Circles of Care: Building a Trauma-Sensitive School

What does it mean to be a Trauma-Sensitive School?

Perhaps you’re an educator at a school who has started researching trauma-informed practices on your own and implementing them in your classroom. Maybe you’re an administrator who is hearing from your guidance and counseling staff that students are struggling. Or maybe you’re a staff member seeking ways to get involved in supporting students. No matter your school’s starting point, there are steps you can take to help build a system of support around your students.

First, a definition. A trauma-sensitive school is a school where all staff members recognize the impact of trauma on all members of the school community and respond in a way to promote healthy coping strategies. This goes beyond the important work of educators implementing trauma-informed strategies in their classrooms. Building a trauma-sensitive school means all educators are trained and feel comfortable supporting students who are experiencing traumatic stress. In less technical terms, you can imagine a trauma-sensitive school as a school where every student in surrounded by a circle of care. They have multiple adults checking in on them, watching out for times they need support, and stepping in with a plan of action as needed.


Creating Networks of Support

Every student deserves to have a team of adults supporting them at school. For students who are experiencing traumatic stress, having multiple adults available as support is crucial. To think about how to build an individual student’s support network, follow these steps:

  • Identify the student’s needs. What does the student need to feel supported? Make sure to include the student, if possible, in this step.
  • Recruit your team. Who is the student close to? Who has a good relationship with the student? It’s best if you can have a few different roles here – teachers, coaches, counselors, staff, administrators, etc.
  • Make a plan. Decide the who, what, and when of implementing your strategies. Is someone going to check in during the morning before homeroom? Is it a quick minute at the end of a class?
  • Assess and change. It’s never going to be the same support plan for any two students or even the same student over two different years. Know that, even as your plans and strategies shift, everyone on the team keeps the student’s needs centered.


Building Capacity in a Trauma-Sensitive School

You may be looking at those steps and seeing a lot of work to be done in your school. Perhaps you don’t know who you could recruit to help your students yet. Creating a trauma-sensitive school doesn’t happen overnight and requires building capacity in many different domains. As you start to put the strategies around safety, relationships, and coping mechanisms into place, you will want to consider what your school is doing in the following areas:

  • Training and Professional Development – All educators and staff are trained and prepared to recognize and respond to traumatic stress. They know what trauma is and what the next steps are if they see a student struggling with traumatic stress.
  • Whole-Child Approach – A trauma-sensitive school makes sure to support students’ needs across all domains, including academic, social, emotional, wellness, and behavioral. All staff take time to get to know and appreciate their students as individuals.
  • Cultural Responsiveness – The school is focused on equity and cultural responsiveness, and all staff value the diverse cultures, languages, and experiences that students, families, and staff members bring to the community.
  • Families and Communities – Partnerships between staff and students, families, and communities are at the heart of the school. Students’ needs are front and center, and the school and broader community work in collaboration.
  • Educator Support – The school community considers staff health, wellness, and happiness a priority and ensures that staff members are getting assistance in handling the effects of secondary trauma or compassion fatigue.


Each of these capacities are interrelated, and you will find as your school grows in one, it becomes easier to infuse trauma-informed work across different initiatives, departments, and areas.


Looking Ahead

Here in the Mosaic™ by ACT® SEL team, we like to think of trauma-informed practices as, well, a practice. Something we continue to work on in our schools every day. Though that lens means our work in ensuring our students are supported is never done, it also means that educators are continuing to look for opportunities to improve how they are reaching and supporting students in need. As you continue the work in your school, know that you are powerful, and you are making a difference for the students who need it most.

Alea Thompson

Alea Thompson

School Partnership LeadAlea Thompson is the School Partnership Leader at Mawi Learning. A former high school teacher, she is currently a PhD candidate in Educational Policy Studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago .Outside of work, she is an avid Red Sox fan, voracious reader, and beginner quilter.