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The Lesley Institute: Teaching educators to create trauma-sensitive schools 

Learning Differences Programme / Partner story

Photo by Katerina Holmes 

When children and young people have experienced trauma, their ability to learn can be seriously eroded. Trauma affects self-regulation, social skills, and a child’s health and sense of wellbeing. It can also interfere with traditional academic skills that require language, memory, and concentration. This can leave students unable to engage with learning in a conventional school environment. 

A report by the National Survey on Children’s Health found that ‘nearly 47 per cent of all children in the US have experienced at least one adverse childhood experience’ such as abuse, neglect, or witnessing violence.1  Every classroom in America is likely to have at least one child who has experienced trauma. 

Withdrawal, aggression, or learning difficulties are often the result, which can lead to further disconnection and frustrate relationships between teachers and students. Unhelpful suspensions or expulsions from school becomes a pattern. 

But there is an alternative: a whole-school approach, which provides a warm, supportive community enabling students to build respectful relationships, better regulate their emotions and ultimately succeed academically. 

The Lesley Institute for Trauma Sensitivity (LIFTS) promotes the development of safe and supportive educational environments, using trauma-sensitive approaches that help children to learn. It develops practices, tools, and other resources to help teachers and schools who want to become more trauma-sensitive. 

LIFTS researches the impact of trauma on learning, and has used this research to develop a related series of courses designed for education professionals, including teachers, counsellors, and administrators. The courses consider the academic, social, and emotional impacts of trauma – and it provides a structured approach to individual and school-wide interventions. LIFTS also offers a course for educators working with students experiencing systemic racism, and provides coaching for leaders to support schools through the process of change. 

“LIFTS is helping to create safe and supportive classrooms where all children can thrive,” says Patricia Crain de Galarce, director of the Center for Inclusive and Special Education at Lesley University. “When educators put measures in place, children feel safer and understood. From there, learning can begin.” 

The George School is one of several schools in the Massachusetts district of Brockton that have been working to reduce the impact of trauma on children’s learning. Principal Natalie Pohl outlined some of the measures in a recent article. The school community has worked to: 

  • improve information sharing, such as welcome protocols for new students and transition sheets to update teachers for the new school year; 
  • build a wider network of friendships, by pairing younger and older children through buddy systems; and 
  • teach children how to identify and regulate emotions, with calming areas in learning spaces and dedicated rooms for reflection and meditation. 

Thanks to the efforts of schools like the George, Brockton district is now a leader in the trauma-sensitive school movement. 

Since 2010, LIFTS’ programme of courses has grown from a small pilot for educators in one state to a full certification programme that has supported more than 8,000 educators across the United States. The Institute’s research on learning for students with learning differences has informed wider state policy, school system structures, and educator practices. 

Oak has been supporting the Lesley Institute for Trauma Sensitivity since 2010 through our Learning Differences Programme. We work with partners who rethink the ways learning happens for students, and better prepare adults to engage and support all students. Trauma-sensitive schools directly support students with learning differences, regardless of their experience with trauma, because trauma-sensitive schools and classroom wide practices are directly supportive of the learning, emotional, and social needs of students with learning differences. 

[1] Price, O. A. & Ellis, W. (26 February 2018). “Student Trauma Is Widespread. Schools Don’t Have to Go It Alone.” EducationWeek,