Incorporating critical race theory into trauma-informed teaching could lead to a more holistic approach to education. Here’s why.

Grade school isn’t just for learning the educational basics but an opportunity for kids to expand their knowledge about the world. And just as important as the lessons kids learn is how the lessons are taught.

Those in marginalized identity groups may remember lessons on the Civil Rights Movement or the Trail of Tears — not only the way our textbooks shaped the narratives but how many teachers postured those conversations.

But what if you could have learned about the full depth of America’s history through lessons taught by an educator with both cultural competency and empathy, regardless of their background?

A push for educational progress that includes these possibilities has already begun to take shape at schools across the United States.

In many K–12 classrooms, educators are implementing trauma-informed curricula that include a critical race theory (CRT) component — and teaching what it means to be anti-racist as part of a holistic framework.

This process could look like ensuring K-12 instruction incorporates diversity and inclusion on a state level like New Jersey.

Critical race theory is based on the principle that race is a social construct.

CRT closely examines the role of race and racism across modes of expression and education to fully understand how members of marginalized communities are harmed by systemic racism, cultural biases, and discriminatory assumptions.

Created over 40 years ago by legal scholars Kimberlé Crenshaw, Richard Delgado, and the late Derrick Bell, among others, CRT is an academic concept that explains how American racism has shaped public policy and sowed racial inequality.

CRT argues that racism isn’t just individual bias, but is deeply embedded in all facets of our society, including literature, media, U.S. legal systems, institutions, healthcare, and policies. The framework acknowledges how other factors like economic status, sexual orientation, and gender identity are also affected by systemic oppression.

Pushback against CRT

Hundreds of conservative lawmaker groups and parents have pushed back against teaching CRT in schools.

At least 22 states have introduced bills to ban critical race theory (CRT) or restrict teaching race in schools, a debate that has become highly politicized.

The pushback may be attributed to discomfort from those who wish to avoid conversations about race and racism’s role in the United States and don’t believe such discussions belong in classrooms.

Dr. Miguelina German, pediatric psychologist and director of pediatric behavioral health services with the Montefiore Health Group, shared how children who experience racism at school are at risk for:

All of which can negatively impact their academic performance.

German says, “children who feel unsafe, unsupported, and may be trying to manage highly stressful events with little control will also have difficulty focusing, paying attention, and learning,”

She adds that the effects of systemic oppression keep children emotionally dysregulated and in a constant state of fight-or-flight response for long periods, which can create lifelong effects on their learning and behavior.

“If we fgive people the tools to identify and assess traumatic stress, teach everyone the signs of trauma, and build social-emotional skills and wellness — then we can help to reduce the negative impacts of traumatic stress on our communities,” she says.

Trauma-informed care (TIC) recognizes the widespread nature of trauma, and how folks are impacted. It is attentive to responding in ways that support those experiencing trauma without retraumatizing them.

Often utilized within the human services and education fields, the goal of a trauma-informed approach isn’t to treat or “fix” any previous trauma, but to acknowledge and provide holistic support.

Marginalized groups experience trauma at higher rates, which may lead to increased risks for physical and mental health issues. This is why advocates say trauma-informed care for these populations is needed.

Research from 2019, demonstrates programs incorporating critical race theory into trauma-informed teaching could help educators become more aware of how systemic racism may appear in classrooms.

The study notes that many teachers will need ongoing training in anti-bias work to fully confront oppressive systems.

Trauma-informed curricula may help educators:

  • better understand how trauma affects learning and behavior
  • increase sensitivity to context
  • learn how to foster positive relationships with their students

To the untrained eye, certain “acting out” behaviors could be misinterpreted and punished without consideration of the realities of marginalized youth and their experiences of trauma.

For instance, trauma-sensitive teaching through a CRT lens may help address the disproportionate policing of Youth of Color within schools. Many introductions to the school-to-prison pipeline are connected to tardiness and absences.

Recent research from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shows the stark reality of how racism and other forms of discrimination affect the mental well-being of young people.

The basic tenet of TIC is that most folks are likely to deal with some trauma. And trauma and discrimination can show up in several ways.

Simone Smith Maldonado a licensed counselor in New Jersey with the Help for Parents Network, spoke about the interpersonal ways kids can experience trauma through discrimination.

“Children may experience racism in their classroom in their interactions with the other students and teachers. They may be made fun of because of their skin color, hair texture, or vernacular,” she says.

German shared how children have reported being told they’re ugly due to their darker skin and being called racial slurs at school.

“Young children pointing out differences in speech patterns is not uncommon and may not be done with the intention to harm others, although there is clearly an impact,” she says. “However, considering yourself superior and engaging in behaviors to belittle others has both intention and impact.”

Maldonado adds, “[Kids of Color] may receive unfair treatment with their homework, assessments, and projects,” touching on how the trauma can extend past peer-to-peer conflict, transforming into institutional and structural racism.

According to the Intercultural Development Research Association, racism could look like:

  • disparities within class disciplines
  • higher rates of criminalization for black children, feeding the school-to-prison pipeline
  • “adultification,” or failing to see black children as children

Racism could also include being less likely to receive an ADHD diagnosis and treatment.

The need for healing-centered educational frameworks is why today’s scholars are not only asking if critical race theory and trauma-informed care can come together, but are insisting that they must.

Dr. Andrea Joseph-McCatty, assistant professor of social work at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, applies CRT to her work studying racial disparities and says that CRT helps people to understand and provide context for racial inequality.

“Who is really benefiting from trauma-informed care if there is little recognition for the way childhood adversities disproportionately impact Students of Color and children from economically disadvantaged households?” Joseph-McCatty asks.

Moreover, the racial trauma inherited by children may affect their health, development, and academic outcomes. Trauma-sensitive teaching could help inform and transform experiences at school for marginalized students.

Possible benefits for students

According to Joseph-McCatty, a trauma-informed approach offers educators insight into the pervasive nature of trauma and its impacts on children. In fact, several studies show that TIC may lead to:

  • reduced symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • fewer attendance issues
  • decreased disciplinary actions (e.g., referrals and suspensions)
  • increased community engagement
  • less learning time lost from disciplinary actions

“Childhood adversities and subsequent embodied trauma are not just a family or community issue. It’s a systemic issue with historical roots that are intersected at inequitable practices,” Joseph-McCatty says.

Potential benefits for educators

Maldonado says, “There is a shift in focus to healing and recovery — instead of accidentally re-traumatizing or triggering difficult feelings and reactions — [that’s] creating a better school climate in the building.”

German agreed that trauma-informed care in schools is not just for the students. “We must recognize that trauma may have impacted teachers, staff, families, and our communities,” she says.

According to Joseph-McCatty, when educators are aware of the impact of race on students’ adversities they can more effectively teach from a trauma-informed perspective.

“Educators and school-based helping professionals can better understand students’ behaviors and coping practices instead of using deficit, punitive, and blame-centered thinking,” she says. “Without this context, schools participate in punishing children for their traumatic experiences.”

Questions educators can ask

Joseph-McCatty recommends education leaders and school community members incorporate ​​trauma-informed practices with CRT into classroom curricula. She suggests the following questions for reflection:

  • What identity-based stressors are my students experiencing in society?
  • What are my biases and how do they interfere with my beliefs about students?
  • How can I include students in shaping discipline culture for the school?
  • Is there an expectation for Students of Color to exhibit resilience and grit in the face of trauma compared to their white peers?
  • Do we call for resilience yet ignore intervention?
  • Do we reward trauma-related resilience and punish maladaptive trauma coping?
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Dr. Debi Khasnabis, clinical professor and chair of elementary teacher education at the University of Michigan says not incorporating CRT into TIC, trauma-sensitive teaching can be moot and even perpetuate racial basis.

“Educators must always be attentive to the system — and be working together with their colleagues, their administrators, and communities to interrupt those systemic challenges,” Khasnabis says. “Otherwise, we are part of the problem.”

When it comes to white or non-Black educators, a recent research paper co-authored by Khasnabis suggests being intentional about avoiding the following pitfalls:

  • white saviorism
  • virtue signaling (i.e., trying to convince others that you’re a “good person”)
  • assuming school is safe
  • blaming students and families for systemic issues
  • using trauma as an excuse not to teach complex subjects

In addition to adopting ethics studies courses in all schools, the Intercultural Development Research Association suggests addresing the historical ties of racial trauma to current students by:

  • Getting rid of police inside school buildings and discipline practices that keep students out of class, as they disproportionately affect Black students
  • Training staff, students, and families in restorative practices and trauma-informed care
  • Reviewing the school district and campus codes of conduct and data with an equity lens
  • Centering students’ rights
  • Creating safe space for students

German says that critical race theory and a trauma-informed approach benefit everyone involved.

“Trauma-informed care in schools is not just for the students. We must recognize that trauma may have impacted teachers, staff, families, and our communities,” she says.

“If we give people the tools to identify and assess traumatic stress, teach everyone the signs of trauma, and build social-emotional skills and wellness – then we can help to reduce the negative impacts of traumatic stress on our communities.”

A trauma-informed approach to education is not merely a question of whether teachers ought to adopt such practices, but rather, whether the education system is willing to change its policies.

Acknowledging how racism informs some of the traumatic experiences of youth may offer a holistic approach to education in K–12 classrooms. The role of trauma-sensitive teaching is not to fix an individual’s traumas, just as CRT is not meant to place the responsibility of eradicating racism on schools and educators.

A trauma-informed approach can provide a healthy and supportive environment that is responsive to the needs of students impacted by trauma.

Educators may consider curriculums that offer a trauma-sensitive approach with a CRT component, but they must also continue to reassess how these programs are implemented in classrooms.

Instead, school administrators and leaders are encouraged to shift their overall approach, which includes acknowledging the role of race and racism within our every day, and how it has played a role in their policies.

But eliminating institutional policies and practices that were influenced by racism won’t happen overnight. Addressing how marginalized communities have been affected by racist practices throughout history will take tremendous shifts in attitudes and policies to create systemic change.

Although we still have a long way to go, steps toward progress can be made each day.