• Suzanne Nason

With Teri Lawler as a Champion, Delaware Commits to Trauma Awareness in Schools and Beyond

The Delaware Department of Education is taking on trauma state-wide through partnerships with organizations like Pure Edge, and Teri Lawler is at the helm.

A decade ago, while Teri B. Lawler was working in one of Delaware’s most vulnerable zip codes, a student told her he had seen a body in the street on his walk to the bus stop. Reluctant at first to believe the story, Lawler called up a friend in law enforcement to confirm. This was the moment she recognized the significant role that trauma was playing for the children growing up in her community. She is now a key part of Delaware’s push for universal trauma awareness, mindfulness practices and social and emotional learning, recognizing that these are all components of creating a whole-child education and compassionate environment for learners.

“Innovation” is Lawler’s favorite word. All of her career accomplishments, she feels, have come from her ability to innovate, problem-solve and enthusiastically experiment with new projects.

She has been fortunate, she said, to work for people “who really appreciated an entrepreneurial spirit.” Now serving as Education Associate for Trauma-Informed Practices and Social and Emotional Learning at the Delaware Department of Education, her commitment to innovation is one of the driving forces of Delaware’s mission to take on trauma state-wide. She is also a member of the Compassionate Schools Learning Collaborative and the Wilmington Advisory Council on Youth Gun Violence, which was formed in response to the Center for Disease Control’s report on youth gun violence and the creation of a predictive tool that worked backward to discover root causes of why children were most at risk for committing gun violence. As it turned out, the tool predicted the same early vulnerabilities that Lawler and colleagues were already monitoring in their early warning systems for school success: third-grade reading levels, school attendance and disciplinary records. Explained Lawler, “School success makes you less likely to commit gun violence, and I believe connection and belonging, as well as hope for the future, are big contributors.”

In 2016, Lawler developed a partnership with the Office of the Child Advocate, and shortly thereafter, Governor John Carney created the Office of Innovation and Improvement. In October 2018, the governor signed an executive order declaring Delaware a trauma-informed state. The Department of Education was the first state agency to create a position to lead that mission, and Lawler was the one who earned the opportunity to jump in and expand the work throughout the state. After state leadership met with Pure Edge, Lawler was tasked with crafting a way to implement Pure Edge’s work into the state’s strategic plan. “I feel strongly that incorporating mindfulness as a universal practice in our schools supports social and emotional learning,” she explained.

After Pure Edge visited the state to host the first Culture of Care training and an all-day session for educators around educator well-being, the mood changed. Lawler described educators and support staff as “more engaged and more hopeful.”

She recounted the many emails she received from educators, telling her what they had learned and how understanding basic neuroscience and mindfulness practices had impacted them.

“Throughout my life, some of my biggest cheerleaders have been family members,” Lawler shared. “My mom and grandmother have helped me think outside the box and realize that I bring a different perspective to education.”

Perhaps that support is one reason for her belief that the state must layer supports around learners through every organization that impacts youth and families, in order to strengthen the sense of family and community. Lawler and her colleagues are working to provide professional learning on trauma awareness for all such organizations. The work of the Wilmington Advisory Council on Youth Gun Violence, for instance, resulted in a handbook for fostering connection, protection and respect in afterschool programs, community centers and other youth-serving organizations. The goal is to engage everyone from bus drivers and facilities employees to hospital systems and faith-based organizations. The team of course seeks to build capacity within the Department of Education, but the vision expands much further, aiming to create learning opportunities that inspire districts to implement mindfulness and make it part of their own practices.

“We realized it doesn’t just stop with us,” stated Lawler. “Schools cannot do this work alone.”

And what will be the ultimate outcome of implementing mindfulness practices in schools through partnership with organizations like Pure Edge? “We believe we will build more resilient children,” she said, “and ultimately more resilient families and communities.”

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