Professional Learning Communities as a Vehicle for Implementing Trauma-informed Schools

Creating a Professional Learning Community (PLC) focusing on moving beyond academic and curriculum needs is not a new concept. It is a less common path for implementing Social-Emotional Learning (SEL, Blanton & Perez, 2011), but there has been a lack of examples of it being used to support the development and implementation a trauma-informed classroom or school setting (Dombo & Sabatino, 2019). Finding strategies to address trauma in schools is crucial in our current times. There have never been more strategies and focus on implementing a trauma-informed perspective. This literature review will examine what trauma is, the impacts trauma has on children, the current movement towards trauma-informed schools, and the roles that PLCs play in their school communities preparing teachers for implementing social-emotional learning.

What is Trauma and Its Impact on Children

In 1996, Harvey described urban violence as a type of ecological threat to a community’s ability to provide a haven for its members and related it as analogous to “acid rain.” Urban violence is a category of trauma that impacts both individuals and the communities in which they are prevalent. Many terms describe the various facets of trauma. These include adverse childhood experiences (ACEs, Felitti et al. 1998; Anda et al., 2006), toxic stress (Shonkoff et al., 2012; Franke, 2014), and chronic stress (Evans & Kim, 2012). The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s (SAMHSA) Trauma and Justice Strategic Initiative (2014) define

Individual trauma results from an event, series of events, or set of circumstances that is experienced by an individual as physically or emotionally harmful or life-threatening and that has lasting adverse effects on the individual’s functioning and mental, physical, social, emotional, or spiritual well-being (p. 7).

I am using this definition to embody this paper’s interpretation of trauma. This definition is more inclusive than a more clinical definition, such as only persons who qualify for the diagnostic criteria for Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) or another of the trauma- and stressor-related disorders. The American Psychiatric Association (APA, 2013) includes the following diagnosis in this category: reactive attachment disorder, disinhibited social engagement disorder, posttraumatic stress disorder, acute stress disorder, and adjustment disorders. SAMHSA’s definition is inclusive enough to provide the context necessary to understand trauma from a broad set of needs, without having a clinical understanding. Trauma is prevalent for school-age children in the United States. Perfect et al. (2016) describes in a classroom of 30 students; it is reasonable to expect that 15-20 have exposure to some form of a traumatic event.

Dombo and Sabatino (2019) report exposure to traumatic events can have reactions that impact the child differently. The spectrum of responses varies on severity and duration of effects (see also APA, 2013; Bethell et al., 2014; Evans & Kim, 2012). Trauma can potentially impact the biology, psychology, behavior, social, and spiritual aspects of the survivor’s life. These impacts also are translated into academic concerns and impacted learning. Student’s resilience can mitigate the effects of trauma (Harvey, 1996; Bethell et al., 2014; Perfect et al., 2016; Gonzalez et al., 2016). One method of reducing the impact of trauma is by offering services through a trauma-informed lens.

Trauma-Informed Schools as a Lens

Harris and Fallot (2001) first coined the term trauma-informed services. Projects such as the sanctuary model were early programs looking at implementing a trauma-informed model (Bloom & Sreedhar, 2008). Dorado et al. (2016) and the implementation of their Healthy Environments and Response to Trauma in Schools (HEARTS) program along with other pilot studies such as Perry and Danels (2016) have all paths for defining trauma-informed schools and how to implement strategies.

Washington State has a program that schools can participate in called Compassion Schools (Wolpow, 2011/2016). Perfect et al. (2016) demonstrate the sheer breadth of schools looking at trauma-informed practices across the united states. Schools have adopted a trauma-informed lens at varying levels, including small clusters of schools, district-wide, and state-wide implementations (Overstreet & Chafouleas, 2016).

Developing a trauma-informed classroom requires the implementation of several components. Cavanaugh (2016) provides the following fundamental principles of trauma-informed classrooms. Students who have experienced trauma need school to offer a safe and consistent environment. Staff should put a particular focus on having positive interactions with the students. They should implement a culturally responsive practice within their classroom that offers peer interaction and connection and uses a strengths-based approach. Schools that incorporate a trauma-informed lens need to connect that lens throughout their Multi-Tiered Systems of Support (MTSS) and integrate their School-Wide Positive Behavior and Supports (SWPBS, Berardi & Morton, 2019; Dombo & Sabatino, 2019).

School Interventions SWPBS and MTSS

School-wide positive behavior and supports are a process focused on establishing the capacity to adopt effective prevention and behavioral interventions. The SWPBS is expected to be implemented with a high degree of integrity and continuously use data for decision-making. Coaching and professional development in SWPBS establish consistent, predictable, positive, and safe social contingencies at a school-wide level (Horner et al., 2010). Handbooks such as Sailor et al. (2008) provide detailed instructions in implementation for such systems.

This system of SWPBS is consistent with a multi-tiered system of supports (Benner et al., 2013). This MTSS uses three levels of intervention. Primary prevention is offered school-wide and should meet the needs of 80% of students. Secondary prevention is done through small groups of specialized needs for students more at risk and includes about 15 percent of the overall student population. Tertiary prevention is individually focused and works with the most high-risk or severe students. In general, this population is about five percent of the school population (Sugai & Horner, 2006)

Teachers need to develop and reinforce skills that fall in social and emotional learning (SEL) domains. Elias et al. (1997) defined these domains as including (1) life skills and social competencies, (2) health-promotion and problem-prevention skills, (3) coping skills and social support for transitions and crises, and (4) complimentary contributory service. Marsh et al. (2018) review that high-quality SEL programs embed this learning into school’s activities, programs, and curricula. This direct teaching of SEL skills improves academic performance, attendance, behaviors, school climate, and school culture (Horner et al., 2010).

Learning to embed strategies related to SEL or other aspects of an SWPBS can be challenging. Schonert-Reichl (2017) describes a deficit in teacher preparation and a need to increase teacher knowledge about child development, students’ SELs, and classroom management strategies. McLeskey (2011) pushes back against the traditional “sit and get” model of teachers’ training for more learner central and participatory methods. Teacher PLCs and their development are impactful ways of creating school reform.

PLCs and School Cultural Change

DuFour et al. (2008) provide historical context for the rise and fall of school reform. There were three historical phases in the last century that school reform has gone through. These include the excellence movement, the restructuring movement, and No Child Left Behind. DuFour et al. (2008) posit that these reform models have failed to deliver due to unrealistic expectations, the complexity of the task, misplaced focus, a lack of perseverance, and a failure to attend to and appreciate the change process. They argue that professional learning communities are a more focused method for creating school reform. This movement goes alongside fields such as organizational development, leadership practices, school improvement, teacher preparation, professional development effective schools, and change processes all have been additive to professional learning communities as a change creating process.

DuFour (2004) describes three ambitious ideas regarding professional learning communities. These include a focus on ensuring that students learn, a culture of collaboration, and a focus on the results process. Hord (2015) goes on to explain that “Improvement requires exchanging what is not working for something that has the potential to do so — this means making a change — and to change requires learning what the change is and how to use it” (p. 38). The most supportive environment for this learning is PLC. Future discussion in my writing to revolve around how social-emotional learning and aspects of trauma-informed school models can be used within a PLC setting to create school-wide change through a participatory action research group.


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

Anda, R. F., Felitti, V. J., Bremner, J. D., Walker, J. D., Whitfield, Ch., Perry, B. D., Dube, Sh. R., & Giles, W. H. (2006). The enduring effects of abuse and related adverse experiences in childhood: A convergence of evidence from neurobiology and epidemiology. European Archives of Psychiatry and Clinical Neuroscience, 256(3), 174–186.

Benner, G. J., Kutash, K., Nelson, J. R., & Fisher, M. B. (2013). Closing the achievement gap of youth with emotional and behavioral disorders through multi-tiered systems of support. Education and Treatment of Children, 36(3), 15–29.

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

Bethell, C., Newacheck, P., Hawes, E., & Halfon, N. (2014). Adverse childhood experiences: Assessing the impact on health and school engagement and the mitigating role of resilience. Health Affairs (Millwood), 33(12), 2106–2115.

Blanton, L. P., & Perez, Y. (2011). Exploring the relationship between special education teachers and professional learning communities: Implications of research for administrators. Journal of Special Education Leadership, 24(1), 6–16.

Bloom, S. L., & Sreedhar, S. Y. (2008). The sanctuary model of trauma-informed organizational change. Reclaiming Children and Youth, 17(3), 48–53.

Cavanaugh, B. (2016). Trauma-informed classrooms and schools. Beyond Behavior, 25(2), 41–46.

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

Dorado, J. S., Martinez, M., McArthur, L. E., & Leibovitz, T. (2016). Healthy Environments and Response to Trauma in Schools (HEARTS): A Whole-School, Multi-level, Prevention and Intervention Program for Creating Trauma-Informed, Safe and Supportive Schools. School Mental Health, 8(1), 163–176.

DuFour, R. (2004). What is a professional learning community? Educational Leadership, 61(8), 6–11.

DuFour, R., DuFour, R. B., & Eaker, R. E. (2008). Revisiting Professional Learning Communities at Work. Solution Tree.

Elias, M. J., Zins, J. E., Weissberg, R. P., Frey, K. S., Greenberg, M. T., Haynes, N. M., Kessler, R., Schwab-Stone, M. E., & Shriver, T. P. (1997). Promoting Social and Emotional Learning. ASCD.

Evans, G. W., & Kim, P. (2012). Childhood poverty, chronic stress, self‐regulation, and coping. Child Development Prospective, 7(1), 43–48.

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.

Franke, H. (2014). Toxic stress: Effects, prevention, and treatment. Children (Basel), 1(3), 390–402.

Gonzalez, A., Monzon, N., Solis, D., Jaycox, L., & Langley, A. (2016). Trauma exposure in elementary school children: Description of screening procedures, level of exposure, and posttraumatic stress symptoms. School Mental Health, 8(1), 77–88.

Harris, M., & Fallot, R. (2001). Envisioning a trauma-informed service system: A vital paradigm shift. New Directions for Mental Health Services, 89, 3–22.

Harvey, M. R. (1996). An ecological view of psychological trauma and trauma recovery. Journal of Traumatic Stress, 9(1), 3–23.

Hord, S. (2015). What is an authentic professional learning community? The Learning Forward Journal, 36(3), 38–39.

Horner, R. H., Sugai, G., & Anderson, C. M. (2010). Examining the evidence base for school-wide positive behavior support. Focus on Exceptional Children, 42(8).

Marsh, J. A., McKibben, S., Hough, H. J., Hall, M., Allbright, T. N., Matewos, A. M., & Siqueira, C. (2018). Enacting social-emotional learning: Practices and supports employed in CORE districts and schools. Policy Analysis for California Education (PACE). Available from

Overstreet, S., & Chafouleas, S. M. (2016). Trauma-Informed Schools: Introduction to the Special Issue. School Mental Health, 8(1), 1–6.

Perfect, M. M., Turley, M. R., Carlson, J. S., Yohanna, J., & Saint Gilles, M. P. (2016). School-related outcomes of traumatic event exposure and traumatic stress symptoms in students: A systematic review of research from 1990 to 2015. School Mental Health, 8(1), 7–43.

Perry, D. L., & Daniels, M. L. (2016). Implementing trauma—informed practices in the school setting: A pilot study. School Mental Health, 8(1), 177–188.

Sailor, W., Dunlap, G., Sugai, G., & Horner, R. (2008). Handbook of positive behavior Support. Springer Science & Business Media.

Schonert-Reichl, K. A. (2017). Social and emotional learning and teachers. The Future of Children, 27(1), 137–155.

Shonkoff, J. P., Garner, A. S., Garner, A. S., Siegel, B. S., Dobbins, M. I., Earls, M. F., McGuinn, L., Pascoe, J., & Wood, D. L. (2012). The lifelong effects of early childhood adversity and toxic stress. Pediatrics, 129, e232-246.

Sugai, G., & Horner, R. R. (2006). A promising approach for expanding and sustaining school-wide positive behavior support. School Psychology Review, 35(2), 245–259.

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.

Wolpow, R., Johnson, M. M., Hertel, R., & Kincaid, S. O. (2016). The heart of learning and teaching: Compassion, resilience, and academic success. Washington State Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction Compassionate Schools.

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.