Note: A pseudonym has been used in this article to protect the privacy of the student quoted.
Cristina had always enjoyed learning. But after experiencing trauma outside of school, she was having an increasingly hard time paying attention in class. “I had a lot of problems at home and that affected my schoolwork in general,” she says.
Despite the trauma the high schooler was experiencing, Cristina says she felt supported at Salem Academy Charter School in Salem, MA. Educators there helped her stay on top of her work. Rather than punishing her for missing deadlines, they gave Cristina extensions when she needed them. And her soccer coach at the school never disciplined her when she missed a practice.
Most importantly, school staff members who she trusted were there to listen. “I’m not a person that just talks whenever it feels like I should be speaking up,” Cristina says. “But they just pulled me aside and let me rant about these things.”
Cristina is just one among thousands of children who experienced trauma — the severe emotional effects of going through an adverse experience — that can impede learning and even interfere with brain development. For about seven years, her high school has been building its trauma-informed practices, training staff to understand what trauma is and how it affects students, and developing ways to make the school feel like a safe and supportive place.
Trauma-informed learning supports children with difficult and challenging life experiences without labeling them as “damaged.”
“We were finding that as we grew in size from 80 students to almost 400 in 10 years, that there were just some students that we weren’t reaching,” says Salem Academy’s Executive Director Stephanie Callahan. “They really struggled, particularly I think just with their ability to engage in school, and also that oftentimes manifested itself as behavior in the classroom.”
For Cristina, the school’s emphasis on support has made a difference. “I would say they support us very well. Because I’ve been through lots of situations out of school where I needed help and someone just to talk to,” she says. “And then I would have a whole group of staff just there for me to talk to.”
What is trauma-informed teaching?
A trauma-informed school approaches education from the understanding that many students have faced adverse life experiences that can make it a daily struggle to thrive in school. Though trauma is often thought of only in extremes, like the death of a loved one or a serious car accident, traumatic experiences are more varied and widespread than many realize. Trauma can be a result of a vast range of experiences that include bullying, racism, homophobia, neglect, abuse, a severe illness, witnessing or experiencing violence, family upheaval, and housing and food insecurity.
Elizabeth Dutro, a professor of literacy studies at the University of Colorado Boulder, says trauma-based schools focus on recognizing that students’ lives don’t stop before stepping into the schoolhouse door. They work to create a culture that fosters well-being in the classroom, views all students as worthy, and creates a safe and supportive environment. The concept is often closely linked with social-emotional learning programs, which teach students to understand and regulate their emotions.
Dutro says that while the goal of trauma-informed learning is to support children with difficult and challenging life experiences, it should be done “without positioning youth as damaged.” Instead, teachers should help kids realize that they are, “full of knowledge and resources for their learning, based on even those experiences.”
While an increasing number of schools are adopting trauma-informed practices, researchers say more research and resources are needed to bring about effective help for traumatized students. One article published in the Review of Research in Education in 2019 found that among the 33 studies it analyzed on trauma-informed education, there is still no dominant or formal methodology for training teachers and staff — but it’s desperately needed. The researchers write, “…school-based practitioners confront the impacts of trauma in the lives of students on a daily basis.” They call for more research and resources devoted to training educators in trauma-informed teaching.
How trauma affects a child’s life and learning
In a study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Kaiser Permanente, nearly 65 percent of adult participants reported at least one adverse childhood experience (ACE) that is deemed a traumatic event. About one in four of those surveyed reported experiencing four or more traumatic events in childhood.
According to the Trauma and Learning Policy Initiative (TLPI) website, trauma isn’t the event itself, but a response to “one or more overwhelmingly stressful events where one’s ability to cope is dramatically undermined.” According to TLPI, traumatic experiences can lead to social, emotional, and academic difficulties that can severely affect the rest of children’s lives. Research has linked responses to traumatic events to an increased risk of mental illness and suicide, alcohol abuse, and health issues, such as heart disease, liver disease, diabetes, cancer, and stroke in adulthood. ACEs have also been associated with chronic school absenteeism and lower educational attainment.
But schools can play a role in counteracting these effects by actively supporting students who may be struggling with any trauma in their lives. The goal is for educators to be supportive, not prying, and to help students build resilience by making them feel seen, connected, and included in a community. “From an educator’s point of view, it’s understanding that sometimes the kid’s behavior is not what we might label as misbehavior, but stress behavior — the body interpreting a dangerous situation,” says Tom Emery, an educator who leads training in trauma-informed practices at Woodstock Union High School in Woodstock, VT. Once educators can understand that “bad behavior” is often rooted in stress-related trauma, adds Emery, “we can start to deconstruct some of the things around how we respond to that and intervene in different ways.”
What a trauma-informed school looks like
Each school’s approach to trauma-informed learning is unique. TLPI advocates for an “inquiry-based” process that asks educators to look at every level of school operations, from policies and procedures to family engagement and professional development.
TLPI defines a trauma-informed school as one where adults share an understanding of how trauma impacts learning, support all students to feel safe, address students’ needs in holistic ways, and explicitly connect students to the school community.
“Every student should know there’s a safe place to go. And that’s not like, ‘Please leave my classroom for being disruptive,'” Dutro says. “The student gets to choose or it can be offered that there are people who are safe and there’s a place to find those people where they won’t be punished for being out of place.”
At Woodstock Union High, that safe space is the peer counseling room. A trained peer counselor is assigned to staff the room for each block of the school day, and students who need a listening ear can drop by any time. In that space, Director of Counseling Gabriella Durgin says the emphasis is always on comfort and support. “We redesign the room every year to what we think might flow. We had a huge zen garden table in there last year with bean bag chairs, so it was a really cozy environment,” she says. “And ‘Confidentiality’ is written up on the wall.”
Salem Academy has a similar space called the Mindful Moments room, where students can go to take a break for a few minutes or even an hour when they’re feeling overwhelmed. Callahan explains that trauma-informed practices reach into every aspect of the school day, from the way teachers greet students in the morning to the way they handle behavior in the classroom or respond to a student who’s having trouble engaging. Educators at the school even created videos modeling these routine interactions through a trauma-informed lens to help train other staff.
“Being consistent is so important when it comes to trauma-informed practices,” Callahan says. “Because students who have experienced trauma are on high alert, suddenly expecting things to be inconsistent or expecting bad things to happen kind of out of nowhere — they’re hyper-vigilant.”
Creating a trauma-informed learning environment is also about helping all students feel connected to their school, she says, which is why Salem Academy has been working to make its extracurricular offerings more inclusive. The school has worked to better welcome English language learners into school drama productions, for example, by offering after-school help to prepare for auditions.
Implementing trauma-sensitive practices doesn’t mean discipline goes out the window. Salem Academy has shifted its approach to address disciplinary issues collaboratively right in the classroom rather than sending students away when difficult behavior arises. “Just making sure that nobody is misinterpreting ‘Safe and supportive’ as ‘Don’t be consistent and don’t hold kids accountable,’ because it’s really the opposite there,” Callahan says.
Dealing with trauma that happens inside of school
Trauma-sensitive schooling is sometimes framed as a way to respond to trauma happening outside of school. But Dutro says that approach doesn’t capture the whole picture. Especially for students of color, students with disabilities, and those in the LGBTQ+ community, trauma can and does happen inside school as well.
“School causes trauma for many students, and I think that piece gets lost,” Dutro says. “And I think when thinking critically and equitably about trauma-informed practice, losing sight of that really lets any of us who are adults in schools, and the kind of system of school, off the hook.”
That’s why she says staff and faculty have a responsibility to examine where harm is happening at the school, and find ways to challenge or rethink those systems while also supporting students through difficult experiences outside of school. Dutro’s recommended reading for educators on this topic is Equity-Centered Trauma-Informed Education by Alex Shevrin Venet.
Callahan notes schools should also be mindful that learners aren’t under any obligation to share their trauma. With a whole-school approach, educators should focus on building relationships and making sure every student has connection and support without being singled out as “traumatized.”
“Sometimes we know about a student’s traumatic background, but students aren’t going to come to us with labels,” Callahan says. “So there’s always that fine balance when it comes to understanding students’ backgrounds and that cultural competency of making sure that we know our students not just in the context of their culture, but also as individuals.”
Trauma-informed learning is for the benefit of all students; it’s not about targeting those who’ve experienced trauma. Cristina wants to remind educators not to force students to share what they’ve gone through. “Some teachers I don’t have a good relationship with, and they would ask me, ‘What’s wrong?’ And I wouldn’t answer,” she says. “I don’t think students would enjoy that pressure just to tell the teachers what they want to hear.”
The next steps
- Look for schools that list trauma-informed teaching or trauma-informed learning (TIL) as one of their core teaching practices. Ask the principal and other staff members if they are familiar with TIL. To get an idea of your school’s commitment to creating a trauma-informed culture, a simple start is to ask how educators support students in a holistic way. “What’s your approach to misbehavior in the classroom?” Callahan suggests asking, as well as, “What do you do to make sure that all students are known and seen?”
For educators and administrators
- To learn more about a whole-school approach to trauma-informed education, check out the Trauma and Learning Policy Initiative’s website, which offers a wealth of online resources and has published two volumes of its guide, “Helping Traumatized Children Learn.“