Trauma-Informed Schools

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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.

Risk concept on speedometer. Vector icon

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?”

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,
“Creating, Supporting, and Sustaining Trauma-Informed Schools: A System Framework.” The National Child Traumatic Stress Network,
3 Oct. 2018,



Letting Go Can Be So Hard

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Raising a child who has experienced trauma from abandonment, foster care, and adoption along with an autism diagnosis is hard.  Letting go and allowing them to take steps toward adulthood is even harder.  I know parents never stop worrying about their children but you worry even more if they aren’t a neuro-typical child and they have a trauma background.  How can I help my child be successful but also give him the independence he so badly wants?

One of the first things we started doing was helping our child with life skills.  He is a little more motivated to learn now knowing he will be on his own soon.  We have taught him how to wash his clothes, how to cook a variety of meals, how to clean each room of the house and how to create and follow a budget.  All of these skills require practice and we haven’t mastered any of them yet.  We did allow him to get his driving permit, but have made him practice driving for a year before allowing him to schedule testing for his driver’s license.  Once he does get his license he will have a contract he needs to abide by until we feel comfortable with him driving on his own.

Another important skill we have found that needs practice is problem solving.  This does not come naturally to most children who come from trauma, as trauma changes our brain, and impacts executive functioning skills.  We practice problem solving skills by giving him a scenario, letting him try to solve the problem and then having him anticipate the outcome.  If the anticipated outcome isn’t the outcome he wants we have him try to solve the problem again until he gets a satisfactory outcome.

The last independent skill we are currently examining and working toward is a future career. My son was approved for vocational rehabilitation which has been a very good experience for us.  Now we are looking into jobs that have on the job training included or the possibility of attending a community college and then transitioning to a 4 year college.  Lots of options and things to consider.

Some children with a trauma background and an autism diagnosis can live independently, they just may need our assistance in completing the obstacle course to get there.  Hopefully my son can reach the independence he so desires and I can get let go a little more each day.


 This blog post was written by post adopt coordinator and rockstar adoptive mom, Sherie Madewell-Buesgens.



Practical Ways to Help Your Child Focus

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“How many times to I have to tell you?!” “It’s something you do EVERY DAY! Why can’t you remember to do it?!”

I’m not sure about you, but I have been known to say these things to my children in my weak moments. I am not proud of myself, and yet there are days when I just can’t seem to help my child “get it.” Now with a new school year starting I am trying to plan ahead for what I know may help our children focus and complete their daily routines wit out frustration… for either of us.
We know that this sort of thing isn’t a quick fix. It’s not something that you can sit down and discuss with your child one time and then it will be better.
Realistically- we are all relatively distracted** people who are raising people who can’t focus, for one reason or another. Time and time again I find myself getting frustrated because I have to remind my child over and over again to do their homework, put their things away, etc. I know that I can’t be the only parent feeling the stress of an impending new school year, change of routine (again) and morning struggles to get out the door on time.

Child sitting on sofa and holding book in front of her face

I recently listened to an Honestly Adoption podcast by Mike and Kristen Berry who offered some great suggestions and insight in to some practical ways to help our children focus and attend to their daily tasks. Check it out for yourself here:

The Honestly Adoption Podcast, Season 10, Episode 92

One of the first ways to address this is to OWN your own lack of focus and have a heartfelt conversation with your child about some things that you have noticed in them. Be honest and discuss some things that work for you to stay on track and get your things done.

Having a conversation with your child by the time you need your child to focus (let’s say before kindergarten) might be very helpful if we can address this with our child (our observations) and include them in on the solutions. Oftentimes with their lack of focus, the child feels out of control and they get frustrated, so including them in creating strategies can really help build that connection between you and also give them some control and greatly reduce some of the frustrations.

Some other ideas that can help with focus are:
>>Creating a list- it is a really good strategy to create lists that include 3 to 5 items that are tangible for the child to be able to follow. These lists need to be very specific and not vague. Lists are a picture clue, or reminder, of what comes next. This will be so important as the kids get older as well because what preteen or teenager wants to be nagged? When we can use the lists it takes that argument/nagging away. Children get to cross the list off and then parents can cross off the item in another color as a seal of approval that it was completed to the expectations set.

>>A key to creating and using these lists is creating structure. These lists your kids use are the same every single day- this way everyone knows what to expect. Consistency is such a game changer- our kids need that. Repeat, repeat, repeat every. Single. Day. The longer you do this the more you are going to see positive results. An example that Mike Berry gave during the podcast suggests creating bite sized chunks of time, or bite sized responsibility for your child. This starts by tasking something small that they can accomplish (focused activity) followed by a period of unfocused activity, or something that they enjoy/want to do. “Let’s do one math problem (or work for 10 minutes on homework) and then you can have 15 minutes of playing your video game. When that is done then we need to complete our work.” This can give the child a tangible, do-able task, with a break included, that is specific and short enough in duration to create an accomplishment!

>>Some kids respond well to using a timer along with their tasks; they are challenged by “beating the timer” and enjoy that OR maybe a timer will stress your child out. That is something you will have to consider and evaluate based on your child’s needs. A visual timer can help those younger kids who cannot yet read a clock.

>>Setting goals can be very fun and helpful as well. Setting a goal like- “let’s put away 10 items each and then we will eat supper, and then…”. This is another example of mixing a focused activity and then unfocused activity.

I hope that you find these suggestions helpful and can find a way to incorporate strategies that will fit your family situation. If you want to hear more information about how to create the lists or other strategies for helping your child I encourage you to look up the Honestly Adoption podcast and Mike and Kristen Berry.


This blog post was written by former Post Adopt Coordinator, Sonya Lundstrom. 


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As you’re trying to rush out the door, you look over at your son on the couch zoned in on his tablet.  “Okay honey, we need to go.  Get your shoes on.”  He doesn’t even acknowledge you as your struggling to balance all you need for the day.  You repeat yourself a little louder.  Still no response.  You try one more time and even toss him his shoes.  He pushes them on the floor and continues with his game.  You decide to snatch the tablet and say “GET YOUR SHOES ON!”  His face turns beet red and he goes in to full meltdown mode.  You look at the clock and realize you have to be at work in 10 minutes!  You grab his shoes and force them on as he’s kicking and screaming the entire time.  You pick him up and run out the door, flustered still after you drop him off and drive to work.  The next morning you decide to hide his tablet, thus removing the distraction.  Problem solved. He wakes up and as soon as he notices his tablet was missing, another meltdown and repeat of the previous morning.

Little boy on doorstep putting his shoes on. 

How frustrating!  He knows you need to go to work.  He knows how to put his shoes on.  Why is he making this so hard for you?  The reality is children don’t enjoy these moments either and are doing the best they can, though it may not seem like it.  According to Dr. J. Stuart Ablon, if kids are challenging, there is something getting in the way and it is our responsibility to figure what that is.  He believes behaviors occur due to a lack or delay of one or more of the following skills: 1) language and communication (ex. Understanding spoken direction or expression of concerns, needs or thoughts in words) 2) attention/working memory (ex. Maintain attention or ignores irrelevant noise or people when necessary), 3) emotion and self-regulation (ex. rational thinking or adjust arousal level relevant to situation) 4) cognitive flexibility (ex. Handles transition well or adjusts to unpredictability) 5) social thinking (pays attention to verbal and nonverbal or empathizes).

So what can we do?  The first thing would be to look at your parenting style.  Are you a parent who uses sticker charts and an allowance to get your kids to complete tasks?  Are you quick to take away electronics or send them to their room if they are having behaviors?  Most people use a traditional way of parenting with rewards and punishments.  Studies are now showing this style fails to teach children complex thinking skills, build a relationship, or help children stay regulated.  In reality, it’s using your power and control to manipulate your child’s behavior and get them to do what you want and does not work long-term.  How long was that sticker chart effective?

Let’s look back at your struggling son.  First, identify the challenging behavior that’s occurring.  He yells, cries, kicks, and refuses to complete his task.  Next, describe the situation prior to the behavior in as much detail as possible.  Clearly, getting the opportunity to play on his tablet in the morning and not being able to is very difficult for him.  You were rushing to get out the door and getting frustrated with him, which may have fueled the tantrum.  Usually, his tantrums occur in the morning before school and he’s able to pull himself together by the time you get to the school.  Now reference above to the potential lagging skills and brainstorm which one(s) may apply to him.  Language and communication may be a struggle for him, as he will scream and cry when he gets his tablet taken away.  He doesn’t seem to have much interest in the schedule, although clearly does a good job of tuning out irrelevant noises (like your voice) so his attention and working memory may be lagging, as well.

Now it’s time for an action plan to avoid this behavior in the future.  Ablon’s Plan B method encourages the child and the adult to work collaboratively on a solution.  Sit down with your son after you pick him up from school and start the conversation with your neutral observation of the behavior that morning, for example, “Hey buddy, you seemed to struggle to get out the door in the morning.  How come?”  It’s important to use empathy and truly attempt to understand their concerns.  He may say he doesn’t like to go to school or playing on the tablet helps him wake up in the morning.  After he has had the opportunity to talk about his concerns, it’s your turn to do the same.  For example, “Yeah, I get that.  So my concern is everyone has to go to school and it’s important that we’re on time.  I also don’t want to get in trouble with my work for being late in the morning.”  You may get some push back when addressing your concerns, but it is important maintain the expectation while still validating their feels.  Exposure to small doses of stress can actually help change the neural connections in the brain. Finally, you will want to encourage him to think of solutions.  As Ablon stated, there is no such thing as a bad idea.  If he is struggling, it’s okay to help brainstorm but making sure he is in control.  Eventually, a solution will be made and he has decided to play his tablet on the way to school, instead of at home. Through that process, you have helped him self-motivate and encouraged skill development or improvement, even the one that may be lagging.

Albon’s Collaborative Problem Solving (CPS) Approach is an evidence-based practice that has demonstrated effectiveness with children and adolescents with a wide range of social, emotional, and behavioral challenges across a variety of different settings: from families, schools, mentoring organizations and foster care agencies to therapeutic programs such as inpatient psychiatry units, residential treatment and juvenile detention facilities.  This approach requires practice and may not be successful every time.  Once you have been able to master it, you will find yourself utilizing in other relationships in your life because, hey, we all have lagging skills.

For more information of Dr. Albron’s Collaborative Problem Solving Approach


This blog post was written by Post Adopt Coordinator Brittney Engelhard, LBSW.