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Overview

Trauma-informed practices acknowledge the prevalence of trauma in our society and recognize the need for a holistic understanding of how it impacts individuals over their lifetime. Schools and organizations that utilize trauma-informed practices seek to create an environment that is supportive of students and staff who have been impacted by trauma. Trauma-informed practices are centered on a belief that every interaction with a child can be an intervention and a mindset shift from “What is wrong with you?” to “What happened to you?”

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) defines trauma as an event, series of events, or set of circumstances that is experienced by an individual as physically or emotionally harmful or life-threatening and that has lasting adverse effects on the individual’s functioning and mental, physical, social, emotional, or spiritual well-being. Trauma comes in many forms and can be a one-time incident, recurring event, direct (first-hand experience), or indirect (hearing about or witnessing another person’s experience). 

Trauma has many lasting impacts on health and well-being. In 1998, the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) Study was published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and Kaiser Permanente. It reported significant links between childhood trauma, brain development, overall health and well-being, and life expectancy. This study showed that as the number of ACEs a child experienced went up, so did the number of medical, mental, and social challenges they had as an adult. 

Trauma in childhood can be associated with challenges in school performance, as social, emotional, cognitive, and brain development can be impacted by traumatic stress. This trauma can negatively affect a student’s capacity for self-regulation, comprehension, organization, and memorization, affecting students academically and socially throughout their schooling. Students who have been impacted by trauma may exhibit indicators in school such as:

  • Difficulty focusing on schoolwork, projects, or conversations
  • Academic failure or regression
  • Peer rejection and social isolation
  • Behavioral concerns including temper, aggression, anger, attention-seeking, anxiety, fearfulness, jumpiness, and social withdrawal
  • Chronic health problems (headaches, stomachaches, depression, and anxiety)

Supporting individuals impacted by trauma early in life through trauma-informed practices can build resiliency and improve overall academic outcomes and holistic wellness.

Schools play a critical role in helping individuals impacted by trauma, as there is a higher likelihood of reducing the effects of traumatic stress when it is addressed at an early age. While there is no single, commonly adopted set of trauma-informed practices in school, there are best practices. Integrating trauma-informed practices in school begins with administrative buy-in and support, creating policies and procedures for trauma-sensitive classroom practices, positive and restorative responses to behavior, and ongoing staff professional development. Strong collaboration among school staff, families, and mental health professionals is critical. Additionally, a trauma-informed school community recognizes the history of systemic oppression in education and works to prevent and repair these harms. 

Schools that utilize trauma-informed practices often integrate support through their multi-tiered system of supports (MTSS) to provide a sensitive and responsive approach for all students universally, as well as provide targeted support to those significantly impacted by trauma. Trauma-informed practices are often integrated with social and emotional learning (SEL), Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (PBIS), Restorative Practices, and mindfulness, with a strong focus on creating a trauma-informed school culture and climate.

According to the National Center on Safe Supportive Learning Environments, trauma-sensitive strategies in schools can include:

  • educating all school staff about trauma and its effects
  • promoting physical and emotional safety in relationships and the environment
  • reducing trauma-related triggers in the school environment and eliminating potentially retraumatizing practices, such as harsh or punitive responses
  • considering trauma when screening students and determining tiers of support 
  • ensuring youth and family voice, choice, and empowerment
  • addressing the secondary effects on educators that can occur when working with trauma survivors. 
References:
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2014). SAMHSA’s concept of trauma and guidance for a trauma-informed approach. HHS Publication No. (SMA) 14-4884. https://store.samhsa.gov/sites/default/files/d7/priv/sma14-4884.pdf
Felitti, V. J., Anda, R. F., Nordenberg, D., Williamson, D. F., Spitz, A. M., Edwards, V., Koss, M. P., & Marks, J. S. (1998). Relationship of childhood abuse and household dysfunction to many of the leading causes of death in adults. The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 14(4):245-58. doi: 10.1016/s0749-3797(98)00017-8. PMID: 9635069. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/9635069/
Oregon Department of Education. (2023). Trauma-informed practices in schools. https://www.oregon.gov/ode/students-and-family/GraduationImprovement/Documents/Trauma-Informed%20Practices%20in%20Schools.pdf
Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction. Wisconsin’s trauma sensitive schools guiding principles. https://dpi.wi.gov/sites/default/files/imce/sspw/pdf/Wisconsins_Trauma_Sensitive_Schools_Guiding_Principles.pdf
Guarino, K., & Chagnon, E. (2018). Trauma-sensitive schools training package. National Center on Safe Supportive Learning Environments. https://safesupportivelearning.ed.gov/sites/default/files/TSS_Training_Package_Implementation_Guidefinal.pdf
Thomas, M. S., Crosby, S., & Vanderhaar, J. (2019). Trauma-informed practices in schools across two decades: An interdisciplinary review of research. Review of Research in Education, 43(1), 422–452. https://doi.org/10.3102/0091732X18821123

What Makes This Innovative?

Whole-Child Focus

Trauma-informed practices foster healing and support the overall well-being of students who have been impacted by trauma, so that they can reach their full potential as adults.

Affirmation of Self & Others

Through a trauma-informed approach, educators support students in developing a positive sense of self and provide tools for resilience.

Connection & Community

Foundational to trauma-informed practices are relationship-rich environments that nurture healing from trauma, foster safety, and support well-being.

Related Models

Explore ways trauma-informed practices are embedded in models on the Innovative Models Exchange.

Grades 9-12
ARISE High School

Adelante Student Services

Adelante Student Services supports all students to rise up by aligning academic, behavioral, and social-emotional approaches to ensure students and their families are provided integrated and responsive interventions attuned to their specific needs.

Grades K-12
BARR Center

BARR

Building Assets, Reducing Risks (BARR) is a strengths-based approach that leverages strong relationships and data-driven decisions to boost achievement for all students.

Grades 6-12
Rural Opportunity Institute

Biofeedback Breathing

Biofeedback Breathing helps students learn how to change their body’s conditioned responses to stressful situations so they can improve their self-management and well-being.

Grades K-12
Valor Collegiate Academy

Compass

The Compass model fosters holistic and adaptive development— including key physical, cognitive, emotional, and spiritual disciplines—through a focus on community and relationships as well as individual identity work.

Grades 9-12
Da Vinci Schools

Da Vinci RISE High

The Da Vinci RISE High model uses a responsive and holistic approach—including flexible scheduling, blended learning, credit recovery, and wraparound social services—to meet the unique needs of students navigating foster care, housing instability, and other circumstances that have disrupted their schooling.

Families with Children Age 1-Grade 5
The Primary School

The Parent Program

The Parent Program is a series of individual and group coaching experiences that addresses the needs of two generations—parents and their children—to strengthen their lives together.

Grades 6-12
The Brotherhood Sister Sol (BroSis)

The Rites of Passage Program

The Rites of Passage Program supports adolescents’ successful journey into adulthood by helping them define their values and by providing them with an intentional community, wraparound support, liberation education, and leadership development.

Grades PK-5
Van Ness Elementary, A DCPS School

Whole Child Model

The Whole Child Model integrates multiple tiers of support throughout the school day to build a safe and supportive school climate as well as the intrapersonal and interpersonal skills young children need to regulate their emotions, manage stress, and handle conflicts productively.

Grades 6-12
Girls Athletic Leadership Schools

Whole-Bodied Education

Girls Athletic Leadership Schools’ Whole-Bodied Education Model addresses the physical, emotional, and psychosocial needs of female students so they are empowered to be leaders of their own lives.

Resources from Transcend and Beyond

The following resources can deepen your understanding of trauma-informed practices and support the design and implementation of a high-quality model, whether one from the Models Exchange or one of your community designs.

Creating, Supporting, and Sustaining Trauma-Informed Schools: A System Framework
The National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN)

This framework from NCTSN offers a tiered approach to creating a trauma-informed school environment.

How Childhood Trauma Affects Health Across A Lifetime
TED

This TED talk by pediatrician Dr. Nadine Burke Harris illuminates the effects of trauma on children’s brains and long-term health.

Trauma Sensitive School Checklist
Learning for Justice

This document provides a checklist for creating a trauma-sensitive school.

Trauma Sensitive Schools Online Professional Development
Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction

This online professional development supports educators in understanding the prevalence and impact of toxic stress on youth and those who care for them. Participants will understand how to incorporate the values of safety, trustworthiness, choice, collaboration, and empowerment into their existing multi-level system of support to establish a trauma-informed lens.

Understanding Stress and Trauma
Partners in Healing by Counseling in Schools

This website provides a resource center to support school personnel and families with the language and tools to be trauma-informed and healing-centered in their relationships with their children.

Understanding Trauma and Its Impact
National Center on Safe Supportive Learning Environments

This staff training package includes an online module, handouts, and a facilitation guide to introduce staff to trauma-sensitive practices.