My first year as a principal in Cambridge, MA, I kept a pair of running shoes under my desk.  While I was known for the sound of my spiky high heels coming down the hallways, I quickly learned I needed something speedier to catch up with a first grader who regularly tried to flee the building. We were all perplexed about why, in a very calm, engaging, small classroom with a warm and loving teacher, this tiny, quiet girl felt moved to run. What we didn’t yet understand was that she had experienced significant trauma in her short life. And every time she faced a challenge, even a small social or academic one, it was a trigger. She would flee under the table or – I would be strapping my running shoes on. 

Nearly half of all American children have experienced trauma, according to the National Survey of Children’s Health (NSCH). By the time today’s students reach adulthood, 72% of them will have experienced some form of trauma.

Trauma has many causes, including poverty, abuse, and neglect. In the last few months children across the country have lost their homes, or their loves ones, to hurricanes, fires, earthquakes, mass shootings. Some young people are helplessly watching as immigration laws change and threaten to deport them and their family members.  School and district leaders must be ready to support children facing trauma with a compassionate and research-informed response. 

The impact of trauma is far-reaching. When victims of trauma think about what they experienced, trauma expert Dr. Bessel Van der Kolk found, they work hard to “push it out of their minds, trying to act as if nothing happened. It takes tremendous energy to keep functioning while carrying the memory of terror, and the shame of utter weakness and vulnerability.”

Whether they happened yesterday or years ago, traumatic events can affect brain development and functioning and make the victims more sensitive and reactive to perceived threats. While caring adults may not detect any danger, Van der Kolk wrote, traumatized children live in a world that is “filled with triggers.”

This is why children facing trauma often struggle in school. Because they have difficulty regulating their behaviors, they often are removed from classrooms, causing them to miss the chance to learn critical skills and concepts. Early trauma can also negatively affect students’ executive functioning as well as their ability to develop strong friendships. 

Students who have experienced trauma are more likely to fail standardized exams, to be referred for special education, and to drop out of high school, researcher Susan Craig has found.

Adults cannot erase a child’s memory of trauma, but we can work to develop trauma-sensitive schools. Here are some steps every principal or school system leader can take to develop a supportive environment for children who have experienced trauma:

Develop a strong team of counselors

Nationally, most students who need mental health services do not receive them, but 70% to 80% of those who do receive them do so in school. Be sure your school or district has enough social workers and psychologists to meet your students’ needs. A recent study found that children who had been abused and neglected and who had received long term psychological support had statistically significant improvements in 10 areas including depression, school problems, anxiety and aggression. Support from a specially trained clinician can help traumatized children build resilience and regain functionality. If you do not have sufficient funding for adequate mental health services, consider writing a grant, asking a foundation for support, or teaming up with a neighborhood clinic.

Train teachers to recognize and support trauma victims

Provide your staff with training so that they understand the effect that traumatic events can have on students’ mental health and ability to learn. Students who have experienced trauma may have trouble sleeping, be moody or depressed, have difficulty paying attention or may suddenly have a different pattern of work completion. Be sure teachers know how to recognize if a student has experienced or is experiencing trauma, how to access mental health services when needed, and how to support traumatized students in their learning.

Develop individualized support plans for children

Engage all your departments in your district or school in the development of individualized support plans for children who have experienced trauma. Occupational therapists, for example, can be extremely knowledgeable about sensory activities, like art or music, that can help students regain calm after being triggered.  

Reflect on your disciplinary policies

Students who have experienced trauma may have trouble following school rules and routines. Consider using positive restorative practices as a way to help students safely re-engage with their classmates and learn from the experience. Students who have experienced trauma can be re-traumatized by severe disciplinary practices. Practices, such as suspensions, which exclude these children from their supportive school communities should be minimized.

Support staff who are working with trauma victims

Teachers and counselors working directly with victims of trauma may show signs of extreme fatigue, excessive involvement with their students, or avoidance of colleagues.  Know how to recognize these signs and be ready with needed support from district and community mental health specialists or experienced mentors.

Create a welcoming and supportive environment for parents

Parents also may have experienced trauma. Have translators and culturally competent counselors available so that parents and guardians can share their stories. Be knowledgeable about community support services where families can go for psychological, health and legal advice.  

While these recommendations might be challenging to accomplish all at once, start by bringing your student support team together, sharing the research on trauma, and developing a strategic plan for addressing the most urgent needs of your children who have or who are currently experiencing trauma. Decide how you will measure progress. Some potential ideas are measuring students’ attendance or tardiness levels. Another approach is interviewing each student’s teacher before and after an intervention. Start with the strategy that best addresses your students’ needs, measure your progress, and either begin a second initiative or adjust your strategy based on your data.  

As for my first-grade student, I didn’t have to bring my running shoes by the time she was in second grade. What helped her manage her triggers? The school counselor, her teacher, and I collaborated with someone from our district-wide parent support center, who spoke her mother’s language of Haitian Creole fluently and could help us support her in a way that was culturally respectful and responsive. We applied for additional funding from a local family foundation to bring an additional social worker on staff.  This social worker was able to focus on students, such as my first grader, who were experiencing mental health issues – often due to early trauma – but who did not have an Individualized Education Program (IEP) in place. This social worker had the freedom to design her schedule around the needs of these students, allowing her to make home visits and ensure their families were finding needed services in the community. 


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