Trauma Informed Care In Schools

 In our schools for many of the children and youth that we serve this is far from a happy and care free time of year.  Many of the young people we work with are living with-in risky environments.  Lets take a quick look........

There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.—Nelson Mandela

Each Day In America--- 2014

  • 2 mothers die in childbirth.
  • 4 children are killed by abuse or neglect.
  • 5 children or teens commit suicide.
  • 7 children or teens are killed by guns.
  • 24 children or teens die from accidents.
  • 66 babies die before their first birthdays.
  • 187 children are arrested for violent crimes.
  • 408 children are arrested for drug crimes.
  • 838 public school students are corporally punished.*
  • 847 babies are born to teen mothers.
  • 865 babies are born at low birth weight.
  • 1,241 babies are born without health insurance.
  • 1,392 babies are born into extreme poverty.
  • 1,837 children are confirmed as abused or neglected.
  • 2,723 babies are born into poverty.
  • 2,857 high school students drop out.*
  • 4,028 children are arrested.
  • 4,408 babies are born to unmarried mothers.
  • 16,244 public school students are suspended.*

*Based on 180 school days a year.

Many of the children we work with in our schools are living in environments with levels of stress that are toxic.  

What is Trauma?

Trauma arises from an inescapable stressful event that overwhelms an individuals’ coping mechanisms  (van der Kolk & Fisler, 1995).

“Prolonged exposure to repetitive or severe events such as child abuse, is likely to cause the most severe and lasting effects.”

“Traumatization can also occur from neglect, which is the absence of essential physical or emotional care, soothing and restorative experiences from significant others,particularly in children.”
(International Society for the Study of Trauma and Dissociation, 2009)

Isolated Trauma Versus Complex Trauma

Isolated traumatic incidents tend to produce discrete conditioned behavioral and biological responses to reminders of the trauma (as in PTSD)

Complex (chronic) trauma interferes with neurobiological development and the capacity to integrate sensory, emotional and cognitive information into a cohesive whole.(van der Kolk, B., 2005)


-A report of child abuse is made every ten seconds in the United States.(Childhelp, 2013)
-Children who experience child abuse and neglect are 59% more likely to be arrested as a juvenile, 28% more likely to be arrested as an adult, and 30% more likely to commit violent crime.
(Child Welfare Information Gateway, 2006)
-Trauma histories are pervasive among youth in America (especially youth from diverse cultural backgrounds).
(Marcenich, 2009)
-Children with disabilities are more likely to experience neglect than children without disabilities.
(Child Welfare Information Gateway, 2006)

-More than 1 in 3 women (35.6%) and more than 1 in 4 men (28.5%) in the United States have experienced rape, physical violence, and/or stalking by an intimate partner.(CDC,2013)
-Nearly 80% of female offenders with a mental illness report having been physically and/or sexually abused.(Marcenich, 2009)
-The majority of clients served by public mental health and substance abuse service systems are survivors of trauma.(Mueser et al, 1998)
-Seventy-five percent (75%) of women and men in treatment for substance abuse report trauma histories. (SAMSHA/CSAT, 2000)

Trauma and Pain Based Behaviors in our Schools?

Challenging behaviors often reflect psycho-emotional pain … “grief at losses and abandonment; persistent anxiety about themselves and their situation; fear of or even terror about a disintegrating present and a hopeless future; depression and dispiritedness at a lack of meaning or sense of purpose in their lives; and what could be termed ‘psycho-emotional paralysis’, or a state of numbness and withdrawal from the people and world around them” (Anglin, 2003, p. 109-110)

Your most difficult behavior problems in schools are young people in pain.  

Too Often we are........Responding to Pain with Pain

“Seldom did care-workers acknowledge or respond sensitively to the inner world of the child. (They would react to difficult) behavior by making demands of a controlling nature (e.g. get a grip on yourself!”, or “Watch your language now!”) or giving a warning of possible consequences in terms of lost points, time out, or withdrawal of privileges…” Anglin, 2003

The Parallel Process

“traumatized people are frequently misdiagnosed and mistreated in the …system… Because of their characteristic difficulties with close relationships, they are vulnerable to become re-victimized by caregivers.

They may become engaged in ongoing, destructive interactions, in which the…system replicates the behavior of the abusive family” (Herman 1992)

So where can a school start? First we must become aware of our most troubled children and begin to recognize that their behavior is being driven by pain!

Then we can begin to build school environments of hope!

3 Pillars of  Trauma Informed Care-

1. Safety


3. Emotion and impulse management

Let me know what you might think?  Wondering how you may view this information?

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  • What might this look like through a depth psychological lens????

    Learning from Troubled and Troubling Students

    This scenario and many like it happen in classrooms every day. It goes something like this:

    I watch as a group of what our system labels behaviorally disordered or emotionally disturbed adolescent’s walks into a classroom.  

    Their body language and facial expressions indicate very clearly that they do not want to be in this room.  A few go to their desks and sit down, 3 keep their sweatshirt jackets on, one sits, pulls his hoodie up and puts his head on his hands at the desk.  He looks like he will be taking a nap.

    A few wander around the room jiving with each other the teacher stands in the front of the room but the students do not seem to notice her at all.  It is as if she is not even there.

    One of the wandering students say that she is not ever going back to so and so’s class that he is so f---ing stupid.  She continues to citizen her last period teacher as she wanders the classroom in a fairly agitated state.

    The almost invisible teacher does address that behavior:

    Sarah stop wandering around the room and sit down!

    Young lady with that kind of attitude it is no wonder you are doing so poorly in school. I will need to take 10 points away from your behavioral sheet for foul language, now take your seat!

    The student responds: f- you and this class is just as stupid!! She is now obviously agitated and will not sit down, says a few more curse words directed at her teacher.  The teachers seems to freeze up for the moment as all the other students in the room look up with interest for the first time.

    Her teacher in a loud voice says…. go to the office! 

    As the student leaves she curses out the teacher again.   She will be suspended again for a number of days. 


    Teachers and administrators often try and take control by trying to regulate the behavior of the young people they “serve”.  The majority of these educators try and do this with authoritarian commands, threats, punishments, consequences and use of the student code of conduct.  That code of conduct is usually a list of poor behavioral choices that young people make and then a list of associated consequences. 

    Many adults seem to believe it is their duty to “correct” the behavior of these young people and they believe that by imposing these consequences they will be teaching students proper behavior. In  21st century America still has 18 states that allow corporal punishment in the public schools.

    Often these adults begin to mirror the behaviors of the young people they are “disciplining”. The angry and impulsive adolescents become the behavior of the adults as the “conflict cycle” quickly escalates and soon becomes a situation that is out of control. Dr. Nicholas Long describes and teaches the conflict cycle and you can find his work at the life space crisis intervention institute. These conflict cycles happen in classrooms every day and these interactions quickly poison relationships between teachers and their most at-risk students.  Once the relationship is destroyed these teachers and schools continue to escalate the punishments (consequences ) and a war of back and forth escalation continues until the child drops out or is thrown out of the school. 


    What else can we do?

    Human babies do not have the ability to regulate their emotional arousal. Howard Barth  (2008 ) puts it this way…

    “ Neuroscience shows that humans develop their abilities for emotional self-regulation through connections with reliable caregivers who soothe and model in a process called co-regulation. Since many troubled young people have not experienced a reliable, comforting presence, they have difficulty regulating their emotions and impulses. Co-regulation provides a practical model for helping young people learn to manage immediate emotions and develop long term self-control. 


    Human babies calm by experiencing the calm of their caretakers. This is done through the words they choose, the tone, and volume as well as the rate of their speech and a soothing presence they bring to the encounter. This helps our babies learn to manage their fear, frustration and anger. As Barth states, “from a developmental perspective, effective parenting of young children can be understood as a process of co-regulation.”

    van der Kolb an expert in developmental trauma and children maintains that a primary function of parents is to help children learn to manage their own arousal.

    “Repeated cycles of emotional upset, followed by relaxation after the caretakers calming intervention, provide the basis for developing a sense of trust and safety.”  ( Cozolino, 2006 )


    I spent 13 years as a classroom teacher for emotionally disturbed adolescents and a little over 10 years as an administrator in a program for troubled children and youth ages 5-21 years of age.  These young people taught me a lot!!  As an administrator in a very different kind of public school I literally spent hundreds of hours in emotional support rooms with troubled children-  co-regulating them. 

    This involved me learning to be a “thermometer rather than a thermostat”, learning to validate feelings ( all feelings are legitimate ) and treating these young people, even when they were totally out of control with the highest level of dignity and respect.  This included needing to restrain kids often and yet restraint was thought of more as a hug then a hurt.  It also included handling children at their very worst, being spit at, kicked, punched and pulled with-out retaliation. Often with the older students there were 2 of us in the emotional support room to provide balance and care.

    Over time the connections made in these support rooms were extremely powerful and healthy.  Crisis done well is an excellent time to connect!! Also over time, the young people would begin to internalize the expectations of a soothing response, calm themselves much quicker, use their words much easier and begin the foundation for self-regulation. 

    Our school also spent time teaching these self-regulation skills formally when the students were calm. I now know that what we were doing aligned very well with current brain science.

    In the emotional support rooms we help them practice their skills, quieting things down, calming the amygdala and beginning to use words to solve problems.


    I am in agreement with Barth who states that the need for co-regulation continues throughout our  lives.   Think of the last time you as an adult were in crisis.  We all rely on the support of caring others when our stress levels become toxic.  We all depend on attachment figures in our lives when things get hard.  We are all human and we are all connected.


    Our most troubled kids need corrective, healthy, adult connections.

    Can schools begin to create structures that allow this to take place?  I believe they can and they must. We have too many young people in our schools in need of learning the critical life skill of regulating emotions.

    Daniel Siegel ( 1999 )- “ How we experience the world, relate to others, and find meaning in life are dependent on how we have come to regulate our emotions.”


    Please, let me know what you think.

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