Trauma-Informed Approaches to Safe Routes to School Programming

We have all experienced individual and collective trauma this year, and the effects of that trauma will likely last well into the future. Prolonged isolation, fear, financial insecurity, sickness, police brutality, and harassment are only some of the complex issues that kids faced this year, especially kids of color, disabled kids, and kids from lower-income families. Kids shouldering the trauma of this past year in addition to any other instability they have at home, will carry it to school in the fall, and Safe Routes to School practitioners can be ready to meet them with a trauma-informed approach. The National Child Traumatic Stress Network defines a trauma-informed system as one where “all parties involved recognize and respond to the impact of traumatic stress on those who have contact with the system including children, caregivers, staff and service providers.” Beginning with that awareness, the goal is to collaboratively maximize both physical and psychological safety so that kids can thrive.[i]

With their established community relationships and programming, Safe Routes to School practitioners and volunteers are in a unique position to compassionately interact with children, bring back a much-needed sense of normalcy, and gauge whether they could use more support. While Safe Routes to School practitioners should not be expected to act as mental health professionals, they can use trauma-informed approaches to make their programming more supportive and be prepared to recognize symptoms of trauma and connect children and their caregivers with resources to help if needed. Here are some ways that Safe Routes to School practitioners can take a trauma-informed approach to support the varied needs of children, their caregivers, and school partners:

1. Consideration: Supporting children, caregivers, and school partners will require reflection and careful consideration. Taking time to reflect and asking questions increases the likelihood that you will effectively support people.

Apply this
You can begin thinking through your capacity and priorities with these questions adapted from Trauma-sensitive Schools:

    • What actions can we take to help students and caretakers feel welcomed and prepared to return to school?
    • How can we build in time and space to connect with families, including those whose children may not show up for Safe Routes to School programs?
      • Who is the best person to be communicating and working with families to welcome them back to school while communicating our goals to meet their health and safety needs?
    • What actions can we take, as a staff, to make sure that our efforts are informed by the voices of our students and their families?
      • How can we build in time to reflect on what students and their families tell us about their experiences and needs?
      • How will this inform our efforts to meet student and caregiver needs as we move forward?
    • Do we or the school district have a protocol in place for linking families to community services they may need? If not, how can we create a protocol?
    • How can we create a shared understanding among all staff of the impact of trauma on learning, behavior, and relationships?
    • What actions can we take to help promote our students’ sense of safety (physically, socially, and emotionally)?

2. Connection: Relationships between kids and adult facilitators as well as relationships between students as peers set the stage for how a child may feel at school. Playworks suggests leading with curiosity in response to poor behavior so that you can use it as an opportunity to connect one-on-one rather than publicly calling them out.

Apply this
Learning for Justice suggests the following simple actions for building connection:

    • Make time to ask kids about something fun they are doing right now.
    • Greet students by name and create a routine to invite connection like a fist bump or high five (touch-free options are great too!)
    • Talk directly about the importance of connecting with others.
    • Incorporate play and fun activities.
    • Create connection rituals such as sharing one tough moment and one fun moment from the day or asking one creative question each day.

3. Consistency: Creating a predictable routine for children who have had an unpredictable year, and may also have an unpredictable life at home, can build a feeling of safety. That consistency can help them feel more comfortable connecting and learning.[ii]

Apply this
Safe Routes to School programming like walking school busses can bring students a routine—they know that no matter what, they can expect to get to school the same way every day. For guidance on how to start a walking school bus, read Step by Step: How to Start a Walking School Bus at Your School.  You can build in exercises to build self-awareness, self-soothing, and mindfulness skills such as stopping to smell a flower on the way to and from school and mindful walking.

4. Choice: Kids should be allowed to choose how they want to engage in programming. Facilitators and peers should listen so that kids feel heard and understood. If that means a learning activity needs to be changed, considering collaborating with students to redesign it.[iii] This approach can help build trust, allowing kids to show up and share what they are going through.

Apply this

    • Give kids the opportunity to make small choices such as choosing a game or rotating who gets to choose what music to play on the way to school in a walking school bus.
    • Engage with kids to ask them about their experiences of challenges and opportunities in their neighborhood through creative, hands-on activities like in the Place It! for Safe Routes to School guide.
    • For older kids, support them to design and implement their own campaigns or programming to promote safe walking and biking. Be clear about what is non-negotiable and where there is space for flexibility.  They can help determine walk audit routes, design surveys, volunteer at events, and present their ideas to the public.

5. Culture and Community Context: Culture and context shape how everyone interacts with their world and can explain children's responses in academic and social environments. The effects of the pandemic have differed dramatically for families based on race and class. Keeping that in mind in the new school year may help inform how to support some students.

Apply this

    • The organization Girl Trek acknowledges the generational trauma that Black women carry and the toll it takes on their health. They use walking groups to elevate their strength, build community, and increase physical activity. You can watch their TED Talk here. They have shown that identity-specific walking groups can effectively build a sense of community while improving health. Consider teaming up with identity-specific organizations or cultivating one that makes sense in your community.
    • Consider differences in resources and access when planning programming. Does every kid in your neighborhood have access to their own bike? If not, maybe stick with walking or look for opportunities to collect bike donations. Similarly, not all neighborhoods have the same safe walking and biking infrastructure (often due to ongoing disinvestment)– consider hosting programs at parks or community centers that can act as a central meeting spot for activities.
    • Include grandparents and multigenerational households in activities to acknowledge that there is no standard way to be a family.
    • Don’t automatically include law enforcement in programming. While many white people may see police as a friendly face promoting safety, Black and Indigenous communities, in particular, have disproportionately negative encounters with police. Choosing to not include law enforcement in programming can create an environment that feels psychologically safer for kids and their families, which can promote stronger participation.
      • In many communities, police do not play a foundational role in Safe Routes to School programming, but they are often a partner because of past recommendations that they should be. For each of the activities that police are usually engaged to do, there are often solutions better suited to the task:
        • Bicycle education: Rather than using police to fit helmets and teach kids to ride bikes, try using certified League Cycling Instructors and people trained in child pedagogy.
        • Closing a street to traffic: Apply for a permit or go through your community’s standard process and then use bollards or jersey barriers – features that effectively close off the road, but without intimidation or overtime payment.
        • Speed surveys: Departments of transportation, departments of public works, and engineering firms can all conduct speed surveys.
      • Identify what roles other volunteers and community leaders can play to support student learning and safety as well as advocating for larger-scale changes. Take time to identify community champions— every community has people who happen to know everyone and are well respected in the community. Charles Taylor has a great exercise for shifting your thinking about the key people to connect with in this webinar recording. The big takeaway: helpful connections can be found in unexpected places.

Good resources on the trauma-informed approach:

[i] Halladay Goldman , J., L. Danna, J.W. Maze, I.B. Pickens, and G.S. Ake III. Trauma Informed School Strategies during COVID-19. Los Angeles, CA, and Durham, NC: National Center for Child Traumatic Stress, 2020.

[ii] “Prioritize a Trauma-Sensitive Approach This School Year.” Playworks, July 17, 2020.….

[iii] IBID.