Committee for Children Blog

Why Trauma-Informed Approaches Help Advance Racial Equity

teacher with students

The murders of George FloydAhmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor, among many others, have dramatically underscored the racial injustices within our country’s systems. Throughout history, racial equity has been an issue intertwined with our education system in a multitude of ways.1 On our journey to becoming better and more active allies, we understand that we at Committee for Children have a role to play in helping dismantle interpersonal and institutional racism. As we boldly stated: Words are not enough anymore. We must take action.

We’re committed to improving specific issues related to our priority areas—social-emotional learning (SEL), child protection, and bullying prevention—that disproportionately impact the Black community and communities of color. Each month, our policy experts will answer questions relating to these priority areas and racial equity. Our series has covered exclusionary discipline reform and will now discuss trauma-informed approaches to education.

What is trauma?
Trauma occurs when someone experiences or witnesses something that can be frightening, threatening, or harmful and often elicits a strong response. Such events might include abuse, neglect, community violence, loss, war, serious accidents, illness, or incidents of racism, to name a few.2 Trauma in youth is often studied by examining Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), which are traumatic events that happen before a young person is 18 years old and are linked to challenges in adulthood. ACEs can be mitigated by teaching young people life skills, such as SEL.3

What is a trauma-informed approach to education?
Trauma-informed approaches to education involve awareness and responsiveness to trauma and cultivate safe and supportive learning environments. The aim in implementing these approaches is to limit exposure to triggers or risks, and to promote protective factors and supports that foster resilience and help young people deal more effectively with stressful events.4,5

Why do trauma-informed approaches to education matter for racial equity?
Like other forms of trauma, racial trauma and historical trauma can impact young people of color. Racial trauma is the stressful impact or emotional pain of experiencing racial discrimination and prejudice, and historical trauma is a type of trauma a community might experience based on trauma that has been passed down through generations.6 Both can impact children’s well-being and have systemic implications on other measures like test scores and graduation rates.7

How do trauma-informed approaches relate to SEL?
SEL overlaps significantly with and thereby contributes strongly to trauma-informed approaches. Both trauma-informed approaches and SEL work on cultivating safe and supportive environments. As Committee for Children Director of Policy and Advocacy, Jordan Posamentier, often says in his advocacy, “An emotionally regulated young person is a young person ready to learn.” SEL also plays a role in promoting behaviors—such as skills for building supportive relationships and self-efficacy—that can protect against negative effects resulting from trauma.8 Trauma-informed approaches must be culturally responsive, especially when dealing with trauma that stems from racial trauma and historical trauma. (We’ll discuss culturally responsive practices in more detail in subsequent posts.) A trauma-informed approach that ignores culturally responsive practices could fail or, worse, re-traumatize young people.

How does legislation address trauma-informed approaches?
Federal and state governments are advancing trauma-informed approaches in policy. These efforts have recently increased, likely because of the pandemic combined with an increased focus on racial injustices. In the past year alone Committee for Children has tracked and advocated more than 100 bills related to trauma-informed practices, such as:

  • The federal RISE from Trauma Act that would support a trauma-informed workforce
  • A bill in Indiana’s 2020 legislative session that requires treatment of trauma in teacher prep
  • A bill passed in Pennsylvania in 2019 that incentivizes implementation of trauma-informed approaches to curriculum and professional development

How do I get involved?
Here are some ways you can take action:

  • Urge your local education leaders to prioritize COVID-19-relief dollars for developing and integrating trauma-informed approaches, such as SEL, by using this preformatted letter.
  • Sign up to receive action alerts at key times specific to your state from our Policy and Advocacy Team.

1 Darling-Hammond, L. (1998, March). Unequal opportunity: race and education. The Brookings Institution. https://www.brookings.edu/articles/unequal-opportunity-race-and-education/

2 The National Child Traumatic Stress Network. (n.d.). About child trauma. https://www.nctsn.org/what-is-child-trauma/about-child-trauma

3 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2020). Preventing Adverse Childhood Experiences. https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/acestudy/fastfact.html

4 Herrenkohl, T. I., Hong, S., & Verbrugge, B. (2019). Trauma-informed programs based in schools: Linking concepts to practices and assessing the evidence. American Journal of Community Psychology, 64(3–4), 373–388. http://doi.org/10.1002/ajcp.12362

5 The National Child Traumatic Stress Network. (n.d.). Creating, supporting, and sustaining trauma-informed schools. https://www.nctsn.org/sites/default/files/resources/creating_supporting_sustaining_trauma_informed_schools_a_systems_framework.pdf

6 National Child Traumatic Stress Network. (n.d.). Addressing race and trauma in the classroom: A resource for educators. https://www.nctsn.org/sites/default/files/resources/addressing_race_and_trauma_in_the_classroom_educators.pdf

7 National Child Traumatic Stress Network. (n.d.). Addressing race and trauma in the classroom: A resource for educators. https://www.nctsn.org/sites/default/files/resources/addressing_race_and_trauma_in_the_classroom_educators.pdf

8 Reyes, J. A., Elias, M. J., Parker, S. J., & Rosenblatt, J. L. (2012). Promoting educational equity in disadvantaged youth: The role of resilience and social-emotional learning. In S. Goldstein & R. B. Brooks (Eds.), Handbook of resilience in children (2nd ed., pp. 349–370). Springer. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-1-4614-3661-4_20