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How to be a Trauma-Informed School Social Worker by Eileen Dombo

Trauma, Children, and Schools

Our world is an increasingly scary place for children. Shootings, natural disasters, immigration raids, community violence, poverty, bullying, and the high incidence of child abuse and neglect mean that many children and teens are exposed to direct and indirect forms of trauma. These conditions, borne of socio-economic and political discord, create the need for school social workers to address various mental health needs while promoting successful school experiences. Research shows that upwards of 70% of children in school settings report experiencing at least one traumatic event before age 16 (Layne et. al., 2011). Professionals who work with children and teens in schools are regularly faced with situations where trauma plays a key role in educational disruptions, yet they often lack the tools to deal with them effectively. Students struggle to regulate their emotions and behaviors, producing obstacles to their learning capacities. Classrooms and learning groups are unable to stay on task. Students who act out disorder schoolrooms and study groups, interfering with the teaching-learning experience for educators and students. School communities see trauma-driven difficulties translated into home-school-community problems. Graduation rates, expulsion, discipline issues, and poor academic scores are taxing available resources in the school and community. Since the correlation between high rates of trauma exposure and poor academic performance is established in the scholarly literature (Perfect et al., 2016), and the creation of trauma-informed schools and communities has been offered as a solution to this problem (Walkley & Cox, 2013), this blog post will address strategies and techniques for helping your school become trauma-informed.

What Does It Mean to Be Trauma-Informed?

As a school social worker, being trauma-informed means that you approach your work with the understanding that the kids in schools who are having social, emotional, and learning difficulties are highly likely to have current or past traumatic experiences. It means that you operate from the mindset that the behaviors you see are ways the individual has learned to cope and adapt as a result of trauma. The effects of exposure to traumatic events varies for each individual. A traumatic experience can be temporarily distressing, or have longer-lasting, more destabilizing effects. Much of this depends on the risk and protective factors present, as well as the presence of strengths and resilience. The hallmark of trauma is that the experience overwhelms one’s normal capacity to cope, so the sequela, or the after-effects of the event, are subjective and unique for each individual. Roughly 50% of children and adolescents who experience trauma develop Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, commonly referred to as PTSD (Afifi et al., 2011). The progression from experience to disorder is connected to the type, duration and severity of the traumatic experiences, with rates of re-victimizing being upwards of a 69% chance for children with multiple forms of maltreatment (Pears, Kim, & Fisher, 2008). Intense and prolonged exposure is associated with more profound sequela (Lawson, 2009). Often traumatic experiences are divided between those that are interpersonal in nature (neglect, physical abuse, sexual abuse), and those that are not (natural disasters, accidents). With interpersonal trauma, the experience of abuse from someone they are supposed to be able to trust and rely upon can create sequela know as complex trauma. As these experiences arise during development, the impact on the child’s ability to manage emotions and develop safe and secure relationships can be profound (Cook et al., 2005). Estimates of substantiated childhood abuse reports in the United States hover around one million annually (D’Andrea et al., 2012). Therefore, being trauma-informed means that your awareness that trauma is a subjective experience; each individual will experience and react to trauma in their own unique way, will guide what you do, and what you don’t do, as you go about helping kids in schools.

How to Be a Trauma-Informed School Social Worker

There are some basic strategies for being a trauma informed school social worker. Below are 10 tips to help you get started. For a more in depth exploration of this topic, see Creating Trauma-Informed Schools: A Guide for School Social Workers and Educators (Dombo & Sabatino, 2019).

1. Shift your thinking about problematic behaviors in children. Don’t ask, “What’s wrong with this child?” Instead, ask, “What happened to this child?” Behavior is the result of coping and survival. It works in some settings, but often not in others. Help teach the child strategies that will work in school. Behavior is also communication. Be curious about what they are trying to tell you.

2. Review the research on the impact of trauma on learning. This information will bolster your efforts to help parents and children understand why they are struggling. The statistics and data will also help you get support for creating trauma-informed programs and services in your school.

3. Engage stakeholders in creating a trauma-informed school. Teachers, principals, parents, and all adults working in the school will need to agree to making the necessary changes. Find advocates among leaders in the community who will see the value in these efforts and help you convince those who are resistant to change.

4. Operate from the “Three Pillars of Trauma-Informed Care,” (Bath, 2008). Establish safety, facilitate connections, and help kids manage emotions. People who are safe are those whose actions and words line up. Trust is a big part of safety, and it is earned over time. Connections with peers and adults can be scary to children who have been hurt by those they were supposed to be able to trust or rely on for care. Teaching strategies for managing difficult emotions, and not reacting negatively when the child expresses them, will increase safety and connection.

5. Whenever possible, give the child power and control. Traumatic experiences can leave us feeling powerless and out of control; we don’t want them to happen and yet can’t prevent them. Even the smallest choices can be meaningful. Where do you want to sit? What do you want to do first? How do you want us to work together? Finding ways to give voice and choice allows you to empower, which is a trauma-informed care imperative.

6. Normalize trauma responses. If we see coping behaviors as being about survival and self-protection, that shifts the conversation. It makes sense that someone would want to avoid thinking about trauma, avoid being vulnerable with people, and avoid situations where they don’t feel safe. When we act with understanding, and avoid judgment and pathology, we are acting in a trauma-informed manner.

7. Find evidence-supported interventions that are the right fit for your school and the children. There are group interventions, individual treatment models, and whole-school interventions to choose from. Depending on the age of the students and the types of needs they have, you can create a number of options to support your students.

8. Set up evaluation plans in advance to demonstrate the effectiveness of providing trauma-informed services in your school. When you are able to demonstrate that your interventions help children succeed in schools, you will find there is more support for your work.

9. Be on the lookout for signs of vicarious trauma in yourself. Feeling overwhelmed by the experiences of the children you work with can cause you to disconnect out of self-protection. Addressing the impact of the work on yourself through regular self-care is essential to providing quality care and services. Self-care must be a daily practice. You are the instrument through which your services are delivered. If a piano isn’t tuned properly, it will sound off-key. You want to hit the right note every time!

10. Spread the word about the ways being trauma-informed can help children feel safer in schools and improve their school performance!

These are good initial steps in the journey to being a trauma-informed school social worker!

The Role of the School Social Worker

School social workers are in a position to provide leadership, knowledge, and skills to create trauma-informed schools and foster resilience in schoolchildren. Since its inception, the role of the school social worker has been to be attuned to societal conditions that adversely affect the lives of children and “aid in the reorganization of school administration practices by supplying evidence of unfavorable conditions that underlie pupils’ school difficulties and pointing out needed changes” (Allen-Meares, 2015, p. 7). Applying the contemporary ecological perspective, general systems theory, and theories of human behavior, school social workers are able to give voice to the complex interrelated factors associated with trauma and its impact on childhood development and educational advancement within the school context. In order to truly be a trauma-informed school, all adults must aim to address students’ dysfunctional academic and behavioral performance driven by affective and physiological arousal. Furthermore, our distinct professional approach that examines the transactions between persons and their environments, a holistic analysis, uniquely positions school social workers to ask appropriate questions, collaborate with decision-makers, treat traumatic stress in children and adolescents, balance organizational/administrative needs with student needs, and monitor progress in implementing change to create safe spaces for traumatized students to grow and learn.


American Psychological Association (APA):

American Psychological Association Presidential Task Force on Posttraumatic Stress Disorder and Trauma in Children and Adolescents. (2008). Children and trauma: Update for mental health professionals. Washington, D.C., American Psychological Association.

National Association for Social Workers (NASW) Press:

Varianides, A. (2016). The school social work toolkit. Washington, D.C., National Association for Social Workers (NASW) Press.

National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN):

National Child Traumatic Stress Network Schools Committee. (2008). Child trauma toolkit for educators. Los Angeles, CA & Durham, NC: National Center for Child Traumatic Stress.

National Child Traumatic Stress Network. (2018). Psychological first aid for schools (PFA-S). Los Angeles, CA & Durham, NC: National Center for Child Traumatic Stress.

National Child Traumatic Stress Network Schools Committee. (2013). Back to school resources for school personnel. Los Angeles, CA & Durham, NC: National Center for Child Traumatic Stress.

National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH):

National Institute of Mental Health. (2017). Coping with traumatic events. Bethesda, MD: National Institute of Mental Health.

National Institute of Mental Health. (2015). Helping children and adolescents cope with violence and disasters: For teachers, clergy, and other adults in the community. Bethesda, MD: National Institute of Mental Health.

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA):

National Child Traumatic Stress Initiative. (2015). Understanding child trauma. Rockville, MD: Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2017). Coping with traumatic events: Resources for children, parents, educators, and other professionals.

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2016). SAMHSA’s efforts to address trauma and violence.

Trauma and Learning Policy Initiative

Trauma and Learning Policy Initiative. (2019). A school’s journey toward trauma sensitivity. [Video file].

US Department of Education:

U.S. Department of Education. (2005). Tips for helping students recovering from traumatic events. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Education.

Oxford University Press:

Anderson-Ketchmark, C., & Alvarez, M. E. (2009). Addressing trauma in schools: An online resource. Children & Schools, 31(3), 189-191. 10.1093/cs/31.3.189

Dombo, E. A., & Sabatino, C. A. (2019). Creating trauma-informed schools: A guide for school social workers and educators. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Other Related Resources:

Helping Children Cope with the Challenges of War and Terrorism:

National Alliance for Grieving Children. (2017). Home.

The Dougy Center: The National Center for Grieving Children and Families. (2018). When death impacts your school. Retrieved from

The National Institute for Trauma and Loss in Children. (2018). Trauma resources.

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Eileen Dombo's "How to be a Trauma-Informed School Social Worker" is an essential guide for professionals working with vulnerable youth. Understanding trauma's impact is crucial for effective support and intervention. Often, trauma can lead to substance abuse as a coping mechanism. For those facing addiction, Alcohol Medical Detox is a critical step towards recovery. The Canadian Centre for Addictions offers specialized care in this area. As a residential treatment facility, they help individuals addicted to alcohol and other drugs learn the skills needed to live an alcohol and drug-free lifestyle. Integrating trauma-informed practices with comprehensive addiction treatment can significantly improve outcomes for affected students.

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