Responding to Trauma

of teachers and admin reported needing more support in using trauma-informed SEL strategies

District and school leaders are reimagining and rebuilding safe spaces for members of the school community who have experienced or are experiencing trauma. This means taking into account the community’s past and current trauma and the fact that the experience of trauma can be both collective and very personal. In adopting a trauma-informed perspective, districts and schools can build from SEL; it is part of the effort to create safe, supportive, and welcoming learning environments. Becoming trauma-informed does NOT mean that administrators and educators become therapists; rather it means ensuring that staff become familiar with signs of trauma and ways to show support for students and colleagues who are experiencing it or have experienced it in their past. It also means that districts and schools must work closely with community-based organizations and other agencies that have strong expertise in trauma-informed care and those that provide mental health support.

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In a survey conducted by Johns Hopkins University of 3,300 13- to 19-year-olds:

The first thing students need“The first thing students need is adults that truly care about them. And then resources to help give them strategies to get through trauma.”

  • 40% say they have been offered no social-emotional support by an adult from school.
  • Almost 25% report feeling disconnected from school, adults, and classmates.
  • Over 25% say they are losing more sleep, feeling more unhappy, feeling under constant strain, or losing confidence in themselves.
  • 52% are more worried than usual about their health and their family’s health.
  • 40% more concerned about their family’s financial standing and their educational future.

Guiding Questions

  • How can we meaningfully address current collective trauma and still support students with rigorous instruction?
  • What are some best practices to make sure students get the support they need?

Professional Development Connections

  • For principals/school leaders: Acknowledging and addressing trauma is an ongoing process that requires professional development on how to talk about trauma in productive and inclusive ways that reach the whole school community. School leaders may also need support to strengthen or expand their referral systems so that students get appropriate levels of professional help from social workers and others.
  • For teachers/instructional staff: Focus professional development on how to integrate trauma-informed practices into the class and how to identify warning signs in students and adults who may need additional support.
Use these selected strategies and resources
High-leverage Strategies Aligned Resources

Trauma-Informed Action Plan

Create or refresh the district or school trauma-informed action plan for distance or hybrid learning.

  • Keep it up to date on how the district’s or school’s referral system works.
  • Incorporate key partners.

Use this Trauma-Sensitive School checklist to create or refresh a trauma-informed action plan on five key components:

  • School-wide policies and practices
  • Classroom strategies and techniques
  • Collaborations and linkages to mental health resources
  • Family partnerships
  • Community Linkages

(Lesley University’s Center for Special Education and the Trauma and Learning Policy Initiative of Massachusetts Advocates for Children and the Legal Services Center of Harvard Law School)

Nine Elements of Effective School Community Partnerships (Coalition for Community Schools and the National Association of School Psychologists) outlines elements necessary for creating and sustaining effective partnerships to improve student mental health, physical health, and overall wellness.

Research-Based Trauma-Informed Techniques

Train educators in the use of research-based techniques that have been shown to help people process stress and trauma and build resilience.

The Common Trauma Symptoms in Students handout provides educators with tools and strategies to identify and support students who may be experiencing traumatic stress (IES).

The Supporting Young People in the Wake of Violence and Trauma guide helps adults build relationships with youth that affirm their experiences and cultivate safety after violence or trauma (MENTOR–The National Mentoring Partnership developed this brief in collaboration with the Mental Health Association of New York).

Use these research-based coping mechanisms compiled by the Policy Analysis of California Education (PACE):

  • Discuss what is inside and outside participants’ control
  • Use relaxation and breathing techniques
  • Use visualization techniques
  • Cultivate supportive relationships and community connections
  • Increase opportunities to talk safely about personal situations
  • Write/journal
  • Track “small wins,” contributions, or joyful moments
  • Exercise

Supporting Children’s Mental Health: Tips for Parents and Educators offers several practical recommendations (National Association of School Psychologists).

Restorative Practices

Use restorative practices to strengthen relationships and social connections between students, between students and educators, and even between educators, whose behavior often serves as a role model for students.

The Restorative Practices guide (Schott Foundation) shows how to use the following key practices:

  • Address and discuss the needs of the school community
  • Build healthy relationships between educators and students
  • Resolve conflict and hold individuals and groups accountable
  • Reduce and prevent harmful behavior
  • Repair harm and restore positive relationships
  • Identify and involve additional stakeholders who can support students and help them work through issues

Safe Online Spaces

Create safe spaces throughout the school—class, advisory, homeroom, interest groups—to engage students in developmentally appropriate conversations and lessons.

See related resources in the section on Relevance .

This resource on building SEL into current events lessons provides essential questions to engage students in safe and developmentally appropriate conversations and lessons to discuss past, current, and future impacts of the pandemic and racial inequities on themselves, their families, their communities, and the broader world. (CASEL SEL Roadmap)