Trauma Responsive Schools: Important for All Students

By Jeanne Carlivati


(Jeanne Carlivati, an ISA coach, wrote this post. In her professional career, she was a school counselor for 28 years with the Rochester City School District and holds two master’s degrees, one in urban education and the second in school counseling. For 20 years she helped to provide monthly professional development opportunities on grief and loss issues for district staff and was a lead teacher for school climate and a mediation trainer and facilitator. After retiring in 2003, she became a restorative practices trainer and practitioner for many other school districts and community organizations in the Rochester area.)

Most educators are familiar with the term ACE (adverse childhood experience), which can include but is not limited to abuse, neglect, bullying, food insecurity, mental illness, incarceration, homelessness, parental/family drug use, and parental death. Research that began in the 1990s indicates that children and youth who experience three or more ACEs have a much higher risk of failing a grade, experience poor school attendance, are unable to concentrate, often become irritable or withdrawn, have trouble maintaining friendships, are referred to special education at a much higher level because they exhibit signs of not being able to learn like their peers, and in many cases eventually drop out of school. (See this 2019 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and this 2020 article from Teaching Tolerance on a trauma-informed approach during the pandemic.)

But research also supports this good news: Young people are highly resilient and have the ability to reverse negative outcomes that emerge from an ACE. Schools can provide for these students by creating an atmosphere in which all students thrive, not just those students who have experienced trauma.

At an ISA partner school in Rochester, NY, ISA has been working with staff members to create a trauma responsive school. In 2019 85% of Rochester students reported experiencing one or more ACEs and 33% reported three or more. Creating a school culture that is welcoming, respectful, supportive, and focused on building positive relationships between students, staff, and families is vital for students who are experiencing trauma and benefits all students.

After recent trainings at the school, the school’s staff members listed all of the outcomes from a trauma responsive school:

  • It helps the school to stay focused on structure and community.
  • Adults start noticing what is going on with the students.
  • Communication becomes easier because everyone cares.
  • Parent involvement improves because phone calls home are more positive than negative and parents know that staff care about their children (see above!).
  • There is a more welcoming environment for everyone.
  • Everyone is taking the time to learn about students’ needs.
  • Staff learn to pay attention to students’ body language and other nonverbal behaviors.
  • A real community is created to determine what needs to happen next for those students who are experiencing trauma.

Building structures that realize, recognize, and respond to the needs of all students also benefit those young people experiencing trauma. “Trauma responsive schools are becoming more the norm than the exception and are increasingly necessary to help ensure student success,” said Rochester’s Superintendent Dr. Lesli Myers-Small.

(The photograph is by Allison Shelley for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action.)