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Bringing Trauma Responsive Practices to School Leaders

By Christine Condo, CEI Intern and Dana Asby, CEI Director of Innovation & Research Support

One in five American adults experiences mental illness in his/her lifetime; 1 in 25 live each day with a serious mental illness (NAMI, n.d.). No one would walk through life with a constant ache in his/her foot, yet millions of Americans continue through their daily lives without attending to the ache in their hearts and minds. While most people know where and from whom to seek medical care, many Americans do not have the necessary tools to seek mental health care. The Mental Health Technology Transfer Center (MHTTC) Network hopes to raise awareness of mental health issues and become brokers of mental health care, connecting community members to the mental health resources they need, both in their own cities and on the internet. The Center for Educational Improvement (CEI) is proud to be helping them with that work in New England and throughout the country.

Helping School Leaders in New England Respond to Childhood Trauma

CEI is excited to partner with Yale’s Program for Recovery and Community Health to bring the Childhood Trauma Learning Collaborative (C-TLC) to support the New England Mental Health Technology Transfer Center’s (New England MHTTC) goal of building resilience through recovery-oriented care in wraparound services. We know that outside of the home, children spend the most time in school. We also know that one caring adult in the life of a child who has experienced trauma can change their life. Our goal with the C-TLC is to educate school leaders in New England about what trauma does to the brain and body and how using mindfulness during the school day can buffer against those negative effects for students, teachers, and staff. Dr. Christine Mason, Executive Director of CEI explains more about the C-TLC: “We’re working closely with 24 Fellows to use the School Compassionate Culture Analytic Tool for Educators (S-CCATE) to identify areas of strength and weakness in the schools in which they work so that we can provide tailored suggestions on how to better support the students in their schools who have been affected by trauma.”

Initial results from the S-CCATE indicate that during the past three years, most schools saw raising academic achievement as a priority; however, we know that students can’t learn while they are distracted by the effects of trauma. We hope to show school leaders that by infusing their days with mindfulness, educating the school community about the neurobiology of trauma, and intentionally creating compassionate communities, they can train their staff to be mental health supports for all students in their schools, including those that have experienced trauma.

Helping Schools Across the Country Respond to Tragedy

In addition to our work with the New England MHTTC, CEI collaborated with MHTTCs across the country to develop a resource for schools, which can be accessed for free here, that will help them prevent, prepare for, and respond to school tragedies such as mass shootings, student or staff suicides, and natural disasters. It is divided into four key considerations that schools should consider in concert to be ready for a tragedy:

  1. Readiness

  2. Response

  3. Recovery

  4. Cultural Considerations

“A school shooting, other act of violence, or other tragedy violates the expectation of safety and may disrupt the worldview of students, staff, and family members…To recover from these events, we need to make sense of the experiences and understand their meaning for ourselves and our communities” (MHTTCN, 2019).

Being Ready to Respond

School climate is a crucial part of being ready to prevent and process school tragedies. In addition to ensuring students have access to caring adults who can build their sense of belonging and connectedness, schools can provide screening for suicide or addiction risk factors and opportunities for students to engage in peer support systems. Training for school personnel encompassing the topics of grief and trauma, as well as self-care programs for staff, are also essential. Schools can engage students’ families and the media to extend the reach of prevention and recovery messages. Finally, schools should have a plan regarding who will be involved in responding to crisis and how different programs will be implemented.

Following the principles of Psychological First Aid, there are eight factors that schools should take into consideration and plan for when responding to tragedy (Brymer et. al., 2006):

  1. Engage students compassionately and calmly and ask about their needs.

  2. Ensure students are physically and emotionally comforted by providing accurate information about the current situation and what is being done to ensure safety as well as answering any questions students may have.

  3. Help students remain calm and oriented by using deep breathing exercises and bringing awareness to their physical surroundings.

  4. Identify pressing needs by asking students open ended questions about their thoughts/concerns regarding the present circumstances and future happenings.

  5. Offer assistance in fulfilling the needs identified by students.

  6. Make sure students are able to contact their primary caregiver and/or support persons.

  7. Teach students adaptive coping strategies and remind them that there is no “right way” to grieve.

  8. Connect students to immediate and ongoing support services.

Considering Culture and Language During Recovery

Staff members can help students through the recovery process, which extends beyond short-term action plans, by modeling expressions of grieving. Using appropriate language helps both students and staff process what has happened and move toward recovery. Using language around suicide such as, “died by suicide” or “took their own life” instead of words like, “committed” or “completed” helps destigmatize and de-glorify suicide. It is also critical that people have the space they need to feel what they feel and not be isolated from support because of what they do or do not feel.

Culture plays a significant role in each individual’s grieving process. When helping grieving students, one must first recognize one’s own worldview and then consider the student’s cultural norms and expectations, understanding that culture can vary widely even within races and ethnicities. Even if educators believe they have a solid grasp of another’s cultural traditions, the best thing one can do is display an openness and willingness to learn and respect cultural values and practices.

For further information in supporting students through school tragedy, Dr. David Schonfeld has presented a webinar, which can be accessed for free, addressing how school professionals can talk with and support students as they cope with loss and crisis.


Brymer, M., Jacobs, A., Layne, C., Pynoos, R., Ruzek, J. Steinberg, A., … Watson, P. (2006). Psychological First Aid (PFA) Field Operations Guide: 2nd Edition. National Child Traumatic Stress Network and National Center for PTSD. Mental Health Technology Transfer Center Network (MHTTC). (2019). After a school tragedy… Readiness, response, recover, & resources.

National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). (n.d.). Mental health by the numbers. NAMI website.


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