Safe & Accepting Schools

Trauma-Sensitive Learning Environments

The DSBN is guided by a trauma-sensitive approach to promoting positive school climates. This approach involves ensuring that all students feel safe and have a sense of belonging at school. Students are supported in learning to regulate their emotions and behaviour, and are also taught skills to manage stress, form healthy relationships, and make positive choices.

“A trauma-sensitive school is a safe and supportive community that enables both students and adults to feel safe, build caring relationships with one another, regulate their feelings and behavior, as well as learn.” - Trauma and Learning Policy Initiative (TLPI)

What is Trauma-Sensitive Education?

At the DSBN, we understand that trauma-sensitive learning environments are led by trauma-sensitive educators. We work with all staff to build capacity in realizing the widespread impact of childhood trauma and recognizing signs and symptoms of trauma in their students. Educators are expected to fully integrate their knowledge of trauma into their daily practices and appreciate the importance of preventing re-traumatization.

For the most part, trauma-sensitive education involves a shift in culture and mindset. When students exhibit ongoing, challenging behaviours at school, the traditional practice has been to assess for deficits or diagnoses. While recognizing the importance of understanding student strengths and needs in the learning environment, the trauma-sensitive framework helps educators to approach challenging student behaviours from a place of empathy and compassion. The trauma-sensitive paradigm shift involves asking a different question, “what might have happened to this student?”     

Adverse Childhood Experiences

Decades of research has helped us understand that childhood traumatic events, also known as adverse childhood experiences (ACES), are shockingly common. Traditionally, ACES have been conceptualized as experiences such as abuse and neglect (physical, emotional, sexual) and household challenges (mental illness, substance abuse, domestic violence, incarceration, and high conflict divorce). More recently, the definition of childhood trauma has been expanded to include the experience of severe bullying, community and neighbourhood violence and crime, racism, and living in foster care. In Canada, four out of every five adults report being faced with at least one (and often more than one) of these experiences as a child.

Research has also shown us that chronic exposure to ACES has profound and long-lasting impacts. Traumatic events affect children’s sense of safety, stability, and healthy relationships with caregivers. Children exposed to trauma inevitably experience toxic stress, which, over time, weakens the architecture of their developing brains. This disrupted brain and immune system development has widespread impacts on children’s learning, behaviour, and both physical and mental health.

How Can Trauma-Sensitive Schools Help?

By implementing trauma-informed strategies, schools can support learning and achievement and enhance student engagement. Through ongoing efforts, the DSBN is committed to raising awareness around trauma and its impact on student behaviour, building staff capacity in trauma-sensitive practices, and supporting students’ healing in school settings.

Some of the ways that we support all students at school include:

  • promoting real and felt safety;
  • helping students develop and maintain healthy relationships with peers and adults;
  • building students’ abilities to tolerate stress and regulate their emotions when they are over- or under-stimulated; and
  • facilitating the development of students’ skills in areas such as executive functioning, decision making, problem solving, goal setting, and perseverance.

Trauma-sensitive discipline practices are also an important component of supporting students at school. Within a trauma-sensitive framework, we focus first on the impact that the event has had on the student’s relationships and how to repair them. Consequences are used to help students learn and practice new skills. Restorative practices are an example of one form of consequence that is implemented across our system.