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Why Your School Should Be Implementing Trauma-Informed Practices

Troy is smart, but disrupts classes all day and is in detention at least once a week. He’s regularly the topic of disparaging talk among teachers and administrators, and is well-known by the attendance office for missing school. He mutters “I don’t care” in response to the lectures he frequently receives.

Ellie sits behind him in math, and in this class and throughout her day teachers get very little work or response. Juan, on the other hand, who is required to sit in the front, just can’t stop talking and disrupting class.

These three middle school students will often get extra attention in school, but won’t succeed because the real reason for their behavior isn’t addressed: trauma.

From severe bullying, emotional abuse, or death of a parent at home to a classmate’s suicide or a school shooting, we now know trauma diminishes the performance and good behavior of students―and limits their health and happiness as adults. It is harder, however, to see how the many proposed approaches to combat it can be implemented consistently during a busy school day, but experts say professional development is a good start.

According to a federal Trauma and Justice Strategic Initiative, “trauma results from an event, series of events, or set of circumstances that is experienced by an individual as physically or emotionally harmful or threatening and that has lasting adverse effects on the individual’s functioning and physical, social, emotional, or spiritual well-being.”  It generally overwhelms an individual’s ability to cope, the report says, and it often ignites “fight, flight, or freeze” impulses, and produces a sense of fear, vulnerability, and helplessness, and later can cause people to act anti-socially or irrationally.

The National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN) reports that one-out-of-every-four children attending school has been exposed to a traumatic event that can hamper their learning―and affect school and class culture since they will likely be disruptive or need extra attention. The organization reports that research shows these students typically have diminished reading skills, lower GPA’s, higher rates of absenteeism, suspension and expulsion, and are much more likely to drop out.

Schools that have implemented trauma-informed policies, meanwhile, find they get positive results. There are examples in San Francisco, SeattleNew Orleans, New York and, perhaps most famously, in Wala Wala, Washington, where improved school data has been reviewed and supported.

Research also suggests that the trauma-informed schools are making gains, and that professional development should be combined with a school-wide policy shift to make new approaches work.

A recent issue of the journal School Mental Health provides extensive research about trauma in schools and concludes in an article about the effectiveness of trauma-informed practices that “when school systems approach students through a trauma lens, they are better equipped to provide the educational and social/emotional supports necessary to help students reach their potential.” It says to accomplish that they “must support more intensive professional development.”

Sandra Chafouleas, a professor of educational psychology at University of Connecticut who wrote the introduction to that issue of the journal along with one of its key studies, has reviewed successful approaches to professional development for staff, noting that it starts with teaching staff members more about trauma.

“They need a deeper understanding about why a child is behaving a certain way. That’s about reframing their response from ‘what’s wrong with you?’ to ‘what happened to you?’” she explained in an interview. Then, she says, educators need an understanding of neurobiology.  “So, instead of ‘why are you doing that bad behavior’, the framing might be ‘how do we de-escalate what is happening now’ and move to teaching increased coping and self-regulation?”      

She says along with understanding trauma better, teachers should be able to identify it and know how to establish a “safe environment” and develop good relationships, often by better understanding student “triggers” that come from their difficult experience.

“All school personnel must realize the impact of trauma, recognize the need for trauma-informed care, and develop the skills to create an environment that is responsive to the needs of trauma-exposed students,” she says. “This type of trauma-focused professional development training has been demonstrated to build knowledge, change attitudes, and develop practices favorable to trauma-informed approaches.”

She says that informational part of a staff development program should help unlock another key element―building a consensus. NCTSN has a detailed list of strategies for teachers that can be part of the training, but experts note that it is critical to begin with a structure for broadening the approach to the whole school.

Chafouleas says an effective program requires clear planning with input from all stakeholders and specific expected outcomes, along with a well-defined system for delivery of the program, ongoing coaching and support for the staff, and a monitoring system which uses accurate, useful data.

School counselors are trained to help students deal with trauma, but often have large caseloads―from 300–1,000 students―which means all staff should be trained to help identify students who have suffered trauma. It also means schools may need outside resources for training and working with students. Some experts say schools might inform the staff about social work practices and others have developed models for schools that include community resources.

There is voluminous amounts of research on trauma-informed schools and ideas for staff development, much of which can be found with organizations such as the National Childhood Traumatic Stress Network with its specific resources for educators, along with Trauma and Learning Policy Initiative and the federal government’s center for trauma-informed care. The state of Wisconsin has also put together an extensive list of resources for its educators.


Here are five things educators can do to help trauma victims that might not seen immediately evident.

  • Anticipate problems with students by noticing cues. This requires that educators note what triggers certain behavior and are sensitive to them. It’s also helpful if such information is communicated to others.
  • Give them choices. Often traumatic events involve chaos or loss of control, so you can help children feel safe by providing them with options and more opportunity to control their environment―when appropriate.
  • Set clear, firm limits for inappropriate behavior and develop logical―rather than punitive―consequences. So, rather than responding immediately to an event (often angrily), gather information and help student understand the affect of their action, what they could have done differently and what the fair consequences are.
  • Understand that children cope by re-enacting trauma through play or through their interactions with others. Watch for it with other students and resist their efforts to draw you into a negative repetition of the trauma, for instance, replaying abusive situations.
  • Provide one-on-one support. One person designated to connect regularly with a traumatized student can have a major impact. Some experts recommend a “2 x 10” approach, where a teacher spends two minutes every day one-on-one with a difficult student without distractions for 10 school days. “You don’t need an agenda, just the willingness to talk and listen about something that interests the student,” says Pamela Canter, CEO of Turnaround for Children, which was founded to support students in New York after the 9-11 attacks and now advises schools on trauma solutions. She says educators will understand the student better and the relationship will inevitably improve.


Jim Paterson has been a newspaper and magazine editor and an award-winning writer for The Washington Post, USA Today Weekend, the Christian Science Monitor, Parents magazine, and a number of national and regional publications. During a break from writing he worked as a school counselor for seven years and quickly became head of a counseling department and "Counselor of the Year" in Montgomery County, Md. He now writes about education primarily. More about Jim at