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Integrating ACEs science and trauma informed practices in your school district - what role does the administrator play?


Schools are the best opportunity to address ACEs on a large scale. Other than time at home, school is the place where children spend the majority of their time.  And if a child's home life is full of strife, school might be the only place where the child feels safe.  ACEs are common, and yet, it can be difficult to know which students need extra support. And rather than create additional programs that single out anyone or any group of students, and potentially having students fall through the cracks, creating school wide trauma informed practices will benefit all students. 

The primary components of implementing school wide ACEs reform are similar to the process a district would undertake if they were changing discipline policies, or curriculum, with one significant difference. The change should start with the educators and school personnel who work directly with the students. If a school wide change to incorporate trauma informed practices looks like (or is) a directive from people who are not in the trenches, the odds of success dramatically decrease. 

Any teacher or educational staff who has worked in a school for more than a few years, has likely seen a new initiative (or many new initiatives) be handed out as the next great thing, only to find that the great idea, the new initiative comes with new rules, new regulations, new reporting requirements, and a lack of "new" time to accomplish the new initiative.  It should not be surprising that some educators cringe when they hear about the next new program at their school. 

On the flip side of that frustration however, most educators are constantly seeking opportunities to help their students.  Whether it is providing additional time helping a student read or figuring out how to help a quiet student, or a disruptive student, engage in the learning environment; teachers and other support staff are willing to jump over any obstacle thrown in their path to help a student be successful.  

Implementing trauma informed practices requires administrators to tap into the creativity and the specific knowledge the education staff have about the issues facing students. ACEs and trauma informed practices might be new terminology, but in reality, they both give educators a common language, and some tools, to address what they have been seeing in the classroom since they started teaching - and likely all the way back to when they were students themselves.  If implementing a new program is a puzzle, then it is the superintendent who is holding the box of pieces, and the education staff assemble the puzzle.  The order that the pieces are assembled will vary in each school, and the completed puzzle will look different in each school. But for every school that artfully, and determinedly, finishes their puzzle, it will be because the superintendent freely handed out the pieces to her/his staff whenever, and as soon, the educators asked. 

The role of the administrator is to build a system that supports the teachers who are working to make the changes. As the teachers work to improve their connections with students, the administrators (superintendent, principals, etc.) are taking the same steps to build better relationships with their teachers, modeling trauma informed practices through his/her role and in his/her interactions with staff.  One challenge that can arise is that administrators may recognize the value of ACEs and trauma informed practices before the educational staff have learned the new terminology or have had any training in implementing the tools of trauma informed practices. The administrator may want to lead the charge; but the most important thing she/he can do is to get the information in front of their staff, and then help the education staff lead the change. 

One possible scenario for the implementing trauma informed practices - and the role of an administrator - might look like this: 

1) Identify all of the potential groups within the school who have regular meetings and where it would be possible to schedule a trainer to attend one of the meetings.  

2) Start offering staff development in small groups (8 - 12 staff is about perfect) Identify all the groups in the district that are relatively small groups of educators, social workers, counselors, etc. Bring in someone great to meet with the group - the person coming in - the trainer - has to be able to deliver both training and tools about ACEs and addressing ACEs in about 45 minutes.  After 45 minutes it's hard for people to continue to take in information or even listen to someone talking. Training will inform on why ACEs is important, but without tools, staff will be left wondering what to do with the information.  Tools can be as simple as helping staff have the words to ask the student who is having trouble what is going on, why they are having difficulty managing behavior, or helping a student identify the emotions they are feeling. The tools need to be relevant to the children's developmental abilities. Essentially, the trainer needs to be both an expert in trauma informed schools and a dynamic trainer. 

The trainer needs to have a discussion with the group after the presentation and before finishing the training. 

Questions and plans near the end of training should include:

  • What are some actions you are already taking when you have a student who is struggling (whether academic, social, emotional or physically)? This might elicit responses based on referrals, communicating with parents - all are important. The trainer should steer this to how they are individually taking steps - saying hi to their students in the halls, asking students about their weekend, or their holiday, etc - any response that indicates that teachers are working to build relationships with their students. Nearly every teacher does this without any directive to do so. It's important that they recognize the value of this, and that they know others recognize the value of this.
  • What are some signs of potential trauma that you have seen in your students? It's important that before moving on, that the group has identified that each of their students has the potential to be dealing with some level of trauma or toxic stress.  (I can go into this more if you'd like, just let me know.)  
  • The trainer is hoping that someone will ask - "what else can we do" or "what are our next steps if we want to do more?" If no one asks, the trainer needs to bring it up.
  • Set up a follow up time to meet with the group.
  • Between the training and the next meeting, the trainer should ask the group to notice how often they interact with students in ways that build relationships, or how often they inquire about a student's life outside of school and about what is going on for a specific student they are talking to about their behavior, actions, learning, etc. Before leaving the training, the trainer should emphasize to the group, that there is research that demonstrates that it only takes one caring adult to make the difference in a child's life and to help him or her increase their ability to overcome obstacles.

If the training goes well, the staff will want this person to come back. If the group wants the trainer to return, that is a very positive indicator that trauma informed practices can take root in the program fairly quickly.  If the group does not want the trainer to come back, don't give up.  Ask the group what they liked about trainer and what they did not.  Find someone who can deliver a similar message who connects better with the team.  

Whenever possible, the trainer should come from outside of the current school system.  Even if there are experts in the school, staff will hear the information differently if it comes from someone they do not know.  If the only option for training is to use an in-house person, then rely on videos and assign groups from within the school to research topics and then present what they have learned to their peers.     

2) Start the discussion with administrators at all levels, preferably in small groups. In the best case scenario, the superintendent or principal could meet with their administrative team members one at a time. The goal of this meeting, small group or one on one, is to share some of the information about ACEs and to let the other leaders know that this is very good for the school district. Ask the administrators to help with this transformation, but also make sure that they understand why it's important that the teachers lead this initiative. The superintendent should be aware of which members of the team are managers and which are leaders.  It will take strong leaders to support this change. Some administrative team members might need guidance on differentiating their management skills from their leadership skills and when it is appropriate to use each in this process. 

3) After the small group or individual meetings, schedule a training for the administrators to learn about ACEs. Have a dynamic expert trainer do the training. The goal of these trainings are to help all administrators understand ACEs and also understand their roles supporting the teachers and other "in the trenches" staff drive this initiative. Administrators might benefit from discussing how to support the staff initiatives. Ideally the trainer would provide a list key components of trauma informed practices - and when anything on that list comes up, the administrator should be tasked to figure out how to help make it happen for the staff member who brings the idea forward.  That includes supporting each individual even if there is a concern about staff members replicating something someone else is doing. In the early stages, replication is necessary. As staff learn that their opinions and their initiatives matter, they become more willing to make change.  Administrators become the support system for innovation and initiative to occur within their schools.

4) The superintendent should start the process of training the board members. Provide articles to the board members about ACEs and trauma informed practices. If there are other committees that report to the board or advisory groups, they will need this information too.

5) The superintendent can also start meeting with outside organizations that interact with the students and staff.  This might include the police department, social services, student advocacy groups, etc. These meetings should be informal - a meeting for coffee, a lunch... the superintendent should steer these conversations, and will need to tailor the meeting to the individual with whom they are meeting. For example, the social services staff might already have had training on ACEs or trauma informed care. If so, then the superintendent should ask for his/her advice on how to implement this in his/her schools. If the police chief (PC) has a negative bias about restorative justice then the superintendent should be prepared to talk about what someone else has done in another school and ask then ask for the PC's support as the school works through the process of becoming trauma informed. Ideally there would be some sort of speaker or training event where the PC could be invited (as well as any school liaison officers).

6) Determine which employees in the school have a significant center of influence. Meet with them about ACEs. Ask their opinions about what they are seeing in the school. What are the strengths? Where do we need to grow? Are their groups of students who are flourishing, if so, what are the distinguishing characteristics? What about the students who are struggling, are there common threads. It does not matter if the superintendent already knows the answers. He/She likely already does know. The goal is to reinforce that the staff members matter, that their voices matter, and that the superintendent is not too busy to care.

7) Take lots of notes. Bring a notetaker along to meetings if necessary (usually helpful if the meeting has more than 3 people attending). These notes become part of the strategic plan later on. All of these steps are about building a consensus for change. In the perfect world, a school would find that writing the strategic plan for change was actually about documenting the needs and wants of its staff, rather than creating something new.

This blog post is about building consensus to facilitate change.  For a district that wants to become trauma informed, this is the place to start.  Of all of the other tasks that are involved in implementing TIC, this one will be the primary indicator of the school's success.  This process could take a few years, particularly in a very large district. But it's worth the time and the work.


A few other blog posts I have written about ACEs and trauma informed practices: 
Setting the Wheels in Motion - Becoming a Trauma Informed and Trauma Sensitive School (9/7/16)
Is Your School Ready to be Trauma Informed and Trauma Sensitive? (9/2/16)
Lessons Learned: Implementing Trauma Informed Practices in a School - Planning Phase (4/1/15)
When You Can't "Fix" the Problem (3/30/15)

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Fantastic article! I'm going to share it with all the Superintendents and principals we know. I love this particularly: "ACEs and trauma informed practices might be new terminology, but in reality, they both give educators a common language, and some tools, to address what they have been seeing in the classroom since they started teaching."

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