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Burton Glen Principal Discusses Trauma in Education in Light of Mental Health Awareness Month

When stressing the importance of education, too often the experiences that prevent at-risk children from learning are overlooked. Aaron Williams, principal at Burton Glen Charter Academy, recently sat down on Mind Matters with Dr. Michele to discuss trauma in education and adverse childhood experiences (ACEs).

After years of personal experience and professional development, Williams has become well-versed and passionate in the area of trauma. According to the Child Mind Institute, trauma can create obstacles in a child’s learning experience, such as trouble forming relationships with teachers, poor self-regulation, hypervigilance, and executive function challenges.

William’s conversation on the matter is relevant given that May is Mental Health Awareness Month, observed in the United States since 1949 to raise awareness, fight the stigma, educate the public, and more. Mental health is directly impacted by trauma in unique ways and based on a variety of factors. Williams explained, “Mental health issues don’t exist where trauma is absent. Trauma breeds mental health issues.”

Rukshana Ilahi, director of special education at NHA, discussed why it’s equally important to provide academic and mental or emotional support to students. “As educators, it’s important that we understand how trauma may impact a student's ability to learn and interact. In order for students to learn, we must first meet their social and emotional needs,” she shared. “During this time of school closure we have often heard the phrase: ‘Maslow before Bloom,’ meaning teachers must first address students' physiological, security, belonging, esteem, and self-actualization needs first.” 

Research has shown that students learn best when they know that they are cared for, which makes creating a safe and caring classroom and school culture of utmost importance for students and school communities.

For Williams, it always goes back to relationships. He poses the question, “Are we prioritizing academic support when we should also be balancing mental support?” In some cases, there are issues beyond the classroom that need to be addressed. To Williams, combatting trauma in education is hard work, but it’s heart work.

NHA has provided periodic training on trauma, mindfulness, anxiety, and other relevant topics throughout the years primarily offered at Leadership Summit, which brings together school leaders from all NHA schools for a week-long professional development. 

Ilahi shared that during this time of remote learning, it is important for teachers and school leaders to support students' mental health first. “Remember that this time of uncertainty can be even more unsettling for students for whom school is a safe haven. For some students, not being able to engage in their normal routines can also add to stress in the home,” she said. Ilahi recommends regular check-ins with families and students to help maintain that connection between school and home. Before teachers jump into talking about remote learning assignments, due dates, and more, first recognize the importance of the student’s and family’s mental and emotional health.

In the midst of remote learning, staff at Burton Glen regularly check in with students on Google Meet so students can hear their teacher's voice and see their faces. Students are not the only ones who Williams stresses the importance of checking in on, but also the teachers themselves. He said, “Take care of the people that take care of the young people.”

For resources on child trauma, visit nctsn.org.