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School of Education Helps Schools Build Trauma-Sensitive Cultures

May 22, 2018

To Dr. Donna Marie Cozine, chief educational officer at Renaissance Academy Charter School of the Arts, creating a trauma-sensitive school culture just makes sense. That means equipping administrators and teachers at the Kirk Road school with in-the-moment strategies to help students cope with stress.

A wall in the Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. School of Education Building reads: A great education starts with a great teacher.

Research has shown that there are academic and emotional implications for students who have suffered from trauma, which can stem from the separation or divorce of parents, death of a loved one, domestic violence or neglect, or effects of living in poverty, among other experiences. 

“You don’t always know which children are dealing with trauma, so if we teach in a way that is trauma-sensitive, every kid will benefit. It’s just good pedagogy,” Cozine said.

This understanding has led educators to develop new ways to ensure that classrooms are safe and welcoming, calling on teachers to have a deeper understanding of the social, emotional, physical, and socioeconomic lives their students have outside of the classroom.

While many charter organizations in the Rochester area have embedded trauma-sensitive training into professional development, they will have the opportunity to take a deeper dive into the concept through the Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. School of Education’s Building Trauma-Sensitive School Communities Training Program.

The program includes four sessions that educate Pre-K through 12th grade teachers on how to identify students dealing with trauma and associated stress and shares best-practice strategies for deescalating behavioral issues in the classroom. Thanks to a $27,812 grant from the William and Sheila Konar Foundation, the School of Education is able to expand the training to the Charter School Leadership Network. To date, the program has received more than $95,000 in grant funding, secured in collaboration with the College’s Office of Sponsored Programs, enabling delivery in four different Pre-K through grade 12 settings.

Susan Hildenbrand

Through the Charter School Leadership Network, also organized through the School of Education, leaders in the 12 Rochester charter organizations expressed a strong interest in addressing the needs of students impacted by trauma. Charter schools mainly draw students from the Rochester City School District, where one survey revealed that 87 percent of students have experienced a traumatic life event, and 40 percent have experienced multiple events.

“There’s a defined need for teachers to take a proactive approach to creating environments where the impact of trauma can be mitigated prior to affecting an entire classroom of students,” said Dr. Susan Hildenbrand, associate dean of the School, who developed the interactive professional development series in collaboration with adjunct faculty member Dr. Donna Riter, a well-known behavior specialist. “This training closes a gap for current teachers who may not have benefitted from the body of knowledge around trauma-sensitive strategies that is now part of teacher preparation.”

Those strategies can be as simple as asking students to take three deep breaths or leave the classroom to get a drink of water, to as intensive as regular sessions with a school psychologist or social worker.

“There are many levels of support, and teachers are the first line of defense, so to speak,” said Cozine. “We know if students don’t feel safe, valued, and loved in school, they will not meet their full potential; so our teachers need to be able to teach in way that’s trauma-informed. We’re grateful to the support of the Konar Foundation and the Charter School Leadership Network for enabling participation in this training.”