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Trauma-Informed Care in Student Counseling


Educational institutions have become increasingly attuned to the ways trauma shapes the lives of their students, families and staff. A mental health professional who graduates with a Master of Education in Counseling & Development – Professional School Counseling online will have the skills necessary to identify trauma and help mitigate its effects within the lives of students.

At its core, a trauma-informed approach in education acknowledges the pervasive effects of trauma and fosters an environment of healing rather than engaging in practices that could inadvertently retraumatize. It shifts an institution’s line of questioning from “What is wrong with this person?” to “What has happened to this person?” At its best, trauma-informed care aids in an individual or group’s healing process.

What Is Trauma?

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) defines student trauma through the framework of “the three Es”: events, experience and effects.

Events refer to instances of physical or psychological harm, severe neglect or the serious threat thereof, which can occur as acute instances or repeatedly during a period of time. (The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders [DSM-5] requires all conditions known as “trauma or stressor-related disorders” to result from a traumatic or stressful event as diagnostic criteria.)

Experience refers to how an individual perceives and labels such events. An event considered traumatic by one person might not have the same impact on another. How a student assigns meaning to an event determines whether it is indeed traumatic for that student; events that cause severe distress, disruption, guilt, shame, questioning and loss of trust are often perceived as traumatic. Power dynamics between individuals — where one person has power over another — often inform trauma.

Effects refer to the enduring legacy of events and experiences. Long-lasting, adverse effects are almost always a part of trauma; these effects may manifest immediately or develop slowly after a traumatic experience. Effects can be wide-ranging, with implications for behavior, interpersonal relationships, coping, cognition, memory and more.

Counselors, teachers and educational staff must recognize that the environment in which trauma is addressed or treated affects outcomes. Trauma-informed care should be considered essential as schools and other institutions encounter families in which trauma has occurred.

Trauma-Informed Care in Education

More educational institutions have adopted trauma-informed approaches to support and help heal students who experience trauma. Trauma-informed care assumes that it is more likely than not that an individual has experienced trauma at some point. This experience is likely to shape a person’s behavior, cognition, and relationships — in and out of the classroom. This is part of a school’s holistic understanding and support of students and their families.

The Institute on Trauma and Trauma-Informed Care has identified five guiding principles of trauma-informed care: safety, choice, collaboration, trustworthiness and empowerment. Adhering to these five tenets helps ensure a student is not retraumatized in an educational institution and aids in their healing process. The principles begin with assuring the student’s physical safety. Once a student is secure, a school can guarantee that an individual has a degree of choice, control and agency over decisions that affect them; then move on to further principles that culminate in feelings of empowerment and affirmation.

Benefits of a Trauma-Informed Approach

Not only does a trauma-informed approach reduce the chance that interactions with an institution will retraumatize a person, but the approach also begins the healing process. The Center for Health Care Strategies notes that trauma-informed care can improve patient or student outcomes — with added benefits for staff attending to that person as well.

Students who have experienced trauma may find it difficult to trust and open up to teachers, counselors, or other figures. Using the guiding principles of trauma-informed care can help bridge these gaps, resulting in more productive relationships between students and teachers or counselors that ultimately foster healing.

Trauma’s effects can also place a heavy burden on families and communities. Recognizing the gravity of such effects — both on an individual and a group — can help institutions like schools better serve their communities. Trauma-informed care opens an array of possibilities: Schools and other institutions can function as sites of repair, safety and empowerment for students.

Learn more about Lamar University’s Master of Education in Counseling & Development – Professional School Counseling online program.


Center for Health Care Strategies: What is Trauma-Informed Care?

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration: SAMHSA’s Concept of Trauma and Guidance for a Trauma-Informed Approach

Treatment and Services Adaptation Center: What Is a Trauma-Informed School?

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