Database: Sad, Not Bad

Trauma informed care gets students the help they need

Katharine Carter

Devin refused to comply with simple teacher requests. He would choose to sit on the floor instead of participating in class activities, or he would leave in the middle of class without permission.

Devin’s behavior earned him three suspensions and the label of “troublemaker.”

If someone had taken a closer look at Devin’s behavior, however, he or she would not have been so quick to label him. No one knew that Devin’s father had been arrested and the family was living in a small, crowded bedroom at a friend’s house. He had been sleeping on the floor for over two months, and food was scarce.

His uncertain living situation and the pain of missing his father were the reasons for Devin’s behavior. He needed support, but that’s not what his school offered him.

Devin represents the challenge that schools face in addressing student needs while also maintaining a positive, safe learning environment.

For decades, schools responded to misbehavior by kicking students out of the classroom through suspensions and expulsions. Many schools adopted zero-tolerance policies, which contributed to almost a quarter of all students being suspended at some point in their scholastic careers.

After mounting evidence that such harsh measures were not only ineffective but disproportionately affected students of color, schools have begun to rethink how to discipline students for inappropriate behavior, with many adopting a strategy that recognizes that such behavior may stem from traumatic experiences.



Various surveys have found that 25 percent to 39 percent of children have experienced or witnessed trauma, which researchers define as a deeply disturbing experience or the response to a terrible event. One study found that more than half of the 536 inner-city middle school students it surveyed had witnessed a stabbing or a shooting.

Trauma also may result from being the victim of abuse or neglect, experiencing the loss of a parent through divorce or incarceration, or living with an adult with a mental illness or substance abuse problems.

Low-income and minority students are more likely to experience trauma because of their disproportionate exposure to violence and poverty. They also are more likely to be suspended for misbehavior: Federal data from the 2011-12 school year shows that 23.2 percent of all black high school students were suspended compared to 6.7 percent of all white high school students.

Single stressful events like a car accident or the death of a loved one can traumatize a child. But consistent violence inside the family or within the community have the most lasting effect on a child’s brain. Repeated trauma not only lowers academic performance but also can cause behavior problems. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that children with three or more traumatic experiences were more likely to have severe behavioral problems, failing grades, and poor attendance than children with no traumatic experiences.

 In traumatized children, still-developing neural pathways associated with responses to danger, impulse control, and memory are affected. Trauma’s impact on the brain often places children in a state of hyper-arousal, causing them to overreact to situations that are otherwise nonthreatening. Some children display a response to traumatic events internally, through lack of motivation, depression, or declining class participation. However, many children display a response externally, through outbursts, violence, and defiance.

In schools, the standard approach to these disruptions has been to isolate students through suspensions and expulsions, ultimately limiting their learning opportunities and sending them down a path that leads to lower academic outcomes.



Originating from the mental health field, trauma-informed care is a framework for understanding, recognizing, and responding to the effects trauma can have on a person. In a school setting, trauma-informed education fosters the understanding that disruptive or hostile behavior is derived from suffering, not from anger. It does not occur by choice, but is driven by triggers like a confrontation or a sudden change of routine.

While a trauma-informed approach in schools prioritizes treatment over punishment, it does not mean discipline is absent. Instead of rushing to reprimand students, however, the focus is on building opportunities for students to succeed by helping them regulate their emotions and creating an environment where they feel safe and connected to caring adults.

Punishments, if necessary, are given after the poor behavior is discussed, and all parties understand why the incident took place.

Without appropriate treatment, traumatized children may continue to exhibit low academic performance, and unaddressed mental health problems could last into adulthood. Additionally, this could lead to poor educational outcomes, as statistics show that children who suffer trauma have higher dropout and incarceration rates.

Trauma-informed practices and programs, like guided meditation, Collaborative Problem Solving, and Positive Behavioral Intervention and Supports (PBIS) have been successful in a growing number of schools, reducing reactions to trauma and lowering student discipline problems while raising academic achievement.



Funding, time constraints, and a lack of mental health professionals in schools all present challenges to the implementation of trauma-informed education. Funding for trauma-informed care remains uncertain, although some successful implementers of mental health services in schools do so through Medicaid reimbursements or grant funding.

Trauma-informed care is best when incorporated in the classroom all day, making it a challenge to deliver specific services, such as counseling sessions or behavioral assessments, without infringing on class time. Likewise, it may be difficult to generate the time necessary to train education professionals to incorporate trauma-informed practices into their pedagogy. Most schools lack mental health care professionals to provide necessary educator training or direct services to students.

Partnering with communities, nonprofit organizations, or local foundations for the provision of behavioral health services in schools is an optimal way to support the schoolwide implementation of trauma-informed education.

But creating an environment where kids feel safe and welcome, and making sure that students can talk to someone if they are feeling overwhelmed, are inexpensive measures for schools to adopt compared to the loss of instructional time resulting from frequent disruptive behavior.

Devin did eventually get the help he needed. His teacher referred him to a mental health professional and a social worker, who secured more stable housing for the family. The teacher and school counselor checked in with him frequently so that he could talk through his emotions. Instead of continuing to suspend Devin, which would have put him farther behind academically, they worked out appropriate consequences that rewarded good behavior and helped him work through the rough days.

Katharine Carter ( is a graduate student at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., and the 2017 spring intern with NSBA’s Center for Public Education.
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