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  • Case Study: Bellingham Public Schools

    School districts are integrating trauma-informed approaches nationwide in response to the growing awareness of trauma’s impact on students.

How MindWise Partnered with Bellingham Public Schools to Become a Trauma-Informed School District

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.  

When students and staff returned to school full-time following the isolation and stress of the Covid epidemic, Katherine Cunningham, LICSW, the District Social Worker at Bellingham (MA) Public Schools, identified the need for additional trauma-informed work in the school district.

With funding through the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) Social Emotional and Mental Health Grant, Bellingham Public Schools collaborated with MindWise and Riverside Trauma Center to move further towards its goal of being a trauma-informed district while providing staff and students with additional support, training, and resources.  

The Impact of Trauma in 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may have difficulty regulating emotions and may communicate that by being impulsive, reactive, disruptive, unsafe, or withdrawn.


Relationship Development

Trauma can affect a 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.

The Trauma-Informed Readiness Discovery Project

To start, we began a four-month trauma-informed readiness discovery project with the Bellingham Public Schools District. The goal was to determine whether the District was generally trauma-aware, whether the system had adequate executive and internal champions, implementation teams, and resource support, and whether there was adequate foundational knowledge to support the development of a trauma-informed District. 

Our team conducted five focus groups with district staff, six executive interviews with leadership, and two anonymous surveys. Bellingham also utilized MindWise’s mental health screening program to provide anonymous mental health screenings to all district staff.  

Based on the results of this discovery, we recommended a phased approach to integrating trauma-informed practices into Bellingham Public Schools with the ultimate goal of becoming a trauma-informed school district.

Recommendations included:

  • establishing a trauma-informed working group,
  • developing an organizational initiative plan,
  • gathering additional community perspectives,
  • integrating trauma-informed efforts into district communications,
  • and providing ongoing professional development and training on trauma and trauma-informed practices.

Implementing Recommendations and Trauma-Informed Practices

Year 1 | The Trauma-Informed Working Group (TIWG) was formed to review the Trauma-Informed Readiness Assessment and use our recommendations to inform a 3-5 year plan.

Alongside the TIWG meetings, members also participated in MindWise’s Trauma-Informed Academy. This material provided staff members with the foundational knowledge to understand and respond to the impact and prevalence of trauma in schools.  

Year 2 | The TIWG finalized a 3-5 year plan to become a Trauma-Informed District, which included:

  • exploring an expanded pre-implementation evaluation to include students and families,
  • increased trauma-informed training opportunities for staff and families,
  • and capacity building through membership growth and collaboration with community agencies.

Additionally, District Social Worker Cunningham secured grant funding through the MetroWest Health Foundation, to support one of Bellingham’s schools, Keough Memorial Academy (KMA), to advance its therapeutic approach to include trauma-informed practices. This two-year grant provided school-wide trainings, as well as direct trauma-informed clinical consultation with KMA and other district staff members.  

Since beginning the trauma-informed discovery with Riverside:

  • 230+ Bellingham staff participated in discovery interviews and surveys, focus groups, and clinical consults
  • 120+ people were trained on trauma-informed practices
  • 100+ individuals took a mental health screen. 

Moving forward | Bellingham intends to continue its efforts to build and sustain a trauma-informed district.  Future efforts include continued and expanded training efforts and implementing new trauma-informed practices – including the Handle with Care initiative with the District Attorney’s office, and ongoing TIWG meetings.

“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

Read more about Trauma-Informed Practices