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Embedding Culturally Responsive Practices into Trauma-Informed Schools

July 14, 2021

SRI International
   Jenna Rush, REL Appalachia

Health worker offers her consolement

Recent national events have catalyzed and amplified conversations around systemic racism in our country. Racial trauma—the mental and emotional injury caused by encounters with racial bias and discrimination—can occur as a result of experiencing explicit and implicit acts of racism.1 Although school leaders and educators may have little control over much of the trauma students experience, they can take concrete steps to identify and dismantle racist practices that may exist within schools and contribute to student racial trauma. Educators can provide culturally responsive, trauma-informed supports that respect and value students' cultures.

The virtual 2021 Creating Trauma-Sensitive Schools Conference, hosted by the Attachment and Trauma Network, offered sessions designed to guide educators as they identify school policies and practices that contribute to student racial trauma and provide strategies for creating inclusive classrooms and school systems. Throughout the conference, speakers focused on the dangerously powerful effects of racial and historical trauma on students and families, arguing that trauma-informed school practices cannot be developed and implemented separately from efforts to make schools more culturally responsive.

The intersection of historical and racial trauma

Historical trauma, or multigenerational trauma experienced by specific racial, ethnic, or cultural groups over time, can affect students' sense of safety and identity, leading to maladaptive, or negative, coping strategies that are passed down through generations. 2, 3 Maladaptive strategies, such as avoidance of stressful situations, may provide temporary relief, but do not address root causes of trauma. For example, American Indians have been subject to cycles of genocide and disenfranchisement for generations. Responses to this trauma include depression, low self-esteem, and anger, which often lead to self-destructive behavior, substance abuse, and domestic violence.4 Children can experience trauma due to these behaviors in their parents, perpetuating the cycle of historical trauma. Racial trauma, trauma that has roots in historical acts as well as current experiences, can be particularly harmful and insidious to student's development because it is directly tied to how children perceive themselves in relation to others. Similar to historical trauma, experiences of racial trauma can also manifest in symptoms such as depression, anger, physical reactions (such as headaches and trouble sleeping), low self-esteem, and withdrawal from situations.

For students of color, particularly Black students, experiences in school may contribute to racial trauma and exacerbate historical trauma. Conference presenters highlighted school practices and policies, such as zero tolerance policies and curricula that is disconnected from students' experiences, that may contribute to ongoing student racial trauma. 5, 6, 7, 8 Each speaker challenged educators to help break the cycle of historical and racial trauma by identifying school-level structures that harm students of color and implementing more culturally responsive practices.

Strategies to build culturally responsive trauma-informed schools

A trauma-informed framework recognizes the prevalence of trauma, including historical and racial trauma, in students and the impact of trauma on student development. 9 Trauma-informed schools provide schoolwide and targeted supports to promote student healing and avoid re-traumatization. Culturally responsive schools respect and value students' cultural, ethnic, and racial identities by deliberately encouraging an understanding of historical contexts and issues of power and privilege for both staff and students. Many trauma-informed approaches in schools do not explicitly examine harmful structures and practices that exist within schools, which can perpetuate the cycle of racial and historical trauma. Conference presenters called for a merging of trauma-informed practices and culturally responsive practices to help schools provide support that allows all students to see an asset-based, positive representation of themselves and their cultures. 10, 11, 12, 13 Educators can use the following strategies as a starting point to embed culturally responsive practices into trauma-informed school systems for enduring and meaningful change:
  • Build healthy relationships between students and adults: Educators can build relationships with students by learning about their hobbies and interests through morning meetings and regular check-ins, and by making personal connections to student interests in academic projects. By providing students a safe space to share about their lives, educators, as well-positioned, caring adults, can learn more about the unique contexts and needs of each student. 14
  • Develop culturally responsive curriculum and instruction and corresponding professional development: By anchoring lessons in texts and examples that are culturally relevant to students' lived experiences, students will be able to see themselves reflected in the curriculum and draw connections to their families and communities, 15 which sends a message that their stories are valued and worth telling. Schools and districts can provide professional development on culturally responsive practices and provide space for staff to understand and address their own unconscious biases about students. 16
  • Examine and reduce exclusionary discipline practices: Black students are more likely than White students to experience harsher disciplinary policies in schools, such as suspensions and expulsions. 17 Suspensions and expulsions are also commonly assigned for minor infractions that do not pose a direct threat to the safety of others, such as insubordination and obscene gestures. 18 These types of exclusionary discipline practices can be harmful to students, leaving students disconnected from instructional experiences. Exclusionary discipline typically fails to address root causes of behavior, which may stem from traumatic experiences 19 or an adult's misunderstanding of cultural norms. 20 Educators can shift from punishment to a behavioral response, asking students, “What is in your way?” and “How can I help?” 21 This approach signals a recognition of systemic barriers impacting student behavior, rather than messaging that the student is the problem.

Collective ownership in addressing trauma

Culturally responsive trauma-informed strategies can promote feelings of safety and support for students, which is critical for learning. Educators all play a role in re-examining instructional practices, policies, and procedures to ensure classrooms and school systems are safe for all students and respect their culture and values. Part of this re-examination includes a recognition of school staff members' own culture, identity, and privilege, and the critically supportive role educators can play for their students. Without this re-examination, school systems may continue to perpetuate historical and racial trauma that many students of color experience. By embedding culturally responsive practices into schools, dismantling racist practices, and properly and comprehensively supporting students impacted by trauma, educators can begin to break the cycle of historical and racial trauma.

Resources for ongoing learning



1 I. Cockhren (2021), The state of the black child. Creating Trauma Sensitive Schools Conference, February 15–18, 2021, Virtual.

2 Cockhren, 2021.

3 Administration for Children and Families (n.d.), Trauma. Administration for Children and Families. https://www.acf.

4 Yellow Horse Brave Heart, M (2013), Conversations about Historical Trauma: Part 1. The National Child Traumatic Stress Network. historical_trauma_part_one.pdf

5 Cockhren, 2021.

6 Venet, 2021.

7 E. Meeks, E & T. Tomas (2021), The 4Rs of culturally responsive teaching. Creating Trauma Sensitive Schools Conference, February 15–18, 2021, Virtual.

8 M. Sadin (2021), The intersection where culturally competent and trauma-informed schools meet. Creating Trauma Sensitive Schools Conference, February 15–18, 2021, Virtual.

9 Sadin, 2021.

10 Cockhren, 2021.

11 Meeks & Tomas, 2021.

12 Sadin, 2021.

13 Venet, 2021.

14 Sadin, 2021.

15 Meeks & Tomas, 2021.

16 Venet, 2021.

17 Cockhren, 2021.

18 V. Nishioka, D. Stevens, D. Deutschlander, A. Burke, B. Merrill, & A. Aylward (2020). Are state policy reforms in Oregon associated with fewer school suspensions and expulsions? (REL 2020–036). U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance, Regional Educational Laboratory Northwest.

19 Sadin, 2021.

20 V. Nishioka, D. Stevens, D. Deutschlander, A. Burke, B. Merrill, & A. Aylward (2020).

21 Sadin, 2021.