When schooling hurts: Professional school counselors as mitigates of school-based trauma

Jasmine Graham, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor
Counseling and Counselor Education Program
School of Education
Indiana University Purdue University – Indianapolis

Maureen Negrelli Coomer
Doctoral Student in Urban Education Studies
School of Education
Indiana University Purdue University – Indianapolis



Much of the literature on trauma-informed schools has sought to frame students’ experiences of trauma as external to the school environment. In doing so, the role of schools in developing traumatizing school cultures remains fairly absent from literary discourse. This article will add to the existing literature on trauma-informed schools by situating trauma in schools. The authors provide a review of the literature on trauma in schooling practices along with a discussion regarding the importance of Professional School Counselors as mitigates of trauma practices in schools. Recommendations for future research and scholarship are provided.

Keywords: trauma, schools, counseling


Students encounter experiences of trauma more frequently than many adults realize. In fact, trauma is often misunderstood to be singularly related to catastrophic occurrences, whereas the manifestation of actual traumatic stress includes exposure to prolonged, situational adversity (Dutro & Bien, 2014; Jaycox et al., 2010; Walkley & Cox, 2013). Thus, students who experience chronic adversity such as abuse of any type, chronic neglect, exposure to violence, substance abuse, or poverty are particularly vulnerable to traumatic stress (Caruth, 1996; Quiros & Berger, 2015). In consideration of this, the role of a safe and caring adult to shield the student from the severity of traumatic stress cannot be overshadowed. Unfortunately, many students lack a safe and caring adult to mediate traumatic stress on their behalf (Anderson, Christenson, Sinclair, & Lehir, 2004; Ludy-Dobson & Perry, 2010). Moreover, students whose traumatic experiences are situated in the school environment are particularly vulnerable to the consequences of not having an adult buffer (Walkley & Cox, 2013; Wiest-Stevenson & Lee, 2016).

While much of the literature on trauma-informed schools has sought to frame students’ experiences of trauma as external to the school environment, this article seeks to explore the nature of trauma as a result of schooling practices. From this perspective, frequent or prolonged adversity occurs in the context of schools and schooling, and the role of the caring adult must be assumed by a member of the school community (Anderson, Christenson, Sinclair, & Lehr, 2004; Martin et al., 2017; Wiest-Stevenson & Lee, 2016). In the next section of this article, we provide an overview of the literature on trauma within a schooling context. A discussion on the role of Professional School Counselors will follow. The article will conclude with recommendations for research and scholarship in the area of trauma in schools.

The Trauma of Schooling Practices

Much of the literature addressing trauma-informed approaches in schools takes a particular orientation toward trauma that is rooted in a medical model of mental health and wellness, most notably through assessing directly or otherwise relating to the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACES) scale (Iachini, Petiwala, & Dehart, 2016; Porche, Costello, Rosen-Reynoso, 2016; Walkey & Cox, 2013). Significantly, this literature draws on an “academic lineage” (Annamma, Ferri, & Connor, 2018, p. 46) in Psychology, Social Work, and Medicine that has, in some ways, direct implications for a research-to-policy-to practice track (Anderson, Christenons, Sinclair, & Lehr, 2004; Chafouleas, Johnson, Overstreet, & Santos, 2015; Iachini, Petiwala, & Dehart, 2016; Porche, Costello, Rosen-Reynoso, 2016; Wade, Seha, Rubin, & Wood, 2015; Wiest-Stevenson & Lee, 2016).

Examining trauma-informed approaches in schools tends to take two contexts: a.) conceptualizing trauma as a medical condition, diagnosable through methods historically linked to medicine and psychiatry (Iachini, Petiwala, & DeHart, 2016; Walkley & Cox, 2013) and b.) as a barrier to student achievement within schools (Chafouleas, Johnson, & Overstreet, 2015; Wiest-Stevenson & Lee, 2016; National Child Traumatic Stress Network, 2008). Even though the practical literature proposing frameworks for implementing trauma-informed approaches in schools implicates more compassionate, culturally relevant, and responsive school personnel (Anderson, Christenson, Sinclari, & Lehr, 2004; Crosby, 2015; Martin et al., 2017; Ludy-Dobson & Perry, 2010; Wolpow, Johnson, Hertel, & Kincaid, 2009; West, Day, Somers, & Baroni, 2014; Wade, Seha, Rubin, & Wood, 2014), there does not seem to be much in the canon that implicates the school’s responsibility in remediating the historical and institutional trauma that schools have imposed through practices and policies that have marginalized students for generations, such as disproportionate punishment of students of color, microaggressions, deficit orientations toward students, and under-resourced schools (Allen, Scott, & Lewis, 2013; Constantine, 2006; Crosby, 2015; Blitz, Anderson, & Saastamoinen, 2016; Shirley & Cornell, 2011).

Marginalization as perceived by students of color within schools has important implications for considering trauma-informed approaches. In a recent study, Wade, Seha, Rubin, & Wood (2014) interviewed urban youth living in poverty to understand participants’ descriptions of stress. Study participants identified multiple stressors, notably including school. Specifically, participants cited “poor quality schools, lack of school safety, and academic struggles” (p. 17) as stressors. Interestingly, research on safe and inclusive schools propounds within educational research literature, academic discourse, and school policy (Allen, Grigsby, & Peters, 2015; McCarley, Peters, & Decman, 2016). Voight (2013) found that even in districts which prioritize improving school climate, “students of color experience school climate more negatively than their peers” (Voight, 2013). Furthermore, Shirley and Cornell (2011) discuss the ways in which disproportionate punishment of African American youth affect the ways in which students experience school climate.

Even as trauma-informed schooling literature asserts that trauma can have a profound effect on the ways in which students participate in school (Chafouleas, Johnson, & Overstreet, 2015; Weist-Stevenson & Lee, 2016; NCTN, 2008), the literature does not address the relationship between microaggressions in school and trauma. Allen, Scott, & Lewis (2013) found that microaggressions contribute to the ways in which children of color experience school policies such as “zero-tolerance policies, academic tracking policies, and hegemonic curriculum” (p.120).  Sue et al. (2007) examined the long-term health impact that microaggressions have on a person’s health. Nadal (2010) expands on this research, asserting that “microaggressions may lead to mental health problems, including depression, anxiety, trauma, or issues with self-esteem” (p. 123).

Drawing attention to the larger context of relationship, Crosby (2015) applies an ecological approach to examining the relationship between teachers and students at a systems-level. As research proposes that healthy relationships and caring adults can act as a protective factor in mitigating long-term effects of trauma, (Anderson, Christenson, Sinclari, & Lehr, 2004; Ludy-Dobson & Perry, 2010; Martin et al., 2017; West, Day, Somers, & Baroni, 2014; Wolpow, Johnson, Hertel, & Kincaid, 2009) it is important to consider the ways in which teacher-student relationships are contextualized in schools and ultimately enacted through teachers and other school personnel. In considering the current literature and rationale for trauma-informed approaches, as well as contemporary frameworks for policy and practice (Chafouleas, Johnson, Overstreet, & Santos, 2015), there is an implication for further examinations into culturally responsive trauma-informed responses (Blitz, Anderson, & Saastamoinen, 2016) that challenge the multiple ways in which trauma can be reinstated within the school itself.  Next, the authors discuss the role of Professional School Counselors in traumatizing school environments.

Counselors as Mitigates of Trauma in Schools

For many students, schools are not experienced as safe or supportive. As leaders and advocates for student wellbeing, school counselors can play a vital role in shifting the traumatizing culture of schools. Creating safe, supportive learning environments and developing positive relationships with students who have experienced trauma plays a key role in mitigating its effects. Professional School Counselors recognize the value of relationships. The importance of the relationship between Professional School Counselors and students is prime discourse in many counselor training programs, as well as in counseling supervision practice. Often introduced as subject matter early in counselor training programs, Professional School Counselors learn that the quality of the counseling relationship – that is, the relationship between the counselor and the students whom they counsel – is of utmost importance and is central to student growth and development. Thus, Professional School Counselors possess counseling skills to impact change, as well as knowledge of disposition and relationship skills building. These skills uniquely equip Professional School Counselors to act as a safe and caring adult buffer against the damaging impact of trauma in schools. Moreover, when school personnel understand trauma, they are less likely to view trauma-related behaviors as intentional or as stemming from a lack of motivation or laziness. This understanding will reduce punitive types of responses that can re-traumatize students. As advocates and leaders in schools, Professional School Counselors are equipped to serve as advocates for student well-being and leaders of schoolwide training efforts to reduce school-based trauma. Examples of relevant school counseling tasks include:

  • Consultation with school personnel to develop specific strategies, policies, and procedures that do not yield traumatizing outcomes
  • In-service training to educate colleagues on traumatizing school practices
  • Family collaboration to increase school, family, community engagement
  • Individual and group counseling services to assist traumatized students


Students of color and students from working class families are particularly vulnerable to the traumatizing culture of schools. Challenging the narrative that trauma as incidents that occur outside of school, contextually isolated from sociocultural and sociopolitical histories of marginalization is of necessity. Without proper contextualization of trauma-informed programs in schools it is possible that schools can institute trauma. Research on trauma-inducing schooling practices is necessary to inform best practice for school personnel. Furthermore, literature on the subjects of trauma in schools as distinct from school-based intervention for trauma that occurs external to the school environment is needed. Literature that includes case study examples of traumatizing schooling practices can be valuable in illustrating the dynamics of trauma. Finally, an evidenced-based model for recognizing and mitigating trauma in school practices can provide meaningful program development and personnel intervention to alleviate school-based trauma.



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