Massachusetts, Washington State lead U.S. trauma-sensitive school movement

Washington State determined that 13 out of every 30 students in a classroom will have toxic stress from 3 or more traumatic experiences. Those children are likely to be more “unruly”, more “unmotivated” or more absent than the others. Source: Washington State Family Policy Council.


TRAUMA-SENSITIVE SCHOOLS. TRAUMA-INFORMED classrooms. Compassionate schools. Safe and supportive schools. All different names to describe a movement that’s taking shape and gaining momentum across the country.

And it all boils down to this: Kids who are experiencing the toxic stress of severe and chronic trauma just can’t learn. It’s physiologically impossible.

The kid who loses it and drops the F-bomb probably has trauma going on in his or her life. So does the kid who skips school or is labeled “unmotivated” — head down on the desk or staring into space. In other words, they’re having typical stress reactions: fight, flight or freeze.

In trauma-sensitive schools, teachers don’t punish a kid for “bad” behavior – they don’t want to traumatize an already traumatized child. They dig deeper to help a child feel safe. Once a child feels safe, she or he can move out of stress mode, and learn again.

Pick any classroom in any school in any state in the country, and you’ll find at least a handful – and sometimes more than a handful — of students experiencing some type of severe trauma.

What’s severe trauma? We’re not talking falling on a playground and breaking a finger here. This trauma is gut-wrenching, life-bending and mind-warping: Living with an alcoholic parent or a parent diagnosed with depression or other mental illness. Witnessing a mother being abused (physically or verbally). Being physically, sexually or verbally abused. Losing a parent to abandonment or divorce. Homelessness. Being bullied. You can probably name a few others.

Since at least 2005, a few dozen individual schools across the U.S. have adopted some type of trauma-sensitive approach. But the centers of gravity for the action are in Massachusetts and Washington. These two states lead the way in taking a district-wide approach to integrating trauma-informed practices, with an eye to state-wide adoption.

Without a school-wide approach, “it’s very hard to address the role that trauma is playing in learning,” says Susan Cole, director of the Trauma Learning Policy Initiative, a joint project of Harvard Law School and Massachusetts Advocates for Children. Cole is co-author of a seminal book: Helping Traumatized Children Learn, sometimes known as “The Purple Book”.

With a school-wide strategy, trauma-sensitive approaches are woven into the school’s daily activities: the classroom, the cafeteria, the halls, buses, the playground. “This enables children to feel academically, socially, emotionally and physically safe wherever they go in the school. And when children feel safe, they can calm down and learn,” says Cole. “The district needs to support the individual school to do this work. With the district on board, principals can have the latitude to put this issue on the front burner, where it belongs.”

Many teachers have known for years that trauma interferes with a kid’s ability to learn. But school officials from both states cite two research breakthroughs that provide the evidence and data necessary to change policies.

One was the CDC’s Adverse Childhood Experiences Study (ACE Study). It uncovered a stunning link between childhood trauma and the chronic diseases people develop as adults. This includes heart disease, lung cancer, diabetes, many autoimmune diseases, as well as depression, violence, being a victim of violence, and suicide.

The study’s researchers came up with an ACE score to explain a person’s risk for chronic disease. Think of it as a cholesterol score for childhood toxic stress. You get one point for each type of trauma. The higher your ACE score, the higher your risk of health and social problems.

Prevalence of types of childhood trauma in 17,000 members of Kaiser Permanente health maintenance organization. Source: CDC’s ACE Study.


A whopping 66 percent of the 17,000 people in the ACE Study had an ACE score of at least one; 87 percent of those had more than one. With an ACE score of 4 or more, things start getting serious: four times the risk of emphysema; two times the risk of hepatitis; more than four times the likelihood of depression; 12 times the risk of suicide. Public health experts had never seen anything like it. Eighteen states have done their own ACE surveys and found similar results.

As the ACE score, or number of types of adverse childhood experiences increase, so does the percentage of people who suffer from alcoholism. Source: CDC’s ACE Study.


(By the way, lest you think that the ACE Study was yet another involving inner-city poor people of color, take note: The study’s participants were 17,000 mostly white, middle and upper-middle class college-educated San Diegans with good jobs and great health care – they all belonged to Kaiser Permanente.)

The second game-changing discovery explains why childhood trauma has such tragic long-term consequences: Toxic stress physically damages a child’s developing brain. This was determined by a group of neuroscientists and pediatricians, including neuroscientist Martin Teicher and pediatrician Jack Shonkoff, both at Harvard University, neuroscientist Bruce McEwen at Rockefeller University, and child psychiatrist Bruce Perry at the Child Trauma Academy.

Together, the two discoveries reveal a story too compelling for schools to ignore:

Children with toxic stress live much of their lives in fight, flight or fright (freeze) mode. They respond to the world as a place of constant danger. With their brains overloaded with stress hormones and unable to function appropriately, they can’t focus on schoolwork. They fall behind in school or fail to develop healthy relationships with peers or create problems with teachers and principals because they are unable to trust adults. Some kids do all three. With despair, guilt and frustration pecking away at their psyches, they often find solace in food, alcohol, tobacco, methamphetamines, inappropriate sex, high-risk sports, and/or work and over-achievement. They don’t regard these coping methods as problems. They see them as solutions to escape from depression, anxiety, anger, fear and shame.

When Sal Terrasi, director of pupil personnel services for the Brockton Public Schools, learned about this research, it really didn’t surprise him that trauma interfered with a kid’s ability to learn. A 40-year veteran of public schools, “I wasn’t unaware of this,” he says.

But having empirical data gave him a good reason to try something in Brockton’s 23 schools that had never been attempted: Create a trauma-informed school district that works in tandem with the local police department, and the departments of children and family services, mental health, youth services and a group of local counseling agencies.

Oh, he ran into resistance all right. Some teachers’ knee-jerk reaction to an angry 15-year-old yelling in their faces is to yell back, kick the kid out of class, and talk with other teachers about how to punish the punk. Or, as Terrasi puts it: they regard unruly behavior as willful disobedience instead of a manifestation of trauma.

The same teacher is not likely to have the same attitude toward a six-year-old girl who’s lost in a daze and will not participate in any class activities.

And yet both children might be responding in their own way to a similar event: awakening to a mother’s screams in the middle of the night, calling 911 in despair and watching in terror as police cart dad off to jail while mom is taken to a hospital.

Take a short walk on the dark side of our public education system, and you learn some disturbing lessons about school punishment. U.S. schools suspend millions of kids — 3,328,750, to be exact. And only 5% were suspended for weapons or drugs, says a National Education Policy Center report published in October 2011. Most are for “disruptive behavior” and “other”, which includes violation of dress code, being “defiant”, and in at least one case, farting.

In Pierce County, Washington, a study of nearly 2,000 children who were on probation revealed that 85 percent were suspended before they reached high school. A heart-breaking one-third of these students experienced their first suspension between 5 years old and 9 years old.

When you hear information like that, you’ve got to consider that it’s not the kids who are failing the system — the system is failing the kids.

That’s what Sal Terrasi, director of pupil personnel services for the Brockton Public Schools, had been thinking for years. Now he had empirical evidence — the CDC’s ACE Study, the neurobiological research that definitely showed that traumatized kids cannot learn when they are over-stressed, and “Helping Traumatized Children Learn”, the book that Susan Cole, director of the Trauma and Learning Policy Initiative (TLPI) at Harvard Law School and Massachusetts Advocates for Children, co-authored.

With all that in hand, he said, metaphorically, “Enough already.” What he really said was: “I saw the data as providing us with powerful support for change.”

He called a community-wide meeting. Each of the district’s 23 schools sent a four-member team. Representatives from the district attorney’s office showed up. So did local police (in a learning capacity), as well as the departments of children and families, youth services, and mental health. Local counseling agencies sent folks. They spent a whole day working with TLPI and talking about trauma and learning.

The response has been nothing short of amazing: an entire community figuring out ways to turn the system from a blame-shame-punishment approach to one of taking care of kids so that they can learn.

  • Many of the district’s 23 schools have instituted trauma-informed improvement plans. Suspensions and expulsions have plummeted. Arnone Elementary, for example, which has 826 students from kindergarten through 5th grade, 86% of which are minorities, has seen a 40% drop in suspensions.
  • Three hundred of the district’s 1400 teachers have taken a course about teaching traumatized children that TLPI developed with the district and educators at Lesley University.
  • The attention to child trauma doesn’t stop at the schoolyard fence. Local police alert school personnel of any arrest or visit to an address. Counselors identify children who live at that address so that, “at the very least, the school is aware that a second- or third-grader is carrying something around that is a big deal,” says Terrasi.
Arnone School in Brockton, MA, where suspensions have decreased 40% since the school began integrating a trauma-sensitive approach to school discipline.


So many schools in Massachusetts are interested in adopting a trauma-informed approach that the state legislature is considering a bill – House Bill 3528 — requiring schools to develop an action plan to develop “safe and supportive schools”. (Apparently, that’s a little more positive wording than “trauma-sensitive”.)

It’s all well and good to advise schools to do everything through a trauma-informed lens, but when you get down to classrooms and students, what exactly does that mean?

The Arnone School staff, which was trained by TLPI’s Joe Ristuccia in how trauma affects learning, instituted two programs: Collaborative Problem Solving, developed by child psychologist Ross Greene, author of The Explosive Child and Lost at School. The other is the Positive Behavioral Interventions & Support program, which is used in more than 16,000 schools across the U.S.

The U.S. Department of Education-sponsored program acknowledges that punishment, “including reprimands, loss of privileges, office referrals, suspensions, and expulsions”, is ineffective, according to a description of the program that appears on its web site, “especially when it is used inconsistently and in the absence of other positive strategies”. Instead, “teaching behavioral expectations and rewarding students for following them is a much more positive approach than waiting for misbehavior to occur before responding”.

These expectations include teaching children how to “show respect, responsibility, safety and kindness,’ says Peri Jacoubs, Arnone’s assistant principal. Teachers use a system of rewards for good behavior, as well as positive reinforcement, such as telling a child who’s walking in the hallway: “I really like the way you’re walking,” instead of waiting for, or only saying or yelling, “Stop running”, if a child starts running.

In Washington State, the other center of gravity in the trauma-sensitive schools movement, six elementary schools in the Spokane Public School District are becoming trauma-informed. After the successful adoption in Lincoln High School (see a longer story about how Lincoln High School changed its system), the Walla Walla Public Schools plan to figure out how to integrate the approach in their other schools.

The training for both school districts comes from the Washington State University’s Area Health Education Center (AHEC). It started from a completely different place than Massachusetts did — wanting to reduce children’s exposure to violence.

It began with a juvenile justice and public health approach, but it soon became clear that “no treatment system was large enough or versatile enough to respond” to the challenge, says Chris Blodgett, AHEC director. The answer was to engage “universal” systems – the ones that touch children every single day. That means schools. They adapted the ARC model developed at the Trauma Center at Justice Resource Institute, as well as the “Flexible Framework” found in Helping Traumatized Children Learn.

Even though each state started down different paths, they’ve arrived at the same conclusions.

  • To be successful, this transition requires the participation of all schools in a district.
  • It takes an entire community to support the changes.
  • It takes more than one school district to have a long-term impact on a state.
  • And there’s no such thing as a cookie-cutter approach. The training, the goals, the strategy – all have “to be tailored to culture of community,” says Susan Cole. One school, like Lincoln, might have most of its students grappling with severe and chronic trauma, while another might have a bullying problem.

Or, as AHEC assistant director Natalie Turner, who does much of the training in Washington State schools, says: “If you’ve seen one school, you’ve seen one school.”

“Understanding trauma is such a missing piece to school reform,” says Cole. The changes that have taken place at schools such as Arnone in Brockton, MA, and Lincoln in Walla Walla, WA, are just the beginning, but they should be the norm, not the exception, she believes.

“There is much work ahead at the policy level,” she explains. “Helping educators understand that trauma is playing a key role in many of the problems they are seeing at school is going to require a movement.”


  1. […] Paul, whose book “Brilliant: The New Science of Smart” will come out next year, says this research means that one-shot tests should be replaced with ongoing assessment, and schools should be safe, supportive places. In other words trauma-sensitive schools, as is Lincoln High School in Walla Walla, WA, and many schools in the Brockton, MA, school district. […]


  2. I don’t know if I believe this article only because I went to school in Washington State and now all my cousins and nieces nephews go to school here. I am pretty sure we (at least my self) feel like here the problem is always handed to someone else. Just my thoughts though. This was nicely written and presented well, thanks for sharing!


    • I agree with what you say. I just retired as a school counselor in Washington State. There are many teachers and administrators with good hearts, but the old beliefs of behaviorism, learning from consequences, etc. are very ingrained within our culture. There is a big learning curve that has to take place. It is not an easy change for educators to make. I am going to keep plugging away as a community member.


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