Psychologist – “This tells me that there’s a lot of brains in here right now that are wired for survival, and just might be a little on edge.” That was the sentiment expressed by Biology teacher, Erik Gordon, when responding to the information that in his class more than 13 students indicated that they have experienced significant trauma in their past.
The concepts of trauma-informed or trauma-sensitive approaches or practice seem to be popping up everywhere in the education system. Our ability to support students who have experienced adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) also is finding its way into many staff room conversations. So what exactly does it mean to be trauma-informed or trauma sensitive? Well, a quick Google search will bring up a number of articles, programs, and ideas around how schools can begin to work with students who have been traumatized. Some of these programs can be quite expensive, but behind any commercialized answer resides two key concepts that are at the heart of being a trauma-informed educator:
- Understanding that trauma impacts a child’s developing brain and can cause structural changes, which can impact a child’s behaviour, memory and learning.
- Belief that positive educator-student relationships, where the child feels safe, valued, and cared for can begin to tip a child’s resiliency scale towards the positive, even though it might be stacked with negative weight.
This shift in thinking can sometimes be difficult because sometimes ‘the kids who need the most love will ask for it in the most unloving of ways.’ When Erik Gordon learned about the impact that ACEs had on a child’s brain architecture, he began to work with them differently. He started to try to find more ways to connect with them, such as jamming together over lunch hour. He also began to see their behaviour as something that they may not have full control over. In fact, at Erik’s school, all of the teachers learned about the impact of trauma on the brain. They started to have regular meetings where they would discuss what was going on for their students and identify strategies to have more positive and meaningful interactions with them. As a result, suspension rates went down and achievement went up. Erik’s school’s story has been captured in a film called ‘Paper Tigers’ that Rocky View Schools Learning Support has purchased a license for.
Interested in watching Paper Tigers? Register an account using your rockyview.ab.ca email at https://rvsls.tugg.com/ and watch the documentary in its entirety. Perhaps you could hold a screening at your school and have an open dialogue about the film and its connections to your school.
Director of Learning Supports – There is a rich history of digital tool use in Rocky View Schools. From being one of the early pioneers of online learning in the province, to belonging to an early provincial cohort group of school boards to adopt one-to-one learning environments, RVS continues to improve connections in the digital learning environment, as well as improve communication of student learning.
In keeping with the advancement of technology and its benefits to our learning system, this year RVS will be transitioning to a software platform entitled “Dossier” that supports the creation and digital documentation of individual program plans, known more aptly as IPPs. This transition is intended to assist teachers efficiently document the learning needs of our diverse students. It also aims to compile our students learning needs in one central digital workspace, allowing staff to readily access and share a child’s needs with other teachers and his/her parents. A final aim is to leverage all the information gathered regarding a child’s attendance, instructional modifications, social/emotional needs, and academic success so that we can improve how we support the needs of our students and families.
As we begin to build understanding in the use of this new technical platform, we will continue to follow our regular IPP planning process that calls for the documentation of key goals, strategies, and supports to meet the learning needs of students. We also will continue to share with parents on a regular basis the progress of their child. Parents and students are encouraged to contribute to the planning of identifying learning goals, as well as how teachers can best support students reaching their potential and realizing success in their learning experiences.
Registered Provisional Psychologist – The idea of inclusion is not a new one and has certainly been discussed in Rocky View Schools, as well as in the larger education system for some time. We all have our ideas about what inclusion means and have the ability to espouse a philosophical and/or theoretical definition of inclusive teaching practice. That is fantastic; however, the discussion and implementation of inclusive practice becomes much more difficult when looking at the operational aspects. According to McLeskey and Waldron (2012) far more teachers support the concept of inclusion than are willing to teach in inclusive classrooms. Much of the time, this is the result of the teacher’s beliefs about disability and his or her professional efficacy. As such, I wish to open up a discussion about how our own beliefs impact the success of meeting the needs of diverse learners. Successful inclusion first begins with self-reflection regarding our personal beliefs about diverse students, such as those with various disabilities, and our perceived role in taking responsibility to reduce the barriers to their learning.
Just as students with diverse needs can be considered to fall along a continuum of learner differences, teachers’ and school administrators’ beliefs about their role in supporting such students can also be considered to fall along a continuum between pathognomonic and interventionist constructs. A pathognomonic construct focuses on identifying or diagnosing students’ problems and weaknesses. Disability is perceived as an internal attribute and condition of the student. Teachers whose beliefs lie in this direction focus on ‘what is’ and perceive themselves as having little impact on the success and outcome of those with certain learning challenges. A pathognomonic outlook supports the practice of placing students with special needs in separate programs and schools, such as those with learning challenges, mental health symptoms, medical needs, etc. However, on the other end of the continuum, the interventionist construct focuses on how environmental and social factors impair a student’s learning. Disability is viewed, at least in part, as being created by external barriers to learning. Teachers with this perspective see themselves as responsible for intervening and advocating for students with disabilities to illicit change in the environment to aide in supporting the student’s learning needs.
Teaching practices and inclusion are largely influenced by teacher efficacy. A teacher’s professional efficacy is impacted by their understanding of certain disabilities and experience supporting such challenges. Toward that end it is important that professionals reflect upon their level of understanding of certain disabilities, as well their level of knowledge or expertise in supporting students with certain challenges. This begs the questions: where do you fall on the continuum? Does your place on the continuum change depending on the student’s disability or learning challenges? Where are you on the continuum for including a student with a learning disability in math, reading, writing, etc? Is it different for a student with behavioural deficits such as Oppositional Defiant Disorder, Reactive Attachment Disorder, or Attention-Deficit/Hyper Activity Disorder? What about a student with anxiety, depression, experienced trauma, family system difficulties? Which way would you move if a student with medical challenges or Autism Spectrum Disorder was in your class? If your place on the continuum does change, how much of that change can be attributed to your understanding of certain disabilities and/or your experience with supporting students with those specific needs? Would you raise your hand to be the one to support students with diverse needs in your class/school?
Research has shown that teacher and school administer beliefs about disability and their own professional efficacy greatly impact the success of inclusion for diverse learners. Such beliefs are the impetus for supporting inclusion and underlie any theoretical or philosophical definition of inclusion. After reflection upon your own beliefs about diverse learning challenges, and your role in supporting such students, what would you need to move further toward the interventionist side of the continuum for supporting all learners?