Over the past several years, schools have begun to reckon with the level of trauma students are dealing with and the effect that trauma has on students’ lives and their ability to learn. An increased focus on trauma-informed models has given leaders the beginnings of a road map to helping affected students be successful. But this methodology primarily focuses on whole-school changes and adaptations rather than specifically treating individual trauma cases. To most effectively support students with a trauma history, schools need to both update their cultures to be trauma informed and provide effective direct therapy for students who need it.
Mental health professionals have been hesitant to do trauma therapy on school campuses because of a concern about opening up significant wounds in a building that, for many students, is their safe place. Trauma work also requires a mental health professional to feel confident that they can help a patient unpack their trauma in the therapy session—but also be able to re-pack it enough to safely leave the session. In the often-chaotic environment of a school, this can be a challenge.
A relatively new form of trauma therapy is offering a pathway towards healing that accounts for these concerns. First developed in 1987, Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) is a therapeutic technique for treating trauma that uses eye movement to help a patient access a different level of processing that can be significantly effective in healing.
Using a lightbar or tappers, the EMDR therapist guides the patient through their sense memories of a traumatic event—and though scientists still don’t fully understand why—after just a few sessions of this technique, most patients feel significant levels of relief. Despite its success, EMDR is still an uncommon form of treatment. Some mental health professionals will even say they are hesitant about it because it sounds too good to be true. But the data back up its success rate.
As a therapeutic method, EMDR checks a lot of boxes for schools. It is fast, with most patients beginning to feel significant relief within just six to eight sessions. It works effectively across cultural lines. In fact, some studies have shown that EMDR works so well on its own that it can even be done when the therapist and the patient do not speak the same language. It is more effective than any other current form of trauma therapy—including medication. Studies show that EMDR is not only more successful at reliving symptoms of PTSD than medication, it is also longer lasting. The relief felt from medication ends when the medication does, but the relief from EMDR appears to be permanent (although longitudinal data is not fully complete due to the therapy being relatively new). And as a form of therapy, EMDR is extremely resilient. Used correctly, mental health professionals can feel confident that they can perform this therapy with students and allow them to go back to class in a good headspace to continue the day.
EMDR is not currently a standard certification during initial licensing for any form of mental health practitioner; mental health professionals must get a special certification outside their normal credentialling. This costs $3,000–$5,000 for a seven- to ten-day training program, which means that most will need their employers to pay for it, as well as the $100–$800 cost of the light bar and/or tappers most practitioners use for the therapy sessions.
Given the invaluable opportunity this form of therapy provides, schools should be investing in staff who can perform it. Right now, LEAs have an incredible opportunity to pay for this training with their ESSER stimulus funds. This relatively small investment would continue to pay dividends long after those aid dollars have run out.
(Note: If you are interested in learning more or finding training opportunities, the EMDR International Association website provides a good overview.)