Trauma-Sensitive Schools: Environments That Support Healing and Success

Educators can implement these strategies to help their students feel safe physically, socially, emotionally, and academically.

“I pray that God, the source of hope, will fill you completely with joy and peace because you trust in Him. Then you will overflow with confident hope through the power of the Holy Spirit.”
Romans 15:13, NLT

The halls were bustling with energy after a long weekend break. Students shuffled into their homerooms ready to get back to their weekly schedules and eager to see their friends. I made my way through the sea of students toward the front office to check my mail. Before it was within my reach, I could see the notes from students overflowing from my “counselor mailbox.” As the school counselor, I had strategically placed this mailbox just outside the office so that students could leave a note requesting to speak with me without having to explain anything to another adult. 

While sorting through the crumpled papers, I found a letter written by an upset student who had once again experienced trauma over the weekend. Sadly, this scenario is a regular occurrence for her: 

As the oldest sibling in her family, she feels responsible for taking care of her younger siblings when her parents yell and fight. When the arguments get too heated, she takes her siblings to her room, closes the door, and then turns on a movie to drown out the yelling. According to her, “At least when we are in my room, we are not the ones being yelled at.”

I have story after story of students who endure trauma on a regular basis. All educators do. These are heartbreaking stories of substance abuse, homelessness, incarceration, poverty, divorce, mental illness, and domestic violence. These are stories of trauma. 

Trauma is not necessarily what happens to a person, but rather, it’s what happens inside of them as a result of what happens to them. Think of it this way: Every child that enters our school buildings carries an invisible backpack. This backpack includes their worries, fears, experiences, and past trauma. This backpack can influence their engagement in learning and their behaviors, both positively and negatively. 

As educators, our hope is that our students’ invisible backpacks are full of positive experiences. But, as much as we would like to, we can’t control what happens to them when they leave school each day. However, we can do our best to create positive experiences for them while they are with us in our school, helping them feel safe physically, socially, emotionally, and academically. 

In Trauma-Sensitive School Leadership, a book I co-authored with Dr. Bill Ziegler, Dr. Dave Ramage, and Justin Foster, we provide several strategies to help build learning environments that support healing and success for students who have experienced trauma. These are a few of the strategies we discuss that can be easily implemented and do not require a lot of additional resources…and they can be a tangible source of hope for students dealing with trauma.

Build positive relationships with students.

  • Greet them when they enter the school building and classrooms. 
  • Spend time eating breakfast, lunch, or a snack with them. 
  • Conduct weekly classroom community meetings to discuss topics that are important to them such as what they love to do for fun, their dreams, etc. 

Create warm and inviting spaces that feel like home.

  • Hang students’ artwork and photographs throughout the school. 
  • Incorporate comfortable and flexible seating, soft music, and adjustable lighting into the classroom environment. 
  • Create a “calming corner” in the classroom where students can go to reduce stress and calm themselves when they begin to feel angry or anxious.  

Provide opportunities for students to serve and help others.

  • Start a “Kindness Club” to give students opportunities to demonstrate generosity to their peers and other adults in the building.  
  • Coordinate mentoring groups, purposefully pairing older students with younger students to help them develop helpful and meaningful relationships.
  • Provide opportunities for students to participate in outreach projects within the community, such as food or clothing drives. 

Each week, as I check my counselor mailbox and read those heartbreaking letters, I pray and ask God for the wisdom and discernment to help my students who have experienced trauma. As you reflect on your own group of students and their invisible backpacks, ask the following questions: Who needs a trauma-sensitive school environment? Who would benefit from positive relationships? Who would feel more comfortable in a warm and inviting environment? Who would feel more connected if they were given an opportunity to serve? If you ask, God will show you the students who need hope.

Educators and Secondary Trauma

As we help our students, it’s important to remember that we can experience secondary trauma. Secondary trauma includes the emotions we feel when we hear about another person’s traumatic experiences. This type of trauma can feel very heavy and causes symptoms similar to those of PTSD. 
As a school counselor, I continually self-evaluate and make sure that I am taking care of my physical and mental well-being, practicing self-care regularly. When I begin to feel overwhelmed with grief for my students, I have to pause and ask God to fill me with the hope that only He provides. During these tough times, I choose to focus on praise—He lives in our praise! 
“Why am I discouraged? Why is my heart so sad? I will put my hope in God! I will praise him again–my Savior and my God!” Psalm 42:11 

Andrea Parson is a school counselor in Tennessee and has served in public schools for nearly twenty years. She co-authored Trauma-Sensitive School Leadership with Dr. Bill Ziegler, Dr. Dave Ramage, and Justin Foster. Her husband is a retired educator and pastor, and they have one son. They have a passion for outreach and service to others.


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