Trauma-Sensitive School Reopening

Friends with backpacks going to schoolRecognizing how hard this year has been on students, families, and educators

For many students, families, and educators this year has been characterized by persistent feelings of being overwhelmed. These are expected reactions given this extraordinary set of circumstances we have all experienced. In recent meetings with high school students, many report feeling fatigued, disconnected, unmotivated and misunderstood, attributing these struggles to long hours on the computer screen and often a lack of meaningful connections to peers, adults and to structureSome comments:

“I felt a little panicked because I didn’t have the connection that I wanted with my teachers.”  “We don’t have as much motivation because your teachers aren’t here to push you and your classmates aren’t there to push you.”

Many families report feeling overwhelmed and on their own to figure out how to support their students’ learning as well.  They feel challenged to effectively and meaningfully communicate with the school. Conversations with educators reveal their concern about their own health and safety as well as feeling increased stress and overwhelm related to their significant concerns over students’ learning loss, emotional wellbeing and widening equity gaps.  It is critical to recognize that this year has been traumatic for many in the school community.

As schools reopen how can we use what we know about the impacts of trauma to provide learning environments in schools that will respond to the many emerging and varied needs of students?   One way  is to keep trauma-sensitivity at the forefront of planning as students return.


Taking a step back to reflect and problem-solve using the trauma-sensitive lens

Trauma-sensitive schools use a process of reflection, inquiry, and action planning to address their urgent concerns and are guided by the attributes of a trauma-sensitive school.  Through engaging in a process of asking questions,  schools can continually move closer to the goal of creating trauma-sensitive learning environments, where students feel safe and welcomed, as they  return.  Key to the success of this inquiry-based process is engaging all staff in identifying urgencies and problem-solving action steps.  This engagement leads to a greater sense of cohesion and empowerment among staff that fuels ongoing collaboration and teamwork.  In turn this leads to a stronger school community and stronger connections, not only among staff but among students and families as well.

Strengthening the connections we need to re-build at this time also serves us well in the long-term  


Guiding schools’ reflection and action planning with these questions can help schools get started in planning for re-entry:
  • What actions can we take across our school to help students and families feel welcomed and prepared to return to our building?
  • How can we build in time and space to reach out to each family, including those whose children may not show up for school?
  • How can we ensure that we have an effective communication protocol in place to welcome each family back to school and communicate with students and families our goal to meet their health and safety needs? How do we ensure that all staff are supported to use this protocol with each and every family?
  • How can we build in time to reflect on what students and their families tell us about their experiences during the pandemic?
    • How will this inform our efforts to meet student needs as we move forward?
    • How will this inform us about the families’ needs for community services?
    • Do we have in place a protocol for linking families to community services they may need?
  • What actions can we take, as a staff, to make sure that our efforts are informed by the voices of our students and their families?
  • How can we create a shared understanding among all staff of the impact of trauma on learning, behavior, and relationships?
  • What actions can we take across our school to help promote our students’ sense of safety (physically, socially, emotionally, and academically)?
  • How will the whole child lens guide our efforts?
    • How will we bolster and re-build students’ skills in building relationships and self-regulating  behavior and emotions?
  • What actions can we take across our school to promote our students’ sense of connection to their teachers, peers and school community?
  • How can we create time and space to validate our students’ experiences of remote learning?
  • What actions can we take to support our students to re-engage in their learning?

For more information on the impact of trauma on learning and using the inquiry based process to create trauma-sensitive schools, please read our publications, Helping Traumatized Children Learn, Volumes 1 and 2 and watch  our videos.

This MA DESE guidance, (Section 1.1a.1) includes the protocol for schools to develop Family Communications Plans for each and every student’s family. The Sample Questions for Individualized Family Communication Plans contain example protocols for educators to use to create a customized plan for each family and student, and include as one of the first queries in the questionnaire, which was designed to develop a customized plan with each family, a question about the family’s language preference in order to facilitate authentic and meaningful communication.



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