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Creating Psychologically Safe Learning Environments

Psychological safety and trauma sensitivity are more than just buzzwords in the education realm — they are the required foundational elements of any successful curriculum. After all, students can't be expected to learn when trauma is holding them back.

Since the 1990s, research has contributed to an evolving understanding of what trauma is and how it can impact lifelong health and well-being. Seminal studies, including the CDC-Kaiser Permanente Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study conducted in the late 1990s, linked childhood abuse and dysfunction to risk factors for several causes of death in adulthood. Because of these studies, the fields of education and psychology have deepened their understanding of trauma.

Trauma does not just stem from a series of horrific events like violence or war, but it can be a result of any event that renders a person unable to cope. This inability to cope can affect how a student functions and learns over time.

What Schools Can Do

Educators and school staff may not be able to prevent trauma from happening, but they can be part of the support system that minimizes its adverse effects. It is important to note that while trauma-sensitive schools are generally thought of in terms of responding to student trauma, they should aim to be safe havens for educators and staff as well.

The Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development's magazine, Educational Leadership, uses the phrase "culture of safety" to describe a commitment to creating an environment "where everyone feels safe to speak up and engage in a love of learning." Creating a safe culture is the foundation of all other educational goals; learning can't happen without it.

Safety for All

The first and most crucial component of trauma-sensitive schools is that they are free from violence and fear. This means that schools provide a space without the threat of bullying, harassment or intimidation. Traditionally, bullying did not fall under society's overall understanding of trauma; yet we now understand that bullying is considered an Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE) that can have long-lasting consequences.
Schools may need to pay special attention to students at risk for bullying such as LGBTQ youth, those with disabilities and socially isolated kids. If a student is experiencing bullying, educators can help minimize its harmful effects by ensuring the student feels safe, understands that the bullying is not their fault and uses stress-management and coping techniques.

The Importance of Predictability

As the COVID-19 pandemic has upended regular routines and shifted schools to hybrid online and in-person learning models, predictability is more important than ever. Anxiety about the unknown can exacerbate trauma, so schools should seek to do everything they can to keep conditions and expectations clear. Distractions, disruptions and dramatic changes should be eliminated where possible so students and educators will feel safe and comfortable with the learning process, whether online or in-person.

Start With a Mindset

There are practical, tangible policies that trauma-sensitive schools should enact to ensure student success. But more important even than policy is the school's overall mindset. In the book Fostering Resilient Learners, Kristin Souers and Pete Hall write that the overarching mission must be for educators to "shift our focus to the positive."

This means approaching every student with the belief that they can succeed, no matter the trauma they have encountered. It also means recognizing and understanding their misbehaviors as potential outgrowths of this trauma, rather than indications that the student is unwilling to learn.

"By understanding a piece of the 'why' behind behaviors, you will foster a safe and secure environment in which 'it's OK to be not OK,'" write Souers and Hall.

As the outside world feels more tumultuous than ever, it is incumbent upon educators to create safe and caring environments within their schools. Trauma-sensitive schools have, at their core, the belief that students, when properly supported, can succeed despite adverse experiences as resilient, thriving learners. Only by supporting students as they respond to trauma can educators ensure students are ready and able to learn at their full potential.

Learn more about Texas A&M International University's Master of Science in School Counseling online program.


American Journal of Preventive Medicine: Relationship of Childhood Abuse and Household Dysfunction to Many of the Leading Causes of Death in Adults

Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development:
Trauma Is a Word—Not a Sentence
Fostering Resilient Learners

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Violence Prevention: About the CDC-Kaiser ACE Study

Stop Bullying:
Bullying as an Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE)
Who Is at Risk
Bullying and Trauma

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