Every school child in America is a steaming stew of blood-borne infections and diseases.

OK: That isn’t true; however, the teachers, administrators and staff in American schools are required to act as though it is. Under a system known as “universal precautions,” they must assume kids are packed with pathogens. Any time a teacher deals with a bloody nose or a  skinned knee they first pull on latex gloves, and OSHA suggests they wear eye protection as well. They assume the worst.

I would like to see a similar system for addressing trauma. By this, I mean I wish teachers, staff and other school personnel would operate under the assumption that all students have a history of traumatic stress.

Sadly, this isn’t an outrageous assumption. Trauma is an increasing presence in our children’s lives, whether it’s personal trauma such as serious illness, physical abuse or poverty, or “secondary trauma,” such as witnessing domestic violence, having an incarcerated parent or living with an addict. As a result, we can’t expect children to come into the classroom ready to learn, behave and function “normally.”

Instead, we must view their behaviors in light of possible trauma, and adapt our thinking to accommodate it. To this end, we should realize that:

  • Misbehavior in school often results from trauma outside of school.
  • Students who have experienced trauma often overreact to situations.
  • Students who have experienced trauma worry about “what’s next?”
  • Students who have experienced trauma might have issues with self-control.
  • It’s not important for you to understand what caused a trauma in order to help.
  • Students who have experienced trauma need someone to affirm that they are good at something … Teachers, staff or volunteers should try to send children home proudly saying, “My school said I’m good at …”

Classrooms that embrace these contexts will actually look and feel different. For a few examples, in trauma-informed classrooms:

  • Classrooms are neat and organized, featuring open spaces with full transparency.
  • Schedules are predictable, with lots of routine.
  • Teachers quietly make the rounds to inform children about “what’s next.”
  • Teachers work to redirect students who are having problems focusing.
  • Teachers ask, “How can I help you?” rather than scolding or threatening.
  • Students are asked how they prefer to be addressed.
  • Teachers use respect, energy and positivity to help students get back on track.

If there is any risk to this “universal precautions” approach, it’s that students who have not experienced trauma also would be greeted with these same accommodations. But that’s hardly a risk and, in fact, could be viewed as an added benefit. What child wouldn’t benefit from a more compassionate, organized and transparent classroom?

On the other hand, by taking a trauma-informed approached to classrooms, we put ourselves in a position to serve not only those children who are showing the effects of trauma but also those who have suffered trauma but are not yet showing its effects. In other words, by providing these supports and accommodations, we can provide an environment that supports all children and gives them the opportunity to succeed.

Jim Dalton

About the Author

Jim Dalton

Psy.D., HSPP, CSAYC
President and Chief Executive Officer

President and CEO Jim Dalton has long made an impact on the developmental disabilities industry. A licensed child psychologist, Dr. Dalton is highly regarded for his innovation in child behavioral health care. He holds a bachelor’s degree from Anderson University, a master’s from Spalding University and graduated first in his doctoral class in child psychology. He completed his residency at the Ohio State University.