Why Stress-Informed Schools Must Precede Trauma-Informed Schools

When We Address Student Stress First, We Begin to Impact Trauma. . . If It Exists

Dear Colleagues,


   I hope that you, your families, and your colleagues are safe, healthy, and protected as the pandemic continues—somewhat unabated.

   Over the past three weeks, I have been providing almost non-stop virtual consultations and professional development trainings with the different school districts that I work with nationwide. The primary focus has been getting the administrators, leadership teams, teachers, and support staffs (including bus drivers, secretaries, paraprofessionals, cafeteria workers, and custodians) ready to open their schools (in one form or another) for their students.

   Many of the discussions have focused on addressing the students’ social, emotional, and behavioral needs. . . both relative to their pandemic-specific experiences, and to the more “routine” re-entry and transition issues that typically occur at the beginning of any new school year (e.g., having new teachers, classes, expectations, opportunities).

   In latter area above, the different school staffs are making explicit classroom and school-wide plans to help students—on the first day of the new school year—to:

  • Re-establish positive and proactive relationships with their teachers and peers;
  • Learn and physically practice the social and behavioral expectations in the classrooms and across the Common Areas of the school (i.e., hallways, bathrooms, the cafeteria, playgrounds/common meeting spaces, etc.);
  • Understand and commit to a progressive “Behavioral Accountability Matrix” that (a) facilitates positive and safe school and classroom settings by identifying and motivating students to make “Good Choices,” while (b) telling them what staff responses and consequences (including at the “Code of Conduct” level) will occur for different intensities of “Bad Choices;” and
  • Recognize how their social and behavioral choices impact school and classroom climate, academic engagement, and learning and academic proficiency.

   To address the former area above, the different school staffs are embedding the pandemic-related needs of their students into the plans above. . . beginning even before the first day of the new school year. These plans include the use of multi-tiered continua of services, supports, and interventions.

   One significant part of the multi-tiered system, specific to the pandemic, involves district and school mental health support staff. Here, we are adapting the crisis-related approaches used by our schools in the days following a community, weather-related, or student/staff-specific catastrophe or crisis. Thus, every school plans to have mental health staff present on the first day of school, and to explicitly share the additional mental health resources available with students and parents—encouraging their use.

   Beyond this, please feel free to read the previous pandemic-specific Blogs that I have written in the social, emotional, and behavioral areas during the past few months (see immediately below—CLICK the DATE to link to the original Blog).

May 16, 2020  Why is Education Week Sensationalizing Student Trauma During this Pandemic? Will Schools Re-Open Without Pathologizing their Students’ Emotional Needs? (Part I)

May 30, 2020  Preparing NOW to Address Students’ Social, Emotional, and Behavioral Needs Before They Transition Back to School. Let’s Use Caring and Common Sense as Our Post-Pandemic Guides (Part II)

July 25, 2020  Identifying Students with Back-to-School Social, Emotional, and Behavioral Needs: How to Screen Without Screening. In Uncommon Times, Uncommon Sense is Best.

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Differentiating Between Stress and Trauma

   In the three Blogs cited above, we made a number of step-by-step research-to-practice implementation recommendations. They resulted in the following conclusions:

  • Clinically and pragmatically, more stressed students than traumatized students will return to school this year—despite the recent plethora of popular and professional press publications, pronouncements, and promotions touting “traumatized students.”

Critically, many of these statements have been made by newspapers and magazines, groups advocating their trauma-specific programs and assessment tools, and those who simply “do not know what they do not know.”

  • The current presence of student stress or trauma needs to be confirmed the same way as the presence of COVID-19. That is, through reliable and valid scientifically-proven assessments that occur as students re-enter the schools and engage in the transition activities and interactions noted in the Introductory section of this Blog.
  • As part of these assessments, if students currently experiencing traumas are validly identified, the process needs to discriminate students with (a) traumas that existed prior to the pandemic and have not been affected by the pandemic; (b) traumas that existed prior to the pandemic, but have been exacerbated by the pandemic; and (c) traumas that did not exist before, and are fully related to the pandemic (e.g., a fear of getting sick) or events caused by the pandemic (e.g., the death of a parent, sibling, or friend).
  • Significantly, despite the popular press pronouncements, no objective, controlled, large-scale epidemiological studies have yet been published (a) validating the number, kinds, or intensities of pandemic-related traumas currently present in U.S. children and adolescents; or (b) demonstrating that such traumas are widespread or disproportionate to the population as a whole.

   But to fully understand the points above, it is important that educators, parents, and the population at-large understand the clinical and diagnostic differences between stress and trauma.

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Stress versus Trauma

   According to the U.S. Office of Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) and the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5, 2013):

Individual trauma results—through an event, a series of events, or a set of experiential circumstances—from exposure to actual or threatened death, serious injury, or sexual violence.
Trauma has lasting adverse effects on the individual’s functioning and mental, physical, social, emotional, or spiritual well-being. It could result from a single incident (Acute Trauma), repeated or prolonged incidents (Chronic Trauma), or due to exposure to varied and multiple incidents that are often invasive and interpersonal in nature.

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   In contrast, Dr. Abigail Powers Lott (2019) states that:

Stress is something we all face. It comes in many forms and differs across contexts, from work-related or financial stress, to social problems, to new life changes, to internal experiences. Some stressors are minor or short term, while others may be chronic.
Trauma is a specific type of stress that reflects exposure to terrible events generally outside the range of daily human experience that are emotionally painful, intense, and distressing.
The reason for this narrow definition of trauma, and its distinction from stress more generally, is in part because traumatic events can result in particularly problematic trauma responses that are unique from general stress responses.
In addition to the initial stress response in the body, long term psychological consequences are seen in many individuals that are exposed to traumas.

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   Given these definitions, and as different students separately experience anxiety, stress, or trauma, the following practical conclusions must be emphasized:

  • While Stress, Trauma, and Anxiety share a number of clinical characteristics, stress is the broader and most prevalent of the three for students in schools.

Indeed, the most common stressors for students are those related to academic frustration and failure; homework and tests; boyfriend/girlfriend and other peer relationship issues; teasing and bullying; gender status and sexual orientation; racial or cultural prejudice and discrimination; poverty, homelessness, or food insecurity; and physical or other limitations or disabilities.

While the events above are significant, these stressors rarely meet the definition of trauma and, consistent with Lott, interventions for them—especially in school—generally differ.

Once again, if the pandemic or its effects were to be clinically traumatic for a student, they would have to expose him or her to “actual or threatened death, serious injury, or sexual violence.”

This is evident for some students. But it is not evident for most, or even many, students.

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  • Given all of this, schools need to establish the positive climate, safety, prosocial relationship, and multi-tiered service elements that first and foremost prevent or respond to student stress. For trauma-involved students, schools need to have multi-tiered assessment and interventions services available.

Said a different way: Schools and educational staff need to be more broadly trained and expert in Stress-Sensitive or Informed Practices, while school mental health professionals (e.g., counselors, social workers, school psychologists) need also to be clinically trained and expert in Trauma-Sensitive or Informed Practices.

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  • A Stress-Sensitive or Informed approach for a school, as noted by Lott above, is necessarily different than a Trauma-Sensitive or Informed approach.

Moreover, there are virtually NO Trauma-Informed Programs, currently marketed around the country—including those affiliated with federal or state agencies—that have been soundly evaluated such that these programs can claim that they produce clear, consistent, sustained, and meaningful student results over time and across school districts nationwide.

Indeed, Maynard and her colleagues (July, 2019) reviewed over 7,000 studies published during the last ten years that evaluated school-based trauma-informed programs. NONE of the studies reviewed were methodologically sound enough to validate the efficacy of any of the trauma-informed programs analyzed.

We discussed this study and these conclusions in a two-part Blog Series this past January (CLICK on the DATE to link):

January 11, 2020  Trauma-Informed Schools: New Research Study Says “There’s No Research.” Schools “Hitch-Up” to Another Bandwagon that is Wasting Time and Delaying Recommended Scientifically-Proven Services (Part I)

January 25, 2020  Mindfulness & Meditation Will NOT Change Students’ Emotional Volatility or Immediate Reactions to Trauma. The Neurological Science Does Not Add Up—Another Fad & More Wasted Time in Pursuit of a Silver Bullet (Part II)

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     In summary, school staff need to be educated about stress, anxiety, and trauma, but student stress should be the primary and predominant focus for all administrative and instructional staff.

   With stress now as the focus, schools need to consider ways to progressively teach, develop, and reinforce students’ emotional self-management skills. Indeed, if students learn and use these skills, they will be more prepared to minimize the social, emotional, and behavioral effects of stress, and/or be more responsive when needed services, supports, or interventions are provided.

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Emotional Self-Management: Students, Teachers, and Support Staff

   Emotional self-management skills, which some call “emotional self-regulation” or tangentially “emotional intelligence,” involves teaching students—from preschool through high school—skills and interactions related to emotional awareness, emotional control, and emotional coping.

   These three interdependent areas are the research-to-practice areas that result in students being able (a) to understand, manage, and deal with the emotional events in their lives—and how they interpret them; and (b) to demonstrate prosocial interpersonal response and conflict prevention/resolution skills and behaviors.

   These three areas are briefly explained below.

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   Emotional awareness involves (a) students’ identification, knowledge, understanding, and discrimination of the many different emotions that they may experience in their lives; (b) their awareness of the emotional triggers that exist in the settings that they go to or must attend; (c) their awareness of their physiological cues and responses to different emotional situations; and (d) their awareness of how others look and act when they are in different emotional situations or states.

   Emotional control occurs when students are able to maintain (a) the physiological control of their bodies when under conditions of emotionality, so that (b) they are able to think clearly and rationally— demonstrating effective social problem-solving skills, so that (c) they can demonstrate appropriate social interactions and behavioral self-management skills.

   Emotional coping goes beyond the emotional control that occurs when students are experiencing emotional conditions “in the moment.”  Emotional coping occurs as students are debriefing and reconciling a just-past emotional situation, or are learning to minimize the impact of a persistent or emotionally traumatic situation.  Ultimately, emotional coping skills help students to (continue to) live their lives in emotionally positive and healthy ways—even in the face of continuing, similar, or new traumatic situations (or those that trigger emotional memories).

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   When students are progressively taught these skills and interactions, as they move from grade-to-grade and from one developmental or maturational status to the next, they are more able to handle the emotional triggers in their lives.

   Critically, these skills are embedded in some evidence-based social skills curricula.

   For example, they were explicitly integrated into the Stop & Think Social Skills Program that we developed, validated, and have used in thousands of schools nationwide over the past 30 years.

[CLICK HERE for more information on the Stop & Think Social Skills Program]

   The Stop & Think Social Skills Program helps teachers to literally teach students—at their specific developmental levels—the emotional control and coping, attitude and belief, and behavioral and interpersonal competencies that they need for school, community, and home success.

   And similar to instruction in literacy, math, and writing, this curriculum is taught, implemented, and infused into every class every week as part of a planned and integrated process.  Moreover, as with literacy, math, and writing, classroom teachers receive the comprehensive professional training and coaching needed so that they can teach and reinforce the curriculum’s social, emotional, and behavioral skills with comfort, excellence, and integrity.

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Mental Health Support Staff

   Significantly, relative to student self-management, classroom teachers must be supported by the mental health and related service professionals in their schools. These professionals should be part of the social skills “coaching team,” they should be available to co-teach social skills in the classrooms with the teachers as needed, and—most critically—they should be working in small groups and individually with students who need more strategic or intensive social and emotional self-management attention.

   Indeed, for students with high levels of stress, anxiety, and/or trauma, the mental health professionals should be trained and available to provide some of the clinical interventions that exist further down the multi-tiered continuum.

   These interventions may include:

  • Progressive Muscle Relaxation Therapy and Stress Management
  • Emotional Self-Management (Self-awareness, Self-instruction, Self-monitoring, Self-evaluation, and Self-reinforcement) Training
  • Emotional/Anger Control and Management Therapy
  • Self-Talk and Attribution (Re)Training
  • Thought Stopping approaches
  • Systematic Desensitization
  • Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (TF-CBT)
  • Cognitive-Behavioral Intervention for Trauma in Schools (CBITS)
  • Structured Psychotherapy for Adolescents Responding to Chronic Stress (SPARCS)
  • Trauma Systems Therapy (TST)

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   In summary, the clear questions implicit in this entire section are:

  • Are schools focused on students’ social, emotional, and behavioral self-management are the primary goal of their SEL and Stress-Informed systems?
  • Have they included and staffed, in that system, a multi-tiered continuum of services, supports, and interventions?
  • Are they systematically teaching all of their students, in general education classrooms from preschool through high school, the emotional awareness, control, and coping skills needed through an evidence-based social skills program?
  • Does the school have the related service and mental health professionals trained and available to provide the small group and intensive supports and interventions needed by students with high levels of stress, anxiety, and trauma?

   If the answer to any of these questions is “No,” then schools should take this pandemic-specific opportunity to establish this system, differentially train their staff, and serve their students—especially those in need.

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   Before finishing this Blog, I was skimming through my LinkedIn feed and saw the following quote:

Relationships before Rigor. Grace before Grades. Patience before Programs. Love before Lessons. (Brad Johnson)

   As reflected in this (and past) Blog(s)—focusing on students’ social, emotional, and behavioral status, learning, mastery, and self-management—these sentiments are clearly always relevant, but especially relevant in our pandemic-ridden world.

   But as important as it is for educators to “walk the walk above,” it is similarly important for our students.

   Indeed, they will be more successful if they understand that:

  • Their school and peer relationships will mediate the rigor in their academic worlds;
  • Their grace and humility will put their class grades into the proper perspective;
  • Their patience will help any instructional program to work; and
  • Their love of learning will guide them as they undertake their lessons.

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   As summarized in a past Blog, as our students return to physically and/or virtually, schools and educators need to:

  • Plan from a strength-based perspective that recognizes and utilizes students’ social, emotional, and behavioral strengths. . . leaning in and building on these assets;
  • Recognize the importance of creating immediate and sustained safe and supportive climates—from staff to students, students to students, and school to home;
  • Allow students to discuss and debrief the pandemic’s past and present effects on their lives, to socially and emotionally re-connect with their peers and staff, and to (re-)establish the supportive interpersonal and academic routines and protocols that will help them successfully navigate the re-entry process and beyond;
  • Realize that we will still be living in the shadow and context of the pandemic, that students (and staff) will need ongoing understanding and support, and that everyone has their own “timeline” relative to emotional response, recovery, and “normalization;”
  • Identify students in social, emotional, and/or behavioral distress. . . but ensure that the identification process involves multiple, objective data-based assessments (including student interviews and observations) representing multiple school settings that are shared from multiple validating sources;
  • Have a continuum of in-school and community-based social, emotional, and behavioral services, supports, strategies, and interventions prepared for students who demonstrate significant or persistent challenges (before and) during the post-pandemic transition back to school; and
  • Understand that this “new normal” post-pandemic school and schooling world includes a “new normal” relative to the social, emotional, and behavioral status and needs of students (and staff)—and that these new norms will vary by students’ age, gender, culture, race, socio-economic backgrounds, home and family supports, and presence of medical conditions and other disabilities.

   We are all experiencing different social, emotional, and behavioral reactions and responses to the current pandemic and its impact on our lives. But we, as adults, understand what is happening far better than our children and adolescents.

   We need to wrap-around and support our students . . . strategically, planfully, collaboratively, and empathically.

   While I understand that some students have experienced academic losses these past few months, I also know that—if we do not address (once again) the needed instruction through relationships anchored by grace, patience, and love—we will be hard-pressed to get the academic outcomes that we all want.

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   I hope that this Blog message has been helpful to you. However, as part of the underlying message here, I want to emphasize that—as you prepare for your students’ social, emotional, and behavioral needs this new school year,  you also need to take care of yourself.

   I appreciate your investment in reading these Blogs, and your dedication to your students, your colleagues, and effective school and schooling practices— especially given today’s difficult personal and professional challenges, competing priorities, and decisions.

   Please feel free to send me your thoughts and questions. 

   And please know that I am always available to you through Zoom calls. . . if and when you need me. Contact me at any time.