Skip to main content

If Someone is Traumatized and No One Acts, Does Their Trauma Matter? The Need for Trauma Informed Leadership in Education


I would like to open a discussion about Trauma Informed Leadership and the ACE Study - and it's overall impact in education. I'd like to ask you to weigh in on the idea of trauma and what that means to you in your program.

Students may be exposed to traumatic experiences: abuse, dysfunction, social and systemic injustice, poverty, violence, and neglect. Educational institutions are at a tipping point with an estimated one half to two thirds of students experiencing trauma. The culmination of adverse childhood experiences, or ACEs, has an impact on both the immediate and future well being of the individual. Building on the implementation of evidence-based trauma informed practices in the medical and judicial systems, a paradigm shift about the development of school culture that is inclusive of the needs of all traumatized learners must be on the immediate horizon. Understanding students experiencing trauma are more likely to struggle academically and experience chronic health issues, how are schools prepared to meet the safety, social, emotional, and learning needs of these children? Furthermore, what is the responsibility of educational leaders to develop a school culture of trauma informed leadership? What happens when school leaders ignore the impact of ACES? Finally, are schools responsible for the emotional and mental wellness of the students?

The science on brain development is very clear; healthy brain development in children is essential for both educational and economic success throughout the lifespan. Results from the Adverse Childhood Experiences study found a “strong graded relationship between the breadth of exposure to abuse or household dysfunction during childhood and multiple risk factors for several of the leading causes of death in adults”.

Educators and policy makers are in a unique position to address ACEs by leading systemic changes through educational and community reform. The lack of hope, witness to violence, and systemic poverty are all elements of adverse childhood experiences. These experiences are lived in the classroom and educational leaders must create a culture responsive to these experiences. 

 With so many variables causing traumatic experiences, there is no one specific strategy that can lessen the impacts of ACEs. A potential solution requires a more strategic, ethical, and programmatic approach integrated holistically into educational institutions and school culture in order to be sensitive to the experiences of traumatized individuals with the primary goal of preventing re-traumatization by promoting awareness of triggers and avoiding both stigmatizing and punishment. “At the heart of these approaches is the belief that students’ actions are a direct result of their experiences, and when students about out or disengage, the question we should ask is not ‘what’s wrong with you, ‘but rather ‘what happened to you?’ By being sensitive to students’ past and current experiences with trauma, educators can break the circle of trauma, prevent re-traumatization, and engage a child in learning and finding success in school.”  The paradigm shift at the organizational level in education is focused on the trauma a student experienced rather than focusing on the student's conduct. Trauma informed leadership is a critical component of education and a necessary response to the systemic causes of ACEs. 

What does trauma informed leadership look like? 
Is it the role / responsibilities of the educational program to address student trauma? 




Josh Anderson's picture

Thanks for bringing this up Kathy!  A story...

One of the most powerful affirmations of my work that I've ever received was from a student who had been involved in our tutoring program for a couple of years.  He was just starting to really make progress in his learning and also make real positive changes in his personal life.  He had significant family trauma growing up which had led to new traumas as an adult and he had new mini-traumas popping up while he was in tutoring.  But he was dealing with them independently and maturely.  Me and his tutor were trying to sort of commiserate with him about his latest struggle and at the same time affirm the thoughtful and proactive way he was handling the situation.  And he basically thanked us for our support but said he wasn't worried about.  He looked at me and said, "That's one of the things you taught me, "That's life."  Everybody's got problems.  You just got to find a way to deal with them.  And I'm doing it."  Now, that quote alone as a life-philosophy is rather stark and hopeless.  But what was behind it was a profound hope.  It was his way of saying that in the past he felt like bad stuff just happened to him and he had no control but that we had taught him that when bad stuff does happen, and it will, he was smart enough and skilled enough and resilient enough to handle it.  What made the difference for him was less teaching than support, encouragement and coaching.  He made very little progress academically until he came to trust us and then eventually to trust himself.  By purely academic measures he was a clear failure in our program for the first full year.

There's not really one specific point to that story or one answer I'm trying to point to.  The old adage, "No one cares how much you know until they know how much you care." comes to mind.  Also this discussion makes me think of the discussion about a growth mindset and the push for more soft skills instruction.  Those are definitely social skills that can be explicitly taught but realistically they only be actually practiced and honed in a community that can support the inevitable mixed bag of successes and failures along the way.  Many of our students don't have that outside of their learning programs, so it behooves us, at the very least, to try to do what we can to create a culture in our programs that fosters an environment and skill-set that helps learners cope with trauma. 

David J. Rosen's picture
One hundred

Thanks Kathy for raising this topic, and Josh for your great comment.  I hadn't heard the adage, "No one cares how much you know until they know how much you care" but what it expresses is bedrock important for most adult basic skills programs.

One of the critical services that adult basic skills programs need to provide, and one of the keys to program success, is counseling, not just academic advising, but counseling support to help learners deal with the myriad difficult issues in their own and their families' lives.  I would like to hear about this from program managers, and perhaps counselors, teachers, tutors and others providing support to students. How do you address the needs of adult learners who may have experienced trauma? How does your program address building student resilience (and yes, Josh, also building a growth mindset)? Do you have (a) full-time counselor(s) on staff? To you refer out for these services? Do you expect teachers to perform this role, and do you provide training for them to do that? Something else? How is your model working for you?

Several years ago I attended a presentation at a state adult basic education conference by the director of a community college transition program.The program was for adult learners who had a high school diploma or HSE, but who were far from ready to do college level work. Its purpose was to have more adult learners prepared for credit-bearing classes, fewer in developmental studies. At one point she casually mentioned the outcome that students had a 90% completion rate. I asked if she meant that her transition program had a 90% completion rate, and she clarified that she meant that 90% of the learners who completed the transition program also completed a one-year certificate or two-year degree program. I followed up by asking what the secret to their success was, and she immediately said a full-time counselor who worked with all the transition program students. (I think there were perhaps around 30.) She said the counselor built their trust, showed them by her actions and words that she cared about them and their success, provided help when they needed it, and helped them build resiliency. She charitably added that if the enrolled college students had a counselor like that, a counselor who had a reasonable "caseload" like their program's, the completion rate of the whole college would be as high.

In December, 2016, I visited the occupational training campus of the Carlos Rosario International Adult Public Charter school in Washington, D.C. As part of a fabulous tour I was given by two students, I saw the school library and student services center, and learned about a impressive array of counseling services for adult learners, their families and community members. This is a school that as an adult public charter school has resources. It also has charter school board accountability, and measures a range of student outcomes, including, I recently learned, Return on Investment.

In both these examples, the programs/schools have understood the importance of providing a range of counseling services -- and developed the resources to support them. Both examples have impressive student learning outcomes, and a good return on the investment of public resources.

I would be interested in hearing other examples of adult basic skills (including ESL/ESOL/ELA) programs or schools that have effective counseling programs, how these counseling services may affect learning outcomes, and perhaps even long-term impact on earnings, children's performance in schools, and other measures.

David J. Rosen, Moderator

Program Management CoP


Susan Finn Miller's picture
One hundred

Hello colleagues, Thank you for bringing this critical topic to our communities, Kathy. It does not take long as an adult educator to recognize that a very large percentage of the adults we work with have experienced trauma -- and for many, trauma continues to be an aspect of their lives. The work of Jenny Horsman has focused on this issue for many years. Jenny has written extensively on this topic and also has trained many adult educators over the years. Horsman's website features a treasure trove of resources for raising awareness among adult educators and well as for addressing the issue of trauma in our work with learners.

The challenge many of us face is discerning where the line is between being an educator and a counselor. In my view, providing access to trained counselors is essential. It's so great to hear how the Carlos Rosario program has built counseling into the fabric of their work. And thanks to Josh for sharing his personal anecdote of one learner's experience and how he has supported that individual.

Are members aware of Jenny Horsman's work? If so, how have you drawn upon it in your practice? How are you dealing with the issue of trauma among the adults you serve? What issues have you struggled with? What supports have you found helpful in deepening practitioners' knowledge of the issue and how to handle these issues and challenges respectfully--with dignity-- and effectively?

Looking forward to our ongoing discussion on this immensely important topic.

Cheers, Susan Finn Miller

Moderator, Teaching & Learning CoP

Kathy_Tracey's picture
One hundred

While is it critical to understand a large majority of our students, and staff, have experienced - or are currently experiencing trauma, it becomes more important to develop trauma informed practices in a school environment. This means that there is a system wide understanding of trauma prevalence, the environment is physically and emotionally safe and calm, the classroom (and by extension, the building) is secure. Staff is supportive and accepting with a wide level of cultural competency. Yes, having counselors on site is a huge benefit - but it is up to leaders to ensure they have a trauma informed environment for both staff and students to thrive.