Restorative and relationship-based practices for trauma-informed schools
By Theresa Kelly Gegen
Theresa Kelly Gegen is editor of The Illinois School Board Journal.
Chris and Courtney Daikos are the co-founders of Continua Consulting Group, which helps school communities implement trauma-informed support systems. Their focus is on working with school staff — and they stress all staff: teachers, administrators, support staff, bus drivers — to create systems for change in support of children with trauma. The work advances a step from the existing models of Response to Intervention (RTI) and the school-wide support systems known as Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS).
Trauma-informed care has been studied since at least the Vietnam War. In education, much of the work revolves around the Adverse Childhood Experiences Study, which was started in the mid-1990s by Kaiser Permanente health systems and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It demonstrated, and the assessments continue to show, that adverse childhood experiences impact a child's lifelong health, education, and social well-being.
In this area of expertise, Continua's work is with schools or school systems, not individual students; but it is clear that children are at the heart of what they do. At the foundation of Continua Consulting's work is T-MTSS, the Trauma-Informed Multi-Tiered Systems of Support (see graphic, page 12).
As Courtney and Chris Daikos team up to explain: "RTI is getting to the point where intervention is what we do all the time, as a school, as a system, as a community, at a foundational level. When we take the approach, Tier 1, the primary outcome of is the practice of Common Language and Expectations, which ideally meets the needs of 80 percent of the student population. Tier 2 is the next level, getting to ready-made, off the shelf, specialized, evidence based interventions, which are specialized for a specific behavior; Tier 3 is an individualized intervention. Educators often perceive Tier 2 and 3, as established, mostly in the areas of special education, which is a misconception, students can have T-2 and T-3 interventions in place while engaging in general education classrooms. Students do not need an Individualized Education Plan to access T-3 interventions."
"When we work with school districts, we are looking mostly at developing Tier 1 leadership teams," says Courtney Daikos. "We have worked with individual schools, and now were are being tasked to take this approach across full districts, who want to take the approach across the whole system. The goal is to first draft what their trauma-informed framework will look like, and then we spend the time in the district doing deeper implementation."
The work deems that all staff — everyone who interacts with children — understands that toxic stress has a significant impact on their behavior. Trauma that children experience can include experiencing and/or witnessing physical or sexual abuse, injuries or illness, abandonment and neglect, violence in the home, community violence, bullying, serious accidents, natural disasters, terrorism, and chronic poverty. Trauma, at any age but certainly in the very young, has severe neurological impacts. Most foundational neurological development happens before age 5.
The Daikos's work starts with the neurology of development and of behavior. Educators are taught to identify the functions of the behaviors — what is the child trying to gain? When a child enters school with maladaptive behaviors, these might be disruptive in a school setting, but serve a purpose for that child in other settings. With the right understanding, schools can help students manage those behaviors.
"It's more situational than not," Chris says, regarding developing frameworks, "And because of that, it's always unique per district or even per school. In most cases, the framework begins with the needs-based assessment and being aware of sustainedtoxic distress and how it impacts neurological development, and with teachers being aware of how much neurological development happens before kids get to school."
And then, Chris continues, "Teachers become aware that there are systems and intervention practices to use to help kids with maladaptive behaviors."
There are some commonalities to developing a framework. This is both Chris and Courtney speaking, exchanging and affirming their statements.
"A lot of it is built around the fundamental beliefs and understandings of development and neurology and behavior. And then also getting into what does it mean to be culturally responsive? Who are the kids in front of you, and do you, as a teacher, relate to them? Kid culture: We are not just talking about ethnicity — we are talking about relatability, which includes culture, heritage, and what's going on in their world."
The processes includes initial interviews with administration and time spent in the building, looking for evidence of "a lot of things," Courtney says. "What do relationships between kids and kids look like, what do relationships between kids and adults look like? What's being taught — is it rigorous and relevant?"
The needs assessment also borrows from several educational practices and theories, including the PBIS-based Tiered Fidelity Inventory and the "Five Dimensions of Teaching and Learning" from the Center for Educational Leadership. To this, they add their own experience as administrators to develop a framework through a constructivist perspective. Chris explains, "The children in front of you are not empty vessels; they have their own experiences that contribute to the learning environment. Do students have that avenue, to contribute to the class, to contribute to the culture of the classroom?"
"We can't build tiers of intervention if we don't have a fundamental understanding of neurology, culture, behavior," says Courtney. "The constructs of discipline and culture: Across the nation, we are trying to reverse the punitive culture and be a more restorative culture."
The work relies on restorative practices and relationship-based practices. This involves investing in relationships and setting up structures for kids to build relationships with each other. They help classroom communities co-construct their norms, by telling kids "this is your classroom, this is our classroom, and we are going to negotiate how we are going to get along as human beings in this room." This establishes trust and means to solve problems in that classroom community.
"The more we do this work," Courtney says, to Chris's agreement, "the more we see that it doesn't take traction without trust."
They caution about the current buzz around the term "restorative justice," as it applies to schools. Those practices are also evidence-based, but in the criminal justice system. It's not the same as a school environment. Applying restorative justice in this framework would be in a Tier 3 situation. Through Tier 1 and Tier 2, schools build restorative practices and processes for kids to solve problems and repair harm. Then when a serious issue arises; they rely on the processes they've built, on the relationship practices that are at the core of the work.
That the work is meant to be undertaken and embedded system-wide is fundamental. But they note it also goes "against the grain" of how most of us were raised and how society still functions. A lot of the work is helping teachers — those on the front line — recognize that there is science behind a positive relational approach that is going to help children learn more than excluding them from instruction when they misbehave.
"It's an interesting dance," Courtney adds, "because teachers don't want another thing to plan, but when they are given a strict curriculum, sometimes they feel restrained by that. We were teachers, we know! On the other hand, you need that fidelity, to implement the way it was designed, and to give it a chance to work. It's a balance. That's what makes a leadership team important — to answer, 'why are we doing this' and 'what does it matter if we keep doing this?'"
The goal is to give it time to work, and to empower teachers with evidence — their own evidence, eventually, and to hear it from someone they trust.
Such practices include the "Positive Greetings at the Door" approach, with an emphasis on setting a task for the first few minutes a student is in the classroom.
"We explain to them," Chris says, digging into the science, "that there are neurological pathways being developed in that child. Ideally, there is a myelin sheath being developed around that pathway on that good behavior. That's going to take time, but that's going to become second nature to that child. The intrinsic motivation leads to extrinsic motivation."
Although most of their work is educating educators on T-MTSS, Courtney says "What we see is, if we don't have the support of the superintendent and school board, we can't go into a school trying to take on a systemic framework."
Chris notes that some existing and widely-used programs for behavioral intervention are not only not evidence-based, but they are "horrifying and damaging" relying on public humiliation and isolation.
"It's a big part of the challenge," Courtney says. "Those programs can be very teacher-friendly. And it's a huge shift to recognize they are doing damage."
"We need to move away from that," Chris says, "And convince educators that there's a better way."
This article was originated through a presentation by the Christopher Daikos at the 2018 NSBA Conference in San Antonio; an editorial clarification was added on January 1, 2019. Visit continuaconsulting.com to learn more about Continua Consulting Group. That link and other resources associated with this article can be accessed at blog.iasb.com/p/journal-resources.html.