May is National Mental Health Awareness Month (MHAM), a time to emphasize the significance of mental health for total wellness and fight stigmas, provide support, and advocate for policies that support those with mental illness and their families. This year’s theme focuses on individuals and organizations working “Together for Mental Health.”
As the school climate and culture specialist for Harris County Department of Education’s (HCDE) Center for Safe and Secure Schools (CSSS), Sasha Blake creates safer educational environments for students and educators by providing support through resources and training. Blake’s goal is to help educators understand the resources available to students dealing with trauma and build strategies that create community, establish connections, and champion student engagement.
In light of MHAM, Blake offers advice to recognize trauma in students and guide them towards healing and academic achievement.
“Trauma affects different people in different ways. What is traumatic to one, may not be traumatic to another. A traumatic event can change how we experience situations,” said Blake. “For instance, if your house flooded from Hurricane Harvey, you may feel anxiety or anger when you hear another storm is coming. However, not every person whose house flooded will feel that same way or share those same emotions.”
A recent study by Kognito, a virtual social and emotional learning content provider, notes that nearly half of America’s youth are socially, emotionally, and academically affected by trauma.
Trauma can manifest in many ways, says Blake. It can look like a student that is distracted or anxious. It can also show up in language deficiency as a student might have difficulty connecting language to situations or experiences. In some students, the damage caused by adverse experiences may create a state of hypervigilance and cause them to become aggressive or even impact their executive functions.
“In these ways, trauma can potentially have a severe and negative effect on academic achievement, which is where trauma-informed education practices come in,” said Blake.
A trauma-responsive environment uses restorative practices by targeting classroom behavior demands, such as memory and self-regulation.
The CSSS’ two-part restorative practices training series approaches the school environment with brain-based methods that can be implemented on an organizational and interpersonal level to ensure every student’s needs are met. Supports can include affective language (a way to communicate to another person how they have affected you by their behavior), consistent use of systems and protocols, and community/restorative circles.
“We hear a lot about community circles as a way to develop social-emotional skills, and that is because they foster relationships by giving every student a voice,” said Blake.
The Center for Restorative Process states that “we feel connected to other people when we sense that they see us, know us, and care about us. That’s what connection circles are about: being seen, being heard, being known, and developing affection.”
Community circles are effective when dealing with a specific conflict. They are also used to develop trust, connections, and understanding. They serve as an intervention to repair or prevent harm by fostering community.
Circles are just one of the many tools used in restorative practices that intentionally support skill-building in pervasive and persistent ways. The key is understanding students’ motivation, says Blake.
“When we take the time to understand what motivates students, we’ve taken the first step in creating environments where they can grow and learn,” she said.