What Are Trauma-Informed Schools?

It’s critical that school staff, educators, parents, and communities learn how to address the issue of trauma. Trauma-informed education supports a safe, welcoming environment in schools that is conducive to learning where all students can thrive. 

In a trauma-informed school, adults are trained to recognize and respond to others, from students to parents to administrators to teachers, who have been impacted by traumatic stressors. Having the tools to do so is critical for empowering the school community. 

Trauma-informed organizations like Rachel’s Challenge that encourage social-emotional learning (SEL) can help schools create a safe environment and give students the tools they need to thrive in that environment.

How Trauma Can Affect the Brain and Future Behavior

The brain is shaped by experiences, which evolve into memories. Trauma can include bullying, dramatic weather events, homelessness, divorce, abuse, the death of a loved one, school shootings, and more. 

These memories can be triggered at any moment by current sensory experiences, resulting in surges of emotions and impulsive behavior. A triggering sensory experience could be, for example, the smell of something that was present during a traumatic event, the sound of a voice, or clothing that was worn on the day of an event. 

Dr. Louis Cozolino explains, “At the most basic level, we shape one another’s embodied brains from pre-birth to death. If children experience chronic unpredictability from trauma, stress becomes prolonged and extreme. Their stress response systems then become dysfunctional, resulting in misunderstood behaviors that are deemed negative.”

The Impact of Trauma-Informed Education

The trauma-informed classroom is one in which adults recognize that children who appear to be detached, defiant, withdrawn, or aggressive often are in pain. They may display negative behaviors as their stress response systems become awakened by sensory triggers in the present.

When this happens, children often feel overwhelmed. Their ability to solve problems, reason, and separate what is safe from threatening is diminished. This causes them to feel unsafe or threatened, becoming reflexive and reactive. At this point, their brain does not have the resources to regulate thoughts or calm down. 

With trauma-informed practices in schools, students are given clear guidelines, communication strategies, and coping mechanisms to use during times of stress. The end goal is to create an educational culture of support and respect. 

What Is a Trauma-Informed Approach to Teaching?

Trauma-informed teaching uses repetitive experiences over time to create changes in the brain and nervous system, resulting in changed behaviors. Social-emotional learning is incorporated into the curriculum in trauma-informed schools and works to form a culture of connection and equity. 

Educators can incorporate several trauma-informed teaching practices to help students regulate their stress response systems. 

The following trauma-informed activities for students are about sensations and feelings and about how the brain reacts to the environment around us:

Sensations and Feelings

Sensations are physical symptoms and reactions to stimuli. It might be a queasy stomach, a racing heart, laughter, tears, or a nervous twitch like finger drumming or foot tapping. 

Create a collection of sensations on paper and have students pick one out of a jar. Have students draw a picture of their sensations. Whatever comes to their minds is fine because the idea is to help them recognize and explore those sensations. 

Discuss the sensations and include what might cause them and how students might alleviate them. This exercise shows students that they are not alone in how they react to things. The discussion also can provide an opportunity to share coping mechanisms among students. Discussions should be teacher-led but student-driven.

How the Brain Reacts to Our Environment

Discuss with the class how brains change all day, going through feelings of excitement, calmness, anger, irritation, happiness, and more. The brain is wired to gravitate toward negative bias, so it’s normal and common to feel negative emotions.

How we react to negative emotions and what we do to alleviate them is important. Trauma-informed programs can help schools create an emotional resilience in children that enables them to respond positively instead of negatively.

Draw a line on the board. This line represents the division between feeling “good” (happy, excited, calm, etc.) and feeling “bad” (nervous, angry, sad, etc.) Provide cut-outs of stomachs, brains, and hearts. Discuss the sensations and feelings we feel in those three places. 

Students then place stomachs, brains, and hearts at, above, or below the line. Educators can lead a discussion about how we can move feelings from below the line to above the line. This activity enables sharing ideas about problem-solving and encourages inclusion while students actively support each other.

Creating a Trauma-Informed School

The calm presence of teachers, administrators, and school personnel can help students digest disruptive experiences and react in healthy, safe ways. Facial expressions, gestures, posture, and tone of voice can generate the crucial feeling of safety students need. This must be a priority in trauma-informed schools.

Teaching students how the brain works and how we can negatively or positively react to perceived threats and stress can set the stage for sensory regulation. When children understand that their brains and bodies work for them and not against them, it can quiet the stress response system. 

Everyone from administrators to support staff must instill the safe, supportive environment children need.

Rachel’s Challenge is a set of “pro-kindness” programs that help schools create a culture of connection, inclusion, and ultimately, safety. When students feel safe and more connected, they are less likely to hurt others or themselves. 

Schools that have welcomed Rachel’s Challenge presentations report less isolation and less bullying among students. To learn more about bringing a Rachel’s Challenge program to your school, contact Rachel’s Challenge today.