With school beginning, some students may be excited to return, while others may be anxious about the
transition. A child who has experienced trauma may view aspects and tasks included in the school environment as a
trigger. In 2018, more than two thirds of children reported at least 1 traumatic event by age 16, contributing to the
research showing children who have experienced trauma may find it more challenging than their peers to pay attention,
process new information, and some may even develop sensory processing difficulties which can contribute to problems in
writing and reading.
First, let’s take a quick look at trauma and the body. Every human being has an alarm system in their body that is
designed to keep them safe from harm. When activated, by an event or series of events, this tool prepares the body to
fight, flight, or freeze. When a child experiences such toxic stress the brain goes into overdrive and is in “survival mode”.
As a result, behaviors, stemming from the trauma can reflect inside and outside the classroom. These symptoms of
traumatic stress may present differently in each child and at different developmental stages. Examples of traumatic
symptoms include, struggling to pay attention, difficulty processing new information, and sensory processing difficulties
which can contribute to problems in writing and reading.
As a response to trauma and the effects it has on the brain, trauma-informed schools (TIS) intentionally create
policies and practices sensitive to the needs of traumatized students and work to create learning environments where
everyone feels safe and supported. In the documentary Paper Tigers, Jim Sporleder, Principal at Lincoln High School
in Walla Walla Washington and pioneer of TIS, explains “behavior isn’t the kid, behavior is a symptom of something
going on in their life”. Sporleder took this approach and provided TIS training to all school staff. He then implemented
the trauma training to the school by changing policies and procedures. For example, the school stopped suspensions for
minor infractions, shortened the length of suspension or in-school suspensions, and implemented a restorative justice
approach and modeled forgiveness by mediating before coming to expulsion. What the school found was there was a
90% decrease in suspensions, 75% decrease in fights, and a 5 fold increase in graduation rates.
Establishing TIS is not an easy feat as it involves a mind-shift by teachers, administrators, and other school staff.
It also requires changes to transform school culture, build a supporting infrastructure, and alter curriculum content and
interventions. Trauma-informed schools offer educators tools and strategies to identify, address, and manage traumatic
stress symptoms and support overall educational achievement. A trauma-informed approach to misbehavior will help
educator’s move away from reflexive discipline, which can be re-traumatizing for students, and move towards responses
that help students learn to cope with their feelings by building resilience trough acknowledging the trauma,
understanding its triggers, and avoiding stigmatizing and punishing students. When educators are less inclined to send a
child to the office, seclude, or punish, it speaks to their capacity and commitment to support all children socially,
emotionally, behaviorally, and academically. Accordingly, educators will learn to ask “what happened to you?” rather
than “what’s wrong with you?”
HOW YOU CAN HELP:
Foster and adoptive parents are familiar and skilled in regards to children and trauma and can advocate for the
child and push for education reform in your community. Two great resources offer templates for adoptive/foster parents
to provide to teachers and administrators at the beginning of the year. By acknowledging how scholastic experience can
influence mental health and understanding the impact of mental health in all developmental domains and applying it to
how children are educated leads to more beneficial educational outcomes for everyone.
This blog post was written by Bailey Kitko, LBSW, Adoption Specialist @ Adults Adopting Special Kids
“Trauma-Informed Schools.” Ohio Department of Education, June 2019, education.ohio.gov/Topics/Student-Supports/
“Creating, Supporting, and Sustaining Trauma-Informed Schools: A System Framework.” The National Child Traumatic Stress Network,
3 Oct. 2018, www.nctsn.org/resources/creating-supporting-and-sustaining-trauma-informed-schools-system-framework.