Trauma-informed systems of care, particularly in schools, is an emerging topic in psychological research. This week, we will be discussing an article published by Thomas, Crosby, and Vanderhaar titled “Trauma-Informed Practices in Schools Across Two Decades: An Interdisciplinary review of Research.” The authors of this article, published in May of 2019 in the journal, Review of Research in Education provide an overview of existing literature examining various interventions implemented in schools. The primary goal of this review was to analyze the existing literature aimed at identifying ways that teaching practices can be changed to better reflect a trauma-informed curriculum.

What did they do?

As mentioned above, the article we are discussing today is a broad overview of existing literature relevant to the implementation of trauma-informed school practices. In order to determine the kinds of approaches that are typically recommended, the authors first analyzed websites of national advocacy groups and state Department of Education (DOE) agencies. While the authors were able to collect a great deal of information, the information provided across websites varied widely, again highlighting the importance of this review. As the existing literature suggests, teachers and other school-based employees find it difficult to work with students affected by trauma, and in the case of a school or community-wide event, teachers may also be affected personally by such events. Given the challenges presented by trauma of all kinds, the authors highlighted the following research questions:

  1. What is the dominant framework used for promoting and practicing trauma-informed care in schools?
  2. How effective are school-based supports for trauma-affected youth at the school level and at the student level?

Overall, this review included 33 articles that were published across 28 different journals between 1998 and 2018.

Why did they do it?

Primarily, the authors carried out this review to fill an important gap in the literature regarding trauma-informed care in schools: what specific moves should educators be making? Existing research has found that a great deal of trauma is experienced during childhood, and such traumatic experiences are associated with poor school performance by way of negatively impacting self-regulatory abilities, among other things.

To combat these negative effects, trauma informed education in schools is a necessary step. Trauma-sensitive classroom practices include positive and restorative responses to behavior, policy and procedure changes, teacher and staff professional development, and perhaps most importantly, collaboration among school staff and mental health professionals. The knowledge that educators would need to support a trauma-sensitive classroom is often interdisciplinary in nature. The resources currently available for educators seeking out information on the topic vary widely, however, making successful implementation difficult for individual educators. The authors also point out the importance of educator self-care, and include this within their analysis. Teachers working with students exposed to trauma often experience second hand traumatic stress, stemming from learning of students’ experiences.

How did they do it?

Each study included in the review was considered both broadly and individually. The authors then provide a landscape of empirical work around school-based, trauma-informed interventions, and then compare and contrast different areas of research.

What did they find?

Two specific challenges were highlighted. First, it was found that school children in need of services are often under-identified, and second, it was demonstrated that even those who are successfully identified as needing services may not actually attend treatment, or may not attend treatment for a sufficient amount of time. Even given these challenges, the majority of the studies included in this review cite school-based trauma interventions as being successful overall, with success primarily attributed to the school environment being highly conducive to this type of care (e.g., incorporating routines, regularity, etc.). However, general success does not mean that there are not challenges. Some of the challenges reported in this review include a lack of support from administrators and teachers, competing teacher responsibilities, problems engaging parents, and stigma regarding mental health concerns. Existing literature focussing on community or school-wide traumatic events also described schools struggling to cope with natural disaster recovery such that they are “too exhausted or more focused on returning to normalcy.”

What does it all mean (our take)?

How should we go about implementing a trauma-based care environment within the school system? It seems that at this point there is not enough reliable data to formally agree on one specific “best practice.” The school environment offers both a highly desirable situation due to having great access to students, but as a result of the countless other variables reported by the authors in this review, carrying out a trauma-based system of care in the school environment is uniquely challenging.

We highly encourage you to check out this article yourself! By reading the article in full you can learn about the details of the study methodology, as well as some of the other findings not reported in this blog. We enjoyed reading their article, and hope that creative researchers continue to find ways to implement trauma-based care into academic environments.

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