Changing the System

It’s back to school time again! So much goes into preparing for a great year. Parents spend hours filling out forms, studying the supply list, and taking their kids shopping for that perfect first-day-of-school outfit. But teachers also do a tremendous amount of work preparing their classrooms. They want the kids to feel welcomed and inspired when they walk in the door. They consider the layout of the desks, the words on the bulletin boards, the posters on the walls. But the single most important characteristic of a prepared classroom is a teacher trained in a trauma-informed approach.

At Ukeru, we focus a great deal on trauma-informed care. For individuals that have experienced traumatic events, such as violence, victimization, physical or sexual abuse, the impact of re-experiencing that trauma can be devastating. This is especially true with children.

With studies estimating that nearly 50% of U.S. children have experienced at least one potentially traumatic “adverse childhood experience,” or ACE, it is imperative that classrooms be trauma-informed in order for students to best succeed.

Children that have experienced trauma may act out in negative ways when placed in stressful, or “trigger” situations – for example, entering a brand new classroom with a new teacher at the beginning of a school year. Behaviors don’t just arise – they are an indication that the child is trying to communicate something, but is struggling. It may result in what often looks like a “meltdown.” When these outbursts occur in the classroom, teachers with trauma-informed training shift their mindset from “what is wrong with this child” to “what has happened to this child to make them act out in this way.”

Ukeru recently hosted a webinar with Mathew Portell, the principal at Fall-Hamilton Elementary School in Nashville, TN, which is in the center of a changing neighborhood in which many students are being displaced. In Nashville, 60% of children have had an adverse childhood experience. To better support the entire community at Fall-Hamilton Elementary School, Principal Portell and his team took proactive steps to ensure the needs of students and teachers were being met by adopting a trauma-sensitive approach.

Unlike many mainstream schools, Fall-Hamilton doesn’t expect children to leave their problems, struggles and fears at the door. Understanding that students are still developing both emotionally and cognitively, Principal Portell wanted to create an environment where they feel safe to do just that. And creating that environment starts by giving the teachers the support they require to meet the basic needs of the children.

Principal Portell’s goal was simple: ensuring every child to feel safe, nurtured and supported. To do that, the school did three things:

  • Implemented a social and emotional learning curriculum. In order to best understand the children’s mental health needs, the school hired a full-time trauma-informed practitioner who works with the students and teachers. They also implemented Franklin-Covey’s whole school transformation program, “The Leader in Me,” which is intended to boost kids’ confidence and sense of responsibility.
  • Adapted the physical space. The school began to utilize low light, calming coloring, and taught mindfulness as a strategy for success. It also created “Peace Corners,” inviting, comforting spaces children can go to gather their thoughts and emotions when they need it.
  • Built strong one-on-one relationships with students. When a child understands that someone believes in them, they start to blossom and their academic achievements are positively impacted. Fall-Hamilton established a mentor program that allows children to work with an adult to process how they are feeling and to talk about the goals they have for success.


The results at Fall-Hamilton have been off the charts. Since 2015, behavior infractions leading to referrals are down 76%. In addition, Fall-Hamilton outperformed peer schools on the Achievement Network’s English language arts measures. In 2017, 98% of students at the school felt there was an adult at school who care about them.

With Principal Portell as inspiration for us all, let’s advocate for moving all classroom towards a trauma-informed model. It is imperative to give teachers and administrators tools so that they can help all students can learn in a safe environment and maintain the safety of all those in the classroom. As Principal Portell says “It doesn’t have to do with changing the kids. It has to do with changing the system.” I can’t think of a better message with which to start a great school year!