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Trauma Informed or Trauma Responsive?

by Dr. Barbara Sorrels

In recent years, trauma “informed” education has become a buzzword in education. Typically, this means that educators know something about the Adverse Childhood Experiences study and the concept of “mindfulness.”  Though the ACE study and mindfulness are important aspects of a trauma responsive school, this barely scratches the surface in understanding children with a history of trauma and their functioning in the classroom.

It is time that we move beyond being merely trauma “informed” to becoming trauma “responsive.”  To be truly trauma responsive we need to be knowledgeable of the

disruption that trauma causes in healthy development of children.  Trauma is a multisystem failure of brain development and the attachment, regulatory, sensory processing, social and cognitive systems.   Trauma is more about what DOESN’T happen in the life of the child as much as it is about what happens TO a child.

Trauma disrupts brain development which in turn effects learning, behavior and thinking.  Trauma distorts children’s perception of relationships, causing them to approach the world as if they are living in a shark tank or living alone as an island unto themselves.  Trauma recalibrates the regulatory system, undermining a child’s capacity to control their behavior, emotions and thinking. Trauma interferes with the integration of the sensory system which in turn disrupts children’s capacity to focus on what is important and ignore the unimportant.  Trauma undermines a child capacity to be a friend and make a friend. Trauma distorts important cognitive process that compromise short term memory, information processing, language development and the ability to use symbols, among many other functions important to learning.

According to Dr. Bruce Perry, international expert in trauma and children, the achievement gap is a trauma gap.  Historically, the field of education has attributed the achievement gap to poverty. It is much bigger than just poverty.   It is trauma. In order to be trauma “responsive” and not just trauma informed, it is imperative that teachers and administrators be knowledgeable in child development and developmental processes of children.

Thanks to the misguided efforts of school improvement, child development has been left out of the conversation regarding educational reform.  It isn’t about the next new slick and glossy curriculum. Improving education and school performance is about understanding children and developmental processes.  My hope is that the current challenges we are facing in education with regard to trauma will force us to return to a deep knowledge of child development. This is our starting point for becoming “trauma responsive” rather than merely “trauma informed.”


The Gesell Institute Series on Child Development by Illg and Ames

Creating Schools that Heal by L. Koplow

Reaching and Teaching Children Exposed to Trauma by B. Sorrels

Reaching and Teaching Children Who Hurt by S. Craig

Brainstorm by D. Siegel

The Importance of Being Little by E. Christakis

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