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The Power of Virtue in Trauma-Informed Education


It was 1979. I was in kindergarten and this was to be my first "big girl" adventure. I had flown to Sacramento with my brother unaccompanied to visit my dad and meet his new fiancé and my future stepsister and stepbrother. It was exhilarating. I had carefully picked out my new favorite terrycloth rainbow coordinating shorts and tank top recently received for my 6th birthday. My father would surely be impressed! Within 24 hours of arriving safely and having excitedly reunited with my father, I was abducted by a stranger from a nearby park and sexually assaulted at knifepoint. I had no expectation of living through my ordeal, nor did my captor seem to think I would either. Needless-to-say, it was the beginning of a long journey that led me to an ACE score of 7 as an adult. No coincidence I am sure, that I am married to a wonderfully complicated man with an ACE score of 9. My story of ongoing trauma and chronic debilitating physiological and emotional consequences only began in 1979 and I am not writing today to highlight all the things that "happened to me". Today my goal is to share how despite all "those things", and my understanding of ACE science, my experiences as a traumatized student, and then 20 years in education understanding the challenges from the other side, anyone can confidently serve trauma-impacted youth effectively through a singular lens.


There can be no healing, no learning, and no growth with a fixed mindset. In education, we all understand we must approach children, and embrace ourselves, the notion that the mind is not fixed, but rather we are all endowed with a potential that is limited only by our thoughts. Ergo the term, "growth mindset".

So why is virtue such an important concept for all of us?

Many definitions of virtue exist. More importantly, what does it mean to be virtuous? For the context of this post, let us keep it as simple as possible. Virtuous, as defined by Rick Hanson, PH.D. in his book "Buddha's Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love and Wisdom" provides us a simple yet profound description.   We are virtuous when our thoughts, words and actions benefit ourselves and others.

As educators or stakeholders in unleashing the potential of all children and by extension, need to reach and connect with traumatized children, we must not just embrace being virtuous ourselves, we must be intentional with teaching children how to “be virtuous”.

I do not believe it is coincidental that "self" comes before “others” in this definition. I understand the weight and magnitude of demands on educators today. The worth of educators too often hinging on test scores painting a narrow picture ignoring the impact they have in their time with any given student outside of academic gains. Most entered this profession with a heartfelt desire to do more than educate, but to also impact and leave their mark each year they get "that student". It is critical that we empower them to reach all students emotionally and build connections. What better way than through modeling and embracing the concept of virtue.

We must create systems and communities that treat all students "as if" because more often than not, statistics show that many will pass through our classrooms and school buildings each year living in, or recovering from, traumas we don't see, know, or understand. Though we cannot fix or heal them, we likely do not even know who many of them are, we can empower them emotionally towards the possibility of their own potential. We can pass that proverbial baton to each other the year we get them.

If we model and embrace virtue ourselves, and intentionally teach students the importance of monitoring their thoughts, words, and actions beginning with themselves. Can you imagine what such a small shift could do for a generation with warp speed messages from social media, an endless stream of people to compare themselves to, endless messages they aren't good enough, loved enough, smart enough, attractive enough, athletic enough, talented enough… consider if they could shift one singular inner practice of monitoring their inner worlds by simply understanding what it means to be virtuous. To ask themselves if their thoughts, words, and actions benefit themselves and others. What would happen if over time their past and the limiting mindsets that imprinted upon them early in life, was quelled, and instead, they began to see a different possibility for their future.

Imagine what would be possible. For us. For them. For our world.

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