Creating Trauma-Sensitive School Experiences for At-Risk Children


Ballroom F

Strand #1

Social & Emotional Skills

Strand #2

Mental & Physical Health


Social & Emotional -- the latest in brain research, especially interpersonal neurobiology makes it clear that the toxic stress that results from early exposure to traumatic situations (abuse, neglect, in-utero exposures to drugs and alcohol, exposure to domestic violence) greatly impacts brain development and the ability to learn. The most significant, and often overlooked, aspect is in a child's social and emotional development. Science is proving that trauma significantly impacts a child's ability to learn. Developing trauma-sensitive school systems and interventions will help mitigate the impact of this toxic stress on the children's ability to learn.

Mental & Physical Health - The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) study has revolutionized how we think about public health. ACEs comes from the CDC-Kaiser Adverse Childhood Experiences Study, a groundbreaking public health study that discovered that childhood trauma leads to the adult onset of chronic diseases, depression and other mental illness, violence and being a victim of violence. The 10 ACEs the researchers measured include physical, sexual and verbal abuse, physical and emotional neglect; a family member who is depressed or diagnosed with other mental illness, addicted to alcohol or another substance, in prison, witnessing a mother being abused, losing a parent to separation, divorce or other reason.

Further, according to research from the Washington State University Area Health Education Center, children who have an ACE score of 3 are more than three times as likely to be suspended, six times more likely to experience behavioral problems, five times more likely to have severe attendance issues. They also have reduced reading ability and lower grade point averages.

Because trauma and the resulting toxic stress is so pervasive in at-risk populations, trauma-sensitive school systems are needed nationwide. It was difficult picking a strand for this topic as the invasive nature of trauma permeates all aspects of students' lives (and the educators who work with them). Trauma-sensitive school systems will also have positive impacts on academic achievement, student safety and violence prevention and improvements in family and community.

Brief Program Description

Children who have been abused, neglected and exposed to violence often have trauma that interferes with their ability to learn. This workshop-- led by an experienced special educator and administrator, a school counselor and a trauma professional-- will define “trauma-sensitive schools” and give an overview of strategies that educators can use for system wide change.



  1. Defining the problem of trauma
    1. What is trauma - how does it impact a child?
    2. How widespread is the problem?
    3. How trauma impacts learning
      1. What neuroscience tells us (Interpersonal Neurobiology)
      2. What traumatized children look like in the classroom

i. ADHD/hypervigiliance

ii. Flight or freeze – withdrawal or dissociation

iii. Fight – oppositional behaviors

iv. Disorganized

  1. What does it mean to be trauma-sensitive
    1. Making the paradigm shift from focusing on controlling behaviors to focusing on what the behaviors are trying to communicate
    2. What is dysregulation? Why does it happen?

i. Can’ts vs. won’ts

ii. Trauma triggers (you can’t choose them)

iii. Sensory components

  1. Why traditional behavior modification strategies for the classroom (tokens, rewards, punishments) aren’t effective
  2. What does work?
    1. Staying calm
    2. Creating a safe environment – felt safety
    3. Teaching children how to self-regulate (flipping their lids)
    4. Waiting on the teachable moment
    5. Mindfulness
    6. Movement therapies
    7. Apology of Action
    8. Trauma-Sensitive Schools -- System wide
      1. Why whole school approach is needed
      2. Success Stories


This presentation on Creating Trauma Sensitive School Systems will be based on the research that is being conducted in several places throughout the U.S. on the impact of trauma/toxic stress on the developing brain coupled with research into successful practices both in the classroom and system wide for helping to relieve toxic stress and promote resilience in children. The following resources/studies will be cited:

Helping Traumatized Children Learn and Creating and Advocating for Trauma-Sensitive Schools, Massachusetts Advocates for Children.

Center of the Developing Child, Harvard University www.developingchildharvard.edu (especially their work on toxic stress and resilience)

Area Health Education center of Eastern Washington's research into trauma-informed system change process, Washington State University (including the CLEAR - Collaborative Learning for Education Achievement & Resilience program) . http://ext100.wsu.edu/ahec/

National Child Traumatic Stress Network - http://nctsnet.org/resources/audiences/school-personnel

The Trauma Center at Justice Resource Institute - http://www.traumacenter.org/


Individual Presentation

Biographical Sketch

Julie Beem, MBA, Executive Director of Attachment & Trauma Network, Inc. As the Executive Director of the Attachment & Trauma Network (ATN), Julie is responsible for the daily operations of this 20-year-old non-profit that supports traumatized children and their families. Her duties include leadership, administration, coordinating the efforts of all the other directors, and acting as spokesperson for the organization. Prior to ATN, Julie was the president of a marketing and communications consultancy. Julie holds a BS in Secondary Education (English) from Northwest Missouri State University and an MBA from Avila College in Kansas City. Julie, and her husband Dave, are parents to four children, including their youngest daughter, adopted from China. Through her experiences finding the right solutions for her daughter who struggles with Developmental Trauma Disorder, Julie has garnered a great deal of experience in the areas of special education, school issues, and disabilities advocacy. She frequently presents workshops on attachment and trauma to educators, juvenile justice, child welfare, adoptive and foster groups, and the general public.

Jen Alexander, MA, NCC, RPT, School Counselor. School Counselor at Hanson Elementary, Cedar Falls, IA. Jen Alexander has been a school counselor at the elementary level in Iowa for the last 15 years. Prior to that, she was a special education teacher for children with severe emotional and behavior disorders. She is a registered play therapist and has had experience working at a psychiatric residential treatment center. In July, Jen will be co-presenting at the North American Council of Adoptable Children (NACAC) on this topic. Jen is also an adoptive mom of a child who has struggled with attachment and trauma-related challenges. Jen is an Attachment & Trauma Network member and the co-moderator of ATN's Trauma Sensitive Schools Think Tank. Melissa Sadin, M.Ed., MS, Director. Ducks&Lions: Trauma Sensitive Resources, LLC Melissa Sadin is a life-long educator. She has served as a special education teacher and has been an elementary school building administrator for 10 years. She earned two masters degrees and is currently working on a doctoral degree in special education. Melissa has presented numerous workshops and webinars to educators at all levels on trauma-sensitive schools in New Jersey and nationwide. Melissa is also an Attachment & Trauma Network member and active in the Trauma Sensitive Schools Think Tank.

Keyword Descriptors

trauma-sensitive, resilience, trauma-informed, toxic stress, complex trauma, neurobiology, attachment

Presentation Year


Start Date

3-7-2016 1:15 PM

End Date

3-7-2016 2:30 PM

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Mar 7th, 1:15 PM Mar 7th, 2:30 PM

Creating Trauma-Sensitive School Experiences for At-Risk Children

Ballroom F

Children who have been abused, neglected and exposed to violence often have trauma that interferes with their ability to learn. This workshop-- led by an experienced special educator and administrator, a school counselor and a trauma professional-- will define “trauma-sensitive schools” and give an overview of strategies that educators can use for system wide change.