8 Practices of Compassionate, Trauma-Informed Schools

This article is part of a series highlighting the presentations given at the 2021 eLumaNation Summit, held virtually September 30 – October 1, 2021

Full disclosure: I am a HUGE fan of Dr. Eric Rossen. I find his work insightful and critical, and his demeanor one of a brilliant professional who would also be a ton of fun to have a beer with. 

Eric Rossen, Ph.D. is a Nationally Certified School Psychologist, a licensed psychologist in Maryland, and a credentialed National Register Health Service psychologist. He currently serves as the director of professional development and standards for the National Association of School Psychologists. Dr. Rossen has worked in public schools and in independent practice, and has served as a college instructor and adjunct faculty.

We had the pleasure of hearing him speak on the topic of trauma-informed schools at the 2nd annual eLumaNation Summit. During his talk, Dr. Rossen shared insights about trauma, how trauma impacts children and adolescents, and the eight practices employed by trauma-informed schools. 

Dr. Rossen asserts that the original ACEs study conducted between 1995 and 1997 is not an accurate representation of the full range of Adverse Child Experiences children can be exposed to, as that study only focused on household trauma/dysfunction. Dr. Rossen argues that children are actually exposed to potential trauma in four categories: 1) environmental 2) community 3) household and 4) school.

A critical point of consideration is the fact that trauma is subjective- that is, trauma is based on how an individual interprets or perceives the event. Therefore, what is traumatic to one individual might not be traumatic to another. As educators, parents, human beings- we must recognize and respect this fact. We must also recognize that our own lens of “normal” might impact our responses.

Dr. Rossen’s research indicates that “trauma-informed” can be defined as aware, responding, and actively trying to prevent re-traumatization. In an analysis of the common elements of trauma-informed schools, six of the eight elements are part of Tier I instruction—and therefore, system-wide.

Eight Strategies of Trauma-Informed Schools 

According to Dr. Eric Rossen

  1. Always empower, never disempower.
  • By giving students choice and showing genuine curiosity in their lives and wellbeing, we empower our students. 
  1. Unconditional positive regard.
  • Staff members in trauma-informed schools hold students in high regard, with no strings attached. 
  • When things happen (as they will), educators do not take them personally. Rather, they remind themselves- “[This action] affects me, but it is not about me.”
  • Zero tolerance is the ultimate violation of positive regard.  
  • Read more about Unconditional Positive Regard and Effective School Discipline
  1. Maintain high expectations.
  • Children with trauma often seem less capable than their peers. Do not fall into this trap, as expectations impact outcomes. If we set high expectations and give students the support and scaffolds to meet them, they will. The same is true, however, with low expectations.
  • Let’s focus not on what is wrong with you but what is strong with you.
  1. Check assumptions, observe, listen.
  • Educators at trauma-informed schools are not afraid to ask students what they are thinking, how they are feeling. Dr. Rossen reassures that it is okay- really- to ask students how they are doing. 
  • By asking students how they are doing, we are confronting our own assumptions.
  1. Prioritize relationships.
  • According to the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, “Resilience requires relationships, not rugged individualism”.  
  • With that in mind, Rossen shared examples such as relationship mapping, where staff members list the names of students in the school on a spreadsheet, chart paper, etc. From there, staff members put marks by each student with whom they have a positive relationship. If there are students with no marks, staff members are identified to begin to foster positive relationships with those students.
  • Another example shared is “Ask Me Anything,” which highlights that relationships are two-way interactions. A teacher, administrator, etc. allows students to ask him/her anything- students love the ability to learn about the influential people in their lives. (It is especially fun to have these conversations with younger students, who are often shocked to know that yes, you do have to do laundry, cook dinner, and take out the trash- just like they do at their house!
  1. Focus on staff wellbeing.
  • In contrast to staff self-care (which Dr. Rossen argues is also important), staff wellbeing focuses on the group expectations and policies that enable self-care, such as not sending emails in the evenings, not glorifying business and over-working, etc.
  • Dr. Rossen shared additional examples such as a shout-out wall (via bulletin board or virtually using a tool such as Padlet), and the Tap In/Tap Out practice.
  • Teachers affected by trauma can find support and free online Secondary Traumatic Stress Training for educators at statprogram.org
  1. Consistency and predictability.
  • For any of us, routines provide a sense of stability. For those affected by trauma, routines are even more critical. The sense of predictability can be a potent mood stabilizer.
  1. Provide guided opportunities to assist others. 
  • Educators in trauma-informed schools allow students to help others, within a safe context. 

Follow Eric on Twitter | Connect with Eric on LinkedIn

Learn more about Dr. Rossen’s work at ericrossen.com

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Jamie Downey

Jamie Downey

Jamie Downey has over 18 years of expertise working with students and teachers in the field of education. After spending 10 years in public education as a dual language elementary teacher and campus and district administrator, Jamie entered the world of Marketing and EdTech. She has a Bachelor of Arts in Spanish Literature, a Master of Education specializing in Educational Administration, and is ABD in the process towards her EdD, all from The University of Texas at Austin. Jamie is passionate about serving the underserved and ensuring that all students have access to quality instruction and services, regardless of their zip code or special needs. As such, she is proud to serve eLuma Online Therapy as VP of Marketing. In her spare time, Jamie enjoys spending time with her family, traveling, and running.