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Overview

Trauma-informed practice, sometimes known as trauma-sensitive practice or safe and supportive schools, creates a shared understanding and common language about how to create welcoming, caring, respectful and safe schools.

All students benefit from learning environments that are:

  • calm
  • predictable
  • supportive

Trauma risk factors

Prolonged stress caused by issues such as abuse or neglect, can impact brain development. Students who experience severe or chronic trauma without the support of a nurturing relationship, are at high risk for having difficulties with:

  • learning
  • behaviour
  • forming friendships

They may demonstrate a range of actions from extreme aggression to withdrawal. Focusing on healthy relationships and positive discipline can improve student engagement and school culture.

In any given school, at least one quarter of the students have experienced traumatic or adverse experiences.

Building understanding

When staff understand how trauma affects the brain and the lives of students, they can avoid unknowingly causing a student to feel unsafe or distressed. Staff can choose strategies that show empathy, and help to create safe environment, where students can learn healthy ways to handle emotions and relating to others.

All students benefit from learning environments that are calm and supportive.

Approach

A whole-school approach to trauma-informed practice at school can include strategies such as:

  • peer mentoring
  • teacher-student mentoring, or
  • restorative practices

Social-emotional learning opportunities are critical to students healing as well as to their learning. Providing supportive and compassionate learning environments that are trauma-informed have shown to provide positive impacts on the emotional well-being of students and helps them succeed in academics and social life.

Foundational ideas

Trauma-informed practice creates a school environment where every student feels safe and supported and where staff understand how trauma affects behaviour and emotions.

Key facts

  • When students experience frequent or continued adversity, the stress can undermine their ability to cope.
  • Students who have been exposed to unpredictable and uncontrollable danger, such as abuse or severe neglect, live much of their lives in survival mode and respond to the world as a place of danger.
  • Traumatic stress can negatively impact a child’s developing brain.
    • This can result in learning, memory or social-emotional difficulties.
  • No 2 individuals experience a similar adverse event in the same way.
  • A major factor that influences the impact of childhood trauma is the presence or absence of supportive relationships.
    • Positive relationships and successful involvement in school can buffer the impact of past adverse experiences.
  • At least one quarter of the students in any given school have experienced traumatic or adverse experiences.

Examples

Sample stories illustrate what trauma-informed practice could look like at different grade level and in different contexts.

The following fictional stories are examples of what trauma-informed practice might look like in a school setting.

Elementary

Staff at an elementary school are working to build predictable and supportive routines throughout the school day. With their school psychologist, the school offered a series of learning sessions to help staff understand brain development and how it impacts students’ learning and behaviour.

Staff is beginning to use this information to teach students skills to help regulate their emotions, so they can pause and think about their actions. These skills also support students to be engaged and ready to learn.

Middle school

At the beginning of the year, staff from a middle school explored how trauma impacts the lives of students. Using the lens of trauma, staff review school and classroom policies and procedures to ensure they are using the most supportive practices.

High School

A high school is using a student advisory model to ensure every student has at least one supportive adult in the school.

A group of teachers and leaders are also reviewing school practices to ensure they align with trauma-informed practice. Time at monthly staff meetings has been set aside to share and discuss strategies for creating a more supportive learning environment.

Resources

Supporting documents

Trauma-informed Video Conversation Guide (PDF, 694 KB)

External resources and research

How Brains Are Built: Core Story of Brain Development

The Heart of Learning and Teaching Compassion, Resiliency and Academic Success

Supporting Every Student Learning Series

Policy Wise for Children and Families

Harvard University’s Centre of the Developing Child

Children’s Mental Health Learning Series

National Child Traumatic Stress Network