Last reviewed 1 November 2023

A trauma-informed practice (TIP) understands the pervasive nature of trauma in students and through considered strategies, promotes healing and recovery. It also lowers the risk of re-traumatisation. Since covid-19, trauma-informed schools are becoming more commonplace as education strives to better support the mental health of students.

Establishing systems that acknowledge childhood trauma’s potential to have a lasting impact on a person's life, both emotionally and academically, is essential. The Government’s guidance on the working definition of trauma-informed practice states organisations (including schools) should amend their approach to “What does this person need?” as opposed to “What is wrong with this person?”.

The document identifies the six key principles (adapted from Fallot and Harris 2006) of trauma-informed practice being the following.

  1. Safety: where efforts are made by an organisation to ensure the physical and emotional safety of all through policies, practices and safeguarding arrangements.

  2. Trust: achieved through transparency in an organisation's policies and procedures, with the objective of building trust through clear expectations which do not overpromise.

  3. Choice: stakeholders are supported in shared decision-making, choice and goal setting to determine the plan of action they need to heal and move forward.

  4. Collaboration: often operationalised through the formal or informal use of peer support and mutual self-help as needs are identified and action plans established.

  5. Empowerment: efforts are made by the organisation to share power at both individual and organisational levels (for example through decision-making processes) to counteract feelings of powerlessness.

  6. Cultural consideration: incorporating policies, protocols and processes that are responsive to the needs of individuals regardless of gender, sexual orientation, age, religion, disability, geography, race or ethnicity.

The benefits

A trauma-informed approach in schools can lead to innumerable benefits for both students and staff. Improved attendance and increased academic achievement are common as students are better equipped to manage their emotions, with higher levels of self-esteem, empathy and resilience. Additionally, benefits can be seen through:

  • a more connected and respectful school environment

  • a reduction in challenging behaviour

  • lower exclusion rates

  • an ability to model and sustain reliable attachment.

  • improved sense of belonging

  • students who are calmer and ready to learn.

  • students who feel understood, valued and safe.

Furthermore, a TIP school can see greater teacher satisfaction and retention. A trauma-informed approach can help reduce symptoms of trauma and improve overall staff wellbeing. When staff and teachers feel supported in their work, they are more likely to stay in their jobs and feel satisfied with their work.

What is trauma?

Trauma can stem from a single incident, a series of events or a persistent set of circumstances that pose a threat to a student’s overall wellbeing. Such experiences can lead to enduring negative impacts on their mental health and their capacity to function effectively in physical, social, emotional and academic aspects of life.

In the wake of traumatic experiences, students often struggle with a sense of powerlessness, leading to a gradual decline in their performance over time. This is why many schools are adopting a "trauma-informed" approach, where their staff are trained to provide support to students who have faced past traumas. When implemented effectively, this approach fosters a more welcoming school environment, contributing to improved well-being and better academic achievements among students.

Providing trauma-informed practice (TIP) in schools requires going beyond the recognition and acknowledgement of trauma within individuals through:

  • a comprehensive understanding of how traumatic events can influence various aspects of a student’s development, including their neurological growth, psychological wellbeing and social behaviour patterns

  • the ability to discern which interventions may be most beneficial at different stages of the recovery journey.

TIP strives to heighten the awareness of teachers, staff and practitioners regarding how trauma can have adverse effects on both individual children and the broader school community. This encompasses the capacity of children and young people to feel secure and establish trusting relationships with others, all while empowering everyone involved in the process.

What makes a trauma-informed school?

There are four fundamental components necessary for a trauma informed school.

A safe and supportive environment

Developing a culture and ethos centred on wellbeing is a fundamental part of a school's holistic approach to promoting a secure and supportive environment This involves establishing a setting in which students experience physical, psychological, emotional and social safety. This encompasses maintaining a clear code of conduct, fostering open communication and offering support services when needed.

A trauma-informed curriculum

This entails integrating trauma-informed practices into the curriculum to aid students in comprehending and managing trauma. This can be achieved by incorporating lessons on building healthy relationships, conflict resolution and techniques for emotional wellbeing.

A trauma-informed culture

This means creating a school culture where everyone is educated about trauma and committed to supporting affected students. This includes staff training, student and parent awareness, and maintaining transparency about the available support for both students and staff.

Empowerment and choice

A trauma-informed approach empowers students by giving them the choice to participate in school activities, offering alternatives for those not ready and accommodating diverse needs. Student-led programs are naturally more trauma-informed as they consider students' input.

What steps should schools take?

Becoming a trauma-informed school is a deliberate and comprehensive process that involves creating a safe and supportive environment for students who may have experienced trauma. The following steps could be followed in order to establish the correct environment and monitor its effectiveness.

  • Educate your staff: start by providing trauma awareness training for all school staff, including teachers, administrators, support personnel and even non-teaching staff like cafeteria workers. They need to understand the impact of trauma on students' lives and behaviours.

  • Establish a trauma-informed team: form a dedicated team that will lead the effort to become trauma-informed. This team should include representatives from various departments and should be responsible for planning, implementing and monitoring trauma-informed practices.

  • Assessment and self-reflection: evaluate your current school environment, policies and procedures to identify areas where trauma-informed changes are needed. Reflect on how your school currently handles discipline, student interactions and support services.

  • Policy development: develop clear policies and procedures that are trauma informed. This includes guidelines for discipline, student support and teacher-student interactions. Ensure that these policies prioritise the wellbeing of students.

  • Create a safe environment: foster a safe and welcoming environment within your school. This may involve physical changes, such as calming spaces, as well as emotional safety, where students feel they can trust adults in the school.

  • Support for staff: recognise that staff can also be affected by working with students who have experienced trauma. Provide resources and support for staff members to manage their own wellbeing.

  • Collaboration with external resources: establish partnerships with local mental health agencies, social workers and community organisations that can provide additional support and resources to students and families dealing with trauma.

  • Parent and community involvement: engage parents and the broader community in your trauma-informed approach. This can help build a supportive network for students.

  • Communication and training: continuously communicate and train your staff on trauma-informed practices. This should be an ongoing process, rather than a one-time event.

  • Data collection and monitoring: collect data to evaluate the effectiveness of your trauma-informed approach. Are students reporting feeling safer? Are there fewer disciplinary issues? Use data to continually refine your practices.

  • Cultural sensitivity: be sensitive to cultural differences and the potential intersectionality of trauma experiences. Ensure that your approach is inclusive and respectful of diverse backgrounds.

  • Seek expert guidance: if possible, consider consulting with experts in trauma-informed care or seeking guidance from schools that have successfully implemented these practices.

  • Trauma-informed schools foster safe, nurturing settings that aid children in emotional regulation and promote empathy and connections. These schools acknowledge the connection between cognitive development and trauma's effects, emphasising the significance of building supportive, trust-based relationships. Trauma-informed practices in schools provide non-judgmental support, benefiting the wellbeing and growth of all children.

Establishing a trauma-informed school is a process that demands time, unwavering dedication and collective commitment from all members of the school community. It's a process of cultural change within the school community, and the benefits can be significant in terms of student wellbeing and success.