It appears that you might be using an outdated browser. Some features of our site may not work.
For an optimal browsing experience, we recommend installing Google Chrome or Firefox.

Five Ways that Schools Can Support Students Using Trauma-Informed Practices

by Julia Campion, LICSW, Ed.M.

Imagine for a moment you’re taking a walk.  As you approach a crosswalk, your phone rings and you look down to answer it as you move into the street.  Suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere, a car whooshes by you and you jump back onto the sidewalk.  Safely out of the road, you notice your heart racing, your stomach in knots, your hands a little shaky – that was close!   

Each one of us has a built-in alarm system in our brain, whose role is to detect threats and help our body respond to keep us safe. When we perceive a threat, our brain assesses the situation and determines if the threat is real, or if it’s a false alarm. In situations where our brains determine the threat is real, our brain and body activate a survival response – the fight, flight, or freeze response – in order to avoid danger.   

During a survival response, the parts of our brain that are responsible for other tasks – thinking, reasoning, problem solving, meaning making – go offline in order for the focus to remain on our survival. In the example above, this is when we jump back onto the sidewalk (a flight response) before even realizing we are in danger. When our brain assesses that the threat has passed, those thinking parts of our brain come back online and turn off this alarm.  

“Trauma does not exist in isolation. It impacts our interactions with students, staff, and our environment.

We use trauma-informed practices to help staff understand trauma so they know where student behavior, and their own responses, are coming from.

Through understanding we cultivate awareness, compassion, and a safer learning environment.”

Katherine Cunningham, LICSW District Social Worker

Let’s Talk About Trauma

Trauma is 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.  Some examples of trauma include abuse, witnessing or experiencing violence, poverty and systemic discrimination, accidents or natural disasters, and the loss of a loved one. 

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.” 

Trauma can impact a person’s brain, particularly related to the survival response.  The stress response alarm can become overly sensitive to any potential threat and begin to assess objectively nonthreatening situations as dangerous.  As a consequence, the parts of the brain focused on survival become overreactive; and the parts responsible for problem solving, focusing, and emotion regulation get less practice and use because they are offline.   

In other words, for students who have experienced trauma, the parts of the brain they rely on in school for essential skills like critical thinking, problem-solving, and emotion regulation, may be underdeveloped. 


Why Address Trauma in Schools

Two-thirds of children report at least one traumatic event by age 16.  

Trauma can impact many aspects of a student’s experience 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. 

  • Foster Academic Achievement: Trauma can impact focus, attention, memory, organization, and task completion. 
  • Behavior & Emotion Regulation: After a trauma, students may have difficulty regulating their emotions and may communicate emotional dysregulation through being impulsive, reactive, disruptive, unsafe, or withdrawn. 
  • Relationship Development: Trauma can affect student’s ability to build and sustain relationships, trust peers and adults, and read social cues. 
  • Support Student Mental Health: Students who experience trauma are at a greater risk for depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder. 


Trauma-Informed Practices in Schools: The Nuts and Bolts

When schools adopt a trauma-informed approach, they create safe, predictable learning environments in which school staff understand and recognize the impact of trauma in students and respond using trauma-informed practices that reduce the risk of re-traumatization. 

Trauma-informed practices enable staff to meet students where they are, to understand student behavior as a form of communication, and to help students build and access the skills they need to be successful.   


Key Benefits to Schools and Students 

Trauma-informed practices benefit the entire school community through: 

  • Positive changes in student behavior 
  • Improved academic achievement 
  • Reduction of behavioral and disciplinary incidents 
  • Improved sense of teacher satisfaction and safety 


Five Trauma-Informed Action Steps

All school staff, from teachers to specialists and administrators, can use trauma-informed strategies to best support struggling students. Follow the five tips below to get started. 


1. Train School Staff on Trauma-Informed Approaches: Learn best practices for supporting students with trauma. 

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 Practices for School Staff 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.” 


2. Provide Opportunities for Regulation: While we know that trauma can impact student’s ability to regulate emotions, all students can benefit from proactively learning self-regulation skills to use when they experience big feelings.   

To teach emotion regulation skills, try starting class with breathing or progressive muscle relaxation exercises and integrating brain breaks throughout the day.  For students who experience dysregulation, consider proactively developing a set of strategies and tools together that they can use in moments of dysregulation, such as fidgets, movement breaks, or access to a calming corner. 


3. Focus on Relationships: One of the most significant predictors of resilience for at-risk children is a safe, caring relationship with a trusted adult. Trauma can impact how students build and maintain relationships with both adults and peers; and, when students experience interpersonal trauma, they may need additional support and skill building to feel safe in relationships.  With this in mind, trauma-informed practices include a focus on safe, supportive relationships with trusted adults. 

 What strategies do you already use to build relationships with students? Consider relationship-strengthening routines with students in your school or classroom such as: threshold greetings, check-ins, two-minute relationship building, and co-regulation. 


4. Organize Classrooms with Trauma-Informed Design: Trauma-informed design integrates the principles of trauma-informed care into 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: 

  • Assessing for and consider removing potentially distracting stimuli from classrooms 
  • Promoting a connection to nature with plants, natural light, and opportunities to get outdoors 
  • Creating space in your classroom or school for a calming corner equipped with regulating materials students can use to self-regulate 
  • Considering safe spatial layouts by organizing rooms with clear sightlines and few barriers to exits  


5. Take Care of Yourself, Too: Self-care is a critical aspect of a trauma-informed approach.  Trauma reactions do not just impact the student experiencing them, they can also impact the school staff who support and bear witness to them.  A trauma-informed approach in school does not only include the practices staff use to meet student needs, but it also establishes a structure to promote adult well-being.  

How to jumpstart your own self-care routine:

Administrators can provide staff with resources and supports to understand and address the secondary trauma and compassion fatigue they may experience.  This can include access to stress management trainings, Employee Assistance Programs, self-care resources, and staff well-being days. 


Interested in Learning More?

Check out the following resources:


Editor’s Note: This post was originally published in March 2023 and has been edited and updated for accuracy and comprehensiveness.

Some of the topics we cover can be difficult. For free and confidential support, call or text the Suicide & Crisis Lifeline at 988 or text the Crisis Text Line at 741741.

Want to Read More?

Check out more blog content on behavioral health, suicide prevention, and trauma-informed approaches.