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Missteps with Trauma-informed Schools


Missteps with Trauma-Informed Schools

I am a part of a team of highly committed, innovative, and creative individuals who all believe that we are the right people to create meaningful and positive change. Each of us also believes deeply that YOU are the right person for this job too.

There are three environments in which almost all young people exist: 1) the family environment, 2) the community environment, and 3) the school environment. It’s time that we let go of all the narratives that cast blame or point fingers and instead, build radical acceptance that each of these places has the possibility to build positive outcomes for children. Children spend more face to face time with adults at school than they do at home, when school is in session. This piece is for our precious educators.

We have so many opportunities to become the buffers for children experiencing adversity in all three of these places. And there are a myriad of adversities in all three of these environments that children must overcome. That is life.

However, when we understand the science of resilience, we become better positioned to embrace the concept of buffering children through a safety net of supportive relationships and build our own toolkit for helping the young people in our lives build skills that promote their resilience.

excerpt from a whitepaper from Harvard’s Center for the Developing Child:
Supportive Relationships and Active Skill-Building Strengthen the Foundations of Resilience

Educators across the country have been intrigued and have rallied around the concept of building schools that are trauma-informed.

I also see three big missteps that people leading change are making. I want to name those things here:

Misstep 1 Self-care.

This conversation has left many educators feeling beat up and overlooked and the stress, overwhelm, isolation, and pain is exacerbated. Often what people in the trenches hear is, “This is a hard job, you will likely experience secondary trauma-stress from students and therefore in order to not burn out yourself, you need to do additional things OUTSIDE of work to mitigate your own experiences of profession-related toxic stress.” When the truth is, true professional self-care is something that is to be done INSIDE of the work day and is a collective response from the school about how to promote a workplace that values staff and mitigates physiological and emotional overwhelm. We call it co-care.

Some Examples of workplace co-care:

  • Encourage and systemically build in Five-Minute Breaks, and this is not during the 5-minute passing period hall-monitoring time.
  • Walk-Talk-Share and Go Outside, (Not for recess duty)
  • Move The Body, eg, take the stairs, walk around, jog in place, vigorously do “the twist,” dance to music, etc.
  • Sincere Celebrations: Acknowledge work accomplishments and growth in each person. Eliminate the stigma of acknowledging our own accomplishments.
  • Create A “Shutdown Routine” at the end of the workday.
  • Administrators schedule emails to come out on Monday mornings, not on the weekends: No Email on Weekends
  • Build and nurture a Conflict Resolution Culture and its ongoing practices
  • Space is created for connection and when hard things happen, there is a process to work through it. Connection Construction and Rupture Repairs
  • Develop or participate in groups or events where teachers, paras, and administrators are genuinely celebrated.
  • Set appropriate work/life boundaries and support your fellow teachers who do the same.
  • Create a space where we can each share our joys and our heavy burdens without judgment or the need to fix/rescue one another.
  • Practice forgiveness.
  • Practice holding space and extending grace for the times a colleague is struggling professionally and/or personally.
  • Holding one another accountable for growth, while holding space for that to happen, knowing true and lasting growth includes some missteps and consistent support.
  • Collectively work on things like empathy, acceptance, and hope.

It is cruel to expect teachers to carry the allostatic load of the profession during the day while also using their downtime and family time to mitigate the effects of workplace toxic stress outside of work.

And we must create systems of co-care in the early days of building a trauma-informed school system or our people will not have mental or emotional space to make the hard shifts.

Misstep 2: Believing a safe supportive relationship is the panacea for struggling kids.

This is the message that we are shouting from the rooftops. We know from the research that relationships create both buffers and adversities. But simply having a strong relationship with a struggling student will NOT change everything. BUT, it is the doorway to the skill building that must be done to change trajectories. Without holding this as sacred, we cannot get to the skill building. Trust is the first ingredient for safety.

Misstep 3 Discipline: We cannot discipline children who are or have had unbuffered adversity.

Nothing could be farther from the truth. If we are not holding students accountable inside of a safe and supportive community, we are failing them. BUT, this is often the black-white thinking, or the pendulum swing that happens inside a building when people begin the journey of becoming trauma-informed. There is undeniable fallout from this approach. In order to heal and grow healthy brains that are wired for fight, flight freeze, and shift them into brains that can access the understanding of cause and effect, we must always have consequences for actions, for both adults and children.


The timing and the types of consequences are vital, and we must be on the lookout for punishment within our approach. However, we know that discipline is an essential part of creating safety and growth.

So back to the science of resilience. This is from the research:

  • The availability of at least one stable, caring, and supportive relationship between a child and the important adults in his or her life. These relationships begin in the family, but they can also include neighbors, providers of early care and education, teachers, social workers, or coaches, among many others.
  • Helping children build a sense of mastery over their life circumstances. Those who believe in their own capacity to overcome hardships and guide their own destiny are far more likely to adapt positively to adversity.
  • Children who develop strong executive function and self-regulation skills. These skills enable individuals to manage their own behavior and emotions, and develop and execute adaptive strategies to cope effectively with difficult circumstances.
  • The supportive context of affirming faith or cultural traditions. Children who are solidly grounded within such traditions are more likely to respond effectively when challenged by a major stressor or a severely disruptive experience.

So if we boil all of this down and continue to invest in the work of resilience-building with kids and colleagues, the key takeaways are:

  1. Relationships with struggling students matter greatly.
  2. Kids also need real skills to overcome adversity and deal with future adversities.
  3. Activating voice within our students is a really big deal AND giving them choice within their learning experiences creates a positive sense of self that they will need for the rest of their lives.

When we work from all three of these places, brains change and so do trajectories.

Lastly, parents, faith-based & cultural organizations, and educators are all key people in the resilience-building of our children. If it is not happening in two out of the three, the place where it is happening can still change everything. I know, because this happened to me. And the school system made it happen for my kids.

Teachers, paras, custodians, secretaries, bus drivers, food service staff, and administrators, we see you. You matter.


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Comments (7)

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This piece raises really important nuances that often get lost in high-level trauma informed trainings - so thank you. I love the idea of co-care, and removing the burden on teachers to manage the allostatic load in isolation/outside of work. As a school-based trauma educator, I often lead off with the universality of trauma, and focus on how they, as educators, can create space in their day to support themselves within their community. More often than not, this leads to the brick wall response that 'they don't even have time to go to the bathroom or eat' much less talk a walk or spend time in the teachers lounge. Moving forward, there needs to be a much deeper reckoning within district offices and site administrators regarding shared accountability for improving culture and creating/enforcing space for teachers to breath and connect. (However, it is unfortunate to note that with the current teacher/sub shortage, most sites are already spread thin -- creating real barriers to doing what is necessary to give teachers space for wellbeing.)

With regard to discipline, also agree 100% - there are nuances there as well that when overlooked absolutely lead to black and white thinking - it's either tough love or coddling. Supporting educators to recognize the need to pivot away from a traditional/punitive response to one that *leads* with relationships and follows with consequences is tricky. It's pushing back against hundreds of years of ingrained punishment doctrine ;-) Hopefully sites are able to access not just training but sustained coaching and check-ins to help imbed practices, trouble-shoot, and discuss outcomes. Thank you again for raising these issues, Rebecca!

An excellent article, hitting on many of the main misconceptions of trauma-informed education.  I speak to all of these in my classes and professional development offerings.  Also, all school staff (not just teachers) should be trained in recognizing when a student might be dysregulated, especially when they are experiencing hypoarousal.  These are the kids that teacher's often assume "just don't care" and are often are labeled "lazy," "disinterested," or "disengaged."

Thanks SO much for posting this, Rebecca! Terrific advice, and I hope many people read this and incorporate it into their lives.

I would add just one more piece: It's just as important to understand the science of childhood adversity as it is the science of resilience. They go hand in hand, Understanding what happened, including how much happened, to kids helps teachers, parents, etc. understand how to create the safe environments they need. Kids that have had more adversity might need more or different types of guidance or assistance.

It also helps adults understand each other, especially to understand that some types of trauma are triggering and others aren't. A 40-year-old adult may think that they've dealt with all their issues, and then their kid becomes a teenager, and suddenly the adult is dealing with memories they've forgotten, but now roar screaming to the surface.

Rebecca -- you and I sing the same song!  This is a BEAUTIFUL piece!!!  I love that you point out that trauma-informed care can't be boiled down into black-white thinking...that of course we will discipline (teach) children and hold them accountable, but creating trust and maintaining the relationship is the key to helping the children be able to learn and grow from anything (including discipline) that we teach them.  I'm sharing this forward on our networks too -- it's full of wisdom!

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