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7 Tips for a Trauma-Informed School

By Elishia Basner | March 2022

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Is your school supportive of students who’ve experienced trauma? Jacob Ham, Ph.D., reviews the difference between a “learning brain” and a “survival brain” in Understanding Trauma: Learning Brain vs. Survival Brain. Ham describes the learning brain as calm, curious, comfortable with ambiguity and uncertainty, willing to try new things and make mistakes. However, the survival brain is hyper-focused on threat, uncomfortable with ambiguity and afraid to try new things.

We have to develop an environment that fosters the learning brain in students regardless of the trauma they have endured. How does your role influence that environment?

If creating a trauma-informed school were a playlist, here are my tracks:

In the immortal words of BeyoncĂ©, “Say My Name” – Relationships are paramount in creating a trauma-informed environment. According to Loyola University Chicago professor James Garbarino, Ph.D., “We can now predict with almost 100% certainty whether youth with a history of aggression prior to entering high school will commit another act of aggression while at the school. If that student can wake up every day knowing there is at least one adult in the school who ‘thinks I’m terrific,’ the odds of this student acting aggressively drop to about zero.”

We all love to be known and using use students’ names can make them feel special and part of the school community. Memorizing all new students’ names is a mammoth task, so what if we delegate the job and develop an ambassador program? We could assign staff (not just teachers, but all school staff) a set number of students to memorize their names and faces before they arrive on campus. Students would feel connected to the school community from the first moment they stepped foot on campus.

Do it like Adele and say, “Hello” – I’ve committed myself to being the first and last person students see every day when they enter and exit the school building. In the morning, I tell them I’m excited to see them and that I’ve been waiting for them to arrive. As they leave, I tell them I can’t wait to see them the next day.

Even if they’re late, I am still happy to see them – the last thing students need is another adult to give them a hard time. I want to help them start their day on the right foot. I’m not assigned to the front door, but I’m there to keep a pulse on the school and to make myself visible for those who might need me.

Like the Beach Boys, use “Good Vibrations” – Be aware of the tone of your voice. Students will notice the little sigh, the clipped or hurried voice. Be just as mindful of how you’re speaking as what you’re saying.

Students who have experienced trauma are attuned to danger in their environment. They won’t know to give you the benefit of the doubt or that you have 200 emails waiting. They’ll assume it’s because of them, and will go into survival mode.

As James Taylor said, “You’ve Got a Friend” – It might be challenging to find positives in some students, but make that extra effort to seek out the good. People thrive on praise. When I walked past a teacher who had pulled a student into the hall for a private chat, I overheard her say, “I love how you have a calm body while we’re talking.” That’s some trauma-informed teaching right there. She found something to praise even during a difficult conversation. We should seek students out to praise and build them up, not tear them down.

Carly Simon reminds us it’s not always about us in “You’re So Vain” – All behavior is communication. When students yell, cry or avoid a task, what are they trying to communicate? Stay calm and get curious, not defensive. A student’s tantrum is rarely about us. What’s actually going on? Which survival mechanism has been tripped: fight, flight or freeze?

Aerosmith was wrong; it’s not always such a “Sweet Emotion” – Sometimes emotions are messy; do your students know why? Kids don’t want to lose control of their emotions and may experience shame, guilt and embarrassment when it happens. We can teach them that emotions are a primary biological function to keep them safe that has essentially misfired when it assesses their teacher’s request for forgotten homework with the same level of danger as a bear in the woods.

When students know why they lose control, they can better manage emotions and make a different choice. You can use Dan Siegle’s “hand-brain model” to teach older students about their brains. For younger students, the Kids Want to Know video Why We Lose Control can help. Explicit instruction helps students learn how to regulate and manage their emotions.

For a holistic approach, the Beatles encourage us to “Come Together” – You can’t be the only person on your staff who is doing trauma-informed work. Seriously. This has to be a group effort. We often assume everyone else knows what we know, forgetting the days before we knew. You can explicitly teach all school staff about the survival brain vs. the learning brain by sharing Ham’s work or the TedTalk by Nadine Burke Harris, How Childhood Trauma Affects Health Across a Lifetime. My administrator offered all staff professional development hours to engage with the trauma-informed material I created.

In working with administration, you can also help implement school policies that support learners. My school has shifted focus from traditional discipline to restorative practices, focusing on consequences instead of punishment. Our goal is for students to learn to make better choices, not impose a penalty for retribution of an offense.

As the late, great Whitney Houston asks, “How Will I Know?” – You’ll know your school is trauma-informed when you hear teachers using student’s names, and students are curious and willing to ask and answer questions. You’ll hear laughter and kind words. Students will feel safe; they’ll express themselves and be ready to try new things. Students won’t feel afraid to make a mistake, and will ask how to do it better next time because they aren’t afraid of getting in trouble. Discipline numbers will plummet because instead of tossing a student out of class for an offense, staff members will leverage their relationships with students to maintain order in their classroom.

The key is not to find the students who have experienced trauma and treat them differently. The key is to assume every child has experienced trauma and develop a safe environment so every student can thrive.

Contact Elishia Basner, an elementary school counselor in Knoxville, Tenn., at