Social emotional learning (SEL) and trauma informed practices are commonly thought of as two separate initiatives. However, these two practices actually have many conceptual and practical similarities. In addition, SEL and trauma informed practices each have unique strengths and when brought together, they can provide a truly effective spectrum of support for students. Trauma informed practices provide the predictable, safe and regulating context where specific social-emotional skills and academic instruction can be delivered effectively and efficiently. As such, we think it is efficient and effective to consider SEL and trauma informed practices as “better together”.
There are 3 key areas to focus on for a trauma informed approach to SEL: Developing Social-Emotional Competencies, Creating Supportive Environments, and focusing on Educator Wellness.
1.Developing Social-Emotional Competencies
SEL and trauma informed practices share the goal of helping students develop social and emotional competencies so they may respond successfully to the challenges of the world they live in. The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) has identified five key social and emotional competencies that provide a foundation for a majority SEL practices; self-awareness, social awareness, self-management, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making. These five areas of competency provide a powerful framework for helping all students develop skills and build awareness, but also serve as an effective way to organize and deliver the specific skill building that many students who’ve been impacted by adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) need.
Below are some examples of how the framework of SEL competencies designed to meet the needs of all students can also address specific needs of trauma affected students.
Facilitating Personal Awareness And Understanding: SEL practices focus on universal student needs such as building skills in assessing feelings, understanding personal strengths and weakness, and building self-confidence, all of which are important for students who have experienced trauma. Establishing a connection between how one feels and thinks is essential for students with traumatic backgrounds, as these students tend to experience emotions and thoughts that interfere with their ability to behave in adaptive ways at school. Educators need to help students who have had ACEs better understand their perceptions (such as being distrustful or suspicious of others) and express the feelings they have in adaptive ways.
Developing Skills And Strategies For Self-Management And Decision Making: While all students benefit from learning how to self-manage their emotions and behavior, it is extremely important for students with traumatic backgrounds or traumatic current life circumstances to learn how to effectively manage their fear-based impulses, lower their baseline levels of arousal, and better control their “fight or flight” emotional reactions. With minor adjustments, SEL practices that focus on self-regulation can meet the unique regulation needs of trauma-affected students. The broad focus on self-management in SEL can easily include trauma-informed practices that emphasize an educator’s skills in (a) co-regulation and (b) creating safe and predictable relationships.
Building Social Awareness And Relational Skills: Acquiring the skills to make friends, maintain positive social relationships, understand different perspectives, and solve social problems in an adaptive way can help all students, and are key targets of both SEL and trauma informed practices. A foundational deficit for many students who have experienced trauma involves the capacity to form safe and trusting relationships with peers and adults.
2. Creating Supportive Environments
We believe the most effective and supportive school environments are developed when the following key concepts involved in trauma informed thinking are included in SEL practices:
- Awareness that adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) and the trauma associated with those experiences can significantly impact a student’s neurodevelopment, academic learning and social relationships.
- That specific skill deficits can be an important source of social, emotional and academic difficulty for trauma impacted students and importantly, can affect their readiness to profit from SEL.
- That safe and supportive learning environments include well-regulated adults who themselves demonstrate social-emotional competencies.
So what does a supportive environment look like? Here are some important elements of a safe and supportive learning environment:
- A Focus On Predictability: All students will feel more secure and learn more effectively when their environment has a predictable order. While developing and maintaining a predictable environment is very consistent with the effective delivery of SEL, it is extremely important in helping reduce the anticipatory anxiety, stress and arousal level of students impacted by trauma.
- A Focus On Relationships And Opportunities For Engagement: One way to achieve optimal learning environments is through the development of positive, respectful and supportive relationships between teachers and students. Creating positive, supportive teacher-student relationships is important for all students and a central philosophy in SEL practices. Developing supportive teacher-student relationships is a high priority in trauma informed practices, as these relationships contribute to the sense of safety and security that is critical for students who have experienced adversity.
- Modeling Important Social-Emotional Competencies: SEL and trauma informed practices promote the importance of teachers having well developed social and emotional skills, and an ability to model the competencies they are trying to teach students. How can a teacher help students learn and embrace adaptive social-emotional skills and behaviors if they are unable to demonstrate adequate impulse control or mood management, or manage stress? When teachers are able to demonstrate SEL competencies involving their own self- awareness, self-regulation and social-relationship skills, environmental stress is reduced and the relational safety and predictability of the classroom and school environment is enhanced.
- Providing Planned And Scheduled Opportunities For Regulation: Researchers have found a close relationship between exposure to traumatic events and deficits in regulating emotions (such as fear and anticipatory anxiety), behavior (such as poor impulse control and over-reaction) and managing levels of nervous system arousal. These deficits can seriously compromise a student’s ability to function in the classroom and their readiness to learn. The teaching of SEL becomes more effective when teachers understand some of these key factors that influence a student’s ability to regulate or self manage.
In trauma informed practices the role of the educator extends beyond the teaching of specific self-management skills to include the concept of co-regulation. Co-regulation is a process where the development of a student’s capacity for self-regulation involves a shared experience between teacher and student. Trauma informed practices also emphasize the importance of a teacher’s commitment to providing regular opportunities for students to observe and practice self-management. Information from the neurosciences suggests the repetition of self-management experiences facilitates the learning process.
- Respect For Diversity / Cultural Sensitivity: Safe and supportive learning environments are enhanced when SEL and trauma-informed practices are delivered within the context of a culturally sensitive and responsive environment. Culturally sensitive educators listen and attend to what their students perceive as meaningful and important. When diverse needs and experiences are recognized and valued, students are better able to build good relationships and develop a sense of belonging with the learning community. In addition, culturally sensitive practices focus on the relevancy of instructional material, and resources are provided equitably to all students. If what educators attempt to teach students is not relevant to their beliefs, values, and life situation, new learning is not always accepted or easily generalized. Both SEL and trauma informed practices are enhanced when educators understand how their role of teaching and support intersects with the world of the student (and their family/caregivers).
3. Trauma-Informed Practices and SEL: Educator Wellness
A key factor in creating safe and supportive environments and essential for effective social-emotional learning is educator wellness. Trauma informed practices characterize educator wellness as a necessary component of effective support for trauma impacted students. Similarly, the most effective delivery of SEL occurs when teachers attend to their own social emotional learning and wellness, and can be well-regulated when interacting with students. The bottom line in SEL and trauma informed practices is that effective teaching and support for students is enhanced when educators pay attention to their own wellness. A focused effort around staff wellness will support your trauma informed SEL efforts as well.