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Portell: Understanding Trauma-Informed Education


ACEs (adverse childhood experiences) have made their way into the mainstream over the past couple of years, even showing up in a segment that Oprah did for 60 Minutes. And because ACEs have a profound effect on children, the concept has been taken up in the world of education. Approaching education with an understanding of the physiological, social, emotional, and academic impacts of trauma and adversity on our students is driving changes in our systems.

However, these changes are not coming without misconceptions. As the principal of Fall-Hamilton Elementary, an internationally recognized trauma-informed school, I’ve encountered many misconceptions about trauma-informed education over the past five years. As educators move toward understanding the impact of trauma, including ACEs, and how creating and maintaining positive relationships can serve as a buffer to the negative impacts of trauma, it’s vitally important to understand what trauma-informed education is and is not.


1. Trauma-Informed education is solely about a student’s ACE score: The ACE study conducted by Kaiser Permanente and the CDC is credited with increasing public awareness of the potential negative health outcomes of adults based on their adverse childhood experiences.

That increased awareness is good, but trauma-informed education is not solely concerned with students’ ACE score. We should use the ACE study as a catalyst to look deeper into understanding the broad scope of adversity that children are experiencing but that the study did not include. Trauma-informed education includes examining the influence and impact on students in our schools of factors such as racism (explicit, implicit, and systematic; and microaggressions) as well as poverty, peer victimization, community violence, and bullying.

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2. Educators must know a student’s ACE score to successfully intervene: It is not imperative to know a child’s ACE score or specific traumatic experience to provide effective interventions. Being trauma-informed is a mindset with which educators approach all children.


Research indicates that strong, stable, and nurturing relationships foster a feeling of belonging that is essential for all students but is absolutely imperative for healing with students who have experienced trauma. Karen Treisman, a clinical psychology specialist, says, “Every interaction is an intervention.” As educators, we must understand the impact of daily positive interactions and affirmations for our students.

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