Trauma-Sensitive Schools Are Better Schools


Huffington Post — June 26, 2012


by Jane Ellen Stevens

Pick any classroom in any school in any state in the country, and you’ll find at least a handful — and sometimes more than a handful — of students experiencing some type of severe trauma.

What’s severe trauma? We’re not talking falling on a playground and breaking a finger here. This trauma is gut-wrenching, life-bending and mind-warping: Living with an alcoholic parent or a parent diagnosed with depression or other mental illness. Witnessing a mother being abused (physically or verbally). Being physically, sexually or verbally abused. Losing a parent to abandonment or divorce. Homelessness. Being bullied. You can probably name a few others.

Since at least 2005, a few dozen individual schools across the U.S. have adopted some type of trauma-sensitive approach. But the centers of gravity for most of the action are in Massachusetts and Washington. These two states lead the way in taking a district-wide approach to integrating trauma-informed practices, with an eye to state-wide adoption.

Without a school-wide approach “it’s very hard to address the role that trauma is playing in learning.”—Susan Cole, Director of TLPI

Without a school-wide approach, “it’s very hard to address the role that trauma is playing in learning,” says Susan Cole, director of the Trauma an Learning Policy Initiative (TLPI), a joint project of Harvard Law School and Massachusetts Advocates for Children. Cole is co-author of a seminal book: Helping Traumatized Children Learn, sometimes known as “The Purple Book.”

With a school-wide strategy, trauma-sensitive approaches are woven into the school’s daily activities: the classroom, the cafeteria, the halls, buses, the playground. “This enables children to feel academically, socially, emotionally and physically safe wherever they go in the school. And when children feel safe, they can calm down and learn,” says Cole. “The district needs to support the individual school to do this work. With the district on board, principals can have the latitude to put this issue on the front burner, where it belongs.”

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