Pediatric Therapeutic Services

What Is Trauma-Informed Care?

Discover This Holistic Approach to Helping Students Heal and Succeed

Smiling male school administrator in classroom kneels beside desk of male elementary school student.

Faced with students’ challenging, disruptive, or aggressive behaviors, teachers, building staff, and administrators are often tempted to ask, “What’s wrong with you?” The better question is, “What happened to you?”

Trauma-informed (or trauma-sensitive) care asks that question.

What is trauma-informed care? It’s a support and service delivery framework in which people are never labeled as problems. Instead, it recognizes people are probably dealing with stressful and traumatic experiences. These experiences shape their behaviors and threaten their physical, mental, and emotional health. 

Trauma-sensitive care doesn’t ignore or excuse problem behaviors. It treats students, whether they are displaying such behaviors or not, in ways that reduce the risk of inflicting further trauma. It creates safe space for holistic growth—academic, social, and personal.

At Pediatric Therapeutic Services (PTS), we’re excited about the power of trauma-sensitive care to help students make progress. Read on for more about what trauma-informed care is and how it paves the way for students to experience better outcomes in school.

Acknowledging the Pervasive Presence of Trauma in Students’ Lives

Trauma is a major, disruptive presence in many American children’s lives. Research finds nearly half the nation’s children are exposed to at least one traumatic experience—abuse, neglect, divorce, death of a family member, and parental mental illness, among others. 

Acknowledging how widely children and youth have experienced trauma may seem obvious. Yet doing so marks a significant shift in caregivers’ mindsets

Neurobiological research reveals the adverse effects of trauma on young people’s mental development. Trauma can rewire their minds, leaving them in perpetual fight-or-flight mode. When students are under chronic stress, they have more trouble paying attention and remembering, as well as relaxing, regulating their behavior, and curbing negative thoughts. All these effects make learning more difficult.

At the same time, individuals’ specific histories of trauma, while important, are less pressing than how caregivers respond to trauma’s long-term impacts. “We don’t necessarily need to question people about their experiences,” Dr. Monique Tello writes for Harvard Medical School, “rather, we should just assume that they may have this history, and act accordingly.”

Safe Relationships Help Students Handle the Effects of Trauma

Based on Tello’s assumption, what should teachers and administrators do? What is trauma-informed care in schools, specifically?

It starts with safe relationships between students and school personnel. Trauma can take a heavy toll on students’ abilities to form strong, healthy, long-term relationships with other people. But when they experience such relationships consistently with teachers and other adults at school, they can start to heal.

These relationships directly contribute to students’ resilience. Trauma-sensitive teachers approach students with a warm and unconditional, positive regard in order to nurture students’ relational capacity and emotional growth.

Understanding Trauma-Informed Care’s Place in Special Education

Smiling female occupational therapist sits next to smiling young elementary school girl, using watercolors to paint with her.And, what is trauma-informed care’s unique relevance to special education and related services?

PTS explored this question at our Administrators’ Retreat in 2019. Experts described practical-steps programs to help students who’ve experienced trauma (that help them both feel safe and succeed). Such steps include:

  • Avoiding traumatic triggers (such as loud voices and threats).
  • Actively and empathetically listening to students.
  • Cueing students to regulate their own stress responses.

These steps and others like them belong to trauma-sensitive care in any context. They can have particular power for students with disabilities and disorders.

For example, such care can help IEP teams define students’ functional goals and select students’ related services in ways that not only reduce observable behaviors, but also build students’ self-regulatory and social-emotional skills, as Dr. Eric Rossen describes.

How Your Program Can Practice Trauma-Informed Teletherapy

The unprecedented, nearly nation-wide school shutdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic was in itself a traumatic experience for U.S. students. It was made worse for many, by adverse circumstances at home. And, while the scramble to take learning online challenged educators and administrators across the board, it put a special strain on special education programs, many of which involve in-person, hands-on service delivery.

School-based teletherapy will likely remain critical in special education programs for the foreseeable future. Here’s a list (by no means exhaustive) of strategies for doing teletherapy in trauma-sensitive ways, based on suggestions from the National Child Traumatic Stress Network:

  • Establish regular routines and maintain clear communication.
  • Create and use relational rituals to foster connection despite physical distance.
  • Find opportunities for short, individual check-ins with students known to be at greater risk for traumatic stress.
  • Tell families and caregivers successful strategies for helping students cope with stress, and invite their suggestions about how the school can best meet their students’ needs and their own.
  • Model for families and caregivers how to regulate emotions to help students cope with stress.
  • Train staff to identify reactions to trauma and to link students with additional supports and resources when needed.
  • Encourage staff to suggest how the school and district can communicate the importance of safety, connection, and hope, not only to students and families, but also to staff.

Would you like to know more about what trauma-informed care is and how it can help your program serve students? Request your free copy of PTS’ special report, Trauma-Informed Care: Key Principles and Best Practices for School Administrators.

Close Menu