Developing Trauma Sensitive and Trauma-Informed Schools by Employing our Compassion Based Trauma Resolution Model

This page looks at the What, Why (The Problem) & How (The Solution) of developing and maintaining Trauma-Informed & Trauma-Sensitive schools that promote safe & supportive learning environments that benefit children and young people who are experiencing, and have, experienced trauma.

The Problem: Up to 68% of students experience at least one potential traumatic experience and between 20-40% of students have complex trauma histories (3 or more traumatic stress incidents) (Australian Childhood Foundation, 2010, 2013; Trauma Informed Schools Australia [TISA], 2015b; Rossen & Cowan, 2013). Research has clearly established the adverse impacts trauma can have on brain functioning, brain development and neurophysiological health, which then negatively impacts on;

  • language, communication, literacy & numeracy skills & development
  • learning motivation
  • organisational ability
  • cognitive, attentive, concentration and memory retention/recall skills
  • self-regulating skills/behaviours
  • interpersonal relational skills/behaviours
  • social/emotional intelligence capacities and capabilities (Australian Childhood Foundation, 2010, 2013; Focal Point, 2015; Porges, 2011; Seigel, 2009. 2012, 2013; van der Kolk, 2005)

In addition, students with complex trauma histories are more likely to be;

  • 6 times more likely to have severe behaviour problems
  • 5 times more likely to have severe attendance problems
  • 3 times more likely to fail
  • 4 times more likely to have self-reports of poor health (TISA, 2015a)

The Solution: Trauma-informed & trauma-sensitive schools provide the inherent safety that traumatised students need in order to learn and develop social/emotiona/relationall intelligence skills. This requires a whole of school approach, focus and effort and needs to be a key piece of contemporary education reform. There is a growing international recognition that developing and maintaining trauma-informed & trauma-sensitive schools is also a social justice and human rights issue (United Nations, 1990, 2105). Trauma-informed & trauma-sensitive will look and be different for each unique school environment. Though, one common objective is the development and implementation of a shared vision of what it means to be a trauma-informed & trauma-sensitive school. This is a whole of school community exercise; teachers, administrators, policy makers, ancillary staff, student represenatives, parents and the wider school community.

Proven Benifits of Adopting a Trauma-Informed & Trauma-Sensitive Approach:

  • 85% drop in aggressive behaviour incidents
  • 80% drop in general disciplinary problems
  • 80% drop in suspension rates
  • 42% drop in violent student incidents
  • 40% drop in expulsions
  • 32% drop in disciplinary office referrals
  • Significant improvements in literacy & numeracy scores (Cole, Eisner, Gregory & Ristuccia, 2013; Cole, O’Brien, Gadd, Ristuccia, Wallace, & Gregory, 2005; TISA, 2014, 2015a, 2015b).

General Characteristics of Trauma-Informed & Trauma-Sensitive Schools:

Leadership: A Whole of School Approach in Developing the Shared Vision of Trauma-Informed & Trauma-Sensitive Education

Senior school leaders collaboratively develop with all staff members, volunteers, student representatives and community members a common and shared vision of what their trauma-informed & trauma-sensitive school will look and function like.

Education, Training & Professional Development:

Ongoing education, training and professional development for all staff & school community members of and about the prevalence of trauma, (personal, familial, cultural, social, historical & inter/trans-generational), and the adverse impacts trauma, and its consequential behaviours, has on children, young people, their families and communities. Understanding the Neuroscience & Neurobiology of trauma, violence and abuse. As well as the Neuroscience & Neurobiology of Resilience, empathy, compassion & secure attachment. Additional education & training about the concept and consequences of re-traumatisation through what is termed institutional/systemic abuse. In other words, when safety and safe interpersonal relationships are not at the heart of our institutions and systems it is traumatising for people with complex trauma histories to be involved in and processed by these institutions and systems. A good example is the continuing request for trauma survivors to tell and retell their trauma stories to a variety of untrained, and often insensitive, representatives of government & non-government departments/institutions. This retelling of their trauma stories in this context is re-traumatising.

Ongoing education, training and professional development in the creation & maintenance of safety and safe interpersonal relationships. The concept that teachers, school counsellors and other support staff become what is termed “safe transitional secure attachment figures” (please use this link to our ART webpage for more details) in the relationships they establish with students with complex trauma needs & trauma histories. This is about not only creating safe physical spaces and place but also safe academic, emotional, social, psychological spaces and places as well. This requires the development of a broader more holistic lens/filter to view and understand students with complex needs & trauma histories.  With this lens in place scis actively engaged in safe & supportive spaces, places and situations where these new skills and techniques can be practiced without the shame of” getting it wrong’ or of not being hools can bolster key areas that have been shown to assist in the resolution of trauma, particularly in children and young people. These key areas include; safe interpersonal relationships with all school staff and peers; self-regulatory behaviours, e.g. learning mindfulness skills/practice (please use this link to our Mindfulness in Schools webpage for additional information), success in both academic & non-academic arenas: and promotion of physical, emotional, mental, and social wellbeing, e.g. through the principles of positive psychology & education principles (Seligman, 2011).

As students learn these new skills and techniques the whole school community good enough. The whole school community is skilled in the concepts and practice of “unconditional positive regard”, personal stability/authenticity/congruence and empathic/compassionate communication which fosters safe risk-taking academic & non-academic behaviours (Rogers, 1957, 1963, 1980, 1989). Trauma-informed and trauma-sensitive schools do not focus on the concept of “what can we do to fix this student?” They do focus on the concept of, “what can we do as a whole community that supports all of our students to feel & be safe and feel like they are valued, accepted & acknowledged just for who they are as human beings. This process develops a deep & profound sense of belonging for all students, staff & community members that goes a long way in a sense of developing secure attachment and hence start to resolve complex trauma needs and histories.

Trauma-informed and trauma-sensitive schools also develop a flexible, adaptive, proactive approach to change, structural, systemic, economic, professional, social and communal, so as the equilibrium of the school remains relatively calm and stable, a prerequisite for creating and maintain safe relationships, space & places. Students need to feel and be safe and connected to adults and their peers in all areas of the school environment (classroom, tuckshop/cafeteria, intra-school spaces, play areas and schools buses), not just on specific programs and or staff. At best only an average, based on research and clinical studies, can indicate the percentage of students with adverse trauma impacts and needs. The exact number of students impacted by trauma may never be known. Therefore, a best-practice model based on trauma-informed and trauma sensitive education, training, and whole of school implementation and maintenance will support all students in achieving academic, vocational, psychosocial, interpersonal, behavioural, emotional, mental & physical positive outcomes, goals and potentials.

Trauma is not just an event. It is a complex set of responses to any situation, event or circumstances that overwhelms a person’s capacity to cope (Siegel, 2014). When these types of traumatic stressors occur in childhood the accumulative effect can compromise that child’s whole learning and school experience. This in itself is traumatic, which then compounds the impacts of the initial trauma response. With adolescents trauma experiences can often be displayed as a variety of behaviours including self-medicating, substance abuse, truancy, aggression, non-compliance, defiance, withdrawal, disconnection, disassociation, isolation, smoking, eating disorders, overt sexualised actions and various physical health conditions.

Working Definition: A trauma-informed & trauma-sensitive school is one in which safety (academic/scholastic, physical, psychological, emotional, mental, relational and social) and safe interpersonal relationships (staff, volunteers & whole school community) are placed at the centre of its educational mission. Consequently, all students feel, and are, safe, respected, acknowledged, validated and are cared for, and about, in a holistic manner. The school has an ongoing, collaborative, transparent and inquiry-based process allows for the necessary teamwork, coordination, creativity, flexibility, and sharing of responsibility for all students. The school is also committed to using trauma-informed and evidenced-based practices that support the learning and wellbeing outcomes of all students (please view our ART webpage for additional information). Being trauma-informed and trauma sensitive means that school recognises and acknowledges the negative impacts of trauma on child development and learning. Schools also recognise and acknowledge that many of their students have experienced, and continue to experience, trauma in their lives and that this then reverberates in all areas of their life long after the traumatic event/s have occurred. 

Additional names Trauma-Informed & Trauma-Sensitive Schools are known by: Collaborative Learning for Educational Achievement and Resilience (CLEAR), Compassionate Schools, Schools as Sanctuaries, Therapeutic Schools, Edu-Care Models, and Safe and Supportive Schools.

Please Note: A school/organisation cannot be trauma-informed & trauma-sensitive if its staff members are experiencing moderate to high levels of Compassion Fatigue, Secondary Traumatic Stress and/or Burnout (for additional information on Compassion Fatigue, Secondary Traumatic Stress & Burnout please use this link to our About Training Program webpage and scroll down to Definition of Terms).

References

Aplin, V. (2015). Why be a trauma-sensitive school? Australian Child & Adolescent Trauma, Loss & Grief Network, Australian National University, Australian Government Department of Health.

Australian Childhood Foundation (2010). Making space for learning: Trauma-informed practices in schools. Retrieved from

Australian Childhood Foundation (2013). Safe & secure: A trauma-informed practice guide for understanding and responding to children and young people affected by family violence.

Cole, Eisner, Gregory & Ristuccia, (2013). Helping traumatised children learn: Creating and advocating for trauma-sensitive schools. Massachusetts Advocates for Children, Harvard Law School.Retrieved from

Cole, O’Brien, Gadd, Ristuccia, Wallace, & Gregory (2005). Helping traumatised children learn: A report and policy agenda. Massachusetts Advocates for Children Trauma and Learning Policy Initiative, The Hale and Dorr Legal Services Centre of Harvard Law School, Task Force on Children Affected by Domestic Violence. Retrieved from

Focal Point (2015). Creating organizations that address the needs of youth, families, and staff who have experienced trauma. Youth, Young Adults, & Mental Health, Trauma-Informed Care, 29, 36-39. Retrieved from

Pappano, L. (2014). Trauma-sensitive schools: A new framework for reaching troubled students. Harvard Education Letter, 30(3),

Porges, S. W. (2011). The Polyvagal theory: Neurophysiological foundations of emotions, attachment, communication and self-regulation. New York, NY: Norton & Company Inc.

Rossen, E,. & Cowan, K. (2013). The role of schools in supporting traumatised students. Principal’s Research Review, 8(6), 1-7.

Rogers, C. R. (1957). The necessary and sufficient conditions of therapeutic personality change. Journal of Consulting Psychology, 2, 95-103.

Rogers, C. R. (1963). The concept of the fully functioning person. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research & Practice, 1(1), 17-26.

Rogers, C. R. (1980). A Way of Being. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin.

Rogers, C. R. (1989). On Becoming a Person. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin.

Seligman, M. (2011). Flourish: A visionary new understanding of happiness and wellbeing. New York: NY. Simon & Schuster Inc.

Siegel, D. J. (2009). Mindsight: Change your brain and your life. Victoria, Australia: Scribe Publications Pty Ltd.

Siegel, D. J. (2012). A pocket guide to interpersonal neurobiology: An integrative handbook of the mind. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company Inc.

Siegel, D. J. (2013). Brainstorm: The power and purpose of the teenage brain. Victoria, Australia: Scribe Publications Pty Ltd.

Siegel, D. (2014). Trauma from the inside out: The impact of unresolved trauma and loss, parental self-understanding, and neural integration on development in families. Master class presented at the Australian Childhood Foundation’s Childhood Trauma Conference, Melbourne August, 2014.

Trauma Informed Schools Australia (TISA), (2014). Trauma sensitive schools recognised with Premier’s teaching scholarship win. Monthly Archives: August 2014. Retrieved from

TISA, (2015a). The way forward. Retrieved from

TISA, (2015b). What’s the problem? Retrieved from

United Nations (1990). Convention on the rights of the child. Retrieved from

United Nations, (2015). UN convention on the rights of the child in child friendly language. Retrieved from