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The Promise and Caution of Trauma-Informed Approaches in Preventing Preschool Expulsion

A group of preschool aged children sit in a circle and raise their handsAlysse Loomis, assistant professor in the College of Social Work, has been delivering and studying trauma-informed teacher training for years.  The emphasis with this type of training is not just changing a child’s behavior, but changing how teachers see those behaviors and respond to them. The goal is to help teachers understand trauma influenced behavior and give them relationship-based tools for managing tough, trauma-related behaviors.  The central question of her current work is whether a teacher’s trauma-informed attitudes, and their confidence in applying trauma-informed knowledge, leads to lower expulsion risk for children—an important connection because children who have experienced more childhood adversity are at higher risk of being suspended and expelled from preschool.  

In one of her most recent studies, Dr. Loomis and her team looked specifically at different types of trauma-informed training for teachers, and how that related to the strength of teachers’ trauma-informed attitudes, teacher stress levels, and student expulsion risk.

In addition to asking about stress and confidence in enacting trauma-informed approaches, Dr. Loomis and her team also asked teachers questions related to the most challenging students in their classrooms.  The researchers thought it would serve as a good litmus test for how trauma-informed attitudes were impacting classroom experiences. 

The initial results were promising.  The study found that teachers with lower self-reported stress levels and stronger trauma-informed attitudes reported lower expulsion risk for their students.  When she dug down deeper into how disruptive teachers felt that a child’s behaviors were to their classrooms, she found that teachers with higher trauma-informed self-efficacy—teachers who were more confident using the trauma-informed approaches they had been taught—reported that the child’s behaviors were less disruptive.  Dr. Loomis explained, “It’s possible that teachers who feel more confident don’t feel like their classroom gets as disrupted by challenging behaviors, when given a broader trauma-informed context.  This shows promise that trauma-informed approaches might be good at reducing expulsion risk because they change how teachers perceive behaviors.”

One thing in particular the team was interested in exploring was how race was reflected in the data.  “There are severe disparities in expulsion rates by race throughout the entire education system,” said Dr. Loomis. 

“We wanted to know if trauma-informed attitudes served as a protective factor against expulsion risk; if it was something that disrupted racial disparities.”

What they found was disheartening. 

Higher trauma-informed attitudes were related to lower expulsion risk for white students, butnot for students of color.  “Maybe trauma-informed attitudes are only helpful in reframing behaviors for white students.  Maybe explicit and implicit biases are stronger drivers of how teachers see children.”  Dr. Loomis continued, “During trainings on trauma-informed teaching—if we’re not intentionally centering equity issues, our own biases, and how they shape the ways we view kids’ behaviors—could these trainings actually be increasing disparities for children by helping reduce expulsion risk for some children but not for others?”

Research Questions

When analyzing the results of any study, part of the responsibility of the researcher is to ask questions of those results.  Are there confounding factors that haven’t been accounted for?  Would we have gotten these same results if we had asked the question in a different way?  Are these results surprising? ...Why or why not?  What’s the cultural context for these results? 

Those questions don’t always have easy answers—if they have answers at all.  For her part, Dr. Loomis found herself reflecting on broader social implications of this study.  “These results aren’t totally unexpected.  They make sense in a grander scheme,” she explained.  “I am a white researcher; I was a white trainer.  I had not experienced and do not experience racial discrimination.  As a trainer, I had my own biases and things I didn’t see.  As a researcher, I’m constantly trying to challenge results.  When we found these results, I paused to reflect more deeply about them and my first reactions was, ‘This makes sense.’”  She continued, “For a long time as a trainer, I was convinced that trauma-informed approaches were always of benefits for students.  These results challenged my past assumptions and brought on new questions for me: Why did I think that way?  Why wasn’t I thinking more critically about trauma-informed approaches?  What about my own identity and biases stopped me from seeing this?”

a headshot of Dr. Alysse Loomis

Dr. Loomis emphasized that this study was preliminary; more data and a more extensive examination of racial factors, including things like the racial and ethnic match of teachers and students, is needed.  That said, these results still made Dr. Loomis think critically about the trauma-informed trainings she has delivered in the past—and how much she did, or didn’t, include a focus on racial identity and implicit bias.  “I definitely used to have a bias as a trainer,” she said.  “I thought, ‘If we can just shift how teachers see and think about a kid’s trauma-based behaviors, then that will probably generalize out to other difficult classroom behaviors.’  The more I’ve learned, and with this study, I’m not sure if that’s true.”  She continued, “We need to think more critically about the trauma-informed movement and whether or not it’s helpful for all students or whether it could be harmful for some.  We need to take time to consider what needs to look different about trauma-informed approaches so we’re not just benefiting one group of students.”

Want to know more?  Read the full paper here.

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Last Updated: 12/12/23