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Virginia Journal of Education

How I Stopped Being ‘Head Jailer’

Student misbehavior is often tied to experiences of trauma. How a trauma-informed approach can help both young people and their educators.

By Lauren Dotson

When I was a school administrator, plenty of students were sent to my office for disruptive behaviors. When our school resource officer once jokingly referred to me as the “head jailer,” I knew something was wrong and had to change. Not long after, a book about viewing student behaviors through a trauma-focused lens came across my desk, and I realized it was the missing piece of the puzzle for which I had been searching.

Rather than immediately going to the school board policy manual to handle discipline issues, I started approaching each situation on a case-by-case basis. Over time, I came to develop more meaningful relationships with students, which is a key factor in building childhood resilience. Rather than conferencing with students about behaviors, we took walks around the school grounds, problem-solving together. We explored deep “five-finger breathing” and peer mediation; I asked students what I could personally do to make their days better. Sometimes, students simply needed a little “grace” because they’d had an altercation with a family member before school. My office became a “cool-down spot” rather than a place of punishment, a place where students could vent, cry, draw, or simply sit in silence until they were in a better state to process their emotions.

If a student’s problems continued to escalate, our school trauma committee (made up of the school social worker, guidance counselor, school-based therapist, and representatives from teachers and administration) and anyone else working closely with the student would devise an intervention plan. As a result, these students typically began a structured schedule of seeing our guidance counselor and/or school-based therapist.

Occasionally, students were referred to other mental health providers and physicians and, in special cases, students were transferred to our district’s therapeutic classroom. It that environment, mental health specialists helped students learn how to regulate their emotions and process trauma in a safe and supportive environment. During the intervention process, either in a regular education or therapeutic classroom setting, students are taught about their brain’s response to stressful triggers, how to calm the brain from a state of survival to one where higher-level learning can occur, and emotion regulation strategies. Once students in the therapeutic setting learn how to use their strategies, they’re gradually transitioned back to the regular education setting, sometimes with a one-on-one assistant for added support. Strategies for teachers to use with traumatized students are also shared with the classroom teachers and administration so a consistent support structure remains in place. Over time, support gradually transitions from students being supervised by a school-based therapist, one-on-one assistant, or guidance counselor to being “on their own” again in the classroom.

Using this approach, we saw a noticeable decline in discipline referrals, fewer outbursts from traumatized students, and more students using their strategies. Equally important, over time we saw more smiles from these students and their teachers. The added benefit was that students became more connected with a meaningful adult in the building, and adults became more cognizant of their own responses to stressful situations, so could better model appropriate reactions. Teachers became so invested in the idea of trauma-informed care that they started a “secret mentor” program, in which each teacher would choose an at-risk student with whom to develop a positive relationship. As a result, more students had a significant, “safe” adult advocate they could reach out to in the building. Overall, our school climate grew much calmer and happier, and adults became more proactive than reactive.

Why a Trauma-Based Approach?
According to a toolkit created by the Adolescent Health Work Group (, children can experience trauma in both an “acute” form, such as a single incident of abuse, or in a “chronic” way, such as ongoing poverty or substance abuse. And, sadly, a growing number of children are living proof: Child Trends ( analyzed national data four years ago and found that 46 percent of children had experienced at least one traumatic event or ACE (Adverse Childhood Experience); in 16 states (Virginia not among them), over half of children have.

Many students are automatically more at risk than others because of poor home conditions, but trauma certainly doesn’t stay within borders: children of any ethnicity, socioeconomic status, or religion are vulnerable.

In a study of over 17,000 HMO patients done by the Kaiser Permanente Foundation, 60 percent of respondents said they’d been the victim of some form of abuse as a child (emotional, verbal, or sexual), and a staggering 87 percent reported “household challenges” that included domestic violence, substance abuse, marital strife, or the incarceration of a close family member.

Today, our children are faced with an ever-growing myriad of challenges and, as educators, we need to help them develop appropriate coping skills, so they have the best possible chance for developing resilience and overcoming adversity, as well as succeeding academically. 

Buncombe County Schools: Context of Case Study
We wanted to see if there was real evidence that a trauma-informed approach worked elsewhere, so we partnered with the Buncombe County school system in western North Carolina, after seeing the success of their initiative. The Buncombe ACE Collaborative was formed in 2012, with the goal of helping meet the needs of traumatized students through a holistic, whole-child approach. Early adopters were trained beginning that year, and the Collaborative created its Strategic Framework in 2014. Currently, no high schools in Buncombe County are participating, so this case study only examines data from elementary and middle schools. We compared schools using the trauma initiative with non-participating schools to determine whether a relationship exists between student outcomes in growth and behavior and the implementation of a trauma-sensitive approach.

Buncombe County: A Look at School Discipline
Because children who are traumatized typically act out in ways that distract from learning and often result in office referrals, disciplinary action, and reportable offenses, we looked at those statistics at both the district and school level from the 2011-12 school year through 2015-16, the most recent data available.

We began with short- and long-term suspension data in the district, as school-level statistics weren’t publicly available, and found that there was actually a small increase in elementary short-term suspensions. They went from 1.74 per 100 students at the inception of the Collaborative in 2012 to 2.8 per 100 students in 2015-16 school year. This is curious and considered an outlier from the rest of the data; it suggests the need for a closer look to determine what other factors may have been at play in these suspensions. Long-term elementary suspensions did not change; this number remained at zero each year. The middle school level saw dramatic improvements throughout the program, however. The year the collaborative began, there were 26.54 short-term suspensions per 100 middle level students, which decreased 60.27 percent to 16.56 per 100 students. Furthermore, middle level long-term suspensions also dropped from 0.17 suspensions per 100 students in 2011-12 to a complete eradication of these suspensions in 2015-16.

Reportable offenses, defined as discipline issues resulting in a law enforcement referral, also declined dramatically in the middle schools. In 2011-12, the district had 3.03 middle level reportable offenses per 100 students; by 2015-16, it was 0.64 per 100, a decline of 68.93 percent.  Elementary schools also saw a dramatic decrease in their reportable offenses, reducing from 0.5 reportable offenses per 100 students in 2011-12 to 0.06 per 100 students in 2015-16, an 83.33 percent reduction.

Findings were positive at the individual school level as well. The mean reportable offenses for all participating schools in 2011-12 was 0.465 offenses per 100 students; the mean reportable offenses for non-participating schools the same year was 0.86 offenses per 100 students. By 2015-16, participating schools reduced their reportable offenses to 0.074 per 100 students, an 84.09 percent decline. Non-participating schools saw a drop to 0.453 reportable offenses per 100, a 47.33 decline.

Overall, there was a significant improvement in discipline issues after the initiative of trauma-informed care began, both at the district and individual school levels for participating schools in Buncombe County.

Buncombe County: Academic Growth Indicators
While behavioral improvements are important, what about improved academic growth? The aim of all student interventions is to improve the whole child; educators, however, also want to ensure that student growth increases.

For this case study, we examined state standardized tests given at the end of grades 3-8.  Although the initiative began in 2011-2012, growth indices were examined from the 2012-2013 to the 2015-2016 academic years.  Because North Carolina switched the state’s curriculum to the Common Core in 2012-13, we looked at data at participating and non-participating schools from then until 2015-16.

Just as with reportable student behaviors, there was drastic improvement. From 2012-13 to 2015-16, 57 percent of participating schools saw an improvement in their state descriptor (for example, improving from “does not meet expected standards” to “meets expected growth according to North Carolina standards,” or improving from “meets expected standards” to “exceeds expected growth”).  Only 28 percent of non-participating schools saw similar improvements. Additionally, in looking at the change in actual growth indices, 71.4 percent of participating schools saw numerical increases; only 61.1 percent of schools not participating in the initiative did so.   

Final Thoughts
While many variables affect student growth, an improvement in significant student behaviors and academic growth this dramatic demands a serious look. While further study is necessary to determine statistical significance in systems with a larger sample size, these findings indicate that there may be a positive correlation between student growth and behavior with the implementation of a trauma-sensitive approach in the school setting.

Lastly, it is important to note that trauma-informed care is not a simple “one-size-fits-all program”; rather, it is a complex approach to student behaviors and learning that takes years to craft and finesse. Ongoing professional development is paramount, in addition to collaboration among educators, mental health providers, physicians, social workers, guidance counselors, parents, and students.

The benefit of using a trauma-sensitive lens when approaching student behaviors and cognition is that it is a universal approach to all children, regardless of background or upbringing. As we all know, “It takes a village to raise a child.” By using the whole village to help our children learn coping strategies and develop resilience, we are strengthening our future leaders.

Dotson, EdD, is chair of the education department at Emory & Henry College and director of the Neff Center for Teacher Preparation.



Educators: Don’t Overlook Your Own Needs

When students are traumatized, educators can experience stress and “compassion fatigue” as a result. Here are some self-care tips from the National Child Traumatic Stress Network (

Be aware of the signs that students’ trauma may be affecting you. Educators with compassion fatigue may exhibit some of the following signs:

•Increased irritability or impatience with students

• Difficulty planning classroom activities and lessons

• Decreased concentration

• Denying that traumatic events impact students or feeling numb or detached

•Intense feelings and intrusive thoughts, that don’t lessen over time, about a student’s trauma

• Dreams about students’ traumas

Don’t go it alone. Anyone who knows about stories of trauma needs to guard against isolation. While respecting the confidentiality of your students, get support by working in teams, talking to others in your school, and asking for support from administrators or colleagues.

Recognize compassion fatigue as an occupational hazard. When an educator approaches students with an open heart and a listening ear, compassion fatigue can develop. All too often, educators judge themselves as weak or incompetent for having strong reactions to a student’s trauma. Compassion fatigue is not a sign of weakness or incompetence; rather, it is the cost of caring.

Seek help with your own traumas. Any adult helping children with trauma, who also has his or her own unresolved traumatic experiences, is more at risk for compassion fatigue.

If you see signs in yourself, talk to a professional. If you are experiencing signs of compassion fatigue for more than two to three weeks, seek counseling with a professional who is knowledgeable about trauma.

Attend to self-care. Guard against your work becoming the only activity that defines who you are. Keep perspective by spending time with children and adolescents who are not experiencing traumatic stress. Take care of yourself by eating well and exercising, engaging in fun activities, taking a break during the workday, finding time to self-reflect, allowing yourself to cry, and finding things to laugh about.


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