Two Interconnecting Puzzle Pieces: Trauma-Informed Approach and Restorative Justice

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The time is right for a collaboration between the trauma-informed approach and restorative justice in our schools and communities.

At the start of this academic year, I had the opportunity to be a part of that type of collaboration. The Guidance Center and Long Beach Unified School District partnered to launch a trauma-informed pilot program, called It’s About T.I.M.E. (Trauma-Informed Movement in Education), at Beach, an alternative high school. California Conference for Equality and Justice had introduced restorative justice practices to the school five years ago. This provided the ideal foundation for It’s About T.I.M.E.’s training I would bring to the staff as they already understood the need to view their students’ behavior differently and had redesigned their disciplinary practices.

Think of the relationship between the trauma-informed approach and restorative justice practices as two interconnecting pieces that are both needed to complete the entire puzzle.

As defined by veteran educator Shane Safir, who founded the June Jordan School for Equity in San Francisco: “restorative justice is a powerful approach to discipline that focuses on repairing harm through inclusive processes that engage all stakeholders.” The trauma-informed approach focuses on the same principle, but brings the neuroscience to understand the behaviors that restorative justice is looking to repair and psychological intervention tools to prevent them.

The understanding that many children have endured ongoing, significant life stressors and traumatic experiences is thankfully becoming more widely accepted. What’s critical is this understanding must also come with the recognition that trauma causes their brains to biologically re-wire themselves to remain in an extremely stress-reactive state beyond their conscious control. In this state, their brains are “dysregulated” and other brain areas cannot function properly, like those that control logic and reasoning. Outwardly, this is expressed as problematic behaviors commonly seen in schools such as inattention, impulsivity, lack of motivation, defiance and anger outbursts.

However, studies indicate that just one healthy relationship with an adult can help enable a child’s brain to heal. This is where the trauma-informed approach comes in.

The approach, based on ChildTrauma Academy’s Neurosequential Model in Education (NME), focuses on two core principles that can be integrated into schools and throughout the community: building trusting relationships between children and trusted adults, and providing appropriate sensory regulating activities for managing stress.

The approach supports staff in seeing students and their challenging behaviors through a “trauma-informed” lens, and then responding with compassion and love. This promotes healthy bonds, which are scientifically proven to help students’ brains heal emotionally and develop academically. For the students, these relationships provide the motivation needed to get out of bed and go to school, raise their F to a C, complete extra work to graduate, persevere through conflict, and build supportive bonds with peers and adults. Motivation is not something you can will. Dopamine, a brain chemical or neurotransmitter, plays a fundamental role as a physiological source of reward and human motivation. Dopamine, among other chemicals, is released by the brain during positive encounters with caring human-beings. Therefore, healthy relationships quite literally improve motivation.

In addition, providing appropriate sensory-based soothing activities for stress — allowing a student to stretch next to their desk, leading the class in deep breathing exercises, encouraging them to take a walk or squeeze Play-Doh — allows their brains to better regulate emotions and behaviors. When students are taught these patterned, repetitive and rhythmic sensory experiences, they’re building a collection of coping skills they can use throughout their lives.

With the support of healthy relationships and skills to self-regulate, students can better participate in the inclusive process of restorative justice in their schools and communities.

I’ve personally seen this at Beach where suspensions decreased by 74 percent and attendance increased to consistently outpace the school’s monthly attendance goal by 10 percent during the first semester.

In a survey conducted at the end of the first semester, the majority of students expressed that they feel “the school is a supportive and inviting place.” And 91 percent of the 103 students surveyed report having at least one staff member with whom they have a positive connection. Both are critical components of an environment that helps children who have experienced trauma succeed in the classroom and in their personal lives.

When behavior is compassionately viewed as a symptom rather than the problem and time is taken to collectively use inclusive processes to repair harm, these results are possible in your youth-serving organization and in your community.

Nathan Swaringen, LCSW, is a school-based clinical therapist at The Guidance Center, a mental-health treatment organization in Long Beach, California.