What Are Trauma-Sensitive Schools?


Research shows nearly every school has students who have been exposed to traumatic experiences known as Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs). A wide variety of violence and victimization scenarios fall under the ACE umbrellas, including various types of abuse, neglect, loss and family members who struggle with addiction, domestic violence, imprisonment or mental illness.


Trauma of all kinds can affect students’ executive functioning skills and abilities to regulate their behaviors. Students coping with traumatic experiences may have a harder time than their peers when planning, remembering or focusing on what they need to learn. Trauma-sensitive schools employ trauma-sensitive educational practices to mitigate these difficulties. These practices are often most necessary in communities with high rates of drug abuse, poverty and other possible triggers for childhood hardship.


Educational leaders who understand the impacts of trauma on the structures and practices of their school bring trauma sensitivity to school operations. To alleviate the effects of trauma on students’ education and well-being, build student resilience and prevent further distress, leaders of trauma-sensitive schools work with school faculty and staff to create a safe environment that emphasizes trust, choice and collaboration.


Graduates of the Florida Gulf Coast University (FGCU) online Master of Education (M.Ed.) in Educational Leadership program are well prepared to address student trauma needs and build safe school environments.


How School Leaders Play a Part


Leaders in these schools also aim to help all students feel safe and supported to learn throughout the school day. Neurobiological studies suggest students need a sense of safety to succeed in the classroom. Those suffering the effects of trauma may have trouble feeling safe in the classroom, which means school leaders must identify priority needs for students and families in their schools and tailor solutions to fit their unique requirements.


School leadership plays a key role in creating an infrastructure and culture that engages staff in strategic planning and encourages the integration of trauma-sensitive approaches into existing practices. Dr. Sal Terrasi, the co-author of Trauma and Learning in America’s Classrooms, outlines four ways in which school and district administrators can work together to foster trauma-sensitive school environments: advocacy, communication, training and development, and community connections.


1. Advocacy


School leadership has a voice and platform that faculty and staff often do not have. Members of school and district leadership can utilize their platforms and positions to advocate for the necessary data collection, training, tools and funding to ensure trauma-sensitive schools are able to best meet the needs of their student populations.


2. Communication 


While school counselors, faculty and other members of the educational team are on the front lines of addressing student trauma and mitigating the effects, leadership ultimately makes the big decisions regarding student placement, programming and curricula. Without a clear understanding of expectations, roles and needs, faculty and staff cannot effectively address student trauma. Clear and consistent communication with faculty and staff fosters a sense of teamwork and shared leadership across schools and districts.


3. Training and Professional Development


Trauma-sensitive schools utilize a network of district leaders, administrators, faculty, staff and outside professionals to inform their approach to trauma-sensitive education. Professional development is key to ensuring each team member is aware of the following: the nature and impact of trauma on student well-being, approaches to combat trauma impact and their own role in creating a safe and secure environment for students.


School leadership is also responsible for identifying and providing trauma-sensitive professional development opportunities. Educators can draw from various training platforms and resources dedicated to trauma-sensitive education, such as the Attachment & Trauma Network, Inc. professional development series aimed at all members of a school/district’s educational team.


4. Community Connection


Many districts utilize trauma advisory boards to guide their trauma-sensitive initiatives. These boards might include district attorneys, counseling agents, human service agencies and police representatives. This casts trauma-sensitive school initiatives as community initiatives, garnering support from a variety of community agencies to coordinate efforts that inform practice and structure. School leadership is responsible for connecting with community resources and agencies to garner support and draw resources.


The FGCU online M.Ed. in Educational Leadership program prepares graduates to improve trauma sensitivity in schools and serve students and their communities. Graduates will understand how to “maximize the use of resources to promote a safe, efficient, legal and effective learning environment.” The program is designed for teachers with two years of experience who want to pursue the Florida Department of Education (FLDOE) Level 1 Educational Leadership certification in order to be an assistant principal.


Learn more about FGCU’s online M.Ed. Educational Leadership program.

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