Trauma-informed schools have become essential to successfully addressing the broadening spectrum of adverse childhood experiences.
More than half of all young people have reported exposure to violence or abuse, and by the age of 16, more than two thirds will have experienced a potentially traumatic event. Adverse childhood experiences (ACES) can impact a child’s cognitive abilities and impede their development, which limits their academic potential.
And as the study of ACES continues, the spectrum of qualifying events has broadened. The first major study of ACES identified 10 common experiences which can be traumatic for children and young adults, culminating in adverse health outcomes in adulthood.
With continued research, that core list of identified adverse experiences has grown to include experiences such as bullying, the death of a loved one, deportation or migration, medical trauma, witnessing community violence or any type of violence outside of the home, and discrimination due to race, gender, sexual orientation, birthplace, ability, or region/ethnicity.
These findings make clear that any discussion of trauma-informed schools must start not only with identifying adverse events that can limit a child’s ability to learn, grow, and thrive—but with the recognition that these events are not confined to one economic, social, or ethnic layer of our society.
“Promoting trauma-sensitive school approaches has the greatest potential to positively impact all students, regardless of trauma history.”
Most adults, regardless of their background, have experienced at least one ACE in their own childhood, and more than a tenth have a total ACE score of 4—a score which doubles their risk of heart disease and cancer, increases their odds of becoming an alcoholic by 700%, and their risk of attempted suicide by 1200%.
With the right support, children and young adults can successfully process adverse events and go on to thrive. Schools are the single point of connection between home life and community dynamics, and the responsibility of educators to prepare young people to function successfully in the world as adults can only be bolstered with a trauma-sensitive approach.
In fact, when schools are trauma-informed, students cultivate lasting resilience, which leads to:
- Significant improvements in behavior
- Fewer suspensions
- Fewer expulsions
- Significant improvements in academic achievement
The National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) has pointed out that trauma informed schools promote:
- Feelings of physical, social, and emotional safety in students.
- A shared understanding among staff about the impact of trauma and adversity on students.
- Positive and culturally responsive discipline policies and practices.
- Access to comprehensive school mental and behavioral health services.
- Effective community collaboration.
“Given the widespread scope and prevalence of childhood adversity and trauma,” writes the NASP, “Promoting trauma-sensitive school approaches has the greatest potential to positively impact all students, regardless of trauma history.”
The value of trauma-informed schools is rooted in the universal best practices of trauma-informed care.
If trauma-informed practices can benefit all students, what are their core values? The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) has established the following guiding principles for trauma-informed care:
- Trustworthiness and transparency
- Peer support and mutual self-help
- Collaboration and mutuality
- Empowerment, voice, and choice
- Consideration, recognition and provision for cultural, historical, and gender issues
The National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN) has synthesized research about adverse childhood experiences, the impact of various behavior management strategies, and findings regarding the importance of professional development and school climate in addressing the risks and outcomes of trauma. Per NCTSN, here are the “4 Rs” that should be present in any trauma-informed system:
- Realize both the widespread effects of trauma, and the many pathways to recovery.
- Recognize the signs and symptoms of trauma.
- In CPI training, we call these Precipitating Factors—and we look to address them as supportively and safely as possible.
- Respond with a trauma-informed approach that’s integrated into every aspect of the system in which you’re working.
- In CPI training, we call this taking a Supportive Stance℠ with individuals in crisis.
- Resist re-traumatization by reducing the likelihood of triggers.
- In CPI training, we proactively address triggers by understanding the stages of escalation in the Crisis Development Model℠.
Based on their analysis, NCTSN has developed extensive, evidence-based guidelines regarding developing and sustaining trauma-informed schools. You can read their full report on creating, supporting, and sustaining trauma-informed schools, but broadly summarized:
- Because there is a direct relationship between adverse childhood experiences and academic performance, schools must acknowledge and incorporate the priorities of mental health and wellness if they’re going to help all students successfully achieve their full potential.
- A tiered approach, that’s rooted in a culture of collaboration and safety, is the best way to make sure that all staff, students, and families are included in a trauma-informed approach.
- Even if an adverse event doesn’t result in the clinical symptoms of trauma, it can still have a profoundly negative impact on all spheres of a child’s development: physically, cognitively, behaviorally, socially, and emotionally. A trauma-informed environment accounts for the potential of harm and embeds supportive elements for prevention and early intervention.
- A trauma-informed approach is most effective at the early learning stages—it helps build a critical developmental foundation for children to help establish the most optimal trajectory for them as they continue to learn and grow.
Trauma-informed schools incorporate policy, procedure, and curriculum into a holistic approach that supports every student’s potential.
The article Applying a Trauma-Informed School Systems Approach: Examples from School Community-Academic Partnerships considers examples of public schools who have applied a trauma-informed perspective to school policy and procedure for the purpose of actively mitigating the detrimental social, emotional, and cognitive experiences that adverse events may cause in the lives of children—and their futures as adults. Some of their findings include:
Not only adequate, but appropriate, hiring and development empowers educators to collaborate effectively and reduce the odds of burnout or vicarious trauma. It also makes sure that students are met with consistency and continuity across the school climate, not just in one classroom or with one staff member.
Example: A school principal used this practice to empower staff across his school to facilitate constructive dialog with parents, building trust and transparency.
Restorative practices are integral to any trauma-informed approach because restorative practices are fundamentally trauma-informed practices.
Because of the inherent relationship between restorative justice and safer schools, schools are more likely to ladder their success with restorative attitudes into a larger school climate of trauma-sensitivity.
Example: Trained facilitators leading weekly restorative circles in one school have transformed behavior management dynamics from punitive to positive—and the structured approach makes direct instruction time more productive.
A trauma-sensitive approach is not separate from the priority of helping students learn.
In fact, a trauma-informed school fosters better critical thinking in its students when it comes to core curriculum. Say the authors of one trauma-informed school initiative, “…Instruction is not limited to the classroom. Students are empowered to translate their coursework into action in the community.”
Example: Ninth grade algebra and geometry students facilitated an urban planning project to demonstrate how achieving measurable violence reduction was possible.
Safer schools are more successful schools—when they include community collaboration.
Developing an effective and coordinated approach to trauma-informed care requires an awareness of the environmental, social, and economic factors that may be fueling adverse events that subsequently impact a child’s performance in school.
Example: Aware of safety concerns in a school’s neighborhood, the principal gathered information from community members to facilitate structured dialog between the city council, police department, and parents. Over time, engagement ratings improved, as did school climate and safety metrics. Ultimately, this school became the first to reach their state’s standardized test score benchmark, closing a critical educational gap.
With immense diversity within the US, each school has its own unique dynamics to cope with. But as the NCTSN has pointed out, a trauma-informed approach is one that can bring all schools to an equal standard of excellence:
Specifically, a trauma-informed school promotes a safe and welcoming climate; seeks to create a structured and predictable learning environment that minimizes unnecessary trauma and loss reminders; focuses on building positive and attuned relationships between teachers and students, and among school staff; has anti-bullying and suicide prevention programs; and uses a balanced restorative justice (a.k.a. restorative practices) approach to conflict and conflict mediation with appropriate disciplinary action.
Ultimately, a trauma-informed environment is an integral component of a healthy school climate:
- It requires the inclusion of all key stakeholders—administrators, educators, students, their families, and the community.
- It protects staff from vicarious trauma by making sure a coordinated approach is in place for both prevention and intervention.
- It helps schools to better collaborate with other agencies such as primary health care providers, mental health agencies, child welfare, and law enforcement.
Trauma-informed schools are safer, more successful, and support stronger communities—and crisis prevention training can play an important role.
Considering that our goals as an Institute are centered in preventing violence and empowering individuals to participate in the values of Care, Welfare, Safety, and Security℠, it seems undeniable that the guiding principles of trauma-informed care align with our own beliefs as an organization.
The role that CPI training plays in your school’s trauma-informed approach can ultimately only be determined by the stakeholders who implement the practices of Nonviolent Crisis Intervention® training. If your school is committed to empowering student success with intention and inclusion, then our training solutions can be integral to a collective approach to trauma-sensitive crisis prevention and safe intervention.
But just as trauma-informed schools require a coordinated staff approach, they also require a coordination of solutions that staff can rely upon to implement the best practices of trauma-informed care. A crisis prevention strategy that emphasizes compassionate nonviolence and makes safety paramount is the perfect complement to the mental health, bullying, and suicide prevention measures that NCTSN has identified are essential tools to building safer, more successful schools—and that’s where CPI training can fit into a trauma-sensitive school environment.
It’s essential that there’s an ongoing, robust, and open dialog between administrators, educators, parents, and students, because this transparency is critical to building safer and more caring schools. Understanding the scope of adverse childhood events is critical to identifying the ways that schools will engage with children so that trauma does not impede their odds of success.
Take a few moments to self-assess:
- Are these conversations happening at your school, and in your community?
- What is your school’s plan to address adverse childhood experiences and their associated risks of trauma?
- How can you be a part of a coordinated and constructive trauma-informed solution?