Reimagining Schools as Spaces for Radical Healing

By Carly Riley

6-minute read

Stress is a natural part of the human experience and learning to cope with challenges and adversity is an important component of child development. With this in mind, those of us who work with young children utilize a variety of strategies such as mindfulness exercises, Grace and Courtesy lessons, and restorative justice circles in order to facilitate the development of social and emotional literacy, empathy, and community building in our classrooms and beyond.

However, stress can become toxic when the activation of the brain’s stress response system is excessive or prolonged by exposure to stressful or traumatic events. Research from Harvard’s Center on the Developing Child tells us that “toxic stress can have damaging effects on learning, behavior, and [physical and mental] health across the lifespan.” Additionally, research from the relatively new field of epigenetics points to evidence that “repetitive, highly stressful experiences can cause changes that manage one’s response to adversity later in life.” Furthermore, the toxic and traumatic stress accrued by historically oppressed groups and communities cannot be ignored. Systemic racism, prejudicial ideology, and macro- and micro-aggressions have contributed directly to transgenerational disparities in physical and mental health outcomes and treatments.

Built on a foundation of institutional and state-sanctioned violence, the United States is again experiencing an alarmingly high rates of bias and hate crimes fueled by racist rhetoric and ideology; and our children are bearing witness. Furthermore, research suggests that an overwhelming number of school-aged children experience toxic stress or exposure to traumatic events; and, children from all races and socioeconomic backgrounds experience and are impacted by trauma. Children are sensitive and keen scientific observers—like sponges, they are soaking up and making sense of the world around them, all the while absorbing the injustices they both witness and experience.

Though distressing, this information is not deterministic. In the preface of Troublemakers: Lessons in Freedom from Young Children at School, Carla Shalaby issues educators a call to action:

“We need schools that offer young people a chance to grapple with these lessons—schools fueled by the imperative to imagine and to create a world in which there are no throwaway lives. Any of us invested in the rights of persons to be free have cause to care about the lives of children at school and to resurrect our imagination for schooling as deeply human, wildly revolutionary site of possibility” (p. xviii, 2017).

Russian-born American psychologist, Urie Brofenbrenner, recognized that an environment of supportive relationships is a critical part of healthy brain development and lays a foundation for outcomes in academic performance, mental health, and interpersonal skills.

Thus, it is imperative that we create an environment of supportive relationships that honor every child’s humanity and dignity, prevent and/or reduce the impact of toxic and traumatic stress, and bolster a child’s resilience in the face of adversity.

Here are some resources you may consider for your school, organization, classroom, and/or educational practice to embrace equity:

  • Culturally Sustaining Pedagogies- Drawing from asset-based pedagogical research and justice movements, professors Django Paris & H. Samy Alim contend that “culturally sustaining educators connect present learning to the histories of racial, ethnic, and linguistic communities, to histories of neighborhoods and cities, and the histories of the larger states and nation-states that they are part of.” Together with the founders of these frameworks, Django & Alim put forth a “collective effort to address racism and all other forms of discrimination in our educational policies, practices, and pedagogies.”

  • Teaching Tolerance: The Social Justice Standards- This framework is a cornerstone of all of Teaching Tolerance’s anti-bias resources which “divides social justice teaching and learning to four key anti-bias domains: Identity, Diversity, Justice, and Action.” Teachers can use them to guide curriculum development, and administrators can use them to make schools more just, equitable and safe. The Standards are leveled for every stage of K–12 education and includes school-based scenarios to show what anti-bias attitudes and behavior may look like in the classroom.

  • Child Trauma Toolkit for Educators- The National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN) has developed a comprehensive list of traumatic stress symptoms and suggestions for educators, parents, and caregivers for both identifying and supporting children who have been exposed to traumatic events including traumatic grief.

  • Reframing Classroom Management: A Toolkit for Educators- Building upon previously published resources, Teaching Tolerance has published this toolkit to help educators shift their thinking about school discipline. “This toolkit seeks to reframe classroom management by questioning the assumption that teachers must always be in control and that students must always follow. This model supports teachers in responding to student behavior with the goal of keeping learning on track rather than keeping absolute control. It focuses on student development instead of punishment.” See also Code of Conduct and A Teachers Guide to Rerouting the School-to-Prison Pipeline

  • Colleen Wilkinson is a consultant at Trauma Informed Montessori and the director of Montessori Country Day School, in Houston, Texas. AMS-credentialed (Early Childhood). Wilkinson is available for consulting with schools and organizations.

By understanding the causes, effects, and restorative responses to toxic and traumatic stress, we adults have not only the ability but the obligation to buffer its long-term impact on the children in our lives. The Montessori pedagogy provides a child-centered, individualized, and adaptive vehicle for what Shalaby describes as a “collective need to teach love and learn freedom;” but, to truly reimagine our schools as spaces for radical healing, we must be exceptionally intentional in the preparation of both ourselves and our environments.

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The author, Carly Riley, is a Montessori primary teacher and teacher educator. Riley has served as a Public Montessori educator, coach, academic advisor, professional development consultant, and most recently the director of a nationally accredited Montessori teacher training program in Memphis, TN. She earned a B.A. in Early Childhood Education, an Early Childhood Montessori Diploma through the American Montessori Society, and is a licensed teacher in both Illinois and Tennessee. Carly is currently an Ed.M. candidate at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and is an Embracing Equity facilitator.