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Sunday, June 25, 2017

Training Compassionate Educators to Respond to Childhood Trauma

'Mock House' Hands-On Training Facility
photo courtesy Child Protection Training Center

The following is a guest post by Dr. Jennifer Parker, Program Director of the Child Protection Training Center at the University of South Carolina Upstate in Spartanburg, SC, which provides evidence-based education and training to professionals who work with children.

The Child Protection Training Center focuses on child abuse prevention and earlier detection. One of our primary aims is to reduce the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) in our community and schools through education and experiential training. In 2016, the CPTC launched a Compassionate Schools initiative, based on a flexible framework originally developed in Massachusetts and Washington State.  An overall goal of Compassionate Schools is to provide  some form of this training for all school personnel.

We offer the following guidelines for other communities hoping to cultivate a trauma-sensitive learning environment.

Step 1: Explain the Nature and Prevalence of Trauma

Based on research from the ACEs and Toxic Stress literature, we begin by addressing the following questions:

  • What is trauma?
  • How does it impact learning, behavior and health?
  • How prevalent is it in our students? 
We follow this with experiential trauma-informed learning experiences in a mock house on signs of abuse and significant family issues. A typical scenario presents evidence of polyvictimization including domestic violence, mental illness, substance abuse, and neglect. On average, children who have traumatic experiences have multiple forms of trauma. 

Recognizing and understanding the effects of trauma also includes responsibility to report. We follow our experiential training with mandated reporting responsibilities for South Carolina.

Step 2: Develop Trauma-Sensitive Practices

While the specific practices will vary depending on the background and needs of the individual students, the guiding principle is to focus first on the relationship before addressing the behavior. When we ask a student “what is happening in your life” rather than “what is wrong with you” we begin to establish a relationship and build trust. 

A trauma-informed educator is better equipped to recognize when disruptive behavior is a response to stress and better able to intervene early with methods that promote self-regulation and resilience.  These practices should be applied to all students in your school, not just those with a known history of trauma or abuse.

Step 3: Introduce Evidence-Based Techniques to Build Resilience

These techniques include:

  • mindfulness, 
  • yoga, 
  • calm zones, and 
  • other classroom techniques that help with self-regulation.

We use materials from the curriculum The Heart of Learning and Teaching: Compassion, Resiliency, and Academic Success. (Wolpow, Johnson, Hertel, & Kincaid, 2009).

Step 4: Use Methods to Build Confidence and Self-Efficacy

It’s important to set positive and high expectations for all students, and to provide opportunities for all students to engage in meaningful participation in their classes and school.

Step 5: Acknowledge How Trauma Affects Those Who Care

In any training on working with traumatized children, it’s important to recognize the prevalence of compassion fatigue and vicarious trauma, and to encourage self-care strategies, including the development of healthy boundaries.


We hope the above guidelines help you to train educators and other helping professionals in your community to recognize signs of childhood trauma and provide a nurturing environment for kids and the adults who care about them.

You can find more information about the types of trainings offered by the Child Protection Training Center at


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