Transforming Learning Communities Through a Transdisciplinary, Trauma-Informed Approach to Classrooms as Communities

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We describe an intentional approach to classroom community building from a trauma-informed perspective. We reframed a first-semester course on building classroom community for teacher certification candidates. We facilitated a Professional Learning Community (PLC) during subsequent semesters to engage candidates in ongoing discussions.

In this work, we invoke the term community to refer to specific constructs depending on contexts. As part of course design, individual classrooms are described as learning communities. This intentional language usage reflects ongoing concerns around the reductionist nature of classroom management. The phrase building learning communities refers to the intentional processes teachers use to create safe, inclusive, supportive, and affirming environments that support all students’ learning. It is also in the name of the course.

Findings showed teacher candidates felt more knowledgeable about childhood trauma as well as how to incorporate this knowledge into their learning communities. Findings identified gaps in instruction and the need for better facilitation of shifts in candidates thinking about students affected by trauma. Many of the hallmarks of teacher preparation such as intentional integration of information, analysis, practice, and reflection were effective. However, we identified concerns with our instruction, along with areas needing more robust attention.

Traumatic stress in childhood can impede brain development and is associated with barriers to school performance. Attention to childhood trauma and the subsequent need for trauma-informed care has contributed to emerging discourses related to teaching practices, school climate, and the delivery of trauma-related in-service and pre-service teacher preparation. Psychological trauma, frequently experienced by school-aged children, includes experiences or events that are perceived as harmful, create intense distress, and impact an individual’s overall wellbeing.

Consequently, students’ behaviors may be perceived by their teachers as problematic, resulting in punitive teacher responses. Literature across disciplines documents the impact of trauma on children in schools, the need for school and community-wide approaches. Nevertheless, within the educational research literature, the gap between research and practice continues (Alvarez, 2017; De Pedro et al., 2011) and trauma-informed teacher preparation in this area remains underdeveloped (Rossen & Hull, 2013; Wong, 2008) and under-researched.

Recent studies frame TIP more specifically in teacher preparation. Reddig and VanLone (2022) found that five states require training in ‘trauma-informed pedagogy’ which they define as ‘a teacher’s collective use of trauma-informed practices’ They also found states often required elements associated with trauma- informed care, such as social-emotional learning and cultural responsiveness.

Without an explicit policy directive, it remains unclear to what extent teacher preparation programs are required to provide candidates information or training in trauma-informed teaching. Studies of preservice teachers in both Australia (Davies & Berger, 2019) and the United States (McClain, 2021) describe participants’ responses that their preparation programs did not prepare them with trauma-awareness nor responses to trauma.

In our state, we typically use teacher candidates. Preservice teachers who participated in Foreman and Bates (2021) study received instruction on trauma-informed care for the classroom during a single, 90-minute class meeting. Those in an Australian study completed by L’Estrange & Howard (2022) received a six-week unit. Findings indicated that the course increased participants’ attitudes and efficacy in using teaching practices to support children in schools.

The tools and strategies included information about how trauma can affect students’ behavior and learning as well as resources on vicarious trauma. Findings across these studies confirms the need for trauma-informed practices in teacher preparation. This framework is intended for professionals in health specialties, but adaptable for other “sectors...”

that have the potential to ease or exacerbate an individual’s capacity to cope with traumatic experiences. Rossen and Hull (2013) emphasize the need for educators to build “a classroom climate of mutual respect and empathy” Trauma-informed practice in schools requires educators to recognize the prevalence, impact, and indicators of childhood trauma and to respond to student behavior in ways that support traumatized youth without re-traumatization.

Trauma-informed teaching seeks to acknowledge the ways a young person’s life course is affected by trauma. It also requires teachers demonstrate insight and flexibility in their classroom management and instructional practices. Previous research considering practicing teachers found teachers responded positively to information around trauma-informed practices and consequently felt comfortable implementing these practices. That said, RB-Banks and Meyer (2017) advocate for candidates’ early exposure to trauma- informed practices, regardless of the difficult nature of such experiences.

We were concerned that TIP content would be perceived by candidates as an add-on, a series of tricks or tips. To that end, we strived to scaffold candidates learning of the TIP modules around larger discussions of equity, cultural responsiveness, and systemic challenges. Because of the educator preparation program’s intent to foster a shift in candidates’ perspectives around building classroom communities that are trauma-informed, this practitioner research informed by action research is grounded in a sociocultural perspective using a transformative design.

Sociocultural theory's inclusion of thought, language, and learning as dialogic pushed us as instructors and researchers to examine if and how the resources we used, along with the instruction we provided, shifted candidates toward more informed perspectives and guided actions. Action research processes included intentional, critical reflection and self-evaluation of candidates’ practice with emphasis on their roles in next steps, decision-making, and implementation of new learning. We intend for the findings of this study, as well as the insights offered by candidates, to improve the course and inform teacher preparation around trauma-informed practices.

We recognize the inevitability of multiple, socially constructed realities that are also affected by power and privilege, necessitating explicitness regarding each of our values and positionalities. Our work intends to support candidates to inform practices around building learning communities, create trauma-informed learning environments, and improve teacher preparation. We address a notable gap in the research regarding teacher preparation as a component of trauma- informed systems of care.

Further, Mertens and Ginsberg (2008) describe transformative, qualitative approaches and action research as potentially complementary. We include Brydon-Miller et al.’s (2003) definition of fundamental principles of action research to include “respect for people and for the knowledge and experience they bring to the research process” (p. 15) Our intentions with this study are to respect the perspectives and experiences of candidates while working with them to challenge deficit views of middle and high school students and explore more informed and transformational stances around trauma-informed teaching.

We viewed our work as an opportunity to problematize teacher preparation, more specifically, within a required course on building learning communities with newly added content around trauma-informed practices. Drawing from the conceptual umbrella of practitioner research (Cochan-Smith & Lytle, 2009) along with action research and self-study methodologies, we explored how teacher candidates developed and constructed their perceptions of trauma- informed teaching as a component of building classroom communities.

In Spring 2017, as a transdisciplinary team, we initiated a trauma-informed project in a required undergraduate teacher education course. The project addressed ways to establish and maintain a learning environment with specific attention to: cultural conflicts in the classroom. We also focused on engaging students who are the hardest to reach and explicit attention to childhood trauma from a social work perspective.

This project, titled Transforming Learning Communities (TLC), was informed with input from partners, including veteran teachers, school counseling staff, policy advocates, and recruitment and staffing personnel from the local public school system. The TLC team’s primary task for the project was to revise an undergraduate teacher preparation course, Building Learning Communities. The course was originally designed to engage pre-service teacher candidates to understand effective approaches to build and maintain learning environments that are academically, socially, physically and emotionally safe and productive.

This course is one of the first taken by students enrolled in the undergraduate program. The revisions to BLC’s focus on building learning communities were based on foundational principles of trauma-informed practices. As a result of this shift, instruction emphasized creating classroom structures that are flexible, consistent, and responsive to the needs of all students, particularly those impacted by trauma.

Teachers who build and communicate a sense of community within classrooms create welcoming and productive learning spaces to benefit students and teachers. Calls for community within educational spaces harken back to the works of both Dewey and Vygotsky as these scholars viewed learning as a social process. In P-12 classrooms, with explicit attention to community, students are involved participants who see themselves as members of a larger community.

Watson et al. acknowledge learning occurs in community and note the critical nature of the teacher’s role in not only building such a community but also in sustaining it over time. We also recognize challenges in building relationships and community with students whose prior experiences with teachers are negative while affirming the significance of the community building process for students' socio-emotional and academic learning.

Teacher candidates need instruction modelling practices supportive of classrooms as learning communities. Researchers have demonstrated how coursework can be a place where candidates experience community building firsthand. D'Souza (2017) modeled strategies such as greeting students by name, attending to classroom arrangement, connecting with students' lives outside the course, and engaging in active learning.

Candidates recognized these actions affected their learning and sense of belonging, viewing these actions as relevant for their future classrooms. As part of their own experiences, candidates' conceptualizations of the communities they wish to build with their students in the future. During the first semester, we established baseline data, using The Trauma Survey (Crosby et al., 2016) as a formative assessment. We created a sustainable course design to provide candidates with opportunities and tools supporting their ongoing learning, reflection, and action toward more inclusive classrooms.

Instructors delivered content on trauma-informed teaching via four modules spread throughout the 14-week course. Modules included directed readings, lectures, class activities and discussions. The two teacher educators were listed as co-instructors of record for the course and were responsible for grading. The course is included in an IRB allowing self-study for teacher preparation coursework that requires protections against coercion.

The invitation explains instructional tasks and assignments may be used as data. Candidates who chose not to participate in self-study can complete an opt-out form indicating their wishes. The instructors include a Black social work educator, a Black English and rhetoric educator, and two white teacher educators. We all identify as female.

Together, we form a multi-racial and multi-disciplinary group of scholar-activists with varying levels of relevant experience in schools and classrooms. Of the candidates, 12 out of 17 continued into the second semester PLC and research. Six of these completed the full student teaching experience and one withdrew. We do not identify gender because of the low number of participants. Participants chose their own pseudonyms.

Data Sources and Collection During the first semester, data include course assignments and candidates' reflections on their experiences. During the second semester, we facilitated the monthly PLC meetings to continue candidates’ engagement with trauma-informed perspectives after the course. Using both written and verbal prompts, candidates used stimulated recall (Heikonen et al., 2017) in focus groups to revisit the topics and assignments from first semester. In the third semester, candidates met in the PLC focus group to reflect on trauma- informed practices. Each of the seven candidates completed Critical Incident Descriptions (Angelides, 2001) twice; once at the midpoint of the student teaching semester and again at the end.

Candidates identified incidents in their classrooms and responded to prompts about the incidents. In Critical Incident Descriptions, each candidate described four different scenarios. Candidates described their perspectives and reflections on interactions with students who (a) acted out; and (b) shut down, as these are identified in the literature as behaviors presented by students who have experienced trauma.

Students were asked to describe one incident of a student acting out that ended with a positive resolution as well as one incident that ended in a negative resolution. Data were analyzed using directed content analysis, a structured process using existing theory for predetermined codes. Transdisciplinary theories used to design the study directly informed the process of analysis and interpretation of findings.

Data analysis was a recursive process that began while we taught the course, prior to confirming the precise data set we would analyze. More formal data analysis began once the course ended. We determined our final data set from the course based on the candidates who had not opted out of self-study. Drawing from Saldaña (2015), we coded in two stages. As part of our first cycle codes, we applied codes across multiple passes of the data attending specifically to where candidates described that their thinking changed or where we saw shifts in their thinking.

Our second cycle of coding included closed coding derived from our theoretical framework. We reviewed our earlier logs written during the instruction along with the additional data. The findings revealed how candidates shifted their perspectives of classroom communities as they recognized their need, as teachers, to be trauma-informed.

With our attention to development in the context of social and cultural interaction (John-Steiner & Mahn, 1996) the findings illuminate how, throughout the study, they co-constructed those perspectives. As part of our action research and to inform us, as instructors, whether candidates were developing perceptions of trauma-informed teaching, they completed the School Faculty/Staff Trauma Survey (Crosby et al., 2016)

Responses to the Trauma Survey administered the second week of class during the first semester and again at the end of that semester demonstrated candidates' changes in their responses to questions. All students enrolled agreed with these statements. The other data sources revealed the nuances around these statements and how candidates' perspectives across each semester honed in around four actions. These actions serve as themes with respect to their perceptions of trauma-informed teaching within learning communities.

relationship building; c.) adding teacher moves; and d.) reframing teacher behaviors. Candidates’ reflections revealed how they constructed their understandings of these actions by framing course content and field experiences in support of learning trauma-informed practices. They continued to note that signs of trauma may be overlooked by teachers, and, in later semesters, noted potential instances in classrooms where that may have been the case.

During the first semester, while they were enrolled in the course, candidates’ mentions of trauma were specific (and often mandatory because of the directions for assignments) During the two later semesters, candidates often continued to explicitly mention trauma-informed practices without our prompting. At other times, they discussed topics that included responses that were often trauma- informed or trauma-sensitive without explicitly mentioning trauma. For example, in one of her Critical Incident Descriptions during student teaching, Jenny wished that she had de-escalated a conflict with a student rather than escalating it. Jenny's reflection on this critical incident was similar to others' shifts and recognition of the significance of their decisions and actions. In short, Jenny's developing perceptions of community building from

Hermione shares her perspective and owns her responsibility. There are many types of trauma signs that span externally and internally. I feel like it’s so easy for a child to fall through the cracks and go by unnoticed by those who can help. Not every child will react the same way or show equal signs. I need to be prepared to spot a potential child who is in need.

In later semesters, candidates revisited what they learned about trauma awareness, why this was significant for them, and they articulated how they might respond as a result. For example, in the second semester, Anna shared that “learning to understand how trauma affects students (by) looking from their perspective can help (teachers) be sensitive to their feelings/triggers” Anna recalled what she learned about how trauma may manifest in students' behaviors in the classroom and why that awareness was important. In the final PLC conversation of the semester following the class, candidates were asked what they were still thinking about from the class.

Margo's appreciation for exposure to the content which she described, “no one has really mentioned in any of my education classes before,” reflected a trend across the candidates. They had never encountered information about the causes and impact of trauma, and, consequently, they needed time to process.

After she student taught during the third semester, Hermione reconsidered her earlier writings about awareness of trauma. Over time, she realized she needed more than information and awareness about trauma. She also required additional opportunities for analysis and experience. As an instructional team, we were encouraged by candidates' increasing awareness. But we remained concerned that they were using trauma as a blanket explanation for everything they experienced in the classroom. Had we potentially replaced one set of assumptions with another?

We wondered if the central focus on community building was, in their minds, not as significant as the trauma-informed practices. During the first semester course, each candidate wrote a plan for their future classrooms that incorporated attention to student and teacher relationships, relationships with families, and relationships among peers. While they described relationships as key to safe, supportive learning communities, they did not initially frame relationship building specifically as a component of a classroom-based response to trauma.

During student teaching, Rose more explicitly connected relationships in the classroom to trauma-informed practices. Over time, and with experience, Rose's perspectives on community became more explicit in terms of what relationships entailed. Many of the moves or actions candidates planned or performed during student teaching incorporated what they learned about the trauma- informed modules in the first semester as well as the broader concepts about building learning communities from the course as part of their response to trauma.

For example, in an assignment completed during the course, Jessica planned to enact several different practices to ensure her classroom was trauma-informed. Reflecting on her original plan after she student taught, Jessica realized that a great deal of the trauma- informed practices she planned for were actually plans for what she would do as a teacher. She also reflected on her practice and regretted, “I probably should have implemented these a little bit better when I was student teaching.” Jessica realized honest reflection is critical for breaking away from her earlier, more naïve conceptions in order to replace them with more grounded stances and explicit actions.

Reframing Teacher Behaviors Candidates frequently mentioned they needed to avoid behaviors used as a means of surveillance or to connect with students. They realized they how these behaviors may trigger or re-traumatize students and named how they intended to reframe typical teacher reactions to potentially charged classroom scenarios. CJ was explicit during the first semester about his intention to “actively resist re-Traumatization and escalation”

Like Jessica, after student teaching, CJ also recognized the need for teachers to revisit their earlier ideas, and if needed, revisit their plans and reframe their behaviors. He explained how important he believed learning about and implementing trauma-informed teaching is for teachers, recognizing it as a process requiring ongoing work. During a focus group in the final semester CJ acknowledged “The best thing we can do is continue to have these conversations and continue to revisit what we know about trauma- informed teaching” as mechanisms to support reframing teacher behaviors.

For example, during the PLCs in the second semester, candidates continued to focus on teacher actions, including deescalating situations. Candidates reflected on what behaviors and decisions they might do differently next time they encountered a similar situation. They also found the opportunities to reflect on what they learned during the first semester in later PLC's helpful. Katie spoke to this, explaining, “I loved the trauma-sensitive practices conversations. These talks weren't always particularly fun, but they were so important. It was a huge reminder to try and understand why certain behavior manifests, rather than condemning it as'misbehavior'”

During the PLC, one candidate shared, “I feel that as long as I consider the themes individual identity, a safe community, equitable opportunities, cultural and gender inclusiveness, and how to deal with trauma.” As instructors, these types of responses helped us reconsider how we position trauma-informed practices. They reaffirmed our need to facilitate a shift in candidates' thinking as opposed to providing them with prescriptive tools.

Limitations to this study include the small sample size, as well as the use of self-reported data. We did not have the capacity to conduct classroom observations of teaching during the student teaching semester. We also recognize that attrition complicates the analysis as perhaps those who chose to continue in the study were more likely to “buy-in” to our central purpose. While we are cautiously optimistic that the shifts in their thinking will continue to take place, we continue to reflect, rethink, and revise how we can support candidates to create learning communities that truly transform.

This project was conceptualized as an intentional, long-term approach to teacher education around community building from a trauma-informed perspective. candidates revisited topics as they co-constructed what they learned in a first semester course throughout the second and third semesters of their programs. the through use of action research within practitioner inquiry explicated these processes. the documentation and evidence from this study, as analyzed and described by the transdisciplinary team, contributes to continuing course revisions.

Findings show teacher candidates felt more knowledgeable about childhood trauma as well as how to incorporate this knowledge into their teaching philosophy and practices. In essence, learning to be a trauma-informed teacher, like learning to teach, entails a long-term process that integrates information, analysis, practice, and reflection.

Learning to be a trauma-informed teacher also requires a commitment to considerations of the larger implications of teacher actions. Research has illustrated the need for exposing teaching professionals to this content earlier in their careers and even at the pre-service level. We found the content appropriate to introduce when candidates are first developing ideas about community building. By adopting a framework from social work (SAMHSA, 2014), we provided teacher candidates content to support shifts in their thinking.

We recognized teacher candidates likely do not have prior knowledge about trauma or of trauma-informed practices. It is highly unlikely such practices were part of their prior experiences in schools. Many candidates shared they had not been exposed to the research around the prevalence of trauma, similar to other studies of TIP in teacher preparation (Davies & Berger, 2019; McClain, 2021). Some have personal experience with trauma and traumatic events.

The introduction of that information forces them to focus and, perhaps, linger on the nature of the trauma. We wonder if they then over-attribute trauma to classroom scenarios. Not every student in schools has experienced significant trauma, and we remain concerned about candidates' assumptions around trauma. It is vital that through teacher education, candidates establish a pattern of thinking and a philosophical stance on trauma-informed teaching practices.

This study provides context for the ways in which discussion and reflection of learning communities that are trauma-informed can occur. We posit that endeavors to move teacher candidates toward such reflection and change requires intentional approaches and further research. In the time following the initial revisions to the course and the analysis of the action research data described here, we have engaged in continuous reflection and modifications.

We found that our core modification, comprised of the introduction to trauma awareness as a foundation to building community, began to shift candidates’ thinking. We needed additional modifications along with more deliberately designed tasks to engage candidates in processing what they learned. We became strategic about our pace of instruction; we devoted more time to targeted reflection. We also recognized that the introduction of content on trauma was triggering for some candidates. We identified the need to create a more race-conscious approach to trauma that included structural considerations of the circumstances in which trauma occurs and how racism shapes the conditions in which students experience trauma.

As mentioned previously, we now designate more in-class time for candidates to reflect and process, and we provide tools to support them. Those reflections followed deeper dives on the impact of trauma, and the implications of that impact for classroom learning and behavior. We also modified the critical incident description, originally used to capture candidates’ reflection on their actions during student teaching, for use in the course as means to engage them through the processes of building learning communities with a trauma-informed approach earlier in their programs.

We also added a module on self-care, adapted from social work education. Many candidates had also experienced trauma and were themselves struggling with mental health issues such as stress, anxiety, and depression. We believe candidates emerge from the course more informed and better prepared to transform their learning communities to support students who have experienced trauma.

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