons from a Corrections Classroom, I wrote from the perspective of systemic, structural, and historical racism because at its core, mass incarceration is a racist institution. I work with hundreds of educators who are trying to learn all they can about harmful structures, both in and outside of education, and how those structures, systems, and patterns show up in their classrooms. They ask me constantly how trauma-responsive teaching ‘fits’ with cultural responsivity, diversity and justice work, approaches to immigrants and refugees, language teaching, gender and sexuality, and, more recently, neurodiversity.  Until the opening phrase of this post popped into my head, I didn’t have a clear answer, although it felt like there was an extremely strong connection. 

In the last few years, there has been a stampede toward anti-racism in teaching (both pedagogy and curricula), cultural awareness training, DEI work in systems, and a variety of other equity-focused activity.  Now, we find that we are mired in confusion, and struggling to find coherence in the endless wash of trainings, articles, books, infographics, research, and personal experience and observation. With no cohesion across these different areas of work we are at risk of abandoning what progress we’ve made because people simply cannot keep up. 

We have not admitted that the most primary purpose of all this work is to stop harming people. 

We have not admitted that we want to stop harming people, or even that people are being harmed. 

We have rushed into fixing something we have left unnamed, for reasons we don’t want to admit.

We have skipped the most important step: recognition and acknowledgement that our actions have hurt people – friends, colleagues, students, family, and community.

Without that acknowledgement, and without understanding that our first efforts must be toward harm reduction, we have no starting point into authentic connection, wellbeing, nourishment, communal health, and shared understanding. 

Aligning our philosophical, emotional, and practical starting points to “we want to stop hurting people,” expands our conversation to center learning-related harm reduction as an initial, critical purpose.

Trauma-responsivity as harm reduction

Identifying harm reduction as a starting point gives us a strong connection across other initiatives, in both philosophy and practice.  My confusion around where a trauma-responsive approach should align arose from knowing – intuitively – that it aligned everywhere, but not quite grasping why.  Many of today’s efforts to transform education, or at least improve outcomes, contain pieces of trauma-responsive practice, albeit in different forms or using different language.

For example, common elements for work around education transformation, equity, systems change, social-emotional learning, and cultural sensitivity include variations on

  • treating people with respect,
  • valuing connection and relationship,
  • practicing empathy,
  • close and active listening,
  • honoring other ways of interacting with the world,
  • knowledge of the history of systemic oppression, and
  • identifying specific behaviors and actions that cause harm

All of these behaviors and attitudes serve multiple purposes but I see them fundamentally as attempts to stop hurting other people.  As with all good intentions, we reduce our impact when we don’t acknowledge our true purpose in putting them into practice: to mitigate and reduce harm.

Naming and connecting

Harm reduction is a difficult step, in this context, as it requires we acknowledge the pain we cause others, and we do not yet consider learning-related wounds as actual harm.  We are aware that people bring traumatic experiences INTO the classroom, but we rarely consider what happens IN our classrooms to cause injury.  Whether we think about it, or even believe it, educational trauma, “…emotional and spiritual wounds inflicted during the process of learning, as people are shamed for HOW they learn” (Gray, 2019) can result in trauma that extends into every aspect of our lives, and across our lifetime.  We may find adult students’ fundamental ability to learn severely compromised, regardless of their interest.

Educational trauma also reinforces and amplifies other symptoms such as impaired meaning-making, inability to form connections, lack of curiosity and time awareness, reduced critical judgment, and struggle in making decisions.  These foundational learning skills are tightly entwined with each other, and to our biology.  The longer our brain is swamped with stress-related chemicals, the harder it is for us to learn how to access these tools for learning. 

Ending cycles of harm

Humans are learning creatures, and learning-related trauma hurts us in one of our most tender places:  our sense of ‘rightness’ or ‘wrongness’ in who we are.  When students get the message that how they understand the world is somehow wrong, it is an easy jump to “I am wrong.” If we believe that we are unable to learn, to change and grow from that learning, why keep trying?   Painful experiences can cause deep enough wounds to make any attempt at learning a very risky proposition, and an experience to be avoided at all costs.

By the time people enter adult learning spaces, their risk-aversion to learning can be incredibly strong and difficult to soothe.  This, in turn, can result in more painful learning experiences that we casually write off as ‘normal’ because we haven’t experienced anything different.  

But what if those painful experiences we all remember weren’t considered the norm? What if the norm was playful and fun and imaginative and wondrous and beautifully full of joy for students and teachers alike? Thus we return to trauma as the throughline for learning; to painful experiences as the norm for most of us, children and adults.

This is a call out and growing need for educational harm reduction that includes trauma-responsive practice. Harm reduction is a beginning, but it is only the first step toward education and learning as spaces for wellness, connection, and satisfaction. Truly transforming education requires ending cycles of harm, nurturing a strong, expansive ability to learn in every person, creating and a deep commitment to moving humanity in life-affirming directions.

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