Strategies for Trauma-Informed Care in School – Digital Promise

Strategies for Trauma-Informed Care in School

Elementary students play outside

May 26, 2022 | By

One of the first signs of civilization was a “healed femur,” according to anthropologist Margaret Mead. This ancient bone evidenced an early social compact of care for and connection to one another. And it is deeply ingrained in our brains—helping us understand the power of relationships to address trauma and support students’ and teachers’ wellbeing.

This connection was explored by Dr. Brooke Stafford-Brizard, vice president for Research to Practice at the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative (CZI), in a recent webinar hosted by Digital Promise on “Research to Practice: Wellbeing, Connection, and Learning.” The session drew educators, researchers, and other stakeholders from around the world—from California to Washington D.C., Ukraine and Jamaica—and is part of a series supported by the Wallace Foundation aimed at connecting research to practice.

Stafford-Brizard shared research, examples, and insights around three key areas:

  • The impact of trauma on the brain and learning, and the role that connection and wellbeing can play in addressing this;
  • Promising practices from Van Ness Elementary School in Washington, D.C., around whole child support and relationship-building; and
  • The need to better support teachers and their vital role in this work, including their own wellbeing.

The Impact of Trauma on Learning

A well-known body of research from the 1990s on adverse childhood experiences demonstrated the impact of trauma on key learning centers in the brain and centered on the impacts of abuse, neglect, dysfunction, or instability. Since then, Stafford-Brizard explained, the framework has been expanded to recognize “many other contexts of adversity like bias, that children and adults experience” and how this adversity results in chronic stress. Chronic stress prompts a bodily response—a release of the cortisol hormone— which moves us into focusing on survival. She said, “It kind of shuts down…learning centers to make sure that we can focus on that fight, flight, or freeze and take care of ourselves as a mammal.”

You can imagine it's very hard to pay attention, to focus, to hold information in working memory as a student, as a teacher, as a human, if you are experiencing that level of stress.
Dr. Brooke Stafford-Brizard
As a result, the higher-order spaces of the brain that focus on attention and memory are less active. “You can imagine it’s very hard to pay attention, to focus, to hold information in working memory as a student, as a teacher, as a human, if you are experiencing that level of stress,” Stafford-Brizard explained. The past two years have laid bare, created, and exacerbated this chronic stress and trauma for so many students across the country. Stafford-Brizard spoke to the strain of “continuing to function in the midst of a pandemic, in the midst of racial reckoning in our country that is creating spaces of adversity.”

This adversity has a far-reaching impact into adulthood. Citing research from Dr. Nadine Burke Harris, surgeon general of California, on adverse childhood experiences, Stafford-Brizard shared that students who experience trauma are 32 times more likely to present with learning or behavior problems. She emphasized that it is the context that impacts the child; “it’s not ingrained or permanent in the child.” And so there are things we can do.

What We Can Do: Connection and Routine

A powerful body of research, said Stafford-Brizard, confirms that “our cognitive processes, how we pay attention, [and] how we hold information in memory is deeply connected to how we feel safe in relationships, and that starts with infancy.” Early on in her talk, Stafford-Brizard spoke to the ways in which our brain and our body are inextricably linked, and how we “evolved as a species because of social connection”—citing Mead’s observation of the healed bone. “We saw that as we connected as a human society and took care of each other, we evolved and moved on, as a civilization, and that is ingrained in our brains.”

Our cognitive processes, how we pay attention, (and) how we hold information in memory is deeply connected to how we feel safe in relationships, and that starts with infancy.
Dr. Brooke Stafford-Brizard
Schools and educators can play essential roles in fostering those connections with trauma-informed practices, and in recognizing the ways in which chronic stress needs to be addressed within school climates. Stafford-Brizard urged attendees to focus on two key strategies for adults and students to center in their work:

  1. The power of connection and the power of relationships
  2. The power of structures and routines that create a space of safety

She spoke about the key elements needed to support students and relationships, drawing on the Search Institute’s Developmental Relationships Framework. “We need to provide for students, and that starts with care,” said Stafford-Brizard, “but also expand beyond it and give them the space to be held accountable, to hold us accountable, and to push ourselves.”

Developmental Relationships Framework via the Search Institute. Credit: Dr. Brooke Stafford-Brizard and Search Institute

Promising Practices in an Elementary School

Stafford-Brizard shared examples of this approach in action at Van Ness Elementary School in Washington, D.C. Over the past several years, Principal Cynthia Robinson Rivers and her staff, with support from Transcend Education and others, have worked to codify “a number of the phenomenal practices…that have driven success in her building [that] she has pulled from many areas of research.” They are shared in greater detail at

One of the things we can do to address trauma and stress with students is create consistent, predictable routines…(which) reinforces safety.
Dr. Brooke Stafford-Brizard
Stafford-Brizard shared three practices from Van Ness that support relationships and connection, explaining, “One of the things we can do to address trauma and stress with students is create consistent, predictable routines…[which] reinforces safety.” First, Van Ness begins each day with “Strong Start,” which involves both predictable elements and some element of choice for students. The practice includes a structured morning greeting; a dance, movement, or song that sparks joy and connection; and a breathing exercise that helps students “move into a regulated state and prepare themselves to learn.” Teachers often focus on goal-setting for the day during this building-wide time as well. Both the routine and the choice are key for students in a trauma-informed environment. “[T]hat consistency, that predictability is key, but so is choice because students and adults in humans need to feel like they have some control.”

Second, while the larger school culture is focused on relationship-building, Van Ness teachers and staff draw on data from their culture survey to identify specific students who may benefit from more one-on-one time with caring adults. Their “TLC: Time, Love, Connection” practice ensures that each student has a designated adult in the building that they spend one-on-one time with each day, sometimes a few minutes or more if needed.

Finally, students also engage in a “Structured Recess,” where they play games and engage in activities that help them think and work through behavioral issues or other challenges.

Caring for Teachers, Too

The backbone of any school’s effort to implement trauma-informed practices is support for teachers—not just in training or professional learning. Stafford-Brizard named the unprecedented stress many educators feel, citing a recent survey that found the majority of teachers are considering leaving their role earlier than intended. “Almost all teachers [90%] are naming burnout as a significant issue, and we know from research that high levels of burnout, high levels of stress, and low reported ability to cope with that stress, are associated with student outcomes,” she shared. “You cannot have whole children, if you do not have whole teachers.”

You cannot have whole children, if you do not have whole teachers.
Dr. Brooke Stafford-Brizard

Stafford-Brizard offered strategies from a framework developed by neuroscientists at the Center for Healthy Minds, which has developed an app that focuses on supporting healthy wellbeing through an asset-based lens around four key dimensions:

  1. Be present
  2. Feel connected
  3. Get curious
  4. Stay motivated

Credit: Dr. Brooke Stafford-Brizard and Healthy Minds Innovations

Teachers need to feel connected to a community, and part of something bigger. The program (and app) from Healthy Minds Innovations includes a number of tools and guided practices in each of the four areas. In 2020, they worked with school teachers in Madison, Wisconsin, to create a four-week program where teachers spent time each day doing short, daily guided activities in these areas, such as focused meditation or other things that could be done in just 15 minutes or even while doing other tasks such as washing dishes or walking. As a result, the team “found significant drops in psychological distress and loneliness for teachers and increases in mindfulness and that connection to meaning and wellbeing” that showed up at the end of the four-week intervention and in sustained results measured three months later. This is just one of several tools that has shown promise in supporting teachers’ mental health and wellbeing.

Research and Resources on Student and Teacher Mental Health, Trauma, and Wellbeing

In breakout discussions, webinar participants shared other resources and strategies they are using to support student and teacher wellbeing. We’ve compiled a number of those resources, along with resources from Stafford-Brizard and Digital Promise.

Resources from Stafford-Brizard and webinar participants:

Resources from Digital Promise:

Resources on Racial Trauma

Acknowledging and Coping with Racial Trauma” – Harvard GSE synthesis of interview with Tracie Jones, James Huguley, Sarah Vinson
Choosing to see the racial stress that afflicts our Black students” – Riana Elyse Anderson, Farzana T. Saleem, and James P. Huguley
Healing the Hidden Wounds of Racial Trauma” – Kenneth V. Hardy

Opportunities to Learn More

A video recording of this webinar and discussion is available here. Digital Promise will host more webinars exploring the links from research to practice in the fall of 2022.

We will also host a virtual “Learning Salon” on the topic of Mental Health and Trauma in June 2022, during which district leaders will have the opportunity to meet and engage with solution providers who have tools or programs to support schools in this area. Interested districts may sign up here.

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