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Creating a Safe and Supportive School: The George School Journey toward Trauma Sensitivity

What does it mean for a school community to become trauma sensitive? Natalie Pohl, a principal in Brockton, Massachusetts, shares how the school she leads has developed methods that help the entire school community respond effectively to trauma.

For the past 10 years, Brockton Public Schools, in Massachusetts, has been working toward being a district that sees, understands, and finds ways to lessen the significant impacts of trauma on children's learning.

The district partnered with the Lesley Institute for Trauma Sensitivity (LIFTS) and the Trauma and Learning Policy Initiative (TLPI) to help faculty and staff understand what it takes for a school to be truly trauma-sensitive. Because when educators put measures into place, children feel safer and understood, and learning improves. LIFTS director Sal Terrasi, then working in the Brockton schools, was a major influence on the project.

Now, the district is a leader in the trauma-sensitive school movement.

One Brockton School's Journey

Natalie Pohl, principal of Brockton's George School and a district educator for more than 20 years, has seen many of the ways trauma interferes with student learning. At a Lesley event in January 2020, she spoke to a group of educators about how her school has become more trauma-sensitive.

Student body at the George School in front of the school with sign Brockton Kids Count
The George School is highly diverse. Of its nearly 1,000 students, 43% are African American, 45% Hispanic, 55% speak a first language other than English, 65% are economically disadvantaged, and 80% are high needs students. The school has 125 staff and 42 classrooms.


As at any school, many George School students may have experienced trauma from illness or death in their family, a caretaker’s job or income loss, domestic abuse, neglect, or a variety of other causes. Students affected by these circumstances may find it emotionally challenging to conform to the conventions of school and be ready for learning.

The George School embarked on a five-year project, part of their strategic plan, to develop methods and resources that help the entire school community to respond effectively to trauma. To carry out this goal, the school participated in ongoing professional development with LIFTS and TLPI, established a safe and supportive school (S3) team, and created an action plan with three objectives.

Objective 1: Improve information sharing.

The school took these steps to share information among George School staff—within legal and ethical limits—regarding students who have experienced trauma.

  • Red envelopes (or pieces of paper)
    The principal distributes these to relevant teachers so they know about issues that have the potential to affect a student’s social and emotional wellbeing. This process, in use for five years now, is an effective tool for improving information flow.
  • Communication binders
    Each classroom has a red communication binder with vital information—such as schedule, class list, emergency procedures, classroom routines, and student services. This is especially helpful for support staff, specialists, or substitute teachers who may be coming into the classroom. It provides consistent and predictable routines that benefit all students, but especially students who may have experienced trauma.
  • Transition sheet
    The current teacher uses the sheet to inform the next year’s teacher about information related to each student, such as strengths, interests, academic levels, services, interventions, or special needs related to trauma.
  • Welcome protocol for new students
    A recent addition to the school, the protocol features a building tour and steps to ensure that all students feel welcomed into the school community.

Objective 2: Build a collaborative culture among staff.

To better serve the students, the school developed the following tools:

  • Vertical teams
    These include teachers and support staff from different grades to encourage information sharing about students affected by trauma.
  • All-staff bulletin board
    A simple but effective board that builds school community and increases staff communication.
  • Morning newsletter
    A daily newsletter with events, initiatives, school photographs, updates, and reminders, all to increase communication.
  • Thankful Thoughts
    Staff members write brief messages about gratefulness and leave them in a centrally located box. The principal selects two messages per week and shares them with the school community through the newsletter and the daily morning announcement.
  • Breakfast Buddies
    Students from different grades sit together at breakfast and teachers provide ice-breakers to start conversations. The pairing of older and younger students encourages a wider range of friendships to develop. And in the schoolyard, students can sit on the “Buddy Bench” if they’re looking for a playmate.

Objective 3: Teach students how to identify their emotions and make use of regulating strategies.

The tools for this objective include:

  • Zones of regulation
    Through this cognitive behavioral curriculum, students correlate colors with different emotional states. This helps students recognize emotional triggers, understand social context, and get a better sense of how their behavior affects others. 
  • Calming areas in learning spaces
    Two years ago, the George School introduced such areas in each classroom and student-serving office. Here, students can make use of helpful procedures and sensory tools to regulate their emotions and get back to learning.
  • Dedicated practice rooms for students
    Examples include a Reflection Room equipped with sensory tools and information on emotional wellbeing, and a Tranquility Room for quiet and meditation.

Related to this objective, the George School has adopted the MindUP program, which empowers children through mindfulness practice—a strategy based in neuroscience. The research connected to this program engaged four George School teachers in 2016 and a year later, 25 teachers participated.

Advice for other schools that would like to adopt trauma-sensitive practices: 

  • Establish a cross-school committee to develop an action plan. Unless people buy in from all sectors of the school, the plan won’t be fully effective.
  • “Small is the new big." Be open to adopting seemingly small tools or methods that can have a big impact.
  • Consider that what works for one school might not work for another. Find out what your school needs and adapt to fit.
  • Develop stronger relationships with students and families, and connect families to community resources.
  • Create resources for teacher/staff self-care, such as drop-in yoga classes.

Throughout this process, refer to the Trauma-Sensitive Vision Questions on page 10 of the “Trauma Sensitive Schools Descriptive Study, Final Report (PDF)."

Become Part of the Trauma-Sensitive School Movement

To start your school or district on its own trauma-sensitive journey, contact Lesley's Institute for Trauma Sensitivity. We offer executive coaching, resources, and courses on trauma that can lead to a Graduate Certificate in Trauma and Learning. We'll work with you to co-construct a plan of action that fits your community's needs. We need more trauma-sensitive schools, particularly now. Join the movement.

Contact Us

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