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Acknowledging and Coping with Racial Trauma

In an episode of HGSE's Education Now series, experts offer concrete strategies for educators of all races to help students navigate issues of racial justice.

After a summer that escalated demands for racial justice, educators across the country need to find ways of acknowledging and helping their students navigate racial trauma. Educators and school communities may also need to acknowledge their own stress and pain at this time.

To address these critical needs and identify concrete ways that educators and school leaders of all races can guide students through this traumatic time, Tracie Jones, HGSE’s director of diversity, inclusion, and belonging, led a conversation with James Huguley, Ed.M.’04, Ed.D.’13, interim director at University of Pittsburgh’s Center on Race and Social Problems, and Sarah Vinson, associate clinical professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at Morehouse School of Medicine, in a recent episode of Education Now.

Huguley surfaced a few key concepts for education leaders, teachers, and parents to keep in mind as they address these difficult subjects in school and at home, and suggested special attention be paid to:

Combatting Intergenerational and structural racism

  • “We have to think about trauma past, present, and future,” Huguley said. “We need to help students process what’s happened, stay standing, and stay thriving in the face of what might come.”
  • He also added that “trauma operates on multiple levels” and that racism is structural. As a result, educators need to consider factors outside school — from their neighborhoods to the quality of the air they breathe — that may contribute to exposure to adverse situations and stimuli that then influence school performance.

Building coalitions to advocate for needs

  • Huguley advises that parents and teachers find partners in their local communities to help provide support and resources. “You don’t want to be in this space alone and it’s important to build coalitions. Look for resources and programs with track records of success — layout the problems but also provide solutions.”
  • Teachers, too, may need support at this time. An easy way for school leaders to strengthen their school communities is to hold a space for and provide resources to educators to help them navigate their own experiences at this time.

As a physician, Vinson gave educators three pieces of advice to frame their interactions and responses to the children in their classrooms.

  • Adults cannot give children what they don't have. Children need the adults in their lives to cope intentionally and adaptively. “A big part of you supporting them is shoring up your own resources, checking in with yourself, being intentional. Modeling this is really important,” she said.
  • Times of stress are taxing on brains — for both children and adults. Sleep, nutrition, and movement play a critical role in fostering mental resilience.
  • It is imperative that children's stress responses, which may seem disruptive or oppositional, are met with supportive rather than punitive approaches. “Sometimes kids communicate with words and sometimes with actions. In order to know the root cause of behavior, you have to be curious and ask questions.”