How Your School Can Benefit from a Trauma-Informed Approach
by Jake Donofrio
We are all a collection of our previous experiences. Our pasts constantly affect us, in ways that others or even ourselves might not realize. Especially in people with a history of trauma.
The impact of trauma doesn’t disappear once a student enters a classroom. Traumatic experiences can hinder the ability to process information effectively, develop age-appropriate social skills, and express strong feelings in a suitable manner. Educators can benefit from taking a trauma-informed approach to better understand and respond to the underlying reasons a child might be struggling in school.
Trauma-informed approaches help us to understand that behavior has meaning by shifting the focus from “What’s wrong with you?” to “What happened to you?”
By adopting systems to reinforce this change in perspective, your school can help ensure that students are engaged, supported, and ready to learn.
Let’s Talk About Trauma
Unfortunately, we live in a world rife with trauma- more than two-thirds of children report at least one traumatic event by age 16. As trauma continues to impact our schools, homes, and communities, it’s important to remember that it can hinder students’ abilities to learn and to form relationships.
Julia Campion, LICSW, Ed.M., Senior Manager of Trauma-Informed Care at MindWise Innovations, defines trauma as, “An event (or events) experienced as physically or emotionally harmful or life-threatening that can have adverse effects. A traumatic experience often results in feelings of vulnerability, loss of control, and immobilization.”
Common examples of trauma include, but are not limited to:
- Physical, emotional, or sexual abuse
- Accidents or natural disasters
- Witnessing or experiencing violence
- Poverty and systemic discrimination
- Loss of a loved one
Keep in mind that people can have different reactions to the same potentially traumatic event, and a situation may impact one person more significantly than it does another.
As my colleague, Dr. Larry Berkowitz, Co-Founder and Director of MindWise’s Trauma Center, says, “We are all unique individuals, raised among distinctive circumstances, with varying levels of risk tolerance.”
Though everyone is different, a trauma-informed approach can help all students cope with trauma by restoring a sense of safety, predictability, and control to directly address the overwhelming feeling of vulnerability. Trauma-informed approaches are also universally beneficial and will support all members of a school community.
"Traumatic experiences can hinder the ability to process information effectively, develop age-appropriate social skills, and express strong feelings in a suitable manner."
Key Benefits to Schools and Students
Schools are an ideal setting for identifying and supporting youth trauma, as over 50 million U.S. students are currently enrolled and school staff have a vested interest in their well-being.
When schools are trauma-informed, students, teachers, and administrators can flourish, as evidenced by the:
- Significant improvements in student behavior
- Impressive growth in academic achievement
- Reduction of student referrals to the administrator’s office
- Reduction in suspensions and expulsions
- Improved sense of teacher satisfaction and safety
- Improved retention of new teachers
Furthermore, a trauma-informed approach perfectly aligns with a school’s objectives.
“Trauma can have an impact on the parts of the brain critical for learning and emotion regulation.” Julia Campion explains.
“And, we know that trauma can impact many aspects of a student’s experiences in school – it is correlated with low academic achievement, challenging school behaviors, and difficulties in peer and teacher relationships. Understanding and responding to trauma is critical to supporting student learning and fulfilling the educational mission of schools.”
Trauma-Informed Action Steps
You don’t have to be a counselor or therapist to take a trauma-informed approach. All school professionals, from teachers to specialists and administrators, can use trauma-informed strategies to best support struggling students. Follow the tips below to get started.
Train Leadership and Staff on Trauma-Informed Systems: Learn the best practices for helping students overcome triggers and challenges.
After receiving trauma-informed training, school staff often feel:
- Excited by the new tools and ideas for supporting students as well as one another
- Validated by strategies they already use
- Eager to bring this approach to their entire school
- Prepared to better manage trauma in their students and themselves
A recent graduate of MindWise’s Trauma-Informed Academy lauded the training’s positive impact and practical takeaways, stating:
“This is information all teachers need to take in order to provide them with the skills they need in working with ALL students.”
Provide Outlets for Regulation: Trauma can impact your ability to regulate emotions, or control responses to strong feelings.
Offer students exhibiting symptoms of trauma fidget toys, a quick walk down the hallway, or time in a calming corner to help regulate their emotions. Providing appropriate options for regulation is a great method of restoring someone’s lost sense of control. Experts recommend proactively preparing students to regulate their emotions in the first five minutes of class to help them enjoy a successful rest of the day.
Organize Classrooms with Trauma-Informed Design: Trauma-informed design integrates the principles of trauma-informed care into the school design to create physical spaces that promote safety, well-being, and healing. It takes advantage of how the physical environment impacts our moods and behaviors by transforming the spaces around us to remove triggers and reduce stress. Get started by:
- Removing distracting stimuli from classrooms
- Promoting a connection to the natural world with leafy plants and unobstructed windows
- Decorating walls with cool, soothing colors for a calming effect (use light blue, bright green, or soft purple)
- Considering spatial layout- rooms with clear sightlines and few barriers to exits create a sense of safety
Take Care of Yourself, Too: Self-care is a critical aspect of a trauma-informed approach. It’s imperative to address the impact that trauma has on adults in your building, and provide them with resources and supports to address the secondary trauma and compassion fatigue they may experience. Provide staff access to EAPs and self-care resources to help them “put their oxygen mask on first”, and ensure they are best able to manage the trauma they are likely to encounter in school.
A trauma-informed school not only supports faculty members by giving them strategies to meet student mental health needs, it also forms a structure that promotes adult wellness.
“Understanding and responding to trauma is critical to supporting student learning and fulfilling the educational mission of schools.”
Getting Started with a Trauma-Informed Approach
Taking a trauma-informed approach means understanding that any individual you interact with may have a history of trauma.
This approach is characterized by the need to REALIZE the prevalence of trauma, RECOGNIZE how signs of trauma are expressed, RESPOND with appropriate policies, and RESIST retraumatization through recovery-oriented practices.
Once a school takes time to integrate these “Four R’s” into all programs, daily procedures, and communications with students, it will have committed to building a trauma-informed system.
This structure benefits all students and staff in a school community- not just those who have experienced trauma.
The Goal of a Trauma-Informed Approach
The objective of a trauma-informed approach is not to treat symptoms of trauma but rather to provide services in a way that is accessible and appropriate to those who may have experienced trauma. Without a trauma-informed approach, the possibility of triggering or exacerbating trauma symptoms in students increases.