Trauma, as defined by the American Psychological Association, is an emotional response to a terrible event like an accident, rape or natural disaster. This could also include: poverty, abuse, neglect, family violence, absent parents, adoption, immigration, community violence, natural disasters, serious mental illness, generational trauma, substance abuse in the home and medical procedures.
A trauma-informed school equips child-serving professionals within the system to make decisions differently. The trauma-informed professional recognizes that not all children fit neatly into the same box. Therefore, not all policies will work for all situations and students. Research shows that the mental and emotional well-being of students is negatively impacted if they are experiencing some form of toxic stress or trauma outside the school. This reality directly affects student performance, attitude, behaviors, relationships and decision-making processes at school. A trauma-informed school would take the time to understand students' unique situations, specifically gathering information about the emotional and mental wellbeing of each student and then making custom fit decisions.
A positive characteristic of a trauma-informed school is reflected in the relationships within the system. Here, they create intentional, person-centered relationships. This process includes professionals with students and their families, professional to professional and individuals representing the school with the surrounding community members. The system and its members grow to understand the impact of trauma, become capable of recognizing trauma through 'trauma lens', generate consistent forms of behavior based on the awareness of and viewing the situation through the 'trauma lens', and lastly reach the point of being trauma-informed wherein the system promotes a 'culture of recovery'.
Services to promote a trauma informed approach to education include a tiered approach that begins with a basic understanding of the subject and advances through to application within complex and dynamic situations. The goal is to achieve a complete systems change—across the whole range of individual professionals and to the whole surrounding educational environment.
Tier 1 explores the various components of what is considered basic knowledge of trauma informed care—a root-to-fruit understanding. Once this Tier is complete, participants share a common language about sources of trauma and its effects on each unique individual. Helping professionals will gain an appreciation for “what happened” to the person and that assistance is about simultaneously healing the shame while promoting well-being. A Tier 1 overview can take place within as little as a four-hour presentation or occur as a more in-depth day-long event, depending on the desired benefits. It is the launching point to systems change.
To help educators and districts get started, we also break down our Tier 1 trauma-informed seminars into three levels: basic, intermediate and advanced.
Tier 2 involves a comprehensive look at professional responses that are readily received by children and families, and promotes developmental relationships. General approaches to intervention involve the guiding principle of “What’s good for traumatized students is good for all students.” More specific trauma approaches involve understanding the source conditions that require more precise intervention methods in order to reach the desired outcomes. Tier 2 can take place in a condensed short-term training setting, and then moves to occur over a length of time that trains educators to be specialists and, thus, resources to their colleagues. It is a vital element to systems change.
Tier 3 requires the most committed champions to experience the transformation that occurs as part of creating a culture of trauma informed care—in a classroom, grade, building, district, or community. Foremost, the process is personal, emergent, and organic. It then moves into sharing the transformation by having a broad and flexible framework for making sound practice decisions while in action. Tier 3 takes place as “coaching over the shoulder” and includes “reflective supervision” for the trauma informed helping professional. Tier 3 is based on mutually agreed behavior plans (with the professional as the focus of intentional change), involves a learning collaborative, and occurs over several months in order to generate durable and sustainable change that affects others into the future. It is the most crucial element of systems change.