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Trauma in our schools: Teaching teachers to care for themselves
Addressing trauma

Trauma in our schools: Teaching teachers to care for themselves


RACINE — It can be a scary experience for a teacher to know she is running low on compassion and kindness, said Julie Hueller, manager of the Racine Collaborative for Children’s Mental Health.

Because teachers can be subject to secondary trauma through their work with children who have been traumatized, it’s important for them to remember to take care of themselves, Hueller said.

“Obviously this is a hard job ... they’re on the front lines every day,” said Laura Vanderheyden, Racine Unified’s student assistance coordinator.

Unified is working with its community partner, Professional Services Group, to implement trauma-sensitive practices such as mindfulness for its students and to educate staff about trauma.

Part of the district’s work to implement a trauma-sensitive schools model, using a portion of a $75,000 grant for mental health from the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, is aimed at helping teachers foster compassion resilience.

In education, compassion resilience means maintaining physical, emotional and mental well-being while compassionately identifying and addressing student stressors that are barriers to their learning, according to DPI.

“We have a lot of wonderful teachers out there, who every day come and try and love children, and they feel like failures,” said Lisa Lequia, Unified’s assistant director of student services.

It can be difficult for teachers to keep a positive attitude as they try to build trust and help a child grow but do not see any immediate results, she said.

“What’s so difficult to understand, for anyone, is that the brain is so powerful and wired in such a way that if a child has been hurt in the past, or let down in the past by adults, they see every adult that way,” Lequia said.

Through its work this year, Unified intends to help teachers realize that they are contributing to the healing of that child’s brain, and someday that student might learn to trust adults again.

Basically, Lequia wants teachers to know they are making a difference, even if it’s not immediately apparent.

Being emotionally prepared

Last month, teams from each of Unified’s schools were trained in compassion resilience for two days. Those teams were tasked with the challenge of taking what they learned back to their school and sharing it. The district is planning for staff to begin working through DPI’s compassion resilience toolkit in December.

This work is aimed at ensuring the adults working in Unified schools are emotionally prepared to interact with their students and making sure they don’t get tired out or see their compassion worn down.

Solutions for teachers include taking time to care for themselves; awareness of trauma and how it affects students; and knowing when to step in and help.

“Often people, teachers, staff members wait too long when they see signs of escalation or frustration in children,” Lequia said.

Sometimes teachers see potential problem behavior in students and just hope it doesn’t escalate, but it usually does, Lequia said. Unified’s trauma-sensitive education will train teachers on when they should intervene, and how to identify that a child is not in a head space conducive to learning at that moment.

Lequia referenced Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, a psychological theory that says safety and physical needs must be met before personal growth can take place. This means that if a child is worried about having proper shelter or enough food, that child might struggle with concentration, self-regulation and learning.

Those implementing trauma-sensitive schools at Racine Unified know that when teachers and other staff members have an idea of the trauma and toxic stress their students go through, they can better understand and help those students.

They also know that this model will take time to implement, even with the $75,000 grant from DPI this year to fund it and another $75,000 coming next year.

“We’ll be scratching the surface by the end of the third year here in this district,” said PSG director Dan Baran, who coordinates programming in Racine. “And I know we’ll go after more money to continue the work, because it literally is designed to transform how people view kids.”



Caitlin Sievers covers education in Racine County with a primary focus on Racine Unified School District. Before moving to the Racine area she worked at small papers in Indiana, Illinois and Nebraska.

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