Special education teachers have had a long-term disparity in the number of students with special needs and teachers who can support those students (Boa, 2016). McLeskey et al. (2016) describe the magnitude of the shortages as very profound across the United States. Special education teachers who work with students who have emotional and behavioral disabilities (EBD) are among the teaching fields with some of the most significant shortages nationally. Factors such as student enrollment, teacher case-load, and teacher attrition are often considered the primary determinants of teachers being willing to help meet this shortfall’s needs.

Many diverse factors contribute to whether teachers are likely to leave their special education teaching positions or stay with them. Teachers with more employment opportunities are more likely to depart. Often teachers leave for reasons that are not related to work. The level of education and certification status also acts as a factor, where the more prepared a teacher is, the less likely they are to quit. Factors such as salary, decision-making power, administrative support, school climate, and job design also play a part in teachers continuing as special education teachers (McLeskey et al., 2016).

School administrators play an essential role in supporting working conditions for teachers of students with EBD. This improvement in working conditions helps keep more EBD teachers in their roles. Cancio et al. (2013) offer areas that admin should focus on to help retain teachers, including (a) induction and mentoring programs, (b) outside resources and support, (c) professional development opportunities, (d) staff acknowledgment, (e) and availability of resources.

The connection between Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) and various aspects of our life is a field that has been highly focused on and studied since Felitti et al. (1998) published their landmark study. The study of ACEs has created many other studies and has made impacts in both private community organizations and public agencies across the United States. Verbitsky-Savitz et al. (2016) offer a report describing the community impact of ACEs in public-private initiatives across multiple sites. Burke et al. (2011) report on the effect ACES has on learning and behavior in a K-12 educational setting.

Trauma-informed systems and ways of addressing trauma in various settings are being designed and implemented. Bloom and Sreedhar (2008) offer the sanctuary model as a system mostly focused on social service agencies and looking at the organizational design. Focus on best practices and practical methods for developing school-based systems that are trauma-informed. Last year there were two books published by school focused organizations focused on offering assistance to teachers, administrators, and school-based social workers to implement trauma-informed practices at school (Berardi & Morton, 2019; Dombo & Sabatino, 2019).

Bethell et al. (2017) find that students with developmental disabilities and EBD have an increased likelihood of having at least one ACE. The United States Substance abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMSA) has developed a concept of trauma and offered guidance for a trauma-informed approach. Trauma and Justice Strategic Initiative (2014), which comes out of SAMSA, describe the following as roles for organizations:

  1. Realizes the widespread impact of trauma and understands potential paths for recovery;
  2. Recognizes the signs and symptoms of trauma in the clients, families, staff, and others involved with the system;
  3. Responds by fully integrating knowledge about trauma into policies, procedures, and practices; and
  4. Seeks to resist re-traumatization actively

The necessary response to the trauma has been defined for school-based settings. Pickens and Tschopp (2017) describe that it

integrates practices that support student and teacher awareness of emotional triggers. These triggers contribute to escalated interactions, but a trauma-informed approach creates proactive measures for addressing these experiences before, during, and after they have occurred—with the ultimate goal of creating a physically and psychologically safe classroom for everyone (p. 10).

Special education teachers can experience a significant amount of compassion fatigue. When they do, they lose the motivation to teach or devalue their work with students (Andrews & Brown, 2015). Cavanaugh (2016) encourages school staff to maintain an awareness of their internal emotional state and practice emotional self-monitoring.

Joinson (1992) first described compassion fatigue for persons working in a care-giving profession as a distinct form of burnout. Hoffman et al. (2007) connect the concept of compassion fatigue to understand burnout among special education teachers. Through a qualitative evaluation, they found that teachers who were experiencing compassion fatigue related to themes of loss of control, responsibility, and empathy. Valent (2013) describes the impact that helpers feel when they cannot help those, they work with obtain their goals. Along with Hoffman et al. (2007) components, they often feel frustration, impotence, diminishing morale, and an increase in deliberate efforts along with failure to achieve goals.

Figley (1995) compared compassion fatigue to secondary traumatic stress disorder (STSD). The promotion of STSD took place at just prior to the transition of Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) DSM-III to the DSM-IV. Figley argued for a shift of only focusing on the primary trauma described as posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) to the inclusion of STSD as another diagnosable disorder. This was not included in the DSM-IV-TR or the more recently released fifth version (DSM-5). This most recent edition of the DSM did create significant changes to the understanding of PTSD. The clustering of symptoms for PTSD must fall in the following four areas (1) re-experiencing the event, (2) heightened arousal, (3) avoidance, (4) negative thoughts and mood, or feelings (American Psychiatric Association, 2013).


American Psychiatric Association (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders: DSM-5 (5th ed). American Psychiatric Association.

Andrews, A., & Brown, J. L. (2015). Discrepancies in the Ideal Perceptions and the Current Experiences of Special Education Teachers. Journal of Education and Training Studies, 3(6), 126-131. https://doi.org/10.11114/jets.v3i6.984

Berardi, A. A., Morton, B. M., (2019). Trauma-informed school practices: Building expertise to transform schools. George Fox University

Bethell, C. D., Davis, M. B., Gombojav, N., Stumbo, S., & Powers, K. (2017). Issue brief: A national and across state profile on adverse childhood experiences among children and possibilities to heal and thrive. Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. http://www.changeimpact.net/uploads/1/0/2/1/102192352/ti.aces_issue_brief-_oct_2017.pdf

Bloom, S. L., & Sreedhar, S. Y. (2008). The Sanctuary Model of Trauma-Informed Organizational Change. Reclaiming Children and Youth, 17(3), 48-53.

Boe, E. E. (2016). Long-term trends in the national demand, supply, and shortage of special education teachers. The Journal of Special Education. https://doi.org/10.1177/00224669060400030201

Burke, N. J., Hellman, J. L., Scott, B. G., Weems, C. F., & Carrion, V. G. (2011). The impact of adverse childhood experiences on an urban pediatric population. Child Abuse & Neglect, 35(6), 408-413. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.chiabu.2011.02.006

Cancio, E. J., Albrecht, S. F., & Johns, B. H. (2013). Combating the attrition of teachers of students With EBD: What can administrators do? Intervention in School and Clinic. https://doi.org/10.1177/1053451213513953

Cavanaugh, B. (2016). Trauma-informed classrooms and schools. Beyond Behavior, 25(2), 41-46. https://doi.org/10.1177/107429561602500206

Dombo, E. A., & Sabatino, C. A. (2019). Creating trauma-informed schools: A guide for school social workers and educators. Oxford University Press.

Felitti, V. J., Anda, R. F., Nordenberg, D., Williamson, D. F., Spitz, A. M., Edwards, V., Koss, M. P., & Marks, J. S. (1998). Relationship of Childhood Abuse and Household Dysfunction to Many of the Leading Causes of Death in Adults. American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 14(4), 245-258. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0749-3797(98)00017-8

Figley, C. R. (1995). Chapter 1 - Compassion fatigue as secondary traumatic stress disorder: An Overview. In C. R. Figley (Ed.), Compassion fatigue: Coping with secondary traumatic stress disorder in those who treat the traumatized (pp. 1-20). Brunner/Mazel.

Hoffman, S., Palladino, J. M., & Barnett, J. (2007). Compassion fatigue as a theoretical framework to help understand burnout among special education teachers. Journal of Ethnographic & Qualitative Research, 2(1), 15-22.

Joinson, C. (1992). Coping with compassion fatigue. Nursing, 22(4), 116, 118-119, 120.

McLeskey, J., Tyler, N. C., & Flippin, S. S. (2016). The supply of and demand for special education teachers: A review of research regarding the chronic shortage of special education teachers. The Journal of Special Education. https://doi.org/10.1177/00224669040380010201

Pickens, I. B., & Tschopp, N. (2017). Trauma-informed classrooms (p. 32). National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges. https://www.ncjfcj.org/publications/trauma-informed-classrooms/

Trauma and Justice Strategic Initiative. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Department of Health & Human Services. The United States. (2014). SAMHSA’s concept of trauma and guidance for a trauma-informed approach. https://store.samhsa.gov/system/files/sma14-4884.pdf

Valent, P. (2013). Chapter 1 - Diagnosis and treatment of helper stresses, traumas, and illnesses. In C. R. Figley (Ed.), Treating Compassion Fatigue (pp. 17-38). Brunner-Routledge. http://public.eblib.com/choice/publicfullrecord.aspx?p=1138596

Verbitsky-Savitz, N., Hargreaves, M. B., Penoyer, S., Morales, N., Coffee-Borden, B., & Whitesell, E. (2016). Preventing and Mitigating the Effects of ACEs by Building Community Capacity and Resilience: APPI Cross-Site Evaluation Findings (p. 134). Mathematica Policy Research. https://www.mathematica.org/our-publications-and-findings/publications/final-report-preventing-and-mitigating-the-effects-of-aces-by-building-community-capacity

Author Note

The following essay was originally posted as a paper for TSD 6526 - Ecology of Ideas as a part of my Ph.D. Studies in Transformative Studies at the California Institute of Integral Studies.