Trauma Informed Practices: Resources for School Counselors

Even though it was my first real week off of work, I suddenly remembered I had signed up for a class on the brain back in May (what was I thinking!).  Truly, it is difficult to drag yourself to a training that starts in the middle of the day and ends at 5:00!  However, I dragged myself to my car and made the 20 mile journey to take the first of three courses that was sponsored free by Georgia State University!

Note:  If you live in the state of Georgia, Georgia State University is offering a series of courses on Trauma and Brain Development. These courses include:

Trauma 101 and 201
Brain 101 and 201
Brain/Trauma Capstone
Community Team Building

Disclaimer: Since I am not an expert in neuroscience or trauma, the information shared in the blog was gathered in a three day training by Georgia State University.

The purpose of my post is to share with school counselors some of the information that I learned about the adolescent brain and the results of childhood trauma.  So before you start reading this post, let me give you some reasons why school counselors should be more informed about brain science and the fundamentals of childhood trauma.

Reason #1
.Jane Webber, Associate Professor of the New Jersey City University, says that trauma is not a one time event, but happens to students everyday.

Reason #2
Trauma has a direct impact on student learning (McInerney and McKlindon).

Reason #3
Counselors can provide care and safety to students who have faced complex trauma (McCorry).

Reason #4

Understanding the brain may help school counselors better understand how to help our most difficult students and parents.

What is the Big Deal About the Brain?

First, let's discuss the brain and why we, as school counselors, need to be educated on the latest science.

The impact of trauma (which includes such factors as poverty, violence, abuse, etc) can change the DNA of individuals and their children. This process is known as epigenetics.

What is Epigenetics?  Watch this video for a breakdown.

Students who are exposed to trauma over an extended period time have an overworked mid-brain which means they are wired for survival. These students often stay in survival mode (often act out) even when in they are in what we consider safe environments.

A thinking (learning) brain and a doing (high alert) brain cannot operate in the same space. If a student is on high alert, it is a difficult for him or her to learn.

When children experience positive relationships in a safe environment, resiliency can be developed. As school counselors, it is important to help students develop these strategies.
Resource alert!  Want to learn more about developing resiliency in students?  Check out this video from the Center of the Developing Child by Harvard University.

Also, check out the Resiliency quiz that can be given to your students by Nan Henderson.

How Does Trauma Impact Children and Adolescent Development?

The ACE Study (Adverse Childhood Experiences)

This study was conducted in the late 90s by an insurance company and picked up by the CDC. The study contains some essential information which is important for school counselors to know.

1. Adverse childhood experiences impact the ability for students to multitask and keep up with their schoolwork.

2.  Keeping a job is more than just learning job skills or career awareness, but includes teaching soft skills like writing a resume, interviewing, communication, listening, conflict resolution, etc.

3. Many of our students' parents have an ACE score of 10 and often minimize their own trauma. In minimizing their own trauma, they will do the same for their children.

4. One out of every four students in schools are exposed to trauma.

5. The higher the ACE score the higher the death rate for these individuals.

Interested in knowing your ACE score? You can take the ACES Questionnaire to find out your  score.

Resource Alert!  Want to know more about the ACE Study, watch this short video.

How Trauma Impacts Our Students...Don't Underestimate its Impact!!

If you work in a school, you know that students may have many adverse experiences.  Here is a short list of traumatic situations for our students.

Traumatic Situations for Students

What is Child Trauma?
Although children will face traumatic situations in their lifetime (natural disaster or death), the type of trauma that rewires the brain occurs over and over. 

Here is a review of the types of trauma students will experience:
Acute: one single event (natural disaster or loss of parent)
Chronic: multiple events (child experiences a natural disaster in which the parent dies and because of the disaster child loses home).
Complex: chronic multiple events, whether real or perceived, that happen over time (child abuse, neglect, abandonment, etc.)  

What makes complex trauma most concerning is the absence of a caring adult (this is the biggest piece). Often, the caregiver has inflicted or neglected to protect the child from trauma.  
This is the type of trauma that changes the brain!!!
Responses to Stress by Students 
We all have stress in our lives.  It is important to be aware of the three types of stress that students can experience and when the stress can be damaging.
1.   Positive Stress: taking a test, getting ready for vacation, or participating in sports.
2.   Tolerable Stress: changing friendships, starting school, ending of school, test taking, or failing at a task.

3.   Toxic: poverty, living in violent environment, or abuse by a parent.

In toxic stress, the stress the student experiences does not go away because there is often a lack of support.

Stress Response Cycle

When students experience toxic stress, their brain experiences a change due to increased levels of the stress hormone cortisol.  Here are some changes students may experience:
  • Changes in behavior;
  • Always being in survival mode due to the release of the stress hormone cortisol.
  • A student's "doing and thinking" brain cannot act in the same space. In a crisis, a student's "doing" brain activates and his or her "thinking" brain ceases to operate (a student cannot control his or her stress hormone nor how his or her body feels);
  • For a student's body to self-regulate, his or her hippocampus must return the body to a normal state. This may take a longer period of time for some students;
  • After a stressful event, a student will usually seek support to help process the event;
  • Following the event, if a similar event occurs, a student's body may have the same stress response; 
  • The stress response remains in effect for children who have repeated trauma (even in safety).
How Does Trauma Impact Adolescents?

The impact of trauma depends on:

1.       The nature of the event (how traumatic the event).
2.      The child’s subjective response to it. Note: not all children process trauma in the same way.

How Our View of Trauma is Formed?

1.      Age and stage of child during the trauma.
2.      Victim or witness of the trauma.
3.      Relationship to victim and/or perpetrator.
4.      Perception of danger.
5.      What happened following the trauma?
6.      Past experiences with trauma.
7.      Presence and availability of nurturing relationships.
Effects of Trauma for Students
So now that we know the impact of trauma, let's discuss the effects on our students.
  • Attachment in relationships which can include the lack of boundaries or isolation (running away, lack of trust or too trusting, rejecting others, sabotaging relationships);
  • Biological changes in the brain;
  • Lack of mood regulation;
  • Dissociation, detachment, depersonalization, or withdrawal from the world. Examples include: daydreaming, lack of empathy, referring to self in 3rd person, antisocial behavior, false sense of reality, inappropriate dress, lack of belonging;
  • Lack of behavioral control, poor impulse, self destructive behavior, or destructive behavior (bullying, social isolation, profanity, lack of empathy, attention seeking, no boundaries, tantrums, impulsivity);
  • Cognition or learning problems;
  • Poor self-concept, body image, self esteem, shame, and guilt (this can be the one factor that school counselors can impact the quickest!) Examples include: over compensating (becoming bullies to keep people from hurting them), self harming behaviors, and at-risk behaviors;
  • Developmental issues which interfere with appropriate developmental skills. Examples include: speech delay, potty training, lack of cognitive abilities, problem solving skills, return to baby like behavior (immature).

How Can School Counselors Effectively Deal With Trauma in Students?

I always like to include a section in my posts about how school counselors can make a positive impact in students' lives.  Truly, when we deal with trauma in adolescents, it seems like a insurmountable task; however, it is not impossible to make a positive impact!
ASCA has provided a position statement that gives an overview of the role of the school counselor in promoting trauma sensitive environments. 
1.  Educate yourself!
First to assist students who are experiencing trauma, school counselors need to be trauma aware.  From this awareness, school counselors can recognize signs in their students. 
2.  Be involved in creating a trauma informed organization
Educate all involved parties (teachers, administrators, parapros, clerical staff) on trauma awareness and the disruptions caused by childhood trauma.
Encourage the infusion of trauma awareness in your organization's  practices/policies.
Collaborate with other agencies and professionals.
Provide social-emotional learning strategies and behavioral interventions.
Seek the best available science to support children and families recovery/resiliency.
The free downloadable ebook, Helping Traumatized Students Learn, provides an action plan for schools to develop a trauma sensitive perspective.  Download additional resources from Trauma Sensitive Schools.

An additional resource: Building a Trauma Aware School can produce guidance on how to build a trauma competent schools.

3. Build resilience in your students
Resilience is the capacity to prepare for disruptions, recover from shocks and stresses, and adapt and grow from a disruptive experience. Resilience is built over time as students interact with positive people and environments.

Three Factors for Building Resilience

Safety: the extent to which a child is free from fear and feels secure from physical and psychological harm.

Stability: the degree of predictability and consistency in the child's environment.

Nurturing: the extent to which an adult is available and able to consistently and sensitively respond to a child's needs.

Resource alert! Check out this resource on how school counselors can foster resilience in students.

4. Start small

One challenge, given by our trainer, was for school counselors to partner with a teacher to identify one traumatized student. The goal is to build resiliency skills in this student to help him or her develop the ability to overcome the trauma he or she has experienced.  If you want to take this challenge, consider downloading the free ebook from Trauma Sensitive Schools for a guide on how to build resiliency in your students.

Now that you have a bit of awareness about trauma and its impact on our students, you may want to  do a little professional development on your own. Here are some additional resources that you can explore to discover training, research, and more trauma informed practices.  As always, if you have resources you would like to share please feel free to comment!!


ASCA Trauma and Crisis Management Specialist
Creating a Trauma Informed School
Prepare Crisis Training-Training sponsored by the National Association of School Psychologists related to school crisis and prevention.
Trauma Training for Educators (Free)



Trauma Informed Practices
Child Trauma Toolkit
Safe Healthy and Ready to Learn
Helping Kids During Crisis
Transforming Trauma
Disaster Mental Health Resources from American Counseling Association

Trauma Webinars

Brain 101, Trauma 101, and Brain/Trauma 201

Georgia State University

Trauma 101
Trauma 201