Trauma-Informed Schools: What Parents Need to Know

Fall is in full-swing, and hopefully a sense of “normalcy” to the school year has set in. It’s a welcome feeling for many families!

There is a growing movement across our nation that parents may not be aware of. It’s the concept of having trauma-informed and resilient classrooms. Parents may have lots of questions around this:

What does this even mean and why is it important? I don’t think my child has experienced trauma, how would they benefit from a trauma-informed and resilient classroom? I know my child has suffered significant trauma but I thought that would be something we would turn to mental health resources for?

How do we as education, mental health, or other professionals inform parents and answer their questions?

A trauma-informed classroom understands the wide-spread impact of trauma, the signs and symptoms of trauma, and how individuals recover. It also is part of a larger school system that integrates knowledge about trauma into its policies and procedures, putting these into practice. It also seeks to not re-traumatize students.

How can we teach parents and the community about trauma in schools?

First, we must recognize the prevalence of trauma and seek to find ways to help parents understand this as well. Our district is working in collaboration with our local Rotary clubs who have given us a generous grant to help transform our classrooms and also help teach our parents about trauma and its impact. We will have started monthly “Make it /Take It Nights”, where once a month a dinner is served, with a short lesson on trauma and resilience being taught by myself or a school counselor or social worker. A “project” such as a glitter jars are made by each parent and child attending that they are allowed to keep with a bright instruction card given to them as well. The night finishes with a movement activity such as yoga, stretching, or exercise to emphasize the importance of movement on emotional state. Each lesson also emphasizes trauma-informed techniques being used in that school’s classrooms to help all students, but especially helpful for those who have experienced trauma. It is important for parents to understand that interventions used to help students who have experienced trauma will help all students. Step number one is to help staff, students, and parents understand we have many students impacted by trauma and we are working hard to make our schools places of safety, healing, and wellness. This in turn helps children’s brains be ready to learn!

How can parents and the community help heal trauma in schools?

Through relationships! What are we doing in our classrooms to help students recover? Mental health support is important, but the greatest healing comes from a safe, positive, consistent relationship in a child’s life. That can be mom, dad, coach, religious leader, teacher, etc… Schools have such an incredible opportunity to make these connections as children spend a good portion of their day with us. The following are some more trauma-informed specific interventions, some of which include parenting activities to promote further understanding:

  • Morning Greetings: Fist bumps, handshakes, or hugs, whichever the student chooses as they enter the classroom. This helps the teacher give students a one-on-one message how happy they are that the student is there, as well as helping that teacher gauge the state of the student. If a child who normally gives an enthusiastic fist bump lightly taps the teacher’s hand and gives them a forlorn smile the teacher knows right away something is off that day. This is critical information the teacher can follow up with, making sure everything is okay with the student. Giving choices is also important for survivors of trauma, as a sense of helplessness is one of the main themes of trauma that individuals often struggle with.
  • Morning Meetings: Meet with your students as a group first thing to check in on their evening or weekend and how they are doing. You can give them a few minutes to write in a journal with an opportunity to share as they wish, or you can have students share “good things” that have happened. This would be a great activity to invite parents to once a month. Sometimes when a parent experiences this type of sharing it can be a complete eye-opener to the power of community, and how healing it is to share emotionally when we need to.
  • Comfort Corners: A “Safe Zone” within the classroom students can go to if they begin to get overwhelmed with emotions. This is never used as a punishment but is used to help students develop self-regulation. A great way to get parents involved in and understanding this intervention is to invite them to the grand opening. Each year, teachers in our district have a “grand opening” of their comfort corners where they explain to their new students the purpose of the corner and have every student try it out. Parents could be invited to the class, who has made them “calming gifts” for those who come, such as lavender scented rice in a pretty bag with a bow. Anxiety reducing snacks could be served such as dark chocolate, pumpkin seeds, yogurt with chamomile, or green tea to drink. Having a student explain to the parents why their corner helps them is always a plus.

What resources on trauma are available for parents?

Free handouts can be downloaded from Starr on what parents need to know about the signs and symptoms of trauma and what they can do to help. Most parents are very receptive to information they feel will truly help their children. I have worked with many parents who have disclosed to me that they also had significant trauma as a child and did not feel like they ever healed from it. I am able to point them to resources to help them as well, and share with them how this can impact their parenting. These resources can be a great help to them and their child.

We must seek to resist re-traumatizing. Sharing with parents our “trauma-informed lens” can help them begin to shift their thinking as well. For example, re-framing behavior as fear-based instead of deliberate disobedience when talking to them about their student who is struggling. The language we use with our students and parents is incredibly important.

Parents can benefit greatly from understanding why we believe in having trauma-informed classrooms and schools. Inviting them to see what we do and explaining why we do it promotes community with them as well. It is important to remember some of the parents we work with had a very negative school experience and don’t see school as a safe place. The more we can help change these beliefs the more we all will benefit from their increased understanding, and the safer schools will be for students, staff, and parents.

By Jean West

Jean West, LCSW ACTP CT, is a school social worker for the Saint Joseph School District in Missouri. She serves as the District Trauma Consultant and Trainer. She is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker who also has a part time private practice specializing in working with traumatized children and families. She is chair of a local SITCAP Community Workgroup that meets bi-monthly, ensuring sustainability of the efforts within the community to be trauma informed. West was past chair of the local Homeless Continuum of Care Committee, as well as The Circle of Hope Evidence Based Work Group. Jean has received the National Consultant of the Year award from TLC, was runner–up for Innovator of the year for The St. Joseph School District, and has been awarded The Support Person of the Year for SJSD as well. Jean is also a Certified Trainer for The National Institute for Trauma and Loss in Children. She presents nationally and internationally, as well as facilitating many local trainings for her community. Jean received her Bachelors in Psychology from Missouri Western State University and received her Masters in Social Work from the University of Kansas.

About Starr Commonwealth

Starr Commonwealth is dedicated to the mission to lead with courage to create positive experiences so that all children, families, and communities flourish. We specialize in residential, community-based, educational, and professional training programs that build on the strengths of children, adults, and families in communities around the world. To schedule a training or consultation, please contact or call 800-837-5591.