Alignment and Coherence Series: Aligning SEL, trauma-informed practices, and restorative practices into one coherent system
David Adams: Welcome to the first episode in our Alignment and Coherence series: Creating coherence around safe and supportive learning environments through social-emotional learning, trauma-informed practices, and restorative practices alignment. I’m your host, David Adams, Director of Social and Emotional Learning here at the Urban Assembly, on behalf of the Center to Improve Social and Emotional Learning and School Safety.
For those of us who believe in the power of schools to positively impact students’ social, emotional, and academic development, these are pivotal times. Across our country, states are devoting considerable resources into approaches like social and emotional learning, trauma-informed education, and restorative practices.
Whether buoyed by revelations around the school-to-prison pipeline, an overall interest in the whole child, or a desire to ensure that all schools provide supportive learning environments, we stand at a critical opportunity to organize our schools in ways that provide lasting benefit to our students, communities, and society at large. But what to choose?
On the one hand, there are worse things in life than facing an abundance of riches around approaches that are responsive to the social and emotional development of our youth; on the other hand, it’s this very same breadth that can create challenges in aligning these systems into a coherent whole. In fact, the major challenges that most schools face today is not the quality of evidence-based approaches, but the need to organize these systems and programs in ways that create consistent outcomes for staff and students alike.
So, what do approaches like trauma-informed practices and restorative justice have in common, and what roles do concepts like social and emotional learning play in organizing these approaches? How can schools create a common alignment towards a common structure?
In order to start to answer these questions, we’re going to need to create a common language around these terms. Let’s start with trauma-informed practice.
You see, our brains go through critical periods of development where the cells in our brains, called neurons, start to become more selective about the connections that were formed in the first two years of life. This selectivity is based on experiences that the child has had, which connect the neurons and cause them to fire together. It’s called the Hebb rule: neurons that fire together wire together.
And these critical periods represent the times where our brains are most sensitive to environmental inputs. For example, the critical period for language development is about the first 6 years of life, and after around 12 years old, the way that the brain has built itself makes it harder for children to develop new language skills.
In the same way our brains are sensitive to inputs like vision, language, or hearing during periods of development, when children are exposed to consistently high levels of stress without protective factors like caregiver responsiveness, the brain starts to organize itself around that expectation.
When presented with a threatening or neutral face, students who have been exposed to this toxic stress tend to read both faces as dangerous. They are more sensitive to indicators of danger within the environment and tend to be more suspicious of neutral stimuli. This frequently leads these students to become more reactive, drawing negative attention and reprisal from adults, and thus reinforcing the pathways that negatively biased the behavior in the first place.
Neurons that fire together wire together.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Adverse Childhood Experiences, or ACEs, is the term used to describe all types of abuse, neglect, and other potentially traumatic experiences that occur to people under the age of 18. ACEs have been linked to risky health behaviors, chronic health conditions, low life potential, and even early death.
Now, this concept of stress and trauma has major implications on the way that we organize our schools. And captured through the idea of ACEs, it prompts us to think through the following questions:
- How are our schools creating the opportunity for students to form the types of relationships that will serve as protective factors and help them support adaptive responses?
- In what ways are practices and policies in the school reinforcing or even contributing to stress and trauma? And in what ways can they promote healing?
- And what opportunities are schools offering for all staff to intentionally develop adaptive coping mechanisms for stress?
And these questions can form the basis of a trauma-informed practice, defined by the American Academy of Pediatrics as an organizational structure and treatment framework that involves the understanding, recognizing, and responding to the effects of all types of trauma. In a nutshell: it encourages adults to be working with kids as “emotion detectives” and seek to investigate a young person’s emotional responses while purposefully structuring environments and interactions in ways that actively support the social and emotional development of all children.
But we’ll talk more about these ideas when we introduce the concept of social and emotional learning, but for now let’s talk a little bit about restorative practices.
Imagine a group of six- and seven-year-olds who want to play a new game together. What kinds of things are they talking about?
If you’re like me, you’re probably imagining a lot of discussion around the rules of the game. And this social agreement and resulting commitment reflects the establishment of a community, even simply for the purposes of playing. The interactions that flow from the norms established in this community are grounded in their common acceptance.
When consistent infractions to the norms occur, play breaks down. The temporary community dissolves. Restorative practices recognize the idea that our social interactions are grounded in community, and that breakdowns in interactions tear at the social fabric that underpins these spaces.
In a nutshell: community matters.
And that is, while punishments rely on delivering punitive consequences as a deterrent, restorative practices focus on restoring the sense of community that was injured by an action through mediated approaches to interpersonal conflict and an emphasis on making amends to the person or community that was wronged. Like play groups that exist between young children, restorative practices emphasize the idea that we are all bound to each other through our imagined communities and that the most important aspect about these groups is the agreement we come to around how we will interact and the approaches that we will take to resolve conflict.
Restorative practices prompt us to ask the following questions:
- Who feels attached to our school community and why?
- How do we help staff and students recognize the relationship between their behaviors and the communities they’re a part of?
- How do we help our schools develop the relationship skills of staff and students to constructively resolve interpersonal conflicts?
By now, I bet you’re noticing a trend in these ideas: both trauma-informed practices and restorative communities identify the quality of interactions as the key lever for social and emotional development.
The quality of relationships that are available to our students and the skills that staff and students bring to bear in negotiating these relationships are an integral part of creating a safe and supportive learning environment that supports the social and emotional competence of young people. In essence, one way to approach the question of coherence is to subsume all these approaches under the context of social and emotional learning and development.
Let’s dive into this idea more fully. Social and emotional learning is the process by which children and adults develop the skills, attitudes, and values necessary to understand and manage life tasks such as cognitive learning, forming relationships, and the flexibility to adapt to challenges and expectations of a complex society (Elias et al., 1997). It’s the intentional development of competencies such as self-awareness, social awareness, self-management, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making for both staff and students. Social and emotional competence is integral to all aspects of school life. Providing a trauma-sensitive environment relies on teachers developing their SEL skills alongside students.
Creating opportunities for restorative communities focuses on relationship skills and values around contributing to community. And altogether, we can see that the competencies articulated through a social and emotional learning framework can help cohere ideas like trauma-informed practices and restorative practices through a common lens.
Let’s take an example to help clarify the connection. One example of a core competency of social and emotional development is social awareness: recognizing and understanding what others are feeling; developing perspective-taking skills; and appreciating and interacting positively with diverse groups. A quick way to summarize this idea is that social awareness is about demonstrating an awareness of the role and value of others in the greater community.
Restorative practices are based on a similar notion that community is a key lever in resolving conflict and building relationships. So, you can see how using a restorative approach to discipline can help students develop a value of others in the greater community.
And trauma-informed practices have a similar connection to social and emotional learning as well. Many of the approaches to creating a trauma-informed environment rely on intentional development of the social and emotional skills that will help students better cope and more effectively interact with themselves and others:
- Being aware of their emotions and their intentions (self-awareness)
- Working with adults to co- and self-regulate (self-management)
- Working to ensure that those who interact with young people relate to them in ways that spur protective factors (relationship skills)
When we use a social and emotional learning framework to understand how these different approaches support the development of young people, it becomes clear that trauma-informed and restorative practices are both sides of the same coin—a coin that recognizes the importance of social and emotional development for our youth and seeks to build environments and interactions that prioritize it.
This concludes the first episode in our Alignment and Coherence series. As we continue to understand the needs of the field, we will explore various issues under this topic of alignment and coherence in future episodes.