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Volume 30, Number 3
May/June 2014

“Trauma-Sensitive Schools”

A new framework for reaching troubled students


Danielle Winn, a teacher in Brockton, Mass., displays a pass students take when they need a break from class.

The most artfully devised curriculum means little to a student whose mind is fixed on last night’s shooting outside or the scary, violent fight between parents that broke out in the kitchen. Brilliant teaching often can’t compete with the sudden loss of a parent or friend. Yet incidents like these reverberate in schools and pose deep challenges to educators.

More than 15 years of research reveals that the prevalence and effect of “adverse childhood experiences” (ACEs) are pervasive in the United States—more than 68 percent of children have experienced a possible traumatic event by age 16—and pernicious, with higher ACE scores correlating to health, education, and social problems. Federal data show that 686,000 children were victims of abuse or neglect in 2012, the most recent year for which figures are available. The National Survey of Children’s Exposure to Violence found one in four children had witnessed violence, and one in 10 had seen one family member assault another.

Children who experience trauma struggle with interpersonal relationships, face cognitive deficits (including memory and language development), and overreact to everyday stress. In school, because traumatized students view the world as dangerous and misread social cues, minor events may trigger defiant, disruptive, or aggressive behavior. Alternately, they may withdraw and seem not to care. “Their ability to cope is overwhelmed,” says Eric Rossen, director of Professional Development and Standards for the National Association of School Psychologists, explaining that such behavior is often a magnet for disciplinary action. 

Now, a growing interest in creating “trauma-sensitive,” “trauma-aware,” or “trauma-informed” schools has educators checking raised voices, putting away detention slips, and looking not at bad behavior but at what triggered it. In trauma-sensitive schools, says Rossen, staff adjust their interactions with traumatized students—from letting them exit class mid­lesson if they feel overwhelmed to changing “automatic thoughts” when confronting a student acting out—so that they can focus on learning. 

This is an excerpt from the Harvard Education Letter. Subscribers can click here to continue reading this article.


For Further Information

A. T. Chu and A. F. Lieberman. “Clinical Implications of Traumatic Stress from Birth to Age Five.” Annual Review of Clinical Psychology, no. 6 (2010): 469–494.

S. F. Cole et al. Helping Traumatized Children Learn. Boston, MA: Massachusetts Advocates for Children, 2005.

W. E. Copeland et al. “Traumatic Events and Posttraumatic Stress in Childhood.” Archives of General Psychiatry 64, no. 5 (2007): 577–584.

D. Finkelhor et al. “Children’s Exposure to Violence: A Comprehensive National Survey.” Juvenile Justice Bulletin. Washington, DC: Department of Justice, October 2009.