“It’s about fixing systems, not kids.”
The exercise begins with this scenario: you’re a high school teacher and one of your students has just walked into class wearing their hoodie up even though school uniform rules prohibit that. Do you (a) immediately dole out the penalty for violating the uniform rule, or (b) get the class started on independent work and quietly check in with your student to see what’s going on.
Ask Marie Papini, KIPP Nashville Collegiate High School’s Counselor and KIPP Nashville’s Coordinator of Counseling explains, a trauma-informed educator chooses option b.
Papini, who has been a school counselor for fourteen years, says, “I think at it’s very base, being trauma-informed is just seeking to understand and building those positive relationships with students, even students who you don’t teach. It’s about fixing systems, not kids.”
“It’s also about responding to a student versus reacting in the moment,” adds Ailish Dougherty, Lead Composition Teacher at Collegiate.
Dougherty is a part of the Trauma Informed Leadership Committee, or TLC, at KIPP Nashville Collegiate High School, which Papini founded in the spring of 2018. Over the past few years, the TLC has grown to include 13 staff members ranging from teachers to the school’s leadership team.
“Our goal for the school is that the TLC is considered a resource for teachers on best practices on trauma informed classes, supporting students, and each other,” says Papini.
“I think trauma informed is now a part of our school’s vocabulary. It influences how we approach everything from relationship-building to how our classes are structured and our approach to discipline.”
Dougherty , who also has a background in trauma informed practices, says approaching their work holistically with a trauma informed lens is valuable, because of the number of students who come to Collegiate having experienced some form of trauma themselves.
In the 2018-2019 school year, Papini says they surveyed 100 students, approximately 25% of the school’s population, and 40% of students had an ACE score of 4 or higher. Of the 100 students surveyed, only four had an ACE score of 0.
ACE stands for Adverse Childhood Experiences and measures the amount of trauma a child has experienced.
Papini says, “It’s important to note that the students we surveyed were receiving counseling services, so the data is skewed in that regard. But we know this data was powerful because having even one student with an ACE score of 4 or higher impacts the work we do as educators, especially when it comes to supporting students in the classroom.”
Dougherty adds, “Research shows the higher the ACE score out of 10, the higher likelihood you’ll have adverse outcomes, like long term health issues. Or just at the school level, effects of trauma can present as ADHD. When we look at these things through a trauma informed lens as opposed to a ‘something is wrong and we have to fix it’ lens, we can get to the underlying cause and keep students safe and learning.”
As a part of the continuing work, Papini says the high school has reevaluated its approach to discipline and made changes to way students are redirected. As a result of the trauma informed approach, 7% fewer students participated in OSS, or out of school suspension in the fall of 2019 compared to the fall of 2018.
Papini says, “Before TLC, I would say it was a very rigid discipline system. What we’ve pushed for is to soak up the grey, because there’s so much of it. I think now our students see there’s more room for them to take agency over their behavior, and for our team to find that right balance and still keep things consistent.”
Staff members have also incorporated more mindfulness into their classes and Papini has stressed that for a trauma informed school to be successful, the adults in the building also have to take care of themselves. Staff members have spent time talking about their own windows of stress tolerance and how on any given day, that can fluctuate. In order to manage stress, Papini has worked with the Collegiate team on learning self-regulation skills and processing techniques.
Dougherty explains, “There are of course adults who have experienced trauma, and so it’s important to be aware of how you yourself deal with a situation and recognize your own trigger points so you can successfully do this with your students.”
Papini and Dougherty say the experience with incorporating TLC into Collegiate and sharing these practices with the whole staff spurred them to create a podcast called “Be The Champion.” The name was inspired by longtime educator and ed-champion, Rita Pierson. The duo sees the podcast as one part sharing what they’ve learned with other educators about what worked and what didn’t work, and one part convincing people who may not have a background in trauma about the necessity of trauma informed practices in school.
“When we started this, it was difficult to find other educators at the high school level who had successfully implemented trauma-informed practices in their schools,” explains Papini. “We’re hoping sharing out toolbox strategies will help other people implement this in their schools more easily.”
On the name, Dougherty explains, “Relationships are the backbone of the work that we do. We chose the name because we liked the play on words. Instead of thinking of champion as the winner of something, we think of it as standing up for someone or something – we’re trying to be students’ advocates.”
You can listen to the first three episodes of the podcast here on Spotify. Papini and Dougherty plan to create a total of ten episodes between now and May, featuring teammates from Collegiate and centering student voices and experiences, right down the music intro, which was created by a current student.
“I think the ultimate goal is that students are experiencing trauma informed education beginning in kindergarten and all the way through high school graduation,” says Papini, “And that even if you’re not in education, you can learn something new and incorporate it into your own life.”
You can subscribe to Be The Champion on Spotify and Stitcher.