Trauma Sensitive Schools

Why a trauma sensitive school?

Teacher with children in classroom studying

The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) study demonstrates that nearly every school has students who have been exposed to overwhelming experiences, such as witnessing violence at home, being direct targets of abuse, homelessness or having a parent with substance abuse or mental health issues. For some children these experiences result in a trauma response that can lead to a cascade of social, emotional and academic difficulties that can interfere with a child’s ability to learn at school. Recent neurobiological research has shown that the trauma response can diminish concentration, memory and the organizational and language abilities students need to succeed in school, potentially leading to problems with academic performance, challenging behavior in the classroom, and difficulty forming relationships.

Once educators understand the potential impact of trauma, they can avoid punitive responses and work to create trauma-sensitive schools where all students feel safe to learn, make positive connections with adults and peers, and regulate their emotions so that they can focus and behave appropriately. All students, including those who have been traumatized, benefit from the safety and positive connections that a trauma-sensitive school provides, enabling them to learn at their highest levels.

What is a trauma-sensitive school?

A trauma-sensitive school is one where all students feel safe, welcomed, and supported and where addressing trauma’s impact on learning on a school-wide basis is at the center of its educational mission. It is a place where an ongoing, inquiry-based process allows for teamwork, coordination, creativity, and sharing of responsibility for all students, and where continuous learning is for educators as well as students.

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to creating a trauma-sensitive school. However, based on our work with schools across the country, we have identified six core attributes that trauma-sensitive schools have in common. Taken together, these attributes can be thought of as a trauma-sensitive vision to which any school can aspire.  Using the locally-driven, inquiry-based process outlined in Helping Traumatized Children Learn, Volume 2, educators can take concrete steps that help their school sustain trauma-sensitive ways of thinking and acting that move the school closer to the vision embodied by the attributes.

Here are the six core attributes of trauma-sensitive schools:

  • Leadership and staff share an understanding of trauma’s impacts on learning and the need for a school-wide approach.
  • The school supports all students to feel safe—physically, socially, emotionally and academically.
  • The school addresses students’ needs in holistic ways, taking into account their relationships, self-regulation, academic competence, and physical and emotional well-being.
  • The school explicitly connects students to the school community and provides multiple opportunities to practice newly developing skills.
  • The school embraces teamwork and staff share responsibility for all students.
  • Leadership and staff anticipate and adapt to the ever changing needs of students.

None of these six attributes should be viewed as an isolated fragment; each is interrelated with the others, adding up to a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts.


Over the next six blogs, we will discuss each of the six attributes of trauma-sensitive schools in greater depth.  We invite members of our Learning Community  to share their thoughts and reflections on the attributes.  We respectfully ask that all comments be made with our Community Guidelines in mind. 

One comment

  1. | Stephen Stathis says:

    One area that I have found as a licensed therapist is crucial for schools is to hold re-entry meetings for students who have been hospitalized for psychiatric reasons. A smooth and gradual transition back to the classroom is vital for youth who have missed school days. Often, youth placed out of the home by DCF are moved around from foster homes and from school to school and fall behind academically. Schools need to be sensitive to such situations so youth don’t fall behind through no fault of their own.

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