How Schools Cultivate Trauma-Informed Learning Environments That Benefit Everyone

In a trauma-informed learning environment, there is no place for being problem-oriented. Nor is there any aspect of engagement strategies that is designed to be reactive. These environments are proactive, compassionate, safe and solution-focused. Moreover, they are culturally-responsive and family-friendly.

So many students enter the classroom with complex traumas in their histories, either directly experienced or witnessed. How we have traditionally designed instruction and engagement, particularly the ways by which we perceive learners and their families, including their communities, has been to diagnose and then treat.

In trauma-safe environments, we aren’t focusing on treatment of problem children. In the classroom, it is less important to identify those children who have been traumatized, than it is to plan interactions as though every student has experienced trauma. We are less likely to unintentionally re-traumatize children in school if we practice under the assumptions that every child has experienced trauma. It makes for safer, more compassionate environments.

How many times have teachers gone to the light panel at the classroom door and flipped the light switch on and off to manage behavior, to bring calm to the room? Too many to mention, right?  It is this seemingly safe response that may represent a trigger to some and therefore, re-traumatize them. What was once considered a harmless yet effective response, more friendly than raising your voice, could very well be a trauma-trigger to children. This is how we remove ‘safety’ from the environment.

Understanding students’ culture‘, not necessarily race,  is a critical step towards becoming trauma-informed. Parents and their community are vital to this understanding. 

From a deficit model, educators seek to find ways to help students, but the goal should be to understand them. Focused on treatment to eliminate problems, adults have sought ways to attack problems, ‘blame’ the persons, without considering and examining systems and structures which influence, contribute to and can perpetuate perceived problems.

Children don’t really care about how much we know; they want to know how much we care.

We blame children for their level of preparedness for school, and then we blame their parents. Blaming others doesn’t motivate us or them to take risks or step outside of comfort zones. What about the systems with which we all interact? That is often left out of the equation.

Being trauma-informed is to abandon assumptions and automatic learned responses[immaculate perceptions and automaticities].  We are called to re-examine our ‘usual’ strategies. If there a few students in a classroom who may have vision challenges, we may be unaware of which students have sight related needs. Acknowledging that fact does not require that we identify them and write notes in large print for them and then write notes on the blackboard in smaller print for others. Write as though the entire class requires large print.

Thinking systemically, in trauma-informed safe schools, all staff is to be properly trained and understand the impact of their role in shaping a child’s experience, feeling of safety and belonging at school. Staff are compassionate, intuitive and proactive. In trauma-safe schools, every staff member, anyone who interacts with children need to be trained to understand the concept of trauma, the impact and the manifestations of traumatic reactions and responses.trauma informed principles

Trauma-Safe Schools Embody:

1. Safety: Individuals feel physically, socially and emotionally safe. Understand the meaning of “safety” as defined by those being served.
2. Trustworthiness & Transparency: Operations and decisions are conducted with transparency. Building and maintaining trust. Stability and predictability.
3. Peer Support: Fostering student-to-student relationships. Peer support is a vehicle for: establishing safety and hope, building trust, enhancing collaboration.
4. Collaboration and Mutuality: Shared decision-making. Healing happens in healthy relationships. Everyone has a role to play in a trauma-informed approach.
5. Empowerment, Voice, and Choice: Strengths and experiences are recognized and built upon. Belief in resilience and everyone plays a role in promoting healing and recovery. Recognition and understanding of historical and existing power differentials.
6. Cultural Humility: Move past cultural and gender stereotypes and biases. Leverage healing value of traditional cultural connections. Be responsive to cultural, ethnic, gender and racial needs of those being served. Recognize historical trauma.

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