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Trauma-informed schools

Evidence Rating

Some Evidence

Health Factors

Decision Makers

Trauma-informed schools include trauma-informed strategies and education for all students (tier 1), supplemental supports for some students (tier 2), and intensive interventions for students who suffer from trauma exposure (tier 3). These multi-component interventions typically include revisions to disciplinary policies; social-emotional instruction; school-wide culturally appropriate education about trauma; parent/caregiver education and engagement; data monitoring and routine screening; and individualized intensive support (e.g., cognitive behavior therapy or wrap around services) for students who exhibit symptoms of trauma. Trauma-informed schools often develop community partnerships to support these efforts and collaborate across child services to coordinate care (, McInerney 2014, WI DPI-TSS). The 2015 National Survey of Children Exposed to Violence indicates that nearly 60% of children have been exposed to trauma in the past year; more than 1 in 10 children reported 5 or more exposures (OJJDP-Exposure to violence 2015).

Expected Beneficial Outcomes (Rated)

  • Increased understanding of trauma

  • Increased use of trauma-informed practices

Other Potential Beneficial Outcomes

  • Increased resilience

  • Improved social emotional skills

  • Improved student attendance

  • Improved youth behavior

  • Increased graduation rates

Evidence of Effectiveness

There is some evidence that trauma-informed school-wide interventions increase understanding of trauma and use of trauma-informed practices among school staff and teachers (, , ). Additional evidence is needed to confirm effects, especially on student outcomes.

Trauma-informed school-wide interventions may increase student resilience (), coping skills (), ability to pay attention (Holmes 2015), and attendance (). Such interventions are also associated with increased graduation rates (Mathematica-Verbitsky-Savitz 2016), improved classroom behavior, and improved emotional and physical safety for students in urban, suburban, and rural areas (, ). Trauma-informed school-wide programs may also enhance bullying prevention efforts, and address the social-emotional and mental health needs of vulnerable students (Blitz 2015). Over the long term, trauma-informed interventions are associated with decreased office discipline referrals, physical aggression incidents, and out-of-school suspensions (Mathematica-Verbitsky-Savitz 2016, ).

School-based social and emotional instruction, common in trauma-informed schools, increases academic achievement (Weare 2011) and prosocial behavior, and improves mental health outcomes (Durlak 2011). School-wide Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (SWPBIS), another common component, improves students’ behavior (Bradshaw 2012, ), and individual and group cognitive behavior therapy has been shown to decrease symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression (, ).

Researchers suggest that schools provide information and training to all levels of staff to help them recognize behaviors that may be reactions to trauma, as well as how to assist and refer students to support services (). Schools characterized by strong relationships between school staff and mental health professionals () and a clear commitment to changing the school climate and culture through trauma-informed approaches () appear to have greater effects than schools that do not.

Trauma-informed schools may reduce disparities in educational outcomes between low income, minority and higher income students. Trauma-informed practices should be culturally sensitive and introduced carefully to build teacher investment and avoid defensive reactions to the suggested changes (). 

Impact on Disparities

Likely to decrease disparities

Implementation Examples

States can establish systematic frameworks to support trauma-informed schools, as in the Washington State Compassionate Schools Initiative and Massachusetts’ Flexible Framework Helping Traumatized Students Learn. In 2004, the Massachusetts state legislature also established a grant program for schools that implement trauma-informed practices (WA OSPI-Heart of learning 2009, MAC-TLPI). Several state departments of education include resources to address trauma, for example, Illinois, Wisconsin, and Massachusetts (IL SBE-Trauma, WI DPI-TSS, MA DOE-TSS).

At the school district level, information about trauma can be incorporated into mental health training for school staff. In Idaho, for example, 75% of school districts have attended Idaho State University’s mental health training program that includes trauma education since the program began in 2000 (ISU-BTBT). The Menominee Indian School District has adopted trauma-informed schools and trauma-informed care practices throughout the community (MISD-TIC).

School preparation programs can also use comprehensive trauma-informed practices, for example, Trauma Smart is used in Head Start preschool programs in 26 counties across Missouri (Trauma Smart).

Implementation Resources

AIR-SSL SCI resources - American Institutes for Research (AIR). Safe supportive learning (SSL): School climate improvement (SCI) resource package.

ACEsCN-TIC Toolkits - ACEs Connection Network (ACEs CN). Trauma-informed care (TIC) toolkits: Education resources.

CPI-TIC resources - Crisis Prevention Institute (CPI). The top 10 recommended trauma-informed care (TIC) online resources.

AIR-TIC - American Institutes for Research (AIR). Trauma-informed care (TIC).

TSAC-TIS - Treatment and Services Adaptation Center (TSAC), National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN). What is a trauma-informed school (TIS)?

WI DPI-Resources for schools - Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction (WI DPI). Resources for schools to help students affected by trauma learn.

WA OSPI-Heart of learning 2009 - State of Washington, Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (WA OSPI). The heart of learning: Compassion, resiliency, and academic success. 2009.

Citations - Evidence

* Journal subscription may be required for access.

Bradshaw 2012 - Bradshaw CP, Waasdorp TE, Leaf PJ. Effects of school-wide positive behavioral interventions and supports on child behavior problems. Pediatrics. 2012;130(5):e1136–e1145.

Flannery 2014* - Flannery KB, Fenning P, Kato MM, McIntosh K. Effects of school-wide positive behavioral interventions and supports and fidelity of implementation on problem behavior in high schools. School Psychology Quarterly. 2014;29(2):111–24.

Durlak 2011 - Durlak JA, Weissberg RP, Dymnicki AB, Taylor RD, Schellinger KB. The impact of enhancing students’ social and emotional learning: A meta-analysis of school-based universal interventions. Child Development. 2011;82(1):405–32.

Weare 2011 - Weare K, Nind M. Mental health promotion and problem prevention in schools: What does the evidence say? Health Promotion International. 2011;26(Suppl 1):i29–69.

Wiest-Stevenson 2016* - Wiest-Stevenson C, Lee C. Trauma-informed schools. Journal of Evidence-Informed Social Work. 2016;13(5):498-503.

Dorado 2016* - Dorado JS, Martinez M, McArthur LE, Leibovitz T. Healthy Environments and Response to Trauma in Schools (HEARTS): A whole-school, multi-level, prevention and intervention program for creating trauma-informed, safe and supportive schools. School Mental Health. 2016;8(1):163-176.

Perry 2016* - Perry DL, Daniels ML. Implementing trauma-informed practices in the school setting: A pilot study. School Mental Health. 2016;8(1):177-188.

Shamblin 2016* - Shamblin S, Graham D, Bianco JA. Creating trauma-informed schools for rural Appalachia: The Partnerships Program for enhancing resiliency, confidence and workforce development in early childhood education. School Mental Health. 2016;8(1):189-200.

Holmes 2015 - Holmes C, Levy M, Smith A, Pinne S, Neese P. A model for creating a supportive trauma-informed culture for children in preschool settings. Journal of Child and Family Studies. 2015;24(6):1650-1659.

Mathematica-Verbitsky-Savitz 2016 - Verbitsky-Savitz N, Hargreaves MB, Penoyer S, et al. Preventing and Mitigating the Effect of ACEs by Building Community Capacity and Resilience: APPI Cross-Site Evaluation Findings. Washington, DC: Mathematica Policy Research; 2016.

Walkley 2013* - Walkley M, Cox TL. Building trauma-informed schools and communities. Children & Schools. 2013;35(2):123-126.

Phifer 2016* - Phifer LW, Hull R. Helping students heal: Observations of trauma-informed practices in the schools. School Mental Health. 2016;8(1):201-205.

Blitz 2015 - Blitz LV, Lee Y. Trauma-informed methods to enhance school-based bullying prevention initiatives: An emerging model. Journal of Aggression, Maltreatment & Trauma. 2015;24(1):20-40.

Wethington 2008* - Wethington HR, Hahn RA, Fuqua-Whitley DS, et al. The effectiveness of interventions to reduce psychological harm from traumatic events among children and adolescents: A systematic review. American Journal of Preventive Medicine. 2008;35(3):287-313.

Leenarts 2013* - Leenarts LEW, Diehle J, Doreleijers TAH, Jansma EP, Lindauer RJL. Evidence-based treatments for children with trauma-related psychopathology as a result of childhood maltreatment: a systematic review. European Child & Adolescent Psychiatry. 2013;22(5):269-283.

Crosby 2015* - Crosby SD. An ecological perspective on emerging trauma-informed teaching practices. Children & Schools. 2015;37(4):223-230.

Blitz 2016* - Blitz LV, Anderson EM, Saastamoinen M. Assessing perceptions of culture and trauma in an elementary school: Informing a model for culturally responsive trauma-informed schools. The Urban Review. 2016;48(4):520-542.

Citations - Implementation Examples

* Journal subscription may be required for access.

WI DPI-TSS - Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction (WI DPI). Mental health and trauma: Creating trauma-sensitive schools (TSS) to improve learning.

MISD-TIC - Menominee Indian School District (MISD). Menominee is fostering futures: Trauma-informed care (TIC) education.

Trauma Smart - Trauma Smart. Trauma Smart: A program of Crittenton Children's Center.

MAC-TLPI - Massachusetts Advocates for Children (MAC), Harvard Law School. Trauma and Learning Policy Initiative (TLPI).

WA OSPI-Heart of learning 2009 - State of Washington, Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (WA OSPI). The heart of learning: Compassion, resiliency, and academic success. 2009.

IL SBE-Trauma - Illinois State Board of Education (IL SBE). Comprehensive system of learning supports: Childhood trauma resources.

MA DOE-TSS - Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (MA DOE). Trauma-sensitive schools (TSS).

ISU-BTBT - Idaho State University (ISU). Better Todays. Better Tomorrows (BTBT) for children’s mental health.

Date Last Updated

Oct 19, 2016