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REPORT: Trauma-Informed Schools for Students with Learning Differences


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FORWARD


The Campaign for Trauma-Informed Policy and Practice (CTIPP) is dedicated to creating and enhancing trauma-informed approaches, practices, environments, and systems throughout our society. 


To increase our efforts surrounding trauma-informed education, we have partnered with the Oak Foundation, an organization founded on the principles of global social justice reform, and Learning Heroes, who work to support parents and students to support children’s educational and developmental success, put together this report on trauma-informed schools for students with learning differences. This is meant to serve as an introduction to the intersections of trauma-informed principles and disability justice.

 

Disability justice must be an integral part of the trauma-informed movement because disability impacts all areas of social justice. The trauma-informed movement recognizes and honors neurodiversity, so we must generate genuine inclusion for people with learning differences when we are promoting trauma-informed approaches. 


It is impossible to uphold core trauma-informed principles like accessibility, belonging, diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice. It is impossible to foster true diversity without including disability justice.

 

In writing this, I must acknowledge my positionality. As someone who comes from a background of privilege and whiteness, it is important that we continue to hear from those who have diverse lived experiences in the classroom and beyond. 


While I have a formal diagnosis of General Anxiety Disorder, which is classified as one of the learning differences that will be discussed, I fully acknowledge that I do not have the same experiences as students who were separated from their peers and forced into segregated learning environments that were not always designed for them. 


In addition, unfair and unsafe teaching practices are far more common in communities of color, and racial justice is an important component of creating a safe environment for students with learning differences who are also students of color.

 

Ultimately, we hope that the information in this report will help schools feel more equipped to set up all their students for success, not just those with the most access to privilege, and that advocates will be inclusive of students with learning differences in their work to promote trauma-informed schools. 


Peyton Barsel, Author and CTIPP intern


INTRODUCTION


CTIPP believes that schools can and should be places of healing that engage their communities to counter the daily stresses that young people experience so that all students can reach their full potential. This is particularly important for students who learn differently, many of whom traditionally have been served in separate—and often unequal—special education classrooms.


This report, an introduction to promoting trauma-informed approaches in schools, focuses on creating more inclusive classrooms that support students with and without learning differences in the same classroom setting by carefully assessing each child’s needs and designing a strategic plan to support them. 


For this practice to occur at scale, it requires shifting away from separate pull-out classrooms and services for students with disabilities toward a model that allows them to participate more fully alongside their peers as members of the school community. 


In this report, we use the term learning differences to cover a wide array of issues that may affect a student’s ability to learn, including but not limited to difficulty with reading (dyslexia), writing (dysgraphia), math (dyscalculia), auditory or visual processing, paying attention and staying focused (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder), and planning and executing toward a goal (executive functioning). 


Not all these differences meet the federal government’s guidelines for who qualifies for special education support and services under the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act. But many of these children still face challenges in school that, if left unaddressed, can hamper their social, emotional, and academic growth and well-being.


CHILDHOOD TRAUMA & LEARNING


Trauma-informed schools build upon scientific research that recognizes that many students come to school having experienced significant stress in their daily lives that can interfere with learning and other necessary functions in school. Adverse Childhood Experiences (or ACEs) and other forms of childhood trauma can include violence, abuse, food or housing insecurity, growing up with a family member with mental health or substance use issues, and the loss of a parent. 


We know that childhood trauma also expands beyond the traditional ACEs and also includes community and socioeconomic factors that contribute to excess stress, such as violence, poverty, and persistent systemic racism. Chronic stress creates a fight-or-flight response that makes it difficult for people to access their prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that enables complex thinking and problem-solving. 


When unaddressed or unresolved, childhood trauma can impede healthy development and lead to adverse consequences across the lifespan, including increasing the chance of negative health, education, and social outcomes.


All students, regardless of family income and background, can experience childhood trauma and stress. For example, over 61% of adults report having at least one ACE, and 16% report having four or more. Chronic, unaddressed stress is more prevalent among low-income students and students of color and their families.


Research also identifies powerful buffers that support young people in navigating through adversity and stress faced in life. Seven researched Positive Childhood Experiences (PCEs) that promote positive outcomes, even in the face of stress, are


  • Feeling your family stood by you during difficult times

  • Enjoying participation in community traditions

  • Having at least two non-parent adults who took a genuine interest in you

  • Feeling supported by friends, feeling a sense of belonging in high school

  • Feeling able to talk to your family about feelings

  • Feeling safe and protected by an adult in your home. 


While PCEs do not offset ACEs, this research provides insight into the importance of creating universal precautions to support all children. 


Schools should provide a safe haven for students rather than places that perpetuate trauma, particularly for those who have experienced and continue to experience overwhelming adversity and chronic stress outside of school. Schools have the ability, through trauma-informed practices, to provide children with environments that encourage and support the majority of these buffers to adversity to promote resilience in young people. 


Our emerging understanding of post-traumatic growth shows that the trauma we experience does not define us as humans. We know we can develop systems promoting well-being across diverse lived experiences.


TRAUMA & STUDENTS WITH LEARNING DIFFERENCES


Students with learning differences are among the most vulnerable, with one in five students experiencing some type of learning difference. Historically, our approach to special education risks re-traumatizing students through our classroom techniques rather than healing. This includes a long history of punitive disciplinary measures that research has found ineffective in educating students.


The fight for disability justice in education began by advocating that students with learning disabilities be educated in traditional public schools rather than being segregated in separate facilities. Integrated schools enabled students with learning disabilities to learn in the same schools as their peers, often with extra support to help them access the regular curriculum. But, too often, these students remain segregated in separate classrooms or pull-out services within schools.


Several problems with the existing special education system must be addressed. Under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, students must be formally diagnosed as having a learning disability to qualify for Special Education Services. Receiving a diagnosis requires resources, including time, money, or access to a doctor. This means that some students do not receive a formal diagnosis rapidly enough to qualify for special education with time to receive adequate support. 


The separate nature of special education in its current form means that students often receive no support without a diagnosis. This can lead to anxiety, depression, falling behind, and worsened outcomes/symptoms for those experiencing challenges in school due to undiagnosed learning differences. This illustrates the ways in which systemic failures can compound unresolved trauma and retraumatize individuals, families, and communities. 


Diagnosing learning differences also can be challenging for students who have experienced high levels of trauma. In some cases, students are overlooked and remain undiagnosed because their symptoms can be explained as trauma processing. 


In other cases, students can be inappropriately diagnosed with a learning disability they do not have because of symptoms that are only present because of complex and unresolved trauma. In both situations, segregated special education classrooms are often not beneficial nor trauma-informed for the students that they were created to serve. 


Additionally, certain communities are underrepresented and overrepresented in special education classrooms. Students of color in predominantly white schools are placed in special education classrooms more often than their white peers. But nationally, students of color are underrepresented in special education because many of them attend under-resourced schools that may not identify learning differences with the same rigor as better-resourced schools. 


Biases towards students of color can lead to them being unfairly placed in the wrong classroom setting with alarming frequency: Black students are 40% more likely to be identified with a disability than all other students, according to the National Center for Learning Disabilities. 


All these situations occur within the status quo because special education classrooms are separate from traditional population classrooms. There is, however, a way for students with learning differences to receive an education that works for them while engaging in practices that are more in line with a trauma-informed approach. 


INCLUSIVE CLASSROOMS


While it has been standard practice to separate special education classrooms from traditional population classrooms, it is time to reevaluate how that segregation impacts students. The first wave of integration did not go far enough. There is a growing call to create inclusive classrooms across the country and around the world. 


These inclusive classrooms, where students with and without learning differences learn together, inherently follow trauma-informed principles because they center equity and provide the resources necessary for student success. These classrooms can transform already established school systems into places where students can thrive regardless of their background and perceived abilities.


It is critical to remember that inclusion is a journey. Transforming special education will take time and dedication from all school members. There are different ways to approach an inclusive classroom. Yet, the core mission remains the same: providing an equitable education to students of all backgrounds so they may reach their full potential.


Perhaps most importantly, inclusion requires heightened collaboration between special education and general education teachers. One effective model that ensures collaboration between these parties is integrated co-teaching (ICT). 


Essentially, an ICT classroom provides an environment where all types of students can thrive in traditional education classrooms. Typically, two co-teachers in these classrooms ensure students of all kinds receive what is arguably a more well-rounded education. 


This model is meant to provide both traditional and special education students with key components of their education that may be missing with the status quo separation. Part of a well-rounded education is learning to interact and meaningfully engage with all types of people, which is impossible without promoting diversity, equity, and inclusivity. 


Students feeling a sense of belonging and that their individual needs matter is just as important as the academic portion of what they learn in the classroom. ICT fosters innovative teaching approaches that could repair many of the issues that special education classrooms have today. 


DIFFERENT MODELS OF CO-TEACHING FOR INCLUSIVE CLASSROOMS


Transforming a school that uses separated special education classrooms into one that uses ICT classrooms can be a difficult transition. Below are six teaching models that can be used in ICT classrooms. 


1) Team Teaching: Both co-teachers deliver instruction to the whole group simultaneously and are equally active throughout the lesson.


2) Parallel Teaching: Both teachers teach the same material simultaneously but to smaller groups. This can maximize participation while minimizing issues that are more common in larger class groups. 


3) Station Teaching: Independent activities are set up around the classroom for small groups of students to complete. This is best for hands-on activities that require heightened student participation. Station teaching can also be effective for monitoring students more closely. 


4) Alternative Teaching: One teacher manages a large group of students while the other takes a small group for a specific instructional purpose. There are many reasons for this teaching model, but some examples include enrichment, remediation, assessment, or pre-teaching.


5) One Teach, One Assist: One teacher serves as the primary teacher, while the other assists and supports the students. The co-teacher can focus on answering individual questions, addressing emotional needs, and distributing materials without the primary teacher having to pause the lesson. 


6) One Teach, One Observe: One teacher serves as the primary teacher while the other gathers specific observational information on student learning, such as students' academic, behavioral, and social skills in the classroom. This method should be used sparingly but can be helpful to assess where performance is in the classroom on a more micro level. As the trauma-informed movement works to promote accessibility, belonging, diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice for everyone, we must ensure we are modeling this in our schools. We must work to center diverse lived experiences as we work to generate better systems that create conditions of empowerment and safety so everyone can thrive. 


In this pursuit, we recognize that supporting students with learning differences and creating an inclusive classroom cannot follow a one-size-fits-all model. ICT is just one way to provide inclusivity and may not work for all students. 


It has gained so much traction in recent years because it appears to be one of the more effective solutions specialists have seen, both in special education and traditional education and in integrating the two. 


However, we recognize that there are scenarios in which separate special education models can be the most beneficial resource for certain student populations. It is critical that as we reform the education system toward all-around improvement and inclusion, we include educator and student voices in the ongoing process of reflection toward positive development and growth.


STATES HAVE A ROLE TO PLAY


Inclusive classrooms are picking up traction all over the United States. Most states now provide information on creating more inclusive spaces in schools. A few states have gone above and beyond in providing access to information about inclusive classrooms.


Here, we highlight Massachusetts, Virginia, and Pennsylvania, politically diverse states with robust curricula and ideas for implementing inclusive classrooms and ICT within their districts and schools. Pennsylvania has even developed a framework for optimizing inclusive practices across the state. 


The Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education released a packet on inclusive practices to be used as part of teacher preparation. The packet educates teachers about the benefits of inclusive programs, gives ideas for a universal design plan, instructs them on positive behavior intervention and support, and teaches about social-emotional learning. 


This packet demonstrates that training teachers in inclusive classrooms need not be overly burdensome regarding time and resources but can make a world of difference. In Massachusetts, 18% of students are eligible for special education services, and approximately 60% spend most of their class time with their general education peers. 


Through the Department of Education, Virginia has a K-12 Inclusive Practices Guide that establishes best practices to enhance learning for students with disabilities. In this guide, some sections outline what an inclusive classroom is, what phased implementation could look like, and possible challenges. 


The packet clarifies that the Virginia Department of Education hopes to create inclusive classrooms in every school statewide. There is also a heavy emphasis on the importance of classrooms providing services for students with and without learning differences in the same location, much like the ICT model. 


Pennsylvania has one of the most robust curricula designed to address inclusive schools. In 2016, the Pennsylvania Training and Technical Assistance Network, through the Pennsylvania Department of Education, developed a framework for Optimized Inclusive Practices. 


This 60-page document describes effective leadership to ensure that inclusive educational practices are embedded across policies and procedures, structures, and professional development for stakeholders, how to value members of the student community, best practices for student placement, collaboration, and family involvement. In addition, the report recommends teaching practices to uphold the inclusive goals outlined in the earlier sections. 


While the document provides a framework for individual schools and districts to develop their practices and policies, the wealth of information allows the state to standardize some inclusive practices while leaving room for innovation. Hopefully, more states will move toward a framework model, but in the meantime, Pennsylvania is a great place to start, regardless of your own school’s location. 


While there are individual schools that excel at creating inclusive classrooms, we did not include them in this report because data on the results of these classrooms is limited at this time. Instead, we have highlighted state-wide initiatives because more information is available about how this affected state education at large. 


However, the Inclusive Schools Network is a great, web-based educational resource for families, schools, and communities that promotes inclusive educational practices. Their website highlights schools doing exceptional work at creating and sustaining inclusive education. It is a great resource for ideas on bringing inclusive schools to classrooms near you.


LISTENING TO STUDENTS


Genuine inclusion is only achieved when students have agency in their education. Students with learning differences have been historically cast aside and have not had an equal voice compared with their peers. 


Empowerment, voice, and choice are and must be core components in trauma-informed systems. Schools must recognize that each and every student has a unique voice that deserves to be heard to help shape the direction of their futures. Only then will truly inclusive classrooms be possible. Democratic schools are a critical component of trauma-informed education. Creating conditions of empowerment and safety to promote agency for people impacted by systems so that they have a say in how those systems continue to be shaped in the future brings meaning to our experiences. It creates a sense of belonging, which is often stripped by traumatic experiences. 


 Additionally, building the skills to remain regulated while having difficult conversations among people with diverse perspectives also builds capacities that are the opposite of common responses to trauma. 


It is our hope that the education system can transform into one where all students, including those with learning differences and those without, can feel seen and represented. Too often, students’ voices are lost in school decision-making processes.


We envision a system built on advocacy directed by young people where that does not have to be the case. Students experience the education system on an everyday basis in ways that can provide enormous insights. We must ask for their input to develop trauma-informed systems that genuinely capture students’ unique needs. 


As we acknowledged earlier, the path toward true inclusion in schools and classrooms is a journey. But there are incremental steps to start on the path toward truly inclusive practices:


  • Schools and school districts need to understand the history of special education so they can recognize opportunities for improvement. Practitioners should be able to reflect on the special education movement at large to support reform efforts meaningfully. For example, though schools have largely moved away from physical retaliation against students, these punitive methods are still prevalent in some special education classrooms. Recognizing that seclusion and restraint are violent, antiquated tools that should not be used to discipline students, especially the most vulnerable populations of students, can go a long way toward achieving trauma-informed environments in education settings. 


  • School employees also should be familiar with current special education laws and policies. Many of the issues with inclusion stem from the strict nature of current special education laws. For instance, federal law requires an individualized education program, or IEP, to enter special education classrooms. Without an understanding of the policy, it may be difficult to advocate for changes in class structure. Ideally, federal and state policies should strive for more standardized language and expectations focused on inclusion. 


CONCLUSION


A primary goal of social justice, including the disability justice movement, and of this report is to create a more trauma-informed future. We cannot achieve justice without healing. The information in this report was gathered through extensive research of peer-reviewed articles and reading first-hand accounts of people’s lived experiences with special education classrooms from diverse perspectives. However, the true experts in this work are the students and adults with learning differences. 


We would like to conclude this report with a call to action. If you know someone or are someone who could provide testimony on special education classrooms and have ideas on how best to reform the current structure, please reach out. 


Youth voices must be brought to the forefront of this conversation for equity to remain central to this work. CTIPP is actively working to promote youth advocacy, inclusive of students with learning differences, to continue informing efforts moving forward.


If you have additional questions after reading this report, please contact us at CTIPP. 


Though small, we work to be as responsive as possible. We know that trauma-informed approaches rely on an ongoing commitment to learning and growth. We welcome feedback and opportunities to continue to learn and grow. Our goal is inclusion in the trauma-informed movement, and we cannot do that without the help of our growing network and the movement as a whole. 


Thank you for reading, and we hope you join our mission to create a better world for all students.   


DEFINITIONS


There are many technical terms used in disability advocacy. While we don’t cover every term, we hope this short glossary, covering the basic definitions of frequently used terms, will be useful for those interested in disability justice.


Disability justice focuses on the intersections of how disability and ableism interact with other oppressions like racism, class, and gender. Disability justice focuses on how these systems uphold and reinforce one another. 


An inclusive classroom carefully assesses a child’s needs and then implements a strategic plan to support that child within the traditional classroom setting. Inclusion aims to create a well-rounded classroom for students with special needs and students from the traditional population. 


An Individualized Education Program (IEP) is a legal document developed under United States law for each U.S. public school student who needs special education. 


An integrated classroom is a setting where students with learning differences are taught in the same classes as their peers without learning differences. Extra supports may be provided to help these students adapt to the regular curriculum, and separate special education programs are in place within the classroom or through pull-out services.


Integrated Co-Teaching is a classroom in which a traditional education and a special education teacher jointly provide instruction to a class with traditional and special education students. This model approaches special education learning through an inclusive lens. 


Learning difference is a term born out of diversity. It recognizes the many ways people learn and acknowledges that background, aspirations, and motivators affect a person’s ability to learn. Therefore, learning differences have no legal definition and do not impact a student’s education services or support. This term is often used interchangeably with learning disability, but they are not the same. 


A learning disability affects the acquisition of knowledge or skills, particularly various neurodevelopmental conditions that influence learning and the acquisition of specific academic skills, such as reading, writing, or mathematics. There are strict guidelines for what constitutes a learning disability. While some learning differences may impair the way a child processes information, such as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder and Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, they do not technically constitute learning disabilities. 


The term “neurodivergent” describes people whose brain differences affect how their brains work. That means they have different strengths and challenges from people whose brains don't have those differences. The possible differences include medical disorders, learning disabilities, and other conditions on either side of the bell curve of “neurotypical.” Many students with learning differences are considered neurodivergent. 


Neurodiversity is the range of differences in individual brain function and behavioral traits and is regarded as part of normal variation in the human population. 


The word “neurotypical” refers to people who have brains that function similarly to most of their peers. Neurotypical individuals develop skills, such as social and organizational skills, at around the same rate as others their age.


Special education is the practice of educating students in a way that accommodates their individual differences, disabilities, and needs. Traditionally, this involves classrooms that separate students from learning differences from those without. Special education often does not promote inclusion but fosters integration, with a clear delineation of separation between traditional population students and special education students. 


Traditional education is the practice of educating students who do not have learning differences in a way that does not provide individual accommodations for students’ needs.


Trauma-informed practices recognize the pervasive nature of trauma and promote environments of healing and recovery rather than practices that potentially re-traumatize already vulnerable communities. Rather than a specific model or set of ideas, trauma-informed advocacy provides a framework for thinking about how to design schools and classrooms, among other settings and systems. Trauma-informed is not a title to be earned but rather an everyday practice embedded in shared principles of safety (physical, psychological, and other forms); trust and transparency; peer support; collaboration and mutuality; empowerment, voice and choice; and understanding cultural, historical, and gender issues.


We would like to thank The Oak Foundation for their generosity and support in making this report possible, as well as support from Learning Heroes.


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