Improving Education Outcomes for Students Who Have Experienced Trauma and/or Adversity

All children experience some level of stress in their lives. Stress over the short term can help children to develop adaptive coping skills. However, if stress is severe, persistent, and/or cumulative, it may have detrimental effects on children’s cognitive functioning, emotion regulation, interactions with others, and overall academic and behavioral functioning.

Our understanding of trauma and adversity has evolved and expanded from a focus on the individual capacity to system capacity, and to the importance of strengthening the human, social, economic, political, and cultural processes. For instance, we have come to understand how schools can exacerbate the effects of stress and trauma through discriminatory behaviors directed against students, their families, and communities; unsafe or unsupportive environments for learning; punitive disciplinary practices; and a lack of effective, timely support.

Given their substantial role in children’s lives, educational institutions and systems are in a unique position to help buffer children from the negative effects of adversity and/or trauma. How can educators and educational systems support children’s resilience?

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) commissioned AIR to summarize:

  • Best evidence on causes and effects of adversity and/or trauma that students in many countries experience;
  • Factors that exacerbate or reduce the effects of adversity and/or trauma, and
  • Effective educational practices.

Key Findings from the Working Paper

AIR identified three elements that are essential to ameliorate the effects of adversity and/or trauma and build resilience:

As has been starkly highlighted by the current COVID-19 pandemic, technology-based programs can both ameliorate and exacerbate barriers to educational access for disadvantaged populations, necessitating a sharp focus on equity of access in program planning and management.
  • Strong social and emotional skills;
  • Stable and supportive adults in their lives; and
  • Safe, positive, and effective learning environments.

AIR developed a working paper in response to a growing demand, and even more emphasized with the COVID-19 pandemic, among educators at all levels for practical, evidence-based, interdisciplinary information and guidance on how to recognize and respond to the needs of such students and improve outcomes for the most vulnerable.

The working paper describes:

  • Effective strategies to support students who experience adversity and/or trauma and provides rich examples of resources, tools, programs for practitioners and decisionmakers on these strategies;
  • Five case studies that provide a closer look into the implementation of the strategies; and
  • Opportunities to address gaps and the need for future research.

Education Policies and Practices

In the paper, we explore the role of the education sector in promoting well-being, learning, and positive educational outcomes amongst children and youth who have experienced adversity and/or trauma.

Image of a diverse group of preschoolersEffective strategies to support students who experience adversity and/or trauma include:

  • International conventions and national policies that promote equity and prevent discrimination–including in education settings. In particular, AIR’s research shows the importance of developing policies to reduce the burdens of historical trauma that indigenous communities have experienced, help children who are refugees access and benefit from education, protect justice system-involved children, support learners with disabilities, and meet the needs of other children who are at risk of being marginalized. A key policy for educators to consider is the use of fair and non-exclusionary discipline.
  • Mechanisms for knowledge brokering, uptake, and evidence-informed policymaking. Examples of this strategy include networks and technical assistance centers, access to current data, evaluation, and cost analyses to make informed decisions.
  • School level policies for training and supporting educators to improve their trauma-informed practices and student social emotional learning as well as educators’ well-being. These include providing mental health resources to build educators’ awareness, establishing ways for educators to refer students to additional supports, and addressing the capacity of school personnel.
  • Student needs assessments that are culturally, contextually, and developmentally sensitive.
  • Strengths-based school engagement with student, family, and communities. These include practices to ensure student voice and leadership, culturally relevant communications with parents, and cross-sector partnerships to leverage and/or build community resources. Long-term collective resilience is enhanced through systemic and multi-sectorial policies and programs that engage all levels of society, including parents and the community, in addition to students and teachers at school.
  • Multi-tiered approaches to supporting students with different levels of need. These include structured programs for different levels of social, emotional, and behavioral needs, practices and resources to identify and address student growth.
  • Innovative approaches to traditional schooling for students in conflict and post-conflict settings, emergencies, and displacement. These approaches include use of information and communication technology, non-formal learning centers, mobile classrooms, virtual or in-person mentoring for students.

Case Studies

To provide a closer look into the implementation of the strategies above, we present in our paper five case studies:

  • The Gift of Gallang program was developed as a prevention program for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community children in Inala, Queensland. It is an example of effective school partnership within an indigenous community that prioritized culturally appropriate approaches to building resilience and well-being, which was a response to a cluster of youth suicides.
  • The Transforming Schools Framework in Alaska in the United States was designed and implemented to improve student well-being and academic outcomes by implementing culturally responsive, trauma-engaged policies and practices in Alaskan primary, lower secondary and upper secondary schools, and in communities.
  • Trauma-Informed Schools in Indigenous Friendship Centre Communities in Ontario, Canada were developed based on the indigenous holistic approaches to learning, the need for cultural competency, and the importance of trauma-informed relationships and practices in schools.
  • Cleveland Metropolitan School District, a large urban school district in the United States developed its Humanware initiative for providing safe and supportive schools for every student. Since 2008, the district has committed to a comprehensive and district wide approach to implementing evidence-based best social and emotional learning practices.
  • Mental health is a serious concern for unaccompanied refugee minors and schools are often a primary provider of mental health services to them. In this example, the cultural adaptation of the Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (TF-CBT) in an urban public high school is featured.

AIR found these strategies are most effective when they are culturally aligned and co-constructed with key stakeholders: students, their families and communities, and educators.

Opportunities to Address Gaps in Educational Practice, Policy, and Research

AIR’s work highlights the need for future research to address the following issues:

  • Coordination of policies, funding, and services to address disparities and inequity;
  • Culturally responsive practices, particularly research with indigenous students and their communities;
  • Strength-based approaches that appreciate community assets, build social capital, develop collectivism;
  • Policies and practices that support active student voice and inclusion in decision making;
  • Systemic pre- and in-service teacher preparation to help educators recognize and respond appropriately to students who have experienced trauma and/or adversity or to practice effective self-care themselves;
  • How relationships and settings affect interventions; and
  • Building evaluation into the design of interventions at inception.