Our Framework for Trauma-informed education

This Framework for trauma-informed education is still in development, below we highlight some key concepts and principles informing the approach.

Key concepts: compassion, trauma, adversity, trauma-informed principles, embodiment, interdependence, social justice, education, dynamic systems/whole-school approach

Overview: this is a holistic vision of trauma-informed education designed to support human flourishing. It recognises the complex interaction of intrapersonal, interpersonal, organisational, and environmental factors within the contexts and places in which students live and learn.

Childhood trauma is common and can have devastating and wide-ranging impact on children’s wellbeing, health, education and future life chances.

International studies estimate that approximately two out of every three school-age children have experienced a potentially traumatic event by age 17.

The landmark Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) study identified 10 types of adversity: abuse (physical, emotional and sexual abuse); trauma in the child’s home (domestic violence, parental separation, incarceration, addiction and mental illness); and physical and emotional neglect. The study revealed alarming prevalence rates. Examining the life histories of over 17,000 Americans, the authors found that approximately two thirds had experienced at least one ACE and around 12% experienced four or more (Felitti et al., 1998). Since the original ACE study many similar studies worldwide have also reported extremely high prevalence of ACEs.

The term trauma is often used interchangeably with ACEs. However, there are many different types of trauma. Shock trauma (or single incident trauma) includes events like car accidents or natural disasters. Interpersonal trauma (or complex trauma) involves repeated or ongoing interpersonal threats, including all forms of abuse, violence and violation. This type of trauma is, in general, far more damaging. It is also far more common.

Individual trauma has been defined in the following way:

Individual trauma results from an event, series of events, or set of circumstances that is experienced by the individual as physically or emotionally harmful or life threatening and that has lasting adverse effects on the individual’s functioning and mental physical social, emotional or spiritual well-being. (SAMHSA, 2014, pg 7)

The core components are referred to as the Three E’s of Trauma: the event, the experience and the effect.

In addition to individual trauma, we include within our concept of trauma, experiences like homelessness, discrimination, marginalization, war, conflict or displacement – which are often experienced collectively by community members. The causes of collective trauma lie in historic and ongoing social inequities, including poverty, racism, sexism, and oppression, and the harm can be passed down intergenerationally. Trauma always involves a power imbalance of some kind; this is why a social justice perspective is vital.

An extremely robust and consistent body of evidence strongly links childhood adversity to negative outcomes across the lifespan, including physical and mental health problems, substance use, self-harm and suicide, low-educational achievement and fewer life opportunities.

However, there is no uniform or universal relationship between an adverse experience and a response or outcome; each adversity is a singular experience and responses vary depending on a myriad of factors, including how the individual interprets and assigns meaning to the experience.

More is now known about the processes that account for the links between adversity and poor wellbeing, health and academic outcomes. These processes range from neurobiological, psychological to sociocultural.

For instance, at a neurobiological level, polyvagal theory describes how threat and danger stimulates the body’s stress system responsible for the  fight, flight or freeze response.

When we experience threat or danger, the body’s stress response system kicks into action, initiating a complex cascade of biological changes, which enables us to run or fight for our lives (the fight or flight response) or causes the body to shut down (the freeze response).

Trauma doesn’t end when the danger has passed. Unprocessed trauma is held in the body, and memories (conscious or implicit) of terrifying events are experienced viscerally as painful, gut-wrenching physical sensations, distressing emotions, and vivid or fragmented sensory memories. Thus, trauma is an embodied experience – it is what happens inside of us, as a result of what happens to us (Gabor).

Growing up in unsafe, threatening or relationally impoverished environments means that children are likely to have a narrow window of tolerance. This means that they may have a lower threshold for high-intensity emotion, which can cause them to become hypo-aroused (dissociated, withdrawn or shut down) or hyper-aroused (distraught, panicked, or enraged). Both emotional states interfere with children’s ability to autonomously regulate their emotions. They also reduces children’s capacity to concentrate, process and store information, to feel safe in social situations, or to feel curious about the world around them.

Trauma fills us with a deep sense of dread, shame, self-blame, sadness and despair. Following trauma, our relationships are often marked by disconnection and alienation. Sometimes children manage to bury the painful memories, but they may still carry core beliefs that they are inherently bad, unlovable or worthless. They may believe other people (especially those that have power over them) cannot be trusted, or that the world is an inherently dangerous and hostile place. These beliefs make sense in the context of children’s life experiences, but they cause considerable distress and they often limit a child in realising his/her full set of potentials.

Children who have experienced trauma may appear spaced-out and inattentive, confused and disengaged, angry and disruptive. These responses to trauma may seem bizarre or incomprehensible to those who do not understand how trauma and adversity impact mind, body and behaviour. Without knowledge of trauma, people can misinterpret trauma responses as wilful acts of defiance, a lack of respect, or moral weakness. The reality is that trauma responses emerge initially as self-protective coping strategies, rooted in deep emotional pain.

It is through healthy interpersonal relationships that children gradually revise negative core beliefs about self, others and the world. They need repeated, ongoing exposure to healthy relationships, characterised by safety, trust and reciprocity. Whilst therapeutic work is important, research shows that the single most important factor in healing from trauma is having a network of healthy and supportive relationships. This is why our Framework emphasizes relationship-centred practice.

Compassion is at the heart of trauma-informed education. Compassion means ‘being sensitive to the suffering of self and others, with a deep commitment to try to prevent and relieve it’ (Gilbert & Choden, 2013, p. XXV).

Compassion promotes psychological wellbeing, and increases people’s sensitivity to detect, tolerate and respond to distress in others. It is therefore an important (but often neglected concept) in trauma-informed approaches.

Self-compassion entails turning toward our own experience – even when it is painful – and extending understanding, warmth and kindness to oneself.

Kirsten Neff identified three components of self-compassion: self-kindness, which is the intentional act of extending warmth and understanding when we suffer, fail, or feel inadequate; common humanity which is about honouring the unavoidable fact that life involves suffering for everyone, without exception; and mindfulness, defined as being aware of moment-to-moment experience, without judgement.

Extending compassion towards ourselves in this way inclines us toward being more giving, caring and supportive in our relationships with others. It helps us appreciate our fundamental interdependence on each other and on the world around us.

Trauma-informed practice is a strengths-based approach that is based on knowledge and understanding of how trauma affects people’s lives. It integrates an understanding of the pervasive biological, psychological and social consequences of trauma with the ultimate aim of ameliorating, rather than exacerbating, their effects. In contrast to trauma-specific practice in therapeutic or clinical settings, any human service setting, regardless of its primary goal, can become trauma-informed.

The core principles of trauma-informed practice are: safety, trustworthiness, choice, collaboration, empowerment, and cultural humility and respect for diversity.

These principles offer the exact opposite of traumatic experience: they provide for

  • Safety rather than threat
  • Trust rather than betrayal
  • Choice rather than control
  • Collaboration rather than coercion
  • Empowerment rather than oppression, and
  • Respect for identity rather than marginalisation.

There are some areas of overlap between these principles and other movements in education, including inclusive education, social justice education, human-rights based education, intercultural education and more. This is welcome as we need a holistic perspective that includes systemic and cultural change as a way to reduce harm and promote wellbeing for all.

Education is a human relationship – a relationship with oneself, others, and the world.

In today’s world, education is often considered synonymous with learning and academic achievement; our understanding of education is broader than this.

Certainly education has a role in socialising students into existing traditions of knowledge and preparing them for a future political, social and economic life. But it also prepares students to think critically and to challenge the prevailing consensus about what is considered as true. It is also concerned with students’ inner life of thoughts, feelings, and emotions. Education provokes students to  go beyond the information given, and to grapple with how they want to be in the world, not just what they need to know.

Education in this respect depends on an embodied person actively engaging with their own experience and with the social and physical world around them. Trauma can limit our capacity to engage with our own experience, and to be curious about other people and the world we live in. This is why we consider trauma-informed practice a precondition for education.

Education takes place in a variety of settings and contexts, including schools and classrooms, alternative educations settings, outdoor environments and digital platforms.

Education systems are complex, dynamic social systems, meaning that the actions and characteristics of any one individual or component within the system, depends on the nature of relationships within the system as a whole — the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Education systems are embedded in the social relationships that exist in families, schools and communities, and influenced by the broader socio-historical and cultural context.

This is one reason why whole-school (whole-system) approaches for trauma-informed practice are vital. Successful approaches involve complex multilevel and integrated adaptations to at least four intertwined areas of school or organisational practice:

1) curriculum and pedagogy,

2) policies and procedures,

3) Relationships and partnerships, and

4) School/organisational climate, culture and ethos.

Furthermore, in schools and other complex systems, components of the system (individuals, resources, policies, leadership) are always flux. A dynamic system is never stable. This means that embedding and sustaining change is a process (or a journey), and one that requires continuous critical reflection, as the organisation and individuals within it, adapt to unfolding conditions.

The need to adapt to inevitable change and uncertainty is illustrated by recent global crises, including the Covid-19 pandemic, the climate crisis, war and displacement in Ukraine, food shortages and cost-of-living crisis. Some of these crises impact all of us, but more vulnerable groups are hit hardest. As we strive to ‘build back better’, to ensure a more equitable world for everyone, it seems evident that trauma-informed education is needed now more than ever.