Category Archives: developmental trauma

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 central post "Lives at Risk" and here for the other sidebar "Crisis of Priorities"


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

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 entirely dependent on perceived safety, in all the realms of “safety”: safety, safety, safety (of all stakeholders).  Safety is the first organizing principle.  All else in a trauma-informed paradigm  is meaningless if all stakeholders do not feel safe.

“Trauma-informed” is a whole-school paradigm,  beginning with the morning bus driver,  then including all those in contact with a child in hallways to bathrooms, lunchroom, school yard, classroom, main office, auditorium, and more.  Students are exposed daily to the  whole-school and can be triggered defensively, at any point, anywhere, by anyone.  On their own, in a lone educator’s classroom, “Trauma-Informed” excitement and “fire” will wane and or will burnout the individual teacher.


Trauma-Informed is not “behavior management” Behavior “management” focuses on external symptoms (behaviors).  Many educators conflate the trauma-informed paradigm and behavior “management” concepts and sometimes mistakenly mix in MTSS and  PBIS and and other behavior-tool focuses. “The carrot and stick”  don’t address trauma impacts.

Behavior “management” tools may have some value in the trauma-informed paradigm, but only in new and different ways.  For example,  MTSS:   the trauma-informed paradigm has no pre-determined “shape” of MTSS tiers nor quota or even expectation.  The MTSS “triangle” may be inverted in a trauma-informed school.  MTSS configurations  will all vary by developmental stages, by environment and by care-to-date, and more. The same applies to arbitrary goals for attendence which focus solely on attendance behavior, completely missing the underlying motivations, possibly worsening climate with higher attendance but without student-centered, understanding and supports.

In contrast, in the trauma-informed paradigm, “behaviors” are viewed as a ‘symptom’ or a ‘communication’.  Outward behaviors are not a target to reward or manipulate, nor are those behavioral symptoms the ultimate concern. Progress requires recognizing and responding to inner wounds. Then the behaviors will begin to resolve healthily.  Perspective in this paradigm  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.

Thirty children per one adult in average classrooms is not trauma-informed.  The data is clear:  six-to-ten children (minimally 20-33%) in a classroom of thirty are trauma-impacted in our city.  One adult per six-to-ten trauma-impacted students is absurdly insufficient,  and that still ignores the other twenty-plus children who are sharing the same space.  “Trauma-informed” is simply dangerous lip service at the point of thirty(plus) children with one adult.  Inadequate staffing is unethical, and is directly in conflict with ‘equal access’ to education for all the children in the same classroom

Next, a trauma-informed paradigm requires accountability for continuous training and engaged 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 often merely a contemporary translation of  Blame the Victim (Ryan,1976), one way some organizations shirk accountability.  Instead, “Reflective Supervision” (from Social Services arena) is a start towards engaged, substantive, baseline supports, on-going.

Implementation research tells us that cultural change and paradigm 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.


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

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

Student and staff scheduling would be reviewed to ensure consistent availability and flexibility for student supports one-on-one,  with conferencing and building an intervention plan tailored to the specific student and their family (intrinsically different than a “504 Plan”).  Factory “standardization” culture stands in direct conflict with appropriately engaging and accommodating individual students and families.

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 a simple or easy shift.   It is also not an “endpoint”.   “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 change for all stakeholders in the system, from the old-school days of the “factory production line” or the “banking” models.

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, Philadelphia,  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”.