Research on Trauma-Sensitive Schools Offers Timely Insights for Educating Students During Times of Unprecedented Crises

Study shows transformational benefits of a trauma-sensitive school culture

An Evaluation of the Trauma and Learning Policy Initiative's (TLPI) Inquiry-Based Process: Year ThreeAs the world confronts the collective and unprecedented trauma of a public health and economic crisis – exacerbated by systemic racial inequities – understanding the impact trauma has on the ability of children to learn is more important than ever. Trauma-sensitive schools are uniquely positioned to understand and respond to the impact these crises, and the resulting trauma, are having on students, families, and educators. Developing a deep understanding of trauma’s impact on student success helps educators recognize that learning requires safety, trusting relationships, connection, equity and belonging, adaptability, and working together as a school community. This understanding can guide changes in practice and decision-making processes, which lead to inclusive and equitable school cultures that help strengthen student learning and foster a sense of belonging. During these crises, trauma-sensitivity is critical to keeping students engaged in learning while connecting them to a supportive school and caring teachers. Educators have been guided by the trauma-sensitive lens as they responded to the COVID crisis.

The importance of a welcoming and inclusive learning environment

Research by Atallah et al., published in December 2019 titled “An Evaluation of the Trauma and Learning Policy Initiative’s (TLPI) Inquiry-Based Process: Year Three,” evaluated the efficacy and sustainability of the third year of data based on demonstration schools that used TLPI’s inquiry-based process. This evaluation provides an evidence base that educators’ deepening understanding of the impact of trauma on learning and participation in a collaborative, inquiry-based process will lead to shifts in thinking that recognize the foundational importance of a welcoming and inclusive learning environment, as described above, for students’ academic success. Shifts in practice, which follow from and reinforce the shifts in thinking, can embed trauma-sensitivity into a school’s daily operations. The data suggest that the “shifts in thinking and practice were dependent on, reciprocally supported, and reinforced by strengthened relationships, trust, and sense of community among educators.” The “Year Three” Evaluation Report describes these shifts in practice as four emergent themes:

  • Facilitating Empowerment and Collaboration
  • Integrating Whole-Child Approaches
  • Affirming Cultural Identity and Promoting a Sense of Belonging
  • Re-envisioning Discipline Toward Relational Accountability

As we confront our “new normal,” it is important to understand that these shifts are essential to creating successful traditional and nontraditional, remote learning environments.

Schools that are serious about the impacts of trauma on learning aim to transform how school community members relate to one another

The lasting changes associated with a school culture of engagement, inclusion, and caring relationships between educators and students are multi-leveled and include shifts in dimensions of change, both in thinking and in practice. Schools that are serious about the impacts of trauma on learning aim to transform how school community members relate to one another. As stated in the “Year Three” Evaluation Report, “This includes relating to each other as not only intellectual beings, but as social, cultural, and physical beings as well.” Also, according to the “Year Three” Evaluation Report, this “necessitates that schools not only focus on academic objectives, but on the emergence of a re-humanizing relationality. While this transformation may take time and effort to cultivate, the outcomes it generates may be more sustainable than other education reform approaches.”

For the Abstract and Executive Summary of the “Third Year” Evaluation Report, click here. For the full Report, click here.


¹ First and second year data outlined in the Trauma Sensitive Schools Descriptive Study by AIR