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What Are Trauma-Sensitive Schools?

Research shows nearly every school has students who have been exposed to traumatic experiences known as Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs). A wide variety of violence and victimization scenarios, including various types of abuse, neglect, loss, and family members who struggle with addiction, domestic violence, imprisonment or mental illness fall under the ACE umbrella.

Trauma of all kinds can affect students' executive functioning skills and abilities to self-regulate their behaviors. Students coping with traumatic experiences may have a harder time than their peers when planning, remembering or focusing on what they need to learn. Trauma-sensitive schools employ trauma-sensitive educational practices to mitigate these difficulties. They are often located in communities with high rates of drug abuse, poverty and other possible triggers for childhood hardship.

Leaders who apply an understanding of the impacts of trauma to the structures and practices of their school bring trauma sensitivity to school operations. In order to alleviate the effects of trauma on students' education and well-being, build student resilience and prevent further distress, leaders of trauma-sensitive schools work together with school faculty and staff to create a safe environment that emphasizes trust, choice and collaboration.

Leaders in these schools also aim to help all students feel safe and supported to learn throughout the school day. Neurobiological studies suggest students need a sense of safety to succeed in the classroom. Those suffering the effects of trauma may have trouble feeling safe in the classroom, requiring school leaders to identify priority needs for students and families in their schools and tailor solutions to fit their unique requirements.

School leadership plays a key role in creating an infrastructure and culture that engages staff in strategic planning and encourages the integration of trauma-sensitive approaches into existing practices. Dr. Sal Terrasi, co-author of Trauma and Learning in America's Classrooms, outlines four ways in which school and district administrators can work together to foster trauma-sensitive school environments:

Advocacy: School leadership has a voice and platform that faculty and staff often do not have. Members of school and district leadership can utilize their platforms and positions to advocate for the necessary data collection, training, tools and funding to ensure trauma-sensitive schools are able to best meet the needs of their student populations.

Communication: While school counselors, faculty and other members of the educational team are on the front lines of addressing student trauma and mitigating the effects, leadership ultimately makes the big decisions regarding student placement, programming and curricula. Without a clear understanding of expectations, roles and needs, faculty and staff cannot effectively address student trauma. Clear and consistent communication with faculty and staff fosters a sense of teamwork and shared leadership across schools and districts.

Training/Professional Development: Trauma-sensitive schools utilize a network of district leaders, administrators, faculty, staff and outside professionals to inform their approach to trauma-sensitive education. Professional development is key to ensuring each team member is aware of the nature and impact of trauma on student well-being, approaches to combat it and their own role in creating a safe and secure environment for students.

School leadership is also responsible for identifying and providing trauma-sensitive professional development opportunities. Educators can draw from a variety of training platforms and resources dedicated to trauma-sensitive education, such as the Attachment & Trauma Network's professional development series aimed at all members of a school/district's educational team.

Community Connection: Many districts utilize trauma advisory boards to guide their trauma-sensitive initiatives. Members of these boards might include district attorneys, counseling agents, human service agencies and police representatives. This casts trauma-sensitive school initiatives as community initiatives, garnering support from a variety of community agencies to coordinate efforts that inform practice and structure. School leadership is responsible for connecting with community resources and agencies to both garner support and draw resources.

Learn more about The University of Texas at Arlington's Master of Education in Educational Leadership & Policy Studies online program.


Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: About the CDC – Kaiser ACE Study

National Center for Biotechnology Information: Understanding the Impact of Trauma

National Library of Medicine: Executive Function and PTSD: Disengaging from Trauma

YouTube: Leadership's Role in Supporting and Creating Trauma Sensitive Schools

Attachment & Trauma Network, Inc.

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