Powerful, first-of-its kind trauma program is transforming students’ lives

The Trauma-Sensitive Practice Graduate Certificate, launched in 2022, has drawn participants from across the country

Carmen Rojas - 31 October 2023

A typical class in the Trauma-Sensitive Practice program led by Professor Alexandra Fidyk begins with students logging on from locations across the country. 

They have been drawn to this new offering, which launched in the fall of 2022 as a Graduate Certificate in Educational Studies, from as far as Newfoundland and Nunavut because it is unlike anything else currently available in Canada. 

The cohort is purposely kept small and the enrollment includes a mix of teachers, administrators and school counselors, along with a few psychologists and healthcare professionals. They all work directly with people who have experienced trauma, and they’re here to build knowledge and skills for providing the specific kind of support their students or patients need.  

Fidyk dedicates the beginning of each class to body-centred and relational practices: breathing and grounding exercises, and a variety of creative, art-based techniques such as body mapping. These are the techniques her students will take back with them to their classrooms and workplaces to help regulate students who appear to show signs and symptoms of hyper- and hypo-regulation, or behaviour which may be rooted in trauma. For example, a child in the hospital who is facing surgery may show agitation or nervousness and struggle to settle.

Only then, about 40 minutes into class, do they turn to the assigned readings, with discussions and breakouts. It’s an approach to learning that students have never encountered in their postsecondary education, and Fidyk admits it can be met with resistance at first. 

“During the first month, people in the program are thinking ‘What are we doing? Who is this teacher and what is she asking of us?’ ” she explains. “By the fourth month, they can’t believe the difference in their own attention and energy.”

“The content is still as rigorous — it still has the depth of other education courses — but the theories and practices are meant to be applied,” she adds. 

A ripple effect

To earn the certificate, students take four courses that introduce them to a number of different trauma theories, teach them how to engage in body-centred, relational and arting practices, and demonstrate how they can integrate these strategies across ages, disciplines and contexts. 

Fidyk stresses that going beyond a western medical or neurobiological approach to trauma, which is the focus of existing programs at other universities, is imperative.

“By looking at multiple trauma theories, we start to understand these things — behaviours, reactions, attitudes— differently. We then have more empathy,” she says, noting that a deeper understanding of trauma furthers equity and inclusivity in the classroom and other environments. Similarly, she calls for integrated teaching methods that return imagination, creativity and play to learning — pedagogy that brings the body into learning because it is not separate from the mind.

Fidyk also emphasizes the personal nature of the journey her students go on. 

“You learn it, but you also live it,” she says. “I get to witness students seeing the world change through new understanding, and there’s a ripple effect where it impacts their families and workplaces. It’s really incredible.” 

First of its kind

One of the reasons the Trauma-Sensitive Practice Graduate Certificate stands apart from other programs is that it is so closely shaped by Fidyk’s unique background and training

Originally a high school teacher, her road to recovery after traumatic brain injury and neurological illness opened her eyes to the effect a calm yet alert, regulated state of being has on cognition. She went on to train in a number of different therapeutic modalities as a somatic psychotherapist and became a trauma-specialized therapist. 

Fidyk’s speciality in trauma also became closely integrated into her teaching and research. In 2018, she offered the Faculty of Education’s first graduate course focused on trauma. Shortly thereafter, her concern about the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on schools and communities led her to approach the faculty’s Professional Learning Unit about designing an innovative new program to support teachers and promote wellbeing. 

Initially intended to be offered every two years, the program is accepting new cohorts yearly due to the incredible interest in the certificate program since it launched. 

‘A life-changing program’

With the first cohort halfway through the courses, students already attest to a remarkable impact on both their personal and professional lives. 

As a certified child life specialist at the Stollery Children’s Hospital, Jill Painter provides emotional and psychological support to children and their families on a daily basis. She was drawn to the Trauma-Sensitive Practice program out of a desire to learn new approaches for helping people cope with stress and fear; she wasn’t expecting the way it would help her address her own feelings. 

“Having worked in a hospital during the pandemic, we spent so much time worrying about the physical and emotional protection of the people around us,” she says. “As a working professional, this has been spiritually and emotionally eye-opening for the impact it has had on yourself.”

“The program is very focused on taking care of yourself first so that you can show up for students,” echoes teacher Tessa Parent, who works at an outreach high school where many of the students she encounters have a history of trauma. 

Parent is one of the first people to receive the certificate, after having taken two courses with Fidyk before the certificate program launched. She says she appreciates the ability the courses have given her to both recognize signs of trauma and to respond appropriately, as well as to regulate her own emotions so that she is better able to meet the needs of her students. 

Kendra Seatter, an associate principal for a large elementary school, finished the courses last spring as another one of the program's first graduates.  After the changes she’s seen in herself and how it impacts her work with students and staff, she is unequivocal about recommending it to others. 

“If every educator could do this learning — and I don’t mean cognitive learning, I mean the very holistic learning that happens — it would transform education. That’s how powerful it is,” she says. “I don’t say this lightly, but it’s a life-changing program.”