Column: Trauma-Informed Schools are places where all students feel safe

  • Colleagues:

    The Social Work department is in year four of implementing a Trauma-Informed School approach.  

    Research shows us that traumatic childhood events such as abuse, neglect, witnessing crime, parental conflict, mental illness, and substance abuse can create dangerous levels of stress and derail healthy brain development. This can result in long-term effects on learning, behavior and health (Adverse Childhood Experiences Study, or ACES).

    Children who have experienced trauma (ACES) can display symptoms that may interfere with learning, such as hypervigilance, difficulty trusting others, emotional dysregulation, and other internalizing behaviors.

    Trauma Informed Care (TIC) is an approach that recognizes the presence of these traumatic symptoms and responds by creating safe supportive environments where students can develop positive relationships with adults.

    TIC should be seen as a universal precaution used for all students. We may not know exactly who has been affected by trauma, nor should we make assumptions about specific groups of people based on culture, income, gender, sexual orientation or ability.

    TIC is not about diagnosis or labeling students. All students need consistent environments that emphasize empowerment, trustworthiness, safety, collaboration, and choice. By being aware and mindful of the effects of trauma, educators can break the cycle of trauma, prevent re-traumatization, and engage a child in learning.

    By using a Trauma-Informed School approach, the SPPS Social Work Department has provided educators with practical strategies as well as the background knowledge they need to build and strengthen relationships with students – one of they key concepts of trauma informed care. We delve deeper into topics such as trauma and the brain, historical trauma, resilience, attunement, self regulation (for students), empowerment, restorative practices and mindfulness.

    The following is a summary of our accomplishments.

    Social Work Department Implementation: Nine Schools now have a half-time trauma social worker who focuses on increasing staff understanding of trauma. SPPS School Social Workers participate in a Trauma Informed  PLC, and then educate school staff through professional development

    District-Wide Supports: Increasing Wellness and Decreasing Toxic Stress Schoology video was created in collaboration with Department of School Climate and Support. We have screened the Paper Tigers documentary throughout the district and provided professional development.

    Recognition: As a result of our work we were invited to the Trauma-Informed Approaches in School: Supporting Girls of Color and Rethinking Discipline conference at The White House last September. We were also asked to present on our TIC implementation at the Wilder Foundation.  

    We hope to expand on this work into the 2017-18 school year. Please help us increase awareness and gain support for increasing the number of Trauma-Informed Schools.


    Michelle Keleny
    Lead Social Worker
    Saint Paul Public Schools