Why Our Trauma-Informed Teaching Must Be More Culturally Responsive

Years ago, before I became an educator, I took a contemporary Native American studies course as one of my first college classes. For the final research assignment, I choose to explore the disproportionate rates of suicide among Native American youth—an issue that impacts nearly all tribal communities, including my own, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe.

From that assignment I learned that understanding trauma can help us better address complex behavioral issues in the communities we care about, whether those communities are our tribal nations or classrooms.

That research paper was the beginning of my relationship with what most educators know as “trauma-informed practices,” a term used for acknowledging the widespread effects of trauma, and started me on my journey of advocating for Native youth through education. I realized that in many cases, our understanding of trauma—where it comes from and how to address it—is limited. In order to truly address trauma, we must also consider both the cultural experiences and socioeconomic inequities that impact our students.

While research has shown school-wide trauma-informed practices benefit all students, one-size-fits-all programs don’t work.

Many years later, I find myself drawing on my early understanding of trauma from an Indigenous context quite often in my current position working for an urban school district in Arizona. As a Native American student achievement teacher for a federally funded grant program, I work directly with teachers of Native American students to develop their capacity for culturally responsive practices. On any given day, you might find me performing the duties of an instructional coach, professional development facilitator or classroom teacher for the 1,300 Native American students in our district.

The Native American students I work with, like so many other Indigenous youth, experience high rates of poverty and health disparities, especially in regard to COVID-19, which has hit Native populations particularly hard. All these things contribute to a higher chance of trauma-exposure, but more importantly the Native students in my district are citizens of tribal nations with longstanding cultural traditions of valuing reciprocal relationships with all living things, including their communities, lands and waters. In my experience, teachers who have the most success with their Native students take into consideration these cultural strengths during their planning and instruction.

While research has shown school-wide trauma-informed practices benefit all students, one-size-fits-all programs don’t work. Mainstream approaches to trauma-informed practices often fail to address or prevent trauma, and at worst can actually perpetuate harm. In order for trauma-informed practices to be meaningful for students—especially the ones I work with—their teachers and school leaders must question whether those practices are being rolled out in a culturally responsive way.

Where Trauma-informed Practices Meet Culturally Responsive Teaching

As with trauma-informed practices, culturally responsive practices are often mentioned but rarely understood within school communities. Although there are many definitions, I frequently find myself turning to the work of educator-turned-author Zarretta Hammond for a clear and comprehensive meaning of culturally responsive teaching.

According to Hammond, culturally responsive teaching is the intentional integration of students’ cultural experiences, knowledge and learning processes into teaching choices. Culturally responsive teaching is more than just a surface level recognition of multiculturalism. It requires educators to affirm and leverage what—and how—students learn in their homes and communities.

This requires teachers to raise their awareness of their students’ cultural background, including the sociopolitical and historical contexts of their communities. Most importantly, culturally responsive teaching recognizes that students need to feel safe—socially, emotionally and intellectually—in order to engage in rigorous learning. This last aspect is what connects culturally responsive teaching and trauma-informed practices in classrooms.

As a starting point for making trauma-informed practices more culturally responsive, educators must critically reflect on the mindsets and assumptions they carry with them. In coaching conversations and professional trainings, I often share the following suggestions with educators who wish to bring a culturally responsive lens to their trauma-informed approach.

Consider the Sociopolitical and Historical Contexts of Your School Community

While working on that undergraduate research paper, I found the work of Dr. Maria Yellow Horse Brave Heart, who coined the terms Historical Trauma and Historical Trauma Response. Historical trauma considers sources of trauma that often go unaddressed in trauma-informed conversations by bringing attention to the ways collective and massive traumatic events can impact multiple generations of individuals. When I hear discussions of trauma in schools, they are almost always limited to interpersonal instances of harm—often abuse, neglect or violence in the home. Rarely, though, do we consider collective or ongoing events, such as colonization or structural racism.

In the past, I have heard teachers claim that Native families “don’t like to be involved at school” when discussing why we consistently see such low academic achievement among Native American students. Few think about the sociopolitical or historical reasons why Native families might be hesitant to trust schools and teachers.

Part of my job is to help teachers develop an awareness of the experiences of Native American students that may impact their academic achievement. This can be difficult because we have over 45 different tribal nations represented in my district, each with their own unique history and context. But the federal policy of forcibly removing Native children from their families to enroll them in government mandated boarding schools is one experience that has touched nearly all 570 federally recognized tribal nations in the United States.

This policy was in effect from the early nineteenth until the latter half of the twentieth century. Hundreds of thousands of Native children were placed in schools that punished any use of their traditional language or cultural practices with harsh impunity. Separated from their families, Native American students were intentionally stripped of their cultural identity. This continues to have negative impacts on Native American peoples’ social, emotional, physical and psychological well being. For some, trauma has become associated with schooling itself.

I often suggest a shift to a strengths-based approach, which values the rich knowledge and experiences students bring into the classroom, instead of viewing it as the source of their trauma.

Learning about historical trauma as a framework for understanding how the relatively recent colonization of North America has had lasting negative impacts on Native American communities helped me understand why I was seeing first hand disproportionate health disparities, including youth suicide, in my tribal community. This cultural context through which I came to understand trauma helped me to understand the importance of going beyond individual and interpersonal instances of trauma to consider sociopolitical and historical contexts as well. When we assume the source of students’ trauma is individual or familial in nature, we run the risk of implying that students, their families and communities are damaged. Frequently, it’s something larger.

Prioritize a Strengths-based Approach

“This place might be the only time they get positive attention” or “For those kids, you are the only caring adult in their lives.” I hear statements like this tossed around often in the schools I support. This type of mindset positions students and their families in a deficit light. Too often, educators adopt a paternalistic view when they assume trauma-affected students have no strategies or safe relationships to help deal with their high levels of stress. In reality, students, families, and their communities have always had culturally specific strategies for sustaining their wellbeing, but historical injustices, such as the boarding school policy, have kept those strategies out of schools.

Instead, I often suggest a shift to a strengths-based approach, which values the rich knowledge and experiences students bring into the classroom, instead of viewing it as the source of their trauma. When applied to trauma-informed practices, this can look like honoring students and families’ cultural and community-specific strategies for coping and maintaining well-being.

Teachers can create the time and space in their classrooms for students to share and practice those strategies in authentic situations, but they also need to develop opportunities for families to have input in trauma-informed policies and practices. Creating authentic partnerships with families requires two-way communication. Offering office hours, sending home surveys, and attending community events are a few ways that I have learned about the funds of knowledge, and specific wellness strategies, that my students bring into the classroom.

When I think about those wellness strategies already in place in my students’ home lives, my mind often turns to ceremonies, which play a pivotal role in maintaining overall wellbeing in Native American communities. However, I know from personal experience as a Native American person who lived and attended school in a predominantly non-Native city that urban Indigenous students may be less likely to engage in these formative experiences. Yet many of the urban Native youth I work with now share stories of returning home to their reservations for coming of age and other culturally significant ceremonies. This diversity of experiences speaks to the need for educators to be willing to take more of an inquiry-based approach that treats students and families as the experts in their own wellbeing.

We are all adjusting to teaching and learning in the time of an ongoing global pandemic, and it is critical that we resist one-size fits all approaches that are limited in their understanding of where trauma comes from and position students and families as damaged. Instead, we must consider how we can shift trauma-informed teaching to become more culturally responsive to the students and communities we wish to serve. Only when we take the time to learn about the socioeconomic and historical backgrounds of our students and leverage their cultural strengths and knowledge, will our schools become spaces for healing from trauma.

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