Redefining the High School Experience: A Trauma-Informed Approach

Guest post by Deborah Moya

What makes ABQ Charter Academy (ABQCA) different from any traditional high school or charter school? I believe our mission statement says it all: “The mission of ABQ Charter Academy is to redefine the high school experience.” Many of our scholars have had very negative experiences in traditional high schools. They seek to find a place where they belong, and we offer an environment that is centered on each individual scholar and their unique differences. 

Our school has taken on the challenge of becoming a Trauma-Informed Poverty Aware (TIPA) school. This journey began with our work in understanding how poverty negatively affects students’ learning. A trauma-informed school provides a safe and respectful environment that allows students to build caring relationships with adults and peers as well as self-regulate their emotions and behaviors so they can experience success in the school setting.

At ABQCA, we created a TIPA council made up of teachers, support staff, and administrators that continues to do research and plan staff development to enhance our practice. Through our work, we discovered that many of our scholars have experienced traumatic experiences in their lives. In reviewing scholarly research, we have learned that students who experience trauma in their lives have a difficult time learning. We are now trying to better understand our students and where they come from, while also looking at ourselves and where we come from. We are learning to address our own stress levels—through strategies like mindfulness training—so we may control our reactions to student behavior. The staff at ABQCA have made a commitment to use trauma-sensitive strategies in each classroom as well as in every aspect of our school.

Another step that our administrative team has taken to create a TIPA school is by adopting nonpunitive discipline policies and practices. When a student makes a mistake or misbehaves, we ask, “What do you need?” instead of focusing on and punishing the actual behavior. By asking this question, we can get to the root of the problem and work with each student to solve the problem in a positive way. We do everything we can to keep our scholars in school. Several students have had negative experiences with the administrators at their previous schools and we work hard to establish positive relationships with our scholars before we meet with them for any discipline issues.

As we continue our work to becoming a trauma-informed school, we have identified six essential components:

  1. Leadership by administrators to create the infrastructure and culture needed for a trauma-sensitive school environment
  2. Professional development and skill building for all school staff, including leaders, in areas that enhance the school’s capacity to create supportive school environments
  3. Access to resources and services, such as mental health counseling, to help students participate fully in the school community and help adults create a whole-school environment that engages all students
  4. Academic and nonacademic strategies that enable all students to learn
  5. Policies, procedures, and protocols that sustain the critical elements of a trauma-informed school
  6. Collaboration with families that actively engages them in all aspects of their children’s education, helps them feel welcome at school, and understands the important roles they play

Addressing the social and emotional learning needs of our students has been the key to unlocking each scholar’s academic potential. How has your school become more trauma-sensitive?

Deborah Moya is the assistant principal and special services director at ABQ Charter Academy in Albuquerque, NM. She is the 2017 New Mexico Assistant Principal of the Year and was recently selected to fill the Assistant Principal-at-Large seat on the NASSP Board of Directors.

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