4 tips for creating a 'trauma-sensitive' school

Headteacher Linsey Hay and Hazel Russell, of Barnardo’s Scotland, explain how to create trauma-sensitive environments

Trauma-informed education: Four tips for creating a 'trauma-sensitive' school

The term “trauma-sensitive” can be genuinely confusing for teachers, so we try to make the phrase more relatable. We would say it’s part of a “relational approach” (as opposed to a behavioural approach).

What this means is not being presumptuous; not assuming that everyone comes to school ready to learn; being interested in a person’s experiences; caring what has happened to someone; and being genuinely interested in helping people.

In short, building real relationships and connections.


Long read:  How one Scottish school’s "positive behaviour" policy helped tackle bullying

Expert view: How should schools respond to childhood trauma?

Quick read: 'Trauma-informed teaching matters – but so do rules'


When you think of all the policies and legislation out there on to do this, the sheer amount of information can be daunting. Ultimately, however, we believe the fundamentals are the same everywhere: making a connection and appreciating an individual’s experience.

Responding to childhood trauma

Here are our four tips for creating a trauma-sensitive school, based on steps taken at Craigton Primary in Glasgow.

1. Prioritise health and wellbeing

Linsey Hay, headteacher of Craigton Primary: Our school curriculum has health and wellbeing as the top priority. Teachers, senior leadership, clerical staff and support-for-learning workers all have a shared understanding and vision of this being the most important aspect of school life. Our first job is to ensure that our children feel safe, and are socially and emotionally ready to learn.

Supporting staff health and wellbeing is also key to ensuring that the school community can support our young people. A weekly check-in for staff on a Monday to gauge their feelings helps me to know how to support them, and, of course, leaving compliments on staff desks (with a bar of chocolate) always makes people feel better about themselves – and, in turn, better able to support our young people

2. Replace your behaviour policies with a relationship policy

Hazel Russell, a team manager for Barnardo’s Scotland: At Barnardo’s Scotland we understand that children who have experienced trauma, adversity and disadvantage can experience high levels of stress, which can impact directly on emotional and cognitive development and on children’s capacity to learn. We help schools to move away from more punitive behaviour policies and toward holistic relationship policies, which acknowledge that all behaviour is communication, and relationships are at the heart of understanding what is being communicated.

3. Promote social and emotional learning across your whole school

Hazel: Social and emotional learning is a child’s ability to understand the feelings of others, control his or her own feelings and behaviours, get along with other children, and build relationships with adults. At Barnardo’s we know how important it is to embed these skills from the earliest age, taking a whole-school approach. It's fundamental that these skills are built on the foundation of a safe environment and supportive relationships.

Linsey: One initiative means that you can now hear compliments being given and graciously received throughout the school day. Our pupil committee introduced a box and wall where children and staff give compliments and the committee display these, then present you with the handwritten compliment.

Getting a written compliment makes everyone feel extra special, especially amid the daily bustle of a busy primary school.

4. Use ‘time-outs-to-think’ instead of detentions

Linsey: We moved away from detention being a punitive consequence for not keeping our school values to a “time out to think" a couple of years back. Young people now have a reflection time if they have already had three restorative conversations and are still struggling to cope. Reflection time takes place with a member of senior leadership after communication with the parent or carer has taken place. During reflection time, a record is kept of how feelings and relationships have been affected and how these can be restored.

Linsey Hay is headteacher at Craigton Primary in Glasgow and Hazel Russell is a team manager for Barnardo’s Scotland’s

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