Trauma-sensitive schools: a look at the Public School Forum of North Carolina's Resilience and Learning Project

UNCG Author/Contributor (non-UNCG co-authors, if there are any, appear on document)
Laura J. Aberg (Creator)
The University of North Carolina at Greensboro (UNCG )
Web Site:
Kathy Hytten

Abstract: The landmark Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE) study of 1997 brought attention to the negative long-term impacts of trauma, but only in the past five years has momentum built around infusing trauma-sensitive (TS) policies and practices into public schools to buffer the effects of ACEs. In this basic qualitative study, I review the Public School Forum of North Carolina's trauma-informed NC Resilience and Learning Project (NC R&LP) which began in 2017 with the goal of bringing trauma-sensitive (TS) strategies to schools in underserved communities where students are at greatest risk of toxic stress from trauma. In my review of the literature, three key topics emerged: trauma screening, TS school characteristics, and vicarious trauma (VT). Schools must consider if they screen to target TS approaches for students with trauma or institute universal TS practices. Next, schools determine which TS practices to use to transform leadership, improve family and community involvement, and enhance classrooms. Since staff are exposed to VT when working with students suffering toxic stress, proactive strategies are needed to mitigate secondary traumatic stress which can lead to burnout and disrupt school culture. This research was conducted amidst the global COVID-19 pandemic; thus, it provides additional insights into the flexibility of the NC R&LP framework and the necessity of its work. Data collection methods included document analysis, semi-structured interviews, and online participation. Data was coded into four categories: program logistics, screening, TS characteristics, and staff wellness. From these four categories, seven thematic topics of what is needed for a TS school transformation emerged: do no harm, whole-school collaboration, mindset and culture shift, flexibility and adjustment, staff wellness, whole-child approach, and family and community engagement. COVID-19 was an important topic within each theme as well. Principles of positive psychology served as a theoretical guide and demonstrated a strengths-based model of TS school implementation. Positive psychology stresses meeting students’ basic needs, so they may attend to higher cognitive tasks, maximize their potential, and have optimism for a positive future. Staff may cultivate these by keeping an asset-based mindset with the potential of a positive self-fulfilling prophecy for students by treating them as thrivers capable of success. Students and staff in a TS school may develop resilience to overcome future adversities and see the silver lining of challenges to experience personal growth discussed in this paper as posttraumatic growth and vicarious posttraumatic growth.

Additional Information

Language: English
Date: 2021
Adverse childhood experience (ACE), Trauma-informed, Trauma-sensitive, Toxic stress, Vicarious trauma, Compassion fatigue, Secondary traumatic stress, Trauma screening, Resilience, Positive psychology, Posttraumatic growth, Vicarious posttraumatic growth, COVID-19, Social-emotional learning (SEL), Restorative practices, Relationships, NC Resilience and Learning Project, Public School Forum of NC
Children with mental disabilities $x Education
Post-traumatic stress disorder in children
Resilience (Personality trait) in children

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