TRANSFORMING TRAUMA: New Paradigm, New Culture



Note, this post is a "sidebar" to the central post "Lives at Risk" about the shocking priority of "health"(in multiple forms) at the School District of Philadelphia (SDP).  Click Here to jump to the post "Lives at Risk"





“Trauma-informed” is a paradigm, a way of being, it’s not a checklist or an extra “program” to purchase.  A “trauma-informed” approach, totally re-frames perspective, process and culture, versus the toxic, “factory” approach.


The priority in the trauma-informed paradigm is awareness of the widespread destruction of trauma to then  recognize and respond to children’s health and safety needs, on-going.  Only then can effective teaching and learning begin (from SAMHSA’s  “Trauma and Justice Strategic Initiative” 2014) .


Trauma-Informed is all-dependent on perceived safety, in all the realms of “safety”: safety, safety, safety (of all stakeholders).  Safety is the first organizing principle.  All else is secondary.  All else is meaningless if all stakeholders do not feel safe.




Trauma-Informed is not “behavior management”.  Behavior “management” focuses on external symptoms (behaviors).  Many educators conflate the concepts and sometimes mix in MTSS and PBIS and other behavior-tool focuses.   Those old tools may still have some value but only in new and different ways,  for example,  MTSS (the “triangle” may be inverted in a trauma-informed school).  There is no pre-determined “shape” of MTSS or quota or even expectation.  The configurations  will all vary by developmental stages, by environment and by care-to-date, and more.


In contrast, the trauma-informed paradigm understands that internal injuries cause the external behaviors (symptoms).    Perspective in this parardigm  changes away from “What’s wrong with you?”(or your behavior)  to “What happened to you?”.


One pre-requisite to a successful change toward confronting toxic trauma would be screening.  Screening is crucial, given the wide range of traumatic responses contrasted as “Fight, flight, and freeze”. The “fight” or “hyper-aggressive” response of the girl throwing a chair is often the focus in a classroom, while we completely miss the girl in the back corner, quietly “freezing” in “dissociation”. The girls are each dealing with trauma, with equal pain and equal fear, in very divergent, classical behaviors. The research says, that among younger children, withdrawn, compliant “dissociation” is the leading response, but that most-common behavior is deceptive, and often goes ignored and unsupported, without on-going screening.


Next, a trauma-informed paradigm requires continuous training and on-going support for educators on the front-line.  The science of childhood trauma is expanding continually, and injured children return to class daily. On-going recognition and substantive supports, far beyond “self-care”, are required for the front-line.  “Self-care” is merely a contemporary translation of  Blame the Victim (Ryan,1976), one way some organizations shirk accountability.  Instead, “Reflective Supervision” is a start towards substantive, baseline supports, on-going.


Implementation research tells us that cultural shifts of this magnitude must be led internally and modeled and championed relentlessly with transparency and trustworthiness, starting at the top. The Board and the CEO lead the way.  Conversely, delegating the cultural paradigm-shift to an external consultant is a clear signal of poor understanding and low priority.


More aspects follow which cannot be detailed in the space here.  As examples: class-sizes would need to be reduced, 30 children per one adult is not trauma-informed.


Discipline must be (re)viewed and re-invented holistically,  not simply as a one-dimensional, or arbitrary, reduction of suspensions and expulsions.  If  no offsetting supports for all students and staff are integral, then safe boundaries have been compromised simplistically, without addressing the whole-child, and the whole-system.  Boundaries are an explicit  feature of trauma-informed.

Recruiting goals change. Professional Development is prioritized and implemented differently.

Physical space needs to be restructured.

All formal policies and procedures of the system need to be reviewed with a new lens.

All these and many more are inseparable in rebuilding a healthy paradigm.  Trauma-Informed paradigm shifting is crucial to health and to education.  It is not simple or easy.   It is also not an “endpoint”.   As has been explained, Trauma-Informed is a process, a new way of seeing,  which will evolve fluidly with circumstances, requiring the understanding and the support of all.


When fully grasped, the trauma-informed paradigm is understood as a massive culture shift for all stakeholders in the system, from the old school days of the “production line” or the “banking” models.  Attempting a “piecemeal” or “program” (add-on) approach would be like trying to “introduce” a new currency without changing pricing or involving the banks or their customers or the market.


Many more trauma-informed principles build on these, as only the beginning.







Note, this post is a "sidebar" to the central post "Lives at Risk" about the shocking priority of "health"(in multiple forms) at the School District of Philadelphia (SDP).  Click Here to jump to the post "Lives at Risk"


Daun Kauffman is a community member in Hunting Park who has taught in NorthPhilly public school classrooms for 20 years.  Daun earned an M.Ed at Temple University and an MBA from the Harvard University Graduate School of Business.

Kauffman is an active member of Philadelphia ACEs Task Force, writes at, curates a Facebook page, “Trauma-Informed Schools Journal” and manages a Facebook group, “Trauma-Informed Schools Group”.

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