Review: Equity-Centered, Trauma-Informed Education

Chris McNutt
June 25, 2021
Alex Shevrin Venet's Equity-Centered, Trauma-Informed Education is a masterful work which inspires a systemic look at the injustices in classrooms, schools, and communities.

Alex Shevrin Venet's Equity-Centered, Trauma-Informed Education is a masterful work which inspires a systemic look at the injustices in classrooms, schools, and communities. Not to be confused with a trauma-informed manual, Venet's work provides an analysis of how equity, trauma, and systems-based thinking must be combined for sustainable human-centered practice. For educators seeking to make meaningful change in their building toward student-centered activism and well-being — this is the work for you.

The statistics presented are startling: almost half of children experience a potentially traumatic event before turning 18, which is higher for children of color and students with disabilities. Venet calls upon the reader to establish spaces that are safer: both emotionally and psychologically through relationship building, unconditional acceptance, a supportive community, and changes to policy to prevent trauma from occurring in the first place. This is drawn from Venet's experience as an educator, consultant, and school leader. She states,

Although many books about trauma-informed education focus on the challenging behavior of students, this book mainly addresses the challenging behavior of the adults in a school. Therefore, I also hope that you will engage in self-reflection and conversation with colleagues.

The work is broken into five sections: bringing equity to the center of trauma-informed education; universally implementing proactive trauma-informed practices; building relationships; pushing for change with school leaders; and creating change from within our classrooms through student activism and leadership.

Central to the book is the need for a structural lens. Throughout each chapter, Venet explains why strategies aren't enough. Our goal isn't to solely respond to trauma, but prevent it from happening. And, she states, school is often a place of perpetuated oppression (trauma doesn't only happen at home.) This requires a thorough reflection of one's classroom policies, school practices, and district- and state- wide systems which oppress. Venet writes,

In expanding our definitions of trauma, we must make sure we see trauma as a structural issue, not just an individual one. Scholars now recognize what people from marginalized communities have always known: oppression, bias, and discrimination cause trauma. Racism causes trauma. Islamophobia causes trauma. Heterosexism causes trauma. Transphobia causes trauma. And I'm not just talking about visible incidences of hate crimes. Oppression causes trauma through the ways it is built into the everyday structures of school and society and how these structures have persisted throughout generations. Trauma doesn't just happen at home — students can be traumatized by conditions and events in schools, and schools can cause trauma.

When we shift our focus to systems, we recognize that we must see trauma as a problem for everyone, not only certain individuals. This builds into the principles of an equity-centered, trauma-informed education:

Equity-Centered, Trauma-Informed Education tells an overview through anecdotes, research, and narrative, providing a clear understanding then presenting actionable steps for one to analyze their practice. I found these to be especially inspiring, as they're ideas we could implement tomorrow such as partnering with local organizations and organizers working on social justice and/or ending trauma, or incorporating trauma prevention into the curriculum.

Each of these action steps is followed by specific calls for systems-based change. After all, we will not stop future trauma from occurring if the underlying problems aren't solved. We must examine how educational and health disparities are connected to gender, race, class, disability, and other markers of identity. This means that educators must first be familiar with the history and current implementation of oppressive policies, then use their political and social capital to abolish them.

These changes occur at both the state, district, and classroom level. For example, Venet explains a common problem in history classrooms,

Curriculum violence is the result of classroom content and pedagogy that harms students intellectually and emotionally. One all-too-common example of curriculum violence: in-class "reenactments" or simulations of historical acts of violence and oppression. Teachers design these activities in the name of "experiential education," but asking students to pretend they are enslaved Africans in the hull of a ship or to walk a simulated Trail of Tears (both, unfortunately, real examples) thrusts students into the painful embodiment of historical trauma.

It's no surprise that because many White educators are unfamiliar or uncomfortable with race, issues of identity, and hard history, that they perpetuate oppression and trauma. Often, reenactments, white-centric literacy programs, or white-centric mathematics are rooted in quick planning, an uncritical lens, or sheer ignorance to colonized curriculums. And racism is just one of many traumatic systems and practices that children face everyday at school.

We need to shift to proactive, universal approaches that would ensure a lesson like this would never be imaginable — and that systems (e.g. bathroom access, lunch systems, homework policies, grading, discipline, etc.) are viewed in a critical light and changed so everyone is welcomed, supported, and cared for. A key point of Venet's work is that we must not assign labels: there aren't traumatized and not traumatized students, nor should we rate trauma on a scale. We don't want to rank, file, or differentiate — the solutions we create should help everyone.

Some classroom approaches mentioned as universal include implementing student voice into the curriculum and school board, utilizing experiential education, and collaborating with the local community. In essence, implementing human-centered systems not only engages students more and treats them as humans, but lessens trauma that occurs at school. Day-to-day, educators must ensure they see relationship building as a skillset to develop, and are aware of the social dynamics between educator and student. They need to be universally acceptive and have equity literacy.

Venet explains in the second half of the book that this doesn't mean all the problems will be solved by an individual teacher. In fact, the goal is not to be a "trauma detective" or the "only one" or "savior" of students — it's to be a connector. Venet highlights how one may connect a student with a counselor,

Thank you so much for feeling comfortable to talk to me. I can hear how much this is upsetting you and how you need to talk about it. I want to let you know that I care about you and want to help you, but I think you might benefit to talking to someone who has more perspective on this than I do. Have you ever met our school counselor Kate? She plays Dungeons and Dragons like you do. Want to walk over together five minutes before the end of lunch and I can introduce you?

Many examples are presented for how to deal with individual circumstances.

Then, we turn, again, to the structural level. Venet offers key advice in approaching school leaders to examine how their schools are set up, and how groups of teachers can audit their schools for equity-centered, trauma-informed well-being. And if that approach works or doesn't work, there's always room for students to make a change. The work is finalized through a call for student and teacher activism to create a just society.

For anyone interested in progressive education, Venet's work is a central component to offering a new lens of viewing systems-based thinking and pedagogy. As someone who consistently talks about systems of ungrading, restorative justice, experiential learning, and the like, Equity-Centered, Trauma-Informed Education elaborates upon these ideas with even more research to support a shift toward human-centered classrooms. Definitely check out this work via Norton Professional Books or your local library.

Chris McNutt
Chris McNutt is the co-founder and executive director of Human Restoration Project, a nonprofit organization focused on student engagement, well-being, and motivation. His work centers on realizing systems-based change, examining how progressive pedagogical shifts (e.g. PBL, ungrading) reimagine school to best suit the needs of students and teachers alike. He was a public high school digital media & design educator who focused on experiential learning, portfolio-driven assessment, and community involvement.
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