School & District Management

‘Nobody Learns It in a Day': Creating Trauma-Sensitive Schools

By Sarah D. Sparks — August 20, 2019 | Updated: October 22, 2019 10 min read
First grader Conner MacElhiney slaps the color block that represents his mood during physical education class at Bethlehem Elementary School in New Hampshire. The school is leading the way in a statewide experiment to build schools that are more supportive of students dealing with trauma.
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Bethlehem, N.H.

There’s never been a clearer scientific picture of the ways damaging experiences and intense, chronic stress can hurt a child’s ability to learn in school. But for many schools, the picture of what trauma-sensitive schooling looks like in practice is still developing.

“We’re in an all-fired hurry because there’s this ‘trauma’ thing and we have to help our kids,” said Melissa Sadin, the director of the Creating Trauma-Sensitive Schools Initiative, a national group that trains school and district staff. “Yes, but you have to do it correctly, and nobody learns it in a day.”

Cognitive and neuroscience studies show traumatic stress interferes with memory and attention, good health, and emotional stability. Students who experience traumatic stress perform worse academically and cognitively, and their teachers reported worse behavior in the classroom, according to a 2016 meta-analysis.

And that’s a lot of students. Nearly half of all U.S. children have been exposed to at least one traumatic event, according to the latest federal data, and more than 1 in 5 have been exposed to several.

In the last decade, trauma-sensitive schooling has spread, driven by the emerging research, devastating natural and manmade disasters, and school discipline debates. Federal laws on special education and poverty now encourage schools to use trauma-informed practices, and more than a dozen states have passed laws or created grants designed to encourage schools to explore the approach.

Most states are still feeling their way in these initiatives, though, focusing on pilot studies or individual programs, according to analyses this year by the National Center for Mental Health in Schools, at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Howard Adelman, a psychology professor and co-director of the Center for Mental Health in Schools, said he’s skeptical that schools can provide enough training and resources to create effective supports for students with a history of trauma. For example, in a special issue devoted to trauma, the journal School Mental Health concludes that few models of trauma-sensitive schooling have been evaluated rigorously enough to prove they are effective.

“People tend to, when they think about barriers to learning, immediately look at problems with kids, like trauma,” Adelman said. But focusing on a student’s internal issues may divert attention from more practical problems that a school could help solve.

For example, in a poor, violent neighborhood, children tend to miss more school. They may have anxiety or stress-related illness, Adelman said—or they may lack safe, reliable transportation.

Matt Kristoff gets his 3rd graders ready to fly kites they built at Bethlehem Elementary School in Bethlehem, N.H. To make his class more welcoming, Kristoff greets each student every day with a greeting that they’ve created for themselves.

“We say, ‘Oh, these kids were traumatized.’ Well, they couldn’t even get to school!” Adelman said. “You can’t say it’s just one problem; it’s always the cluster of problems. How does the school play its role in solving them?”

In the absence of clear direction, schools are doing what they can to respond in ways that are both visible and not so easy to spot. “In some schools you might see a ‘calm corner’ in the classroom, or time in the day for brain breaks, or mindfulness,” said Lisa Dolan, who leads the district trauma-sensitive schooling initiative in Spotsylvania County, Va., public schools. “But the really big stuff you don’t see. It’s a mindset, a cultural shift away from reacting to students in a punitive ways to asking questions about what has happened, to understanding and nurturing.”

‘A Process, Not a Program’

Nothing big and immediate hits you as you walk into Bethlehem Elementary, but little signs of that cultural shift permeate this small rural school just outside the White Mountain National Forest in northern New Hampshire.

“It’s a process, not a program,” said Shelli Roberts, Bethlehem’s former principal. She launched trauma-sensitive schooling there two years ago.


Bethlehem is entering its third year of becoming a trauma-sensitive school. It was one of the first six districts to join New Hampshire’s Project GROW, for “Generating Resilience, Outcomes, and Wellness,” a statewide pilot to develop a network of trauma-sensitive schools.

Nearly 1 in 3 students in the school has experienced three or more traumatic experiences, known as adverse childhood experiences, or ACEs, according to Roberts, who now directs student services for the regional School Administrative Unit 36, which supports Bethlehem. And she believes both the number and severity of the problems have gotten worse in the last five years, in part due to rising rates of opioid abuse and domestic violence among adults in the community.

“One of the things that has struck me about Bethlehem is the amount of communication with children,” said Brenda Fortier-Dube, a social worker who serves Bethlehem Elementary and four other area schools. “Every other adult they see greets the children, and they greet them back. At other schools, the principal is at the door, but that’s it. You just don’t get that same sense of community. In a school like this it’s automatic; everyone is checking in all day.”

At the start of every class, teachers give a quick check-in with how students are feeling, based on a color code: blue for sad or tired; yellow for anxious or excited; red for angry or frustrated; or green for happy and ready to learn. These “zones” are a common tool for trauma-sensitive schools, but each teacher puts their own twist on it. Third-grade teacher Matt Kristoff meets each student as they arrive with a special greeting—from a handshake to a hug to a complicated hand-dance—that the student created at the start of the year. On the way into music class, students ring a different xylophone tone for each zone.

In physical education class one day near the end of the school year, students were running laps around the gym. As each one passed teacher Kristin Bruno, they jumped up to slap the blue, green, yellow, or red square on a poster on the wall. The exercise serves a dual purpose, Bruno said: to clue her in on students’ state of mind and to get their first rush of energy out.

Bruno also put up posters on mindfulness and yoga positions. When students get disruptive in class, they take a break to do the stretches.

“P.E. can bring out a lot of energy and aggression,” she said. “When I used to put a person into timeout, a lot of them weren’t able to sit. This gives them a way to refocus.”

Teachers also visit every student’s home at least once in spring and fall. Pairs of teachers—usually the current and former or future teacher of the student—meet with parents for about a half-hour “just to see this other side of the child’s life,” said kindergarten teacher Annalisa Blake.

Blake and two other teachers who have worked at the local homeless shelter meet with families there, too.

“We get to learn about parents’ hopes and dreams for their child, as well as their needs,” Blake said.

After talking to parents and community members, administrators found many families had difficulty paying for or getting transportation to counseling services. The school partnered with the county mental health agency to bring private therapists in three times a week. They also created break rooms on the upper and lower floors, for students who need to step out of class to refocus.

During break time one day, a small but steady number of students trickled into the second-floor room manned by trauma specialists Evangeline Gaubin and Jonathan Sartorelli. There’s no formal counseling or sensory therapy, but Gaubin and Sartorelli quietly provided small snacks for those who were hungry, and a small cubby area for one student who never seems to get enough sleep.

Many students headed straight for curtained-off chairs or sensory tables scattered around the room. The teachers chatted with those who wanted to talk, or quietly touched base with those who had withdrawn.

One tow-headed boy inched over and, after a few minutes, began to chat with Gaubin. He drops by a few times a week and he said having the room available helps him cope with anxious episodes in class.

“I come here when I feel sad,” he said. Last year, before the room opened, “I just held it in a lot,” he said.

First grader Connor Marcy checks into music class by playing the note associated with his mood at Bethlehem Elementary School. The tones help his teacher take a temperature check on students’ emotions before class begins.

Teachers can walk students over to the break room, but students mostly bring themselves. In the year since the room opened, referrals to the principal’s office dropped 75 percent.

“It’s a reset,” Gaubin said. “If they are in here, they’re never in trouble; we don’t do in-school suspensions or anything like that. ... A lot of them just come in and vent, and feel better and go back to class.”

Building Foundations

Often, district policies need a “complete overhaul” to support trauma-sensitive schooling, said Timothy Purnell, a former superintendent in Somerville, N.J., who was named his state’s superintendent of the year in 2016 for launching trauma-sensitive practices in his district.

It took nearly three years to review and rethink “every single policy, be it a school handbook or even a teacher’s classroom rules,” Purnell said, “through the lens of, ‘Does this disconnect students? [or] ... Does this give us the opportunity to treat a child uniquely and with respect?’ said Purnell, who has since become the chief executive officer of the American Montessori Society.

Sadin and Yackley agreed that school and district leaders should focus on trying to improve professional development for teachers to use a trauma-informed approach with all students, rather than trying to “find the high-ACEs kids.”

That can be a heavy lift.

In a nationally representative survey by the Education Week Research Center earlier this summer, more than 1 in 5 teachers said their most challenging task was “finding ways to help students who appear to be experiencing emotional or psychological distress,” and more than twice as many reported difficulty supporting students who struggled with problems outside of school.

Even school psychologists, who often bear the brunt of guiding schools’ trauma-sensitive practices, can be at a loss. There are no nationally representative surveys, but in a study of more than 100 school psychologists and their preservice trainers published in the Journal of Applied School Psychology in November, more than three-quarters report having had little or no training in trauma-informed practices.

In Bethlehem Elementary, too, teachers have expressed confusion and concern about how to teach in trauma-informed ways, said Carol Haywood, Bethlehem’s lead special education teacher. “It’s taken at least a year before people were starting to come around. There were quite a few people that really were not ready for it because they’re still struggling with, does this mean [students] don’t have consequences [for acting out in class]?”

Bethlehem Elementary’s incoming Principal Sue Greenlaw, a 30-year veteran teacher and counselor at the school, has heard the concern too. She argued: “That’s not the case at all; Kids need accountability, but how you do that can be trauma-sensitive.”

She noted that in her own years as a teacher, she sometimes struggled not to take bad behavior in the classroom personally. “You have to be willing to look at the big picture, not just a list of behaviors and punishments. ... We’ve struggled with that,” she said.

Cassie Yackley, a trauma specialist at Antioch University New England Center for Behavioral Health Innovation, who trains schools for Project GROW, said Bethlehem Elementary has made significant progress among the districts in the New Hampshire pilot, but added that it takes time to shift teacher and community perspectives on how to maintain order while being sensitive to students’ needs. “We have this sense that only certain people can talk about students’ bad experiences, but everyone can talk about bad behavior,” Yackley said. “If you focus on just behavior, you do not address the fear or help heal the brain. It sets up this idea that people who experience trauma can’t heal and do beautiful things in this world.”

The school has seen some hopeful signs. Disadvantaged students there outperform the state average in math and reading, and absenteeism and suspensions have declined.

About This Series

This is the first installment in a series of articles exploring how schools are learning to recognize and respond to students experiencing stress, whether their trauma stems from a sudden disaster or a long-term hardship like poverty or abuse. Read More.

“At this school, they’re always figuring out what’s driving the behavior,” said Fortier-Dube, the clinical social worker for Bethlehem and four other schools. For example, she pointed to the end-of-year class trip to a local escape room; teachers explained in advance exactly how the game worked: “We’ll go into a room and they’ve got a lock; they’re going to lock you in for a certain amount of time. Is that OK?” she said. “It’s just, that’s how everyone thinks here. It’s not how people think at other schools.”

Coverage of whole-child approaches to learning is supported in part by a grant from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, at Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the August 21, 2019 edition of Education Week as ‘Nobody Learns It In a Day’


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