I’m not a therapist, but I don’t need to be: let’s unpack “trauma-informed” vs. “trauma-specific”

I regularly hear the phrase “I’m not a therapist/counselor/social worker” in discussions of trauma-informed education and social-emotional learning. This is most often uttered by stressed-out teachers who are rightfully tired of new expectations being placed on their jobs. Indeed, it’s hard to process any implication that teachers should be doing more in a society that underfunds and harshly criticizes schools and teachers, 

At the same time, trauma is real and it influences students, educators, and the systems and structures of schooling itself. Because of this, we have a responsibility to be responsive to trauma’s presence. And caring educators everywhere have embraced the movement for trauma-informed schools as a way to accomplish this.

As I’ve said elsewhere, one of the joys of the trauma-informed schools movement is that it’s decentralized. There’s no single authority or curriculum to buy.  This means we can make trauma-informed education relevant and authentic in our unique settings. The challenge, of course, is that we don’t always agree on terms. Concepts related to trauma and education can be muddy and cause confusion.

In the spirit of deepening our understanding, let’s tease out some conceptual clarity together. Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the difference between trauma-informed and trauma-specific, and what the difference means for our role as educators.

Trauma-informed vs trauma-specific

According to a report by DeCandia, Guarino and Clervil from the American Institutes for Research, “trauma-specific services are clinical interventions, whereas trauma-informed care addresses organizational culture and practice.” Let’s unpack this in the context of school.

The phrase trauma-informed in schools refers to the universal and proactive shifts we make across an entire school, informed by our understanding of trauma. While definitions of trauma-informed education vary, most rely on a framework that includes aspects focused on creating safe, collaborative, and connected environments. Trauma-informed education recognizes that all people are impacted by trauma in various ways. Implementation includes classroom-level and school-wide shifts to meet the social, emotional, and academic needs of the entire school community in ways that are informed by what we understand about trauma. 

In my book I invite readers to ask “how is trauma present in our school?” as a way of seeing and acknowledging the many ways that trauma impacts us. Answering this question allows us to notice not only the impact of trauma on individuals, but also the ways that trauma influences organizational structure and culture, and the history and present concerns of our communities. 

As frequent readers may know, I don’t often map my work to the Multi-Tiered Systems of Support model (more on that in a minute), but if that’s a helpful frame of reference, trauma-informed approaches would largely fall under “Tier 1.”  

Trauma-specific refers to healing modalities that are designed to help a person or a group of people move through trauma. I am intentionally here expanding on the language quoted above which defines trauma-specific as a “clinical intervention.” If we understand trauma through a social model, and specifically include Indigenous perspectives in our understanding, then healing from trauma isn’t purely a clinical or psychiatric pursuit. 

Trauma-specific modalities might include: particular forms of therapy that are intended to support trauma survivors, group support, culturally specific healing practices and ceremonies, or wraparound support. Trauma-specific services, interventions, or supports are typically led by a qualified or experienced individual or group, such as a licensed clinician, a community healer or elder, or a faith leader. 

In schools, trauma-specific approaches might be used within the greater context of trauma-informed education. For example, all students attend an advisory block that focuses on social-emotional learning, and some students opt into a trauma-specific group facilitated by the school counselor. Trauma-specific services also might occur in a school where trauma-informed education isn’t being implemented on a broader scale. Students might be referred or identified for trauma-specific services that take place inside or outside of school. 

 Students, teachers, and other members of the school community may also be engaging in trauma-specific work completely outside of school, and they may or may not choose to share any part of that work with school staff. For that reason, I wouldn’t necessarily call trauma-specific approaches a “Tier 2 or 3 intervention” because this erases the many ways students may access trauma-specific services or community. The language of tiers can also erase the fact that teachers and other school staff may need this support as well. 

Whole-school organizational culture and practicesModality of services and supports
Everyone benefitsIdentified individuals or groups opt in
Everyone can lead and play a partLed by qualified or experienced individuals or groups (clinicians, healers, etc)
Proactive as well as responsiveResponsive 
Teacher role is to create a safe and supportive environmentTeacher role is to participate by invitation
Recognizes that trauma is omnipresent and emphasizes a shared responsibility to mitigate the impactCan be beneficial for individuals and/or groups seeking specific therapeutic approaches and/or for specific trauma-origins (e.g. natural disaster survivors)

Why the difference matters

Let’s return to the phrase “but I’m not a therapist.” When we understand the distinction between trauma-informed and trauma-specific practice in schools, it becomes clear that teachers actually don’t need any particular clinical knowledge or expertise in order to implement trauma-informed education. In fact, we become more clear on the fact that teachers actually shouldn’t be leading trauma-specific work.

Teachers aren’t usually trained, licensed, or experienced to lead trauma-specific therapies or approaches. Even if you happen to be both a clinician or healer and a classroom teacher, our professional responsibility requires that we avoid dual roles that could cause confusion on the part of the young people we are trying to support. This means that while teachers may play an important role in the web of community support for a young person, we are not the ones creating, leading, or assessing a child’s healing process from trauma. That means that you, as a teacher, do not need to inquire into a child’s traumatic history, create a clinical or other therapeutic approach, or provide counseling services in order to be trauma-informed. 

Teacher roles in trauma-informed vs. trauma-specific approaches

In trauma-informed practice, a teacher’s role is to be part of the proactive community of support for all students, and to participate in the system shifts needed across the school. I write extensively about this in my book Equity-Centered Trauma-Informed Education. In a trauma-informed school, teachers are mindful of role clarity and boundaries. While we can and should engage in conversations about our own and students’ emotional selves as part of social-emotional learning, we also commit to emotional safety and avoid being “trauma detectives.”

A teacher’s role in trauma-specific supports for students is influenced by a variety of factors, but most of the time, it is to participate when we are invited to do so, following the lead of the person or people coordinating a young person’s plan (including the young person themself). Teachers are not leading the process, but may support the process from within our role. And as we participate in the process, we do not need to know all the details of a person’s traumatic experiences, detailed lists of triggers, or other private information. More relevant is what support is needed and how we can be helpful. 

Let’s walk through an example. Scott is a student at Fictional High School (FHS). Scott’s family’s home was destroyed in a recent natural disaster, and his entire family experienced this loss as deeply traumatic. As a family, they make use of a few trauma-specific supports in their community. Scott and his siblings attend a summer camp for kids impacted by natural disasters. Scott’s parents meet monthly with their faith leader to process their emotions and find support in parenting through trauma. And Scott has an individual counselor from the community health center who picks him up after school for therapy every Friday. In their time together, Scott’s counselor has the role of helping Scott to process his trauma and learn coping mechanisms. 

As part of their sessions, Scott and his counselor talk about his experience at school. They talk about some of the positive trauma-informed aspects of FHS: teachers use flexible pedagogy like project-based learning, which Scott enjoys. Student mental health is openly and proactively discussed, so Scott feels comfortable letting teachers know when he is having a hard day. And the school board recently revised their attendance policy to be more trauma-informed, so Scott won’t be penalized when his family prioritizes a restful trip to his cousin’s house for a long weekend.

They also talk about what’s stressful: Scott says that he feels overwhelmed by how big and noisy it is as FHS. Since the disaster, he feels overwhelmed during passing time, and the anxiety of the hallways lingers throughout each class.

Scott and his counselor decide that his teachers may be able to help. With the counselor’s support, Scott and his parents meet with some of his teachers. Together, they create a plan for Scott to discreetly leave each class five minutes early so he can avoid the busy passing period. Scott feels supported by this plan and his anxiety during the day decreases.

In this example, Scott’s teachers are participating in a trauma-specific approach at the request of Scott’s counselor, family, and Scott himself. This participation doesn’t require the teachers to know all of the details of Scott’s trauma or to be clinical experts. All it requires is their flexibility, empathy and willingness to actively listen to, believe, and enact the support Scott says he needs.

We need both 

As we consider how both trauma-informed and -specific approaches are implemented in our schools, we also must remember that healing from trauma is non-linear and may take a lifetime. Schools may play a role in a person’s healing journey – and/or school may be an unsafe place for students to engage in trauma-specific services. Some people heal from trauma without ever engaging with formal trauma-specific support. While teachers may choose to refer a student for evaluation or connect them with clinicians inside or outside of school, it ultimately has to be a person’s choice whether to engage with trauma support or not. We must respect individual children’s and young people’s choices. 

In a school and community’s ecosystem, we need both trauma-informed and trauma-specific approaches. All people, regardless of trauma experience, deserve an environment that is collaborative, community-oriented, and safe – the goals of a trauma-informed approach. And all trauma survivors deserve to have the option of high-quality, accessible, and culturally-responsive care that will help them heal. 

As teachers, we don’t need to be therapists or counselors. We do need to affirm our students’ humanity and unapologetically prioritize well-being in our schools. And we need robust, well-funded, and connected systems of support in our communities. When proactive and responsive support is accessible and universal, who knows what healing might be possible? 

Thank you to Helen Thomas for her thought partnership in expanding my understanding of Indigenous Knowledge Systems as it relates to this topic, and to Kate Dearth and Rhiannon Kim for offering feedback on a draft of this post.

Photo by Scott Trento on Unsplash

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