Trauma-sensitive schools help children feel safe to learn
Once schools understand the educational impacts of trauma, they can become safe, supportive environments where students make the positive connections with adults and peers they might otherwise push away, calm their emotions so they can focus and behave appropriately, and feel confident enough to advance their learning—in other words, schools can make trauma sensitivity a regular part of how the school is run. Trauma sensitivity will look different at each school. However, a shared definition of what it means to be a trauma-sensitive school can bring educators, parents, and policymakers together around a common vision. We define the core attributes of a trauma sensitive school to include the following:
- A shared understanding among all staff—educators, administrators, counselors, school nurses, cafeteria workers, custodians, bus drivers, athletic coaches, advisors to extracurricular activities, and paraprofessionals—that adverse experiences in the lives of children are more common than many of us ever imagined, that trauma can impact learning, behavior, and relationships at school, and that a “whole school” approach to trauma-sensitivity is needed.
- The school supports all children to feel safe physically, socially, emotionally, and academically. Children’s traumatic responses, and the associated difficulties they can face at school, are often rooted in real or perceived threats to their safety that undermine a sense of well-being in fundamental ways. Therefore, the first step in helping students succeed in school, despite their traumatic experiences, is to help them feel safe—in the classroom, on the playground, in the hallway, in the cafeteria, on the bus, in the gym, on the walk to and from school. This includes not only physical safety but also social and emotional safety, as well as the sense of academic safety needed in order to take risks to advance one’s learning in the classroom.
- The school addresses students needs in holistic ways, taking into account their relationships, self-regulation, academic competence, and physical and emotional well-being. The impacts of trauma can be pervasive and take many forms, and the way in which a child who has experienced traumatic events presents him or herself may mask—rather than reveal—his or her difficulties. A broader more holistic lens is needed to understand the needs that underlie a child’s presentation. Researchers tell us that if we bolster children in four key domains— relationships with teachers and peers; the ability to self-regulate behaviors, emotions, and attention; success in academic and non-academic areas; and physical and emotional health and well-being—we maximize their opportunities to overcome all kinds of adversity in order to succeed at school. A trauma sensitive school recognizes the inextricable link that exists among these domains and has a structure in place that supports staff to address students’ needs holistically in all four areas.
- The school explicitly connects students to the school community and provides multiple opportunities to practice newly developing skills. The loss of a sense of safety resulting from traumatic events can cause a child to disconnect from those around him or her. Typically, children who have experienced traumatic events are looking to those at school to restore their feeling of security and to help reconnect them with the school community. Schools can meet this need if they foster a culture of acceptance and tolerance where all students are welcomed and taught to respect the needs of others. Individual support services and policies that do not pull children away from their peers and trusted adults, but rather assist children to be full members of the classroom and school community, are also essential.
- The school embraces teamwork and staff share responsibility for all students. Expecting individual educators to address trauma’s challenges alone on a case-by-case basis, or to reinvent the wheel every time a new adversity presents itself, is not only inefficient, but it can cause educators to feel overwhelmed. A trauma sensitive school moves away from the typical paradigm in which classroom teachers have primary responsibility for their respective students to one based on shared responsibility requiring teamwork and ongoing, effective communication throughout the school. In a trauma-sensitive school educators make the switch from asking “what can I do to fix this child?” to “what can we do as a community to support all children to help them feel safe and participate fully in our school community?” Trauma sensitive schools help staff—as well as those outside the school who work with staff—feel part of a strong and supportive professional community.
- Leadership and staff anticipate and adapt to the ever-changing needs of students. In a trauma sensitive school, educators and administrators take the time to learn about changes in the local community so that they can anticipate new challenges before they arise. They do their best to plan ahead for changes in staffing and policies that are all too common in schools. Trauma sensitive schools also try to adapt to all of these challenges flexibly and proactively so that the equilibrium of the school is not disrupted by inevitable shifts and changes.