"All educators need this information if we really want to help all kids."
Jen Alexander (MA, NCC, SB-RPT) believes that we can make a positive difference with all kids, one relationship at a time, which is why she is a passionate leader in the movement to build trauma-sensitive schools. The author of Building Trauma-Sensitive Schools: Your Guide to Creating Safe, Supportive Learning Environments for All Students, Ms. Jen loves helping others help kids and has done so as an educator and when facilitating training for educators across the country. With more than 15 years of experience helping youth (some traumatized, some not) as a former special education teacher and current school counsellor in Iowa, she holds degrees in psychology and special education teaching, as well as a Master’s degree in professional school counselling from the University of Northern Iowa. Jen is also a nationally certified counsellor, registered school-based play therapist, and importantly, a mom.
SWY: Can you please describe what you do and the way you came into this work? What inspired you?
JA: I’m a school counsellor and a parent of a traumatized child whom I adopted. My heart has always been in connecting with youth who exhibit challenging behaviours. Early on, I recognized that trauma was at the root of some of the concerns I was seeing at school, and it was definitely playing a role in what my daughter needed too. I set out to learn more. As I dug into the research, I kept thinking, “All educators need this information if we really want to help all kids.”
SWY: What do you believe the role of an educator should be for children who are suffering from trauma and abuse?
JA: We have masses of traumatized youth in our schools, so every educator has a responsibility to recognize how trauma impacts attendance, behaviour, and learning so that we can intentionally work together to help all students in both preventive and responsive ways.
SWY: What would you say are the main effects of childhood trauma and abuse on a child’s education?
JA: Trauma impacts children and adolescents physiologically, emotionally, behaviourally, cognitively, socially, as well as in their sense of self. Outwardly, educators might notice patterns in traumatized youth whereby they react too much or not enough to stressors and within their relationships too. These patterns can influence attendance, behaviour, and learning, especially when trauma occurs in the first few years of life and is repeated; it changes the way youth brains and bodies develop.
SWY: What does it mean to build a trauma-sensitive environment? How can we do this?
JA: When I facilitate professional development for teams of educators, I emphasize the four essentials of building trauma-sensitive schools. We must help everyone feel safe, be connected, get regulated, and learn. These essentials drive what we do from a community building as well as a curriculum standpoint, but more importantly, they impact how we do what we do, especially in terms of our responsiveness to student and staff needs moment by moment.
SWY: What do you think is the importance of a trauma-sensitive school? What are the benefits of it?
JA: Trauma-sensitive schools benefit staff and youth who are experiencing too much stress, but they actually help everyone learn at high levels. When I say learn, I mean that in reference to academic as well as social and emotional essentials learnings and skills.
SWY: What is one thing you would say to a child who is suffering from trauma and abuse?
JA: I would say, “I’m glad you’re here. We may not know one another very well yet, but I look forward to getting to know you better. I will do everything I can to help you be safe and feel safe. If you know of something I can do now (or later) that would help you, you can always tell me. I always want to work together with you as you do you.”
SWY: Similarly, what is one thing you would say to an educator who wants to help a child experiencing trauma and abuse?
JA: Show that relationships come first by being present with kids consistently and over time. We can’t underestimate the moments throughout our days together when we can connect and communicate in ways that say, “I see you. You matter to me.”
That can come in greeting youth, getting down at eye level with students, or simply chatting briefly about things that kids are interested in. These interactions are important for all kids, and they can be healing too.
"Show that relationships come first by being present with kids consistently and over time. We can’t underestimate the moments throughout our days together when we can connect and communicate in ways that say, “I see you. You matter to me.”
SWY: Can you speak to the intergenerational aspect of trauma, childhood abuse, and education? What do you think we can do to break this cycle of violence?
JA: The biggest thing we can do is focus on changing our educational systems so that we are not causing trauma for youth. From there, we need to fight inequities so that all students get what they need in and out of school. Those systemic inequities are the foundation of a lot of trauma. Too many times we focus only on individuals, but systemic change matters too.