Is Your School Ready to be Trauma Informed and Trauma Sensitive?

If you are like many teachers, social workers, or administrators in schools, you've been reading about the need for trauma informed care and trauma sensitive schools.  Odds are you didn't need to read the research to know something that you were already seeing in your classrooms, school hallways, and community. Unfortunately reading about it, seeing the need, wanting to make changes, doesn't make the change happen.  

Five years ago, as the executive director of a school that needed to change, I played a key role in creating Minnesota's first school wide trauma informed care education model.  I have written a few articles about the needs of my former students, and how addressing ACEs is critical to the future success of students - in and out of school. But the number one question that I am asked about the changes we made is "where did you start?" Or, "where do I start?" 

One technical clarification before I get into the meat of this, you've probably noticed that there are quite a few terms being used that seem similar, and yet imply a difference.  For example, what is the difference between a "trauma informed care" school and a "trauma sensitive" school?  I will address some of the terminology issues in another post.  As for a trauma informed care school versus a trauma sensitive school, I have yet to find any discernable difference. Regardless of the terminology the school is using, either descriptor means that the school has started implementing or has fully implemented systems to address the impact of trauma and toxic stress for their students. I will use the term trauma informed care (TIC) in this article. 

So back to the question, "where do you start?" I want to acknowledge that there is not one "right" way to implement a TIC model in your school.  There are however key components that must be included in every TIC model.  If the key components are missing your team of educators, support staff, social workers, etc., will "burnout," and your school will lose valuable staff members to other schools or other fields completely.   And it only makes sense that staff turnover is not just hard on a school, but hard on students too.  So, avoiding that is important. I bring this up right at the beginning because it is often so easy to see the issues facing students that the needs of staff are overlooked.  When a school has fully implemented a TIC model, the needs of staff are addressed too.

The key components to a TIC school are as follows. This list is based solely on my experience at the school where we did this. If there are other complete lists out there, I'd love to see them so that we can make sure all of the essential components are included.

  • School personnel at all levels are supportive of TIC (staff buy in)
  • Ongoing, sustainable staff training
  • A system to address student needs - both academic and non-academic
    • Assessment tools
    • Basic needs support (food, shelter, safety)
    • Health care support (primary care and behavioral/mental health care)
    • Discipline or behavioral adjustment model
    • Legal system care and support
    • Student engagement
    • Academic support, special needs, tutoring, and/or differentiated instruction
    • Clear referral system for needs that exceed the school's scope of support services
    • Family education
    • Feedback loop (dialogue with students and families)
  • Tracking/Monitoring system - in the world of education, documenting student success, and additional needs, is critical to a school's success.
  • Feedback loop with school personnel - specific to their roles in the larger TIC model
  • Vicarious and secondary trauma support 
  • Reporting mechanism(s)

The list above may look daunting, but in reality, schools already have many of these components in place. For example, most schools have a plethora of academic tests that are already capturing student skill levels.  Schools already know which students are struggling with attendance. Transitioning to TIC is most easily accomplished by capitalizing on the school's strengths and adding/modifying components to their system without starting from scratch. 

Which brings us to the very first step of implementing a TIC model - Establishing a Baseline.  Create an ACEs team in your school. In a small school, this is usually easy - you want to have staff on the team who are considered to be a center of influence in their circle. If you are not sure who those people are, ask other staff members for recommendations.  The final team membership should include educators (special education and regular education), social work and/or school counseling staff, and some members from the school's leadership or administrative team, ideally the principal/director and superintendent.  

The very first task for the ACEs team is to gather the pertinent data needed to implement TIC.  This includes several steps and depending on the size of a school, it could be completed at one meeting, or it may take several meetings. 

Using the list of key TIC components (above), the team should brainstorm the existing resources already available in their school.  Write it all down.  The team needs to ask questions about each area - How do we do this now? Are we fully addressing this in our current model? If not, what needs to be added? Who is responsible for the tasks related to this? What department does that fall under? Who oversees that work? What additional supports are needed to address this issue/topic? If the team members do not know the answers, they are tasked to find the answers from the appropriate school personnel. 

Once the key components are reviewed, rate each area using a 1 (we are not doing this) to 5 (we've mastered this) scale.  Eventually the team will create an action plan to address the areas that score 3 or lower.  

The second set of pertinent data is your school demographics. Most schools already know a lot about their students. For schools that write annual reports, for example, this data might already be compiled. Each school will need to determine their own set of "risk" criteria, but to get started, gather as much information as you can about: 

Economic Status -  How many students are living in poverty? If your school has a meal program, this information can be obtained by looking at how many students are receiving free or reduced lunch. This might not capture all of the students who are living in poverty, but unless you have another mechanism of collecting this information from families, it's a great place to start.  

Family Status - How many students are living in single parent families? How many of those single parent families are due to divorce? How many to death of a parent? How many are due to a missing/absent parent? If your school is not collecting this information, that will be an area that will be added to the assessment tools that will be needed when you begin implementing your TIC model. 

Students with Special Needs - How many students are receiving special education services, and in what areas of special education? What is the service level of the students? How many students were referred to special education for assessment in the previous year? Is that a historically accurate depiction based on previous years referrals? How many students were referred to the school social worker or school counselor last year? 

Homeless or Highly Mobile - How many students are homeless or highly mobile? In most schools, the school registrar or social worker will have this information.  If the information is not already tabulated, the administrator on the ACEs team will likely be able to assign someone to tabulate this. If the school is not already tracking the number of highly mobile students, this can be included as an area of need in the assessment tools section. 

Minority Students and Other Demographic Factors - What is the racial/ethnic makeup of your school? Do you have any students who are also parents themselves? If so, how many? How many students do you have who identify as GLBT? How many of your students have a parent active in the military? How many of your students have a parent or family member in prison? 

Suspensions/Expulsions - How many students were suspended or expelled in the prior school year? How many were suspended more than once, or twice, what is the length of the suspensions? Gather as much data as you can about the students who were suspended or expelled so that you can desegregate it by other categories either now or in the future.  This is one of the indicators that may be used to determine the success of your TIC model in the future.  

Academic Skill Levels - How are students performing in comparison to other students at the same grade level? Can this data be desegregated? If so, how does the desegregated data compare to other sets of desegregated testing data? Does your school do any intake performance testing of new students? How are the incoming students results the same or different from the returning student population?

Attendance - How often are you students coming to school? How often are they coming to class? What percentage of students are attending at least 90% of the time, 80-90%, 70-80%, etc.? Are there correlations between attendance, academic skills, and suspensions/expulsions?  Can this data be desegregated by other demographics? 

If your school has identified other risk factors that are already being gathered about your students, find out what those are and include them in your data.   

Once the ACEs Team has completed gathering the pertinent information, compile it into a report. The report does not need to be fancy, the important thing is that the team now has enough information to start the second step of implementing TIC. 

And that will be in a different blog post! If you've read all of this and have questions, please do not hesitate to ask them.  If you have already done all of this at your school, and you are wondering what to do next - or if you are already implementing TIC and have questions - please let me know. You can send me a message here on ACEs Connection, or you can post the question(s) in the comments and I'll reply.  

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Thanks for posting! I am working with two schools here in Oregon. We have started staff training and working on creating a basic structure with steps for how to proceed given large variances in what the schools have in place. We are also working on evaluating the impact of the process, and collecting baseline information that goes beyond school data and includes staff perceptions, some including the info above and some including other things, like climate and vicarious trauma/compassion fatigue. I am very interested in your implementation steps!

What's the next step!!!!!  I'm working with a local school and the principal and her team are open to this but this type of detail is what she's looking for  I forwarded her this post and am creating a document based on this and many other articles and books I have been reading...hoping to help this school that has been rated an F for five years straight to be open to the reality that without addressing the trauma we are swimming up stream.

my email is


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