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Developing Relationship Based School Support Services


Most Children in schools require supports for a variety of needs, from academic to social and emotional as well as health at one time or another. The impact of trauma and early adversity/toxic stress, is significant and developmentally relevant across the lifespan. Fortunately there is basic underlying premise that can be used when schools provide this support and that is to understand how relationships are the foundation for change.

Before reading the remainder of this post, please take time to contemplate these reflective questions:

  • Do you believe that relationships are the basis for true change?

  • How do you define a relationship?

  • What do the words “Trust" and “Connection” mean to you?

  • When considering the “needs” of a child/student in a school are policies and procedures based on relationships or test scores/academic performance?

Below you will find topics for building your Student Support Services as well as 3 Guiding Questions for each Topic:

Know the Child’s Story

When thinking about children, their needs, their strengths and their challenges begin at the beginning by learning about the child’s earlier experiences and relationships and how they have impacted their development:

Guiding Questions:

1. What concerns and supports have been brought up in the past?

2. Has the child ever been referred for Early Intervention?

3. Has the child had medical or emotional challenges in the past? What were they and how were they handled?

(You may use the ACES Survey as a guide to consider. It is not recommended that this Survey be given, but that the items on it be considered as “stressors” in a child’s life.)

Relationship Based decisions are made when we think about what children need to feel safe and regulated so they can access the curriculum.

Family Engagement:

Children are part of a community including their homes and that is where the earliest and most impactful relationships happen. Family Engagement is a broad and deep concept. Unfortunately some schools hold meetings when parents are not present. When parents are not engaged it is important to consider their own history with trauma and how it impacts their ability to build relationships with teachers and administrators.

Guiding Questions:

1. How involved and engaged are the parents/caregivers in their child’s school experience?

2. Who are the parents/families who have children at your school?

  • What do you know about the family and how they are living there day to day life?

  • What are the families levels of academic achievement and literacy?

  • Where do they live?

  • Where do they work?

  • Are children also attending childcare?

  • Are they using technology?

  • Are the children spending a lot of time on devices?

  • What are children doing in their free time?

  • Do they live with extended family?

3. Who does the parent have the closest and healthiest relationship with at school? (In schools where there is a high level of adversity sometimes unhealthy relationships develop amongst parents in the community and school staff.)

Referrals for Student Support:

When considering how engaged families are it is important to consider who made the referral?

Guiding Questions:

Did the family make the recommendation for a referral or did the school? If the School did when and how did the family find out? If the parent did, how did you build trust with them at the initial meeting?

2. How have the parents been informed about their child’s performance?

3. Were they told over the phone, meeting, parent conferences or via report cards and

how do you think they felt about the information presented?

Creating trauma-informed individualized education programs: Integration of ACEs into the development of IEPs for students through Grade 12 by Eric Rossen contains a powerful quote:

“A trauma-informed approach, in part, means that the school team acknowledges the potential impact of adversity and stress on students and families, even if families never disclose such adversity.”

Does your school use a Trauma Informed/Relationship based approach to supporting ALL students, including those who enter the Special Education Process?

Guiding questions:

1. How do you acknowledge that all children or families might have experienced adversity?

2. How are you educating teachers and parents about the impact of Trauma and Adversity on attention, memory and learning and emotional regulation?

3. Who is evaluating the children referred for Special Education? Are they Trauma Informed?

What does the evaluator understand about Trauma? Have you had a conversations and reviewed prior reports to determine if the information is presented in a trauma informed wa

Eligibility Determination:

Is this child really eligible for Special Education or do they need supportive relationships and services that are available for ALL students?

Guiding Questions:

1. How are you considering a child’s experiences with adversity and toxic stress in making a determination of eligibility?

2. How can you determine who and when the child has secure relationships with prior to determining eligibility?

3. What supports can you put in place that may diminish the need for special education within the first 2 tiers of the RTI/MTSS process?

In a previous Blog I discuss this topic about determining eligibility for Special Education:

Considering Family, Environmental, Cultural and Economic Factors, an opportunity to exclude children from Special Education and Address ACES and become more Trauma Informed.

Relationship Based Supports and Services:

When new relationships are being formed and the quality of those relationships are not being monitored, a child can go a whole year and not made progress, however, if the environments (people, places, expectations) in which they were being asked to make progress are systematically monitored we can prevent stress and intervene?

Guiding Questions:

How are the goals focused?

Are they focused on how the adults/teachers/parents would change and influence the environment for the child?

Sample Goals:

  • Given trusting and safe relationships Johnny will co-regulate and self regulate when needed.

  • Given visuals and models and an adult prompt Johnny will transition between subjects with ease.

3. How long before your team reassess a students success?

A second point made in Creating trauma-informed individualized education programs Integration of ACEs into the development of IEPs for students through Grade 12 by Eric Rossen considers the Educator’s role and highlights this point.

“Student IEPs should also consider the educator’s role in achieving goals. In this actual IEP goal, “StudentX will respond in a calm manner when consequences are administered,” the IEP can specify the role of the educator in how consequences are delivered (e.g., tone, personal space). The IEP should also focus on building skills the student may need to help self-regulate and get calm in the first place. Simply reducing a behavior benefits the educator, though building skills and establishing adaptive alternative behaviors benefits both the educator and the student.”

Monitoring Progress:

When monitoring a child’s progress on a regular basis as a team, adjustments can be made and relationships strengthened.

Guiding Questions:

1. Why is a child dysregulated?

2. What are the environmental factors that might be related to the child becoming dysregulated? Some possible examples include: teachers tone of voice and non verbal behaviors, background noise, level of instruction not in zone of proximal development, and lack of predictable schedule are a few examples.

3. How is the child progressing, relating, regulating?

We must not blame the child for becoming dysregulated but understand where the dysregulation is coming from.

The IEP team can look at children’s dysregulation as feedback about the environment the child is being asked to learn in. The book Beyond Behaviors by Mona Delahook has wonderful resources as does Emily Read Daniels The Regulated Classroom and Lori Desaultes Connection over Compliance. Professional development for educators can happen prior to expecting children to change their behavior and academic performance.

There is so much helpful information available for teachers, parents and administrators so that schools can develop healthy relationships amongst their educators, families and communities. The most power is in the conversations and daily practices that occur each day. Each person’s self awareness and developing awareness of how trauma impacts behavior and relationships can provide an opportunity for healing and breaking the cycle of creating more trauma.

I hope you find this helpful. Working with schools to co-create this change and transform ACES (Adverse Childhood Experiences) into healing (physical, emotional and mental) as well as personal freedom (the ability to know and be yourself), is my passion. Let me know how I can support you along this journey. Connect with me at


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What I appreciate about this is that through offering guiding questions, it compels the reader to reflect on what they've done/considered/assumed/etc. -- rather than giving a prescriptive set of instructions. Self reflection among adults is so often overlooked to the detriment of repairing relationships with students where the focus is typically on the student to change and/or reflection on their behavior.  Thanks for sharing here.

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