Trauma, Equity and Other Hard Conversations: What Needs To Happen As We Head Back To School

Houston Kraft · July 1, 2020

Coming back this fall will be an unprecedented challenge for educators globally. Here’s what we know:

  • We know that students with Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACES) have a harder time learning.
  • We know that the global pandemic has increased isolation and anxiety. As a result, researchers predict an increase in suicidal ideation as we navigate a lot of unknown territory returning in the fall.
  • We know that students of color - particularly our Black students - will be coming back freighted with the pain of racial injustice and a nation long-delayed in addressing the systemic racism we’ve faced since our founding.

In short, trauma will not be a Tier 2 or 3 problem. We will be experiencing trauma at a Tier 1 level. We must show up prepared to address that for all students and all staff.

This is not a short-term problem and the solution isn’t either.

At CharacterStrong, our motto since day one has been: “More than curriculum -  it’s culture.” In our professional development and our educator trainings, we always start with our favorite definition of culture: “Culture goes much deeper than a mission statement…culture is how group members actually behave, repeatedly and habitually.” -James Hunter 

Culture IS behavior. And behavior change is a complicated process because our behaviors are driven by a huge variety of personal and cultural factors. Our ultimate goal at CharacterStrong has always been to “create a more loving world” - to help provide the emotional and social  supports that increase the likelihood of the sort of prosocial behaviors that we know support a more connected, compassionate world.

To maintain this mission in the face of such broad-sweeping adversity will require a multi-pronged approach.

  1. Stress, Coping, and Resilience: What skills do we need to effectively manage the anxiety, grief, confusion, and pain that the world has put before us?
    • For Educators - We have created On Demand Professional Development that includes a unit on personal stress, coping, and resilience skills specifically for educators. If we don’t make time and implement social-emotional learning for adults well, we are missing a key piece of the bigger implementation puzzle.
    • For Students - We are working alongside our research partners and educators to create a set of secondary lessons for the first 16 weeks of the year explicitly focused on research-backed strategies and tools to help young people connect and cope. For Elementary, we will be providing a recommendation for highlighting and sequencing using PurposeFull People (our elementary SEL/character toolkit) as you return.
  2. Cultivating Adult Expertise: What are we doing to prepare educators to return to schools to thoughtfully address COVID, racial injustice, and new normals?
    • Trainings - We are hosting two new virtual trainings. In July and August, we will be hosting “Relaunching Relationally Roadmap” that will equip schools to put a thoughtful, long-term focus on building trust and relationships in person or digitally. While best practices in the past may have recommended one week of community building as students return, we know that we must double (or quadruple) down on these critical connection practices coming back. In August, we will be hosting “Equity, Implementation, and Empathy: A Conference About Coming Back to School” - a 2 day experience with experts in their fields to support the key conversations we must equip ourselves for as we return.
    • Pre-Recorded Virtual PD for Equity - In partnership with equity consultant Erin Jones, we are releasing an online course focused on Equity, Education, and Anti-Racism. 100% of profits will go directly to Erin’s incredible work and supporting organizations that champion the recruitment and development of BIPOC educators to help remove barriers in service of a more equitable teaching force.
    • Our personal commitment to this work involves individual and team learning around racial inequities and how to respond with clarity and conviction. If you want to follow along with the team, we’ve been digging into this 21-Day Racial Equity Challenge that we’ve found to be a practical first step in self-reflection and laying meaningful groundwork to continue this conversation for the years to come. Our next step as an organization is to develop and implement an internal equity policy and decision-making tool to ensure, on an institutional level, we reduce bias and increase representation.
  3. SEL as the Foundation: You can’t have anti-racist conversations if you 1) don’t have competently anti-racist educators and 2) haven’t taught the foundational skills that allow for tough conversations to happen.
    • Empathy - Empathy, on its own, doesn’t always spur compassionate action. Some of the new lessons we will create coming back to school in the fall will focus on expanding our Circles of Care (who we empathize with is as important as how we empathize).
    • Civil Discourse - How do we engage in challenging conversations and actually listen well and deepen understanding? Our curriculum will continue to equip young people with these skills to push into meaningful dialogues to create more inclusive environments.
    • Anti-Racism - CharacterStrong’s commitment is to 1) continue to audit our curriculum to make sure we are not weaponizing SEL against students of color, 2) provide a set of resources to connect the dots between SEL and character and how those competencies and values relate to social justice. Anti-racism work is sprawling and complex. It cannot be done in a few 30 minute lessons. This topic MUST be addressed thoughtfully in advisory, but also must take place in core subject areas, our adult professional development, with families, and at the district policy level. And it can’t just be addressed once or twice to check a box! It must, as Jay Smooth would tell us, be like our personal hygiene: daily and ongoing.

We are in for tough, purposeful work. But we’ve seen educators rise to meaningful challenges daily. There are few professions with more capacity to bend the long-term arc of cultural change toward positivity, compassion, and justice. As a society, we are only capable of what we are taught. 

This is not only the work of an SEL curriculum - this is the work of all of us.

Equity in education starts with the courage of each of us as individuals and entities to acknowledge that students of color encounter overwhelming odds in the form of institutional barriers, generational trauma, and systemic racism. We cannot shy away from tough conversations and we cannot relegate them to the occasional lesson plan or our weekly advisory period. We must discuss injustice, encounter our own biases, and fight for a better reality for all students. We must start first with the adults so we can be the role models that our students deserve and it is not easy work. It is hard.

But if we want to effectively teach all students, we must choose hard.

So, let’s begin with the Humility to challenge ourselves. Let’s Historicize these issues to understand where they came from so that we may better know where to go next. And let’s Humanize one another so we can show up with the sort of compassionate hearts necessary for justice.

Ready to dig in,

The CharacterStrong Team

More resources that we are using as a team include:


Houston Kraft

Houston Kraft is the co-founder of CharacterStrong. He is a professional speaker and kindness advocate who has spoken at over 600 events internationally. Student Body President in High School, Class President at Bowdoin College, Leadership Camp Staff for 14 years in Washington - he is a lifelong learner of character, culture, kindness, and leadership. He was featured in 2019 on BBQ Lays Potato Chips and his mom's lasting life lesson is "Hug like you mean it."