7 Essential Elements of Trauma-Informed Schools

There are many different definitions for what a trauma-informed school is and I encourage you to check out the resource list available at the Resilience Impact website (resilienceimpact.com) to continue your learning on some of the different models. Some models have a clinical mental health focus, some focus on individual student or classroom interventions, and still others focus on specific programs or curriculum. All approaches have something to offer, but a whole-school based approach that uses data to inform approaches, monitor progress and reflect on successes is the most impactful way to approach transforming schools to be more trauma-informed.  The work to become more trauma-informed will not endure if the linchpin for that success is based solely on a charismatic and passionate leader. The work to be trauma-informed must be incorporated into the culture and climate of a school in a way that it becomes part of the identity of the way that school operates.

The definition used in this model is:

A trauma-informed school realizes the prevalence and impact of trauma and responds by building resilience, relationships and safety for students, families and staff.

7 Essential Elements

There are 7 essential elements that work together to create a trauma-informed school:

Trauma & Toxic Stress Prevalence and Impact: All staff understand that trauma and toxic stress responses are necessary patterns of behavior that have kept a child emotionally and physically safe when exposed to adverse experiences.  However, the same responses that have been so important in keeping a child safe, have created brain structures that struggle with learning, relationships and regulation. Students and families know how their past experiences may impact their functioning in a culturally and developmentally appropriate manner. All staff believe that healing from trauma occurs within the context of relationship.

Multi-Tiered Systems of Support: Some children will need more support, whether it be with academics, behavior, mental health or physical needs.  Schools have a plan of how that support will be provided, appropriate staffing to support students who struggle, interventions that are matched to student need and a system of how to monitor whether progress is being made.  

Engaging & Affirming Instruction: Students, staff and families value learning and hold high expectations for student engagement in academic tasks. Instruction is culturally and linguistically relevant and affirming to their life experiences. Social-emotional-behavioral skills are directly and proactively taught by all staff and opportunities for reteaching are provided when students violate expectations for behavior at school.

Reason to Be: Staff are able to find meaning and purpose in their work, they have vision for the future for their students and an internal drive that motivates them to do their work.  Staff know the traumatic stories of their students, but are able to separate themselves from their stories to preserve their own emotional health. Students and families have a vision for the future and see school as an important component of making that vision a reality.

Protective Factors: One of the most powerful things a school can do to build resilience in students, staff and families is to emphasize the importance of building 6 protective factors: healthy relationships, sleep, nutrition, exercise, mental health, and mindfulness.

Family & Community Engagement: Schools should be a place where all are welcome and feel included. Schools must adopt a belief that the best possibilities exist for their students when families and community partners are an active participant in their school community. Schools realize that their families have their own set of adverse experiences that create challenges and are relentless in their support and engagement of families.

School Climate: Students, staff and families should experience school as a safe place, both physically and emotionally.  There should be consistent structure and limits that establish appropriate behavior expectations and a predictable course of action if those expectations are not followed.  

Next week on the blog, I will be covering how to assess for areas of strength and growth in each of these areas using the Trauma-Informed Organizational Needs Assessment, along with a great pdf resource that can walk you through the process. Sign up to get my resource guide here.

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