Trauma-Sensitive Schools

Updated: May 27, 2021

By Amber Nicole Dilger, CEI Intern. The feeling of being safe and secure allows us to take risks and explore our world. This freedom to learn can be quickly destroyed, though, if a traumatic event is experienced. Research shows that students who suffer from adverse childhood experiences struggle in education, health, and social environments. The school community can provide a crucial support system as teachers, administrators, and all school personnel become vital contributors to reestablishing the perception of safety.

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Survival Mode. It is sadly common for children to experience a traumatic event in their young lives. The events themselves can be varied, but they all destroy the sense of security and make the child feel powerless. The traumatized brain switches to survival mode and acts from a hyper-sensitive place of feeling threatened, keeping the body chronically flooded with stress chemicals. This constant elevation negatively affects many aspects of life, including the development of cognition and of the brain itself. Research by Dr. J. Douglas Bremner shows the serious and measurable effects of post-traumatic stress on the physical brain, learning, and memory. Behavioral actions are also affected and include an assortment of conduct that is disruptive to personal and school lives.

What has happened to you? The traumatic experiences of students are mostly hidden, private ordeals, but the signs and symptoms can often be easily noticed. These can include agitation, edginess, difficulty concentrating, fatigue, anger, mood swings, disconnecting from activities, and startling frequently. The National Clearinghouse on Families and Youth recommends changing the rhetorical question asked in response to a disruptive student from ‘What’s wrong with you?’ to ‘What’s happened to you?’ Even if the details remain elusive, the reframing of the question can facilitate the development of responses that will help in the most compassionate and effective way.

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Resources. There are many resources available to help schools incorporate best practices to support students who have suffered traumatic experiences. Program wording that is commonly used include trauma-informed and trauma-sensitive methods.

  1. The Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction has put together a valuable collection of resources for schools to help trauma-affected students.

  2. The National Center for Trauma-Informed Care and Alternatives to Seclusion and Restraint offers a website rich in useful materials and links to supportive organizations.

  3. The National Child Traumatic Stress Network offers a free Child Trauma Toolkit for Educators.

  4. For an example of how trauma-informed teaching builds a sense of safety and care, read how the Seneca Family of Agencies works with staff at Daniel Webster Elementary in San Francisco, California.