What Educational Leaders Can Do to Create a Trauma-Sensitive School

While traumatic experiences are not out of the realm of possibility for most people, the impact of such experiences on children deserves special consideration. For a child, events ranging from fires or tornadoes to in-home abuse and exposure to drugs can be especially disruptive and have a negative effect on both cognitive and academic development.

What is the impact of this trauma on the classroom? How can teachers respond? Here are some of the things we know about trauma and why the trauma-sensitive school model is an important one.

What Is a Trauma-Sensitive School?

While all schools should aim to provide a safe and welcoming environment for every student, a trauma-sensitive school is focused on addressing the impact of trauma on students. Because these schools use an inquiry-based method to learn about and respond to student needs, students come to class with the confidence that they will be supported. In addition, teachers grow in their abilities to care for a myriad of adverse circumstances faced by the next generation.

A trauma-sensitive school not only seeks to address issues in the classroom, it also works holistically to involve the entire learning community in the child’s care. This approach models how a child can participate in a healthy way in a larger group, while keeping teachers, administrators and support staff apprised of any trauma-related behavior issues. Teamwork and collaboration are the hallmarks of a truly effective school experience.

Note that “trauma-sensitive” is not the same as “trauma-informed.” The latter is a term used by behavioral health professionals to describe the delivery of services across the community. Since teachers do not fill the same role as behavioral health providers, the expectation should not be the same. There is a different language to describe what teachers do in offering a welcoming environment to all children, with the expectation that if trauma does become apparent, they can refer it to the proper teams. The main goal of trauma-sensitive educators is to provide a safe space for every student.

How to Create a Trauma-Sensitive School

The process of making a trauma-sensitive school is mostly experimental. Some examples of schools exist, but even they admit that the work is largely reactive to what they see in the classroom. Since trauma is often invisible and often depends on the student’s willingness and ability to share with a teacher or other school professional, educators have to assume that anyone could be suffering. Some of the tactics schools have implemented include:

  • Calm corners, designed to offer an optional, self-imposed “time out” for students who need it
  • Scheduled brain breaks
  • Mindfulness prompts, including posters that depict yoga poses or lessons for collecting personal thoughts
  • Creation of “zones” that help children self-identify with the mood or stress level they experience each day
  • Personalized greetings from staff
  • Optional, in-home visits by teachers

The biggest shift, according to teachers, however, has been one that moves from punitive consequences to fact-finding conversations and opportunities to nurture.

Your Role in the Trauma-Sensitive Learning Space

Designing the best approach to teaching kids with trauma will take time. Schools will try new methods to gain confidence that they are getting it right.

One way to become involved with this and other innovative school initiatives is to further your own education through an advanced degree. The Master of Education – Early Childhood Education online program offered by Eastern Washington University, is 100% online, so you earn the degree while you continue working. With courses like Positive Learning Environments for Young Children, EWU’s online program supports the goals of educators who aim to provide children with a strong foundation for success.

Learn more about Eastern Washington University’s Master of Education – Early Childhood Education online program.


Education Week: ‘Nobody Learns It in a Day’: Creating Trauma-Sensitive Schools

Ohio Department of Education: The Impact of Trauma on Students

Trauma and Learning Policy Initiative (TLPI): Frequently Asked Questions About Trauma-Sensitive Schools

Washington Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction: Trauma Informed Schools

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