A Trauma-Sensitive School Addresses Students’ Needs in Holistic Ways

In an earlier post, the six attributes of a trauma-sensitive school were introduced.  This is the third in a series of blog posts that will delve deeper into each of the individual attributes.

A Trauma-Sensitive School Addresses Students’ Needs in Holistic Ways

The impacts of traumatic experiences can take many forms, and a traumatized student’s behavior can mask, rather than reveal, their difficulties. A middle school student who pushes adults away may in fact long for their help but be afraid of betrayal. A high school student who appears lazy and does not complete his or her work may actually be afraid to follow through out of fear of making mistakes. Approaches that address only the behaviors that appear on the surface often do not respond to a student’s real needs. A broader, more holistic approach is required to understand the needs that underlie a student’s behavioral presentation and to provide supports and build skills that respond to those needs.

Educators maximize children’s opportunities to succeed at school, despite the adversities they may have endured, by bolstering them in four key domains:

  • Strong relationships with adults and peers

  • The ability to self-regulate behaviors, emotions, and attention

  • Success in academic and nonacademic areas

  • Physical and emotional health and well-being.

These skills are inseparable; there is a complex and systemic interaction among them. Academic competence is connected to self-regulation and fewer behavior problems. Relationships help children modulate their emotions and foster success in both academics and self-regulation. Physical and emotional health is the overall foundation for learning.

A trauma-sensitive school addresses students’ needs in holistic ways, taking into account their relationships, self-regulation, academic competence, and physical and emotional well-being. Within the school, there is recognition that these domains are inextricably linked and an understanding of the critical role they play in helping students succeed. A trauma-sensitive school supports all children in these four areas, knowing that many of them will need a great deal of help in building these skills, which must be practiced in context, meaning in the classroom, the hallways, the lunchroom, and elsewhere.

Applying a holistic perspective both at the school-wide level and on behalf of individual children requires time for educators to meet and brainstorm creative solutions that address student needs. Schools have found that this time can be integrated into existing planning blocks, not necessarily requiring another set of special meetings. The point is to be sure that a holistic approach based on these four core domains is part of how the school is run on a day-to-day basis and that children needing extra help developing these skills will receive that assistance.

One example of this holistic approach includes an elementary school in Massachusetts that began implementing a morning meeting in every classroom as a vehicle for addressing the staff’s priority of helping children transition calmly and feel connected at the beginning of the day.  The staff felt that morning meetings would be a way to establish a consistent and predictable start to the day and support students to build self regulation and relationship skills, increasing their capacity to access the curriculum laying the foundation for a successful day of learning. Morning meetings also provided a context for students to practice their newly developed skills.

How has your school worked to addresses students’ needs in holistic ways, taking into account their relationships, self-regulation, academic competence, and physical and emotional well-being?  What were your school’s biggest successes and challenges in this process?


  1. | GloriaSanford-Breton says:

    I work in a therapeutic school for students with significant mental health and behavioral challenges. In addition to a psychosocial skills curriculum that is based on a variety of resources, we are now using the Zones of Regulation program, the Mindful School mindfulness curriculum and a weekly yoga class as part of our trauma-informed SEL. We are seeing some excellent results and the students are thrilled with these additions.

  2. | Joy Fiebiger says:

    I am the Education Team Leader at the Education Facility for Stand Children’s Services in Auckland, New Zealand. Our organization caters for some of New Zealand’s most vulnerable children between the ages of 5 and 12. The children are with us residentially in the village for a period of 4 – 5 weeks. We work collaboratively across the residential and educational setting (Therapeutic Care and Education).
    We have definitely recognized the importance of having a holistic approach to working with children who are displaying pain-based behaviours. Our approach is through a Māori Model called Te Whare Tapa Wha. The child’s physical health and wellbeing, spiritual health and wellbeing, family health and wellbeing and mental health and wellbeing are considered when approaching the work that is done with the child. What we have found is that when we address these areas and the child feels safe, only then are they ready to learn be it academic learning or learning around social and emotional competencies.

  3. | LaraKain says:

    I describe our holistic model using the community school approach here in this blog entry

  4. | Stephen Stathis says:

    As a licensed therapist for twenty years, I have worked in a variety of schools. I have found that addressing the trauma that many students bring to school(inner city particularly) helps them not only achieve within the classroom but brings inner peace along with connecting the families to the school system. Teachers can’t do it all. Having clinical professionals in schools can bring therapeutic help to youth who otherwise would not be treated.

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