Program to Help RCSD Teachers Create Trauma-Sensitive Classrooms

April 27, 2020

Drs. Susan Hildenbrand and Donna Riter, professors and colleagues at St. John Fisher College’s Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. School of Education, are experts at training teachers and administrators about how to help students affected by trauma.

Dr. Susan Hildenbrand addresses teachers during a conference on trauma-sensitive classrooms held in 2019.

Dr. Susan Hildenbrand addresses teachers during a conference on trauma-sensitive classrooms held in 2019.

Beginning summer 2020, the professors will launch a three-year program at School No. 33 in the Rochester City School District to equip its teachers with strategies and tools to help students navigate stress and volatile emotions. The onset of the coaching program could not have fallen at a more appropriate time; continued uncertainty due to COVID-19 has created a potential layer of trauma for the students, particularly those who find safety and support in school. The lessons in the coaching program will make the participating teachers better equipped to handle any potential trauma resulting from the abrupt transition this spring.

The program was made possible by two grants that will collaboratively fund the program, officially called Coaching for a Trauma Sensitive School Community in School #33. Hildenbrand received $30,000 from the Marie C. and Joseph C. Wilson Foundation and $125,000 from the William and Sheila Konar Foundation.

“We are very thankful to School No. 33 and the Wilson and Konar Foundations for supporting our work,” said Hildenbrand.

Over a three-year period, the program will deepen school staff knowledge on the impact of trauma while participating in coaching sessions that will transition training into practice. The program will also develop a team of champions who will lead a school-wide network to employ trauma-sensitive practices that can support students and staff in a sustainable way.

“We are trying to develop teachers now as leaders, researchers, and champions for trauma-sensitive school communities,” Hildenbrand explained. “We want to give them more tools to continue on after we’re gone.”

The partnership between Fisher and School No. 33 comes on the heels of a previous training Hildenbrand and Riter conducted with 22 teachers in fall 2018. The duo facilitated a session, Creating Trauma Sensitive School Communities Training, a professional development program for teachers on trauma sensitive strategies. 

"Healthy and successful learning communities require staff that are properly equipped to respond to student and family needs – implementing an integrated, trauma-focused professional development program is an essential tool,” said Lindsey Feigenbaum, Community Coordinator at School #33. “We are extremely lucky to be able to partner with St. John Fisher College to help build the capacity of our staff to create a safe, supportive, and responsive environment for the students we serve." 

The growth of the program was in response to feedback from School No. 33 teachers, who indicated that they would benefit from a coaching model. The new program meets those goals and aims to have a ripple effect in the school.

For all teachers, the first phase of the program is a 12-hour training session.  Then, eight teachers will be selected to participate in an advanced program to become trauma leaders in their building. Hildenbrand and Riter will each have a group of four teachers that they will meet with monthly to review literature and research on trauma sensitive classrooms, discuss the individual needs of their classes, and brainstorm how they can implement different strategies. The professors will also observe teachers in the classroom, and offer individual suggestions on how to incorporate strategies in their teaching.

By the end of the three-year program, 52 teachers will have received training in the 12-hour session, and 24 teachers will have gone through the coaching program and really honed their skills.

“We are working with them to develop their own skills and the confidence to be trauma sensitive champions. Those who go through the coaching can support their colleagues in the building,” said Hildenbrand. “We are really hoping that building experiences a culture change toward become fully trauma sensitive.”

Hildenbrand said that research has shown that coaching is an effective way to implement what the teachers will learn in professional development, but it difficult to assess impact without a multi-year study.

“We are really excited that all three years were able to be funded, because that will give us rich data that can be used to make recommendations about what’s effective in supporting students,” she explained. “And that’s the main goal: support students in School No. 33 classrooms.”

Part of the coaching is supporting teachers and promoting self-care. Today especially, self-care can help teachers not only address their students’ trauma, but any they might be experiencing as well. During social distancing, Hildenbrand recommends teachers set a routine, find ways to get exercise, and get out of the house and be in nature.

“In these new, uncharted times, continue to nurture those relationships with students and colleagues,” she said. “But make sure your job is not the only thing you are doing. Give yourselves a break, too.”