MSU Denver teaches future educators how to build equitable, culturally responsive and trauma-informed classrooms
At East Elementary school in Littleton, a group of fifth graders is seated in a semi-circle around student teacher Stephanie Shufelt for their morning meeting.
“Yesterday we talked about resiliency. Can someone remind me of what that actually meant?” she asks.
“To keep trying,” 10-year-old Brisaida Velasco replies.
“To keep trying, right,” Shufelt says. “When tough times hit, you’re able to bounce back.”
Four days a week, time is set aside for teachers to focus on social-emotional learning and teaching students self-regulation skills. At this meeting, Shufelt discusses strategies that can help them be resilient.
“Understand that you have the power to kind of bring those little moments of happiness to yourself, even when you’re feeling worried or sad,” she says.
Shufelt is a mom and veteran. She served in the Air Force for nine years, and after leaving active duty, worked as a substitute teacher at Osan Air Base in South Korea.
“One of the things that I relate to here that I can bring is how they focus on resiliency for the military child because they're constantly just experiencing changes,” she said.
Changes like moving to a new base, parents divorcing, or the loss of a loved one.
“Having to experience those, they focus on how to cope,” she continued. “I think that's important to teach here and they do with their social, emotional learning.”
East Elementary has a diverse student body with a lot of English language learners. The school provides resources for Shufelt and the other teachers, so they are prepared to lead this work. She also has a certificate in trauma-informed practices from Metropolitan State University of Denver, where she’s a senior in the School of Education.
“You can't learn if you're in survival brain,” said Elizabeth Hinde, professor and founding dean of the School of Education. “That's what trauma informed practices helps teachers understand and get through that so that the kids can learn."
More than two-thirds of children have experienced at least one traumatic event, according to the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. How children react to trauma can directly impact how they learn and/or their behavior at school. So, educators play a critical role in supporting them.
Last year, Gov. Jared Polis signed a bill requiring behavioral health training for teachers, which also extended to teacher preparation programs. To graduate, teacher candidates must complete a training course that is culturally responsive and trauma- and evidence-informed.
But teachers are not training to replace social workers, counselors, or psychologists, said Hinde.
“We're preparing teachers who can recognize the effects of trauma. Address right then and there, what's happening in the classroom and then as needed, get the kids and their families to the professionals who can help,” she said.
Since 2018, MSU Denver has partnered with the nonprofit Resilient Futures to offer a certificate in trauma-informed practices. These philosophies are also embedded in the undergraduate curriculum, which includes core guiding principles like “Safety and Predictability.”
“Students do better when they know they are safe and set in a place and when things are predictable,” said Ofelia Schepers, an assistant professor in Elementary Education and Literacy.
Another principle is “Cultural Humility & Equity,” which is important, Schepers said, when looking at how students’ lives are reflected in the classroom.
“And how we're being intentional about not only bringing in culturally responsive teaching practices, which really aligns with trauma-informed practices, but also thinking about how the lack of voices is a trauma in itself,” she said.
MSU Denver education students are considering how to bring these resources into the classroom so when they are teaching, their students can see themselves in the curriculum. For example, reading books that feature kids of color. The goal is for students develop skills so that they can build equitable, culturally responsive and trauma-informed classrooms and schools after they graduate.
Next summer, MSU Denver plans to offer a graduate certificate and master’s degree that focus on trauma-informed practices.
These principles also extend to the School of Education faculty, Schepers said, as they figure out better ways to support these college students.
“There are times in the semester when you can see they're overwhelmed. Like, what does it mean for me to really touch base and see how they're feeling?” she said. “And possibly take one assignment away.”
Educators can be negatively impacted by the issues children face, a condition known as secondary traumatic stress or compassion fatigue. To better understand the effects of this, the School of Education recently launched a study that will follow new teachers for three years. It will examine if trauma-informed practices and mentorship can reduce teacher burnout and improve retention. Research shows nearly 50% of teachers leave the profession within the first five years.
The fifth-grade students at East Elementary are in small groups now, filling out a worksheet on resiliency. Partners Micah Conroy and Joshua Meza Hernandez are answering this prompt: I can go outside and ______________.
“Take deep breaths,” Conroy says.
“Just go outside and play with my little brother,” Hernandez adds.
Last school year, East Elementary had over 230 students. Assistant principal Amanda Thanos said many are dealing with issues from fighting at home to food insecurity and just feeling “off.”
“What we can do is recognize that they do come with some sort of background and story and whatever they're showing up with is what we can address here at school,” she said.
Social-emotional learning is a priority for the school and the district. East Elementary started these structured morning meetings five years ago and, Thanos said, it has led to a reduction in suspensions, detentions and other disciplinary actions.
“When things do come up, they know that they have people that can help them,” she said. “But they also have power within themselves to help as well because we've given them some of those skills.”
Student teacher Stephanie Shufelt started working at East Elementary in August. Between leading social-emotional learning and studying trauma-informed practices at MSU Denver, she will be ready to incorporate these principles when she has her own students.
“The biggest thing that I want to implement in my classroom is that feeling of like, you have somebody to come to you and support you,” she said.