Toward More Compassionate Schools

Letter from the Executive Director

As the nation rolls out the high academic standards called for in the Common Core, it is important to pause and consider the other half of the “pyramid” – are kids getting the necessary supports to manage their own behavior?

As TASH members, this question immediately brings to mind Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports. Many TASH members are well versed in PBIS – some of our members conduct research in PBIS, some teach it, some use it on a daily basis. It’s part of our overall approach to how we support people.

But is it enough? What do we know about chronic stress? What are the environments our students and adults live in? What does stress have to do with behavior? Why are so many children and adults with significant disabilities living with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder?

The e-newsletter, ACES Too High1-2, offers this perspective:

Kids who are experiencing the toxic stress of severe and chronic trauma just can’t learn. It’s physiologically impossible.

In the general school population, there is growing understanding that in every community, a percentage of students live with chronic, toxic stress. The severe negative impact of childhood stress on long term health and social outcomes was first documented in the Adverse Childhood Experiences Study ( conducted in 1995-1997, with multiple studies following.  The impact of childhood stress on the ability to learn and prepare for productive adult life is devastating.  The neurological structure of the developing brain even changes. To more readily meet the needs of students, a growing number of schools are incorporating a trauma-informed approach to transform school culture.

TASH is a committed partner of the National Center on Trauma Informed Care3 (NCTIC: This valuable national center, funded by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, works to create trauma-informed systems and approaches in all human services environments, including schools.

Since TASH has become involved with NCTIC, we’ve arrived at these observations about TIC and PBIS:

    • these are two complimentary practices;
    • trauma informed care assumes (as the “least dangerous” assumption) that a traumatic experience is behind most behavioral (especially violent) outbursts — and with this assumption, calls on staff to manage such behaviors very differently, not with harsh discipline, but by first by asking “what’s wrong?”
    • trauma is a very individualized experience; students with intellectual and developmental disabilities (I/DD), for example, by virtue of the ways disabilities manifest might be traumatized by experiences that do not traumatize other students. And, if they don’t come to school with a trauma history, they may experience trauma in school — from bullying, from harsh discipline, such as restraint and seclusion (see and join the Campaign!), and other violent experiences. Individuals with I/DD are also much more likely to experience assault – sexual and otherwise – than their peers. And, we must consider that the experience of segregation is traumatizing. In the words of Peyton Goddard, from the book I Am Intelligent:4-5

Bitten by the beast of separation, resolved I became
To never being included in the real world.
My yells for a just peace wallowed.
Segregation denied me reaping a potent education.
Accommodations and true support were absent.
Segregation denied me desired friendships.
Each day I typically wished a death to the regulated existence in
Which a culture fearing differences re-proposed day by
verified day to tepidly control me.
Joy was a word lost. Hope I filed as a barren cause.

  • TIC acknowledges that many adults working in schools are also trauma survivors, and that certain episodes (such as a violent outburst from a student) may be re-traumatizing, causing them to over-react to student behaviors in dangerous, counterproductive ways. This knowledge may help schools determine staffing strategies and professional development needs.
  • TIC is culturally responsive — parents and professionals who come from communities where strict discipline may be acceptable can recognize the impact trauma may have on a student and be taught to respond in a trauma-informed way. Last week, for example, I talked with an assistant principal from a pretty tough high school, who is skeptical about other approaches, but TIC immediately resonated with her.

As we work toward a future when rigorous academic instruction is available to many more students with I/DD, it is critical that we acknowledge the importance of responding to students in compassionate ways – understanding that students are naturally inclined to please adults, to do well, and to succeed. We are committed by our values to understand that behavior has a purpose – and we know through our knowledge of evidence-based practices that technologies available through PBIS have done much to transform school culture for all students. With this additional understanding – the physiological impossibility of learning until trauma symptoms are recognized and well managed – we can create school cultures that are safe and nurturing for all students. Peyton makes this case much more effectively than I:

Yell it from the mountaintop that when all people are valued and
Supported surely, the world can change.

Barb Trader
Executive Director, TASH


  1. Jestevens. (31 May 2013). Massachusetts, Washington State lead U.S. trauma-sensitive school movement. ACES Too High.  Retrieved from:
  2. Jestevens. (23 April 2013). Lincoln High School in Walla Walla, WA, tries new approach to school discipline — suspensions drop 85. ACES Too High.  Retrieved from:
  3. To learn more about Trauma Informed Care and its application to schools, please visit The National Center on Trauma Informed Care,
  4. Goddard, P. and Goddard, D. (2012). I am intelligent. Guilford, CT: Globe Pequot Press.
  5. I Am Intelligent, by Peyton and Dianne Goddard, can be purchased at