Trauma-informed Care for Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Students

  • March 25, 2021
  • Pedro Olvera, Psy.D.

What is Trauma?

Behavior is a complex process influenced by many factors, including, but not limited to, cognitive and biological factors. However, just as important is the influence of social influences induced by trauma. The Center for Early Childhood Health Consultation, describes trauma as “an exceptional experience in which powerful and dangerous stimuli overwhelm the child’s capacity to regulate emotions”.  These traumatic experiences are known as adverse childhood experiences (ACES) include but are not limited to the following (Center for Disease Control and Prevention, 2020).

  • Experiencing violence, abuse, or neglect
  • Witnessing violence in the home or community
  • Having a family member attempt or die by suicide
  • Substance misuse
  • Mental health problems
  • Instability due to parental separation or household members being in jail or prison

The effects of ACES on school-age children can manifest in the following ways: depression, anxiety, aggression, hypervigilance, substance abuse, impaired relationships, emotional dysregulation, and/or inattention. By understanding the impact of ACES on a child’s behavior, educators can purposely create caring and nurturing environments that can support and heal students.

What is Trauma-Informed Care?

Trauma-informed care is grounded in the awareness of the impact that ACES can have on the social-emotional state of children by intentionally creating safe spaces through supportive relationships, and teaching children healthy ways to regulate their emotions. This approach to providing care is not limited to school counselors and psychologists; it applies all school staff that come in contact with students. This is an inclusive term for those all work with students in educational settings and are committed to providing healing school environments.  

Educational systems are increasingly equipping their staff and transforming themselves into trauma-sensitive schools through training that highlight the effects of trauma. Characteristics of trauma-informed care training promote the following principles (National Association of School Psychologists, 2015):

  • Promoting feelings of physical, social, and emotional safety in students.
  • Having a shared understanding among staff about the impact of trauma and adversity on students.
  • Advocating for positive and culturally-responsive disciplinary policies and practices.
  • Providing access to comprehensive school mental and behavioral health services.
  • Promoting effective home-community collaboration.

Trauma-informed care training for school professionals who work with students who are culturally and linguistically diverse.

Understanding the impact of ACES and the principles of trauma-informed care in culturally and linguistically diverse (CLD) children involves understanding culturally-responsive practices. Providing support for CLD children is grounded in the knowledge that mental health support is not one-size-fits-all. Trauma-informed practitioners leverage the child’s cultural assets, re-evaluate their clinical methods, and adapt them to benefit the student. This may involve engaging the help of a cultural liaison, learning different teaching or counseling methods, collaborating with immigrant families, or providing outlets for children to express themselves like music, art, or dance. Other examples include empathizing with a family or student that holds different views on politics, immigration, sexuality, religion, and/or their opinions on matters that may be contrary to our deeply-held beliefs.

Stepping out of our cultural milieus is a process that begins with inner reflection and the awareness of how our personal biases can cause damage to our interactions with others. Developing knowledge about approaching families with cultural humility can be helpful in strengthening our rapport and relationships with diverse families (Waters & Asbill, 2013). In addition, interacting with individuals that are different than ourselves or taking implicit bias tests can be helpful tools during this process. Cross-cultural education will also help us to step out of our cultural milieus and help us better understand the children we are serving. Engaging in the study of culturally-responsive methods of supporting trauma-exposed CLD children should be an ongoing practice. Finally, we should commit to creating safe spaces where CLD children can seek support and acceptance from a trusted and caring adult.

In closing, being a trauma-informed educator involves more than just understanding how ACES can affect a child’s academic and social-emotional state. It challenges educators to step outside of their personal biases and provide CLD students with an environment where they feel safe, supported, and understood. Although this process can be overwhelming, the following tips can serve as starting points:

  • If you are looking to get more information related to how you can support students who have experienced trauma, consider a resource like the “Child Trauma Toolkit for Educators” from the National Child Traumatic Stress Network. 
  • If you are looking to audit your classroom materials and build a more inclusive learning environment, consider doing this “Bingo Card” activity to address gaps in your classroom library.  As you start to build your inclusive and culturally diverse library, help students reflect from the writer’s perspective by asking: Why do you think the character felt this way? Do you know someone like this character? How are they the same? How are they different? What will you remember about this story tomorrow?
  • If you want to strengthen your interactions with children or parents that are culturally diverse, take time to practice compassionate listening. This practice involves listening to someone else’s experience without judgment, commenting, or providing solutions. It involves listening in a way that communicates support and compassion. 

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Bibliography

Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). (2020, April 3). Preventing Adverse Childhood Experiences. Violence Prevention. Retrieved March 23, 2021, from https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/aces/fastfact.html.

Center for Early Childhood Mental Health Consultation. (n.d.). Defining trauma. Georgetown University Center for Childhood and Trauma. Retrieved March 8, 2021, from https://www.ecmhc.org/tutorials/trauma/mod1_1.html.

National Association of School Psychologists (NASP). (2015). Creating trauma-sensitive schools: Supportive policies and practices for learning [ Research summary].Retrieved March 23, 2021, from https://www.nasponline.org/assets/Documents/Research%20and%20Policy/Research%20Center/Trauma_Sensitive_Schools_2015.pdf.

Waters, A., & Asbill, L. (2013, August). Reflections on cultural humility. CYF News. Retrieved March 23, 2021, from https://www.apa.org/pi/families/resources/newsletter/2013/08/cultural-humility.

About the Author

Dr. Pedro Olvera is a Clinical Manager for Bilingual Therapies. In this role, he provides clinical support and collaborates with remote clinicians that provide clinical services to students in K-12 settings. As a bilingual school psychologist, Dr. Olvera has practiced for over 20 years providing in-person and teletherapy to children in public school settings. In addition to Bilingual Therapies, Dr. Olvera teaches graduate-level school counselors and psychologists coursework related to the following topics: working with culturally and linguistically diverse (CLD) students and families, home-school collaboration, behavior management, virtual mental health, and creating inclusive school climates for children that are CLD.

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