Trauma can have detrimental effects on the academic performance of students, particularly those with disabilities. A five-year training grant awarded to researchers in the Penn State College of Education will collaboratively prepare master’s degree candidates as special education teachers and school counselors with specialized expertise in trauma-informed services for students with disabilities.
Project BRITE: Bringing Research and Intervention to Trauma-Informed Education has been awarded a $1.16 million grant from the Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) in the U.S. Department of Education. The grant will enable Project BRITE scholars in the Special Education and Counselor Education programs in the Penn State College of Education to receive full tuition support for the two years of the program.
“From a special education perspective, I think we do a really good job of training our pre-service teachers to handle the academic needs of students with disabilities and behavioral needs from a classroom management perspective,” said Paul Riccomini, associate professor of education (special education) and the principal investigator (PI) for the grant. What we don’t do a good job of is connecting the trauma piece. How does trauma affect learning for kids with disabilities? How do teachers even recognize trauma? How do they respond to trauma? We don’t really have a concrete set of practices that have been validated. I think that’s where this grant, from a quality control perspective, really is going to strengthen our program.”
Riccomini’s co-PIs on the grant are Carlo Panlilio, assistant professor of education (educational psychology) and Social Science Research Institute cofunded faculty member, and Deirdre O'Sullivan, associate professor of education (rehabilitation and human services, and counselor education).
OSEP encourages universities to fund individuals interested in becoming special education teachers, Riccomini said, and the COVID-19 pandemic has exasperated the existing nationwide shortage of special education teachers. In addition to addressing that issue, the OSEP grant will aim to break down the silos in higher education that prevent pre-service teachers from gaining the training they need to teach students impacted by trauma.
“Kids have always experienced trauma, I just don’t think we necessarily recognized how it was coming into the schools or that pre-service programs are too siloed,” said Riccomini. “This grant is interdisciplinary and trying to merge silos.”
While brainstorming about the grant proposal with his colleagues, Riccomini said “the theme that emerged was Carlo’s work in trauma-sensitive pedagogy — not just educating the child but also trying to educate the child in the context of any trauma the child has experienced.”
Panlilio, along with Christy Tirrell-Corbin, a clinical professor at the University of Maryland, has been involved in a community-based participation research project to deliver a pilot intervention dealing with trauma within a partner elementary school in Maryland. The Trauma Sensitive Pedagogy (TSP) Project aims to understand how the principles of trauma-informed systems can be integrated into instructional practices that account for adversity-related developmental processes that affect learning. Part of the pilot involves identifying areas of learning needs in the classroom, as well as to assess to evaluate processes and outcomes of program implementation.
While trauma-informed approaches have been advocated by mental health professionals in areas such as child welfare and juvenile justice, Panlilio said, it doesn’t necessarily translate directly into classroom practice. He and his colleague have been working with the Maryland school for about a year and found that a scaffolding approach — in which teachers offer a particular kind of support to students as they learn and develop a new concept or skill — to be the dominant paradigm.
“It’s been a beneficial approach to have the students work with the teachers but it’s not sustainable to come in and be the ones to coach and scaffold,” said Panlilio. “In this trauma-sensitive team, we thought that the two (roles) that would most likely carry the torch would be the school counselor and the special educator.”
The culminating activity of the OSEP grant is in the last semester, when in lieu of a traditional internship, the students will participate in a Trauma Sensitive Pedagogy, in which the participants would use a case study and identify a student experiencing trauma-related issues and get a supervised experience in addressing the child from a special education, academic/behavioral perspective along with the lens of trauma. The activity will be done in partnership with the State College Area School District (SCASD).
“What we’re hoping to do is replicate what we’re doing in Maryland, working with SCASD to partner up students with educators in practice,” Panlilio said.
“Special education teachers and counselors are on the front lines of supporting students struggling to learn and struggling to cope,” said O’Sullivan. “Education and training on how to identify types of trauma — how trauma manifests in the classroom, on the playground, in relationships, in work — is needed, and this grant provides that opportunity for students who will need this education in order to provide services to their students, and importantly, to prevent further trauma.”
While singular acute traumatic events such as school shootings may garner headlines, Panlilio said, his research extends to other forms of trauma such as maltreatment, neighborhood violence and poverty, that usually are not shared experiences within a classroom environment. Teachers may be less equipped to understand and help students who may be experiencing these complex adversities, he added, which all have different developmental influences on children.
“By its nature, complex trauma, unlike acute trauma like a school shooting or natural disaster, doesn’t have a shared experience where you can work with everyone with a one-size-fits-all approach,” Panlilio said. “With complex trauma, these are chronic and begin early in childhood and carry long-term complex consequences on learning.”
A significant part of trauma-informed education, the researchers said, is understanding how adverse experiences impact learning-related processes. Early experiences may have shaped students’ cognitive control processes in a way that could render a misdiagnosis.
“A lot of students may have been diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) but really, (the symptoms) may have been because of trauma,” said Panlilio. “Someone who’s seemingly distracted or having trouble with reading, a lot of these challenges may have stemmed from adversity that has shifted their response. What can we do from a practice perspective to provide that safe, supportive environment for the students so that they can actually learn different strategies that work for the classroom?”
Another complicating factor, the researchers said, is the bi-directional relationship between trauma and disability.
“Childhood trauma, particularly severe and chronic trauma, contributes to disability in adulthood because of the neurological and biological impact of trauma on the developing child,” O’Sullivan said. “Children with disabilities are at an increased risk for experiencing household trauma for a range of reasons, including the added financial and emotional strain on a family living with a child with a disability.”
Schools have a responsibility to recognize when children have experienced trauma and provide them with the understanding and support they need, O’Sullivan added.
“There are things that teachers and counselors can do to identify and prevent instances of maltreatment, and other forms of trauma, as well as support these kids and their families. Understanding how to screen, how to recognize signs of trauma, how to talk to kids, what not to say, knowing when to report and when to educate and intervene all are things that teachers and counselors need to understand as part of their jobs.”
An additional benefit of the grant, Riccomini and Panlilio said, is that the aspiring special education teachers and school counselors will be given training on how to recognize and handle the secondary traumatic stress that is common in their professions and contributes to a high attrition rate. In fact, Riccomini said, a lot of special education teachers leave the field within three years.“(Secondary stress) is not something that teachers are well prepared for,” said Panlilio. “I don’t think that this is something that educators are taught to look for nor are given the tools to manage.”
While funding for the grant will run out in five years, Riccomini and Panlilio said, they hope that it will have a lasting impact on the field of trauma-informed learning. If the program produces promising results and they generate substantial data, they hope to continue to include the trauma component in their programs for pre-service teachers as well as influence public policy.