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

Three ways to say no and set boundaries at school

The first year that I took on a leadership role at my old school, I stopped eating lunch. 

I’m not a person who thrives when I’m hungry. The term “hangry” seems like it was coined just for me. But I stopped eating lunch for months that year. Every day felt like an emergency. I was in charge, I thought, so I had to say yes to every request that came my way. Crisis support. Class coverage. Tech troubleshooting. Yes, yes, yes, I said into the phone. Yes, I texted. Yes, I said as I opened the door to my office two seconds after I sat down. 

As you might guess, this wasn’t very sustainable. To develop healthier habits at school, I relied on my supportive supervisor and great colleagues, but there was also a very important tool I learned to use: boundaries. Boundaries are how we protect ourselves and others and how we stay centered in our roles. They are one of the best ways to combat burnout. 

I’ve been thinking and writing lots about boundaries lately, but for today I want to talk about one of the fundamental aspects: saying no. Specifically, how might educators practice setting boundaries and saying no with our students and our colleagues? 

Did you just have an immediate reaction to the idea of saying no at work? In Laura van Dernoot Lipsky’s book Trauma Stewardship, the author identifies a set of signs that you may be overwhelmed with the work of supporting people who are experiencing trauma. One of these is the “sense of persecution,” in which we feel that we have no options and no personal sense of agency. This ties directly into a martyr narrative where we believe we must sacrifice ourselves in order to do good work (a narrative which is reinforced through media stories of self-sacrificing “hero teachers”). 

If you find yourself thinking that you cannot possibly say no or set boundaries, you may be experiencing stress manifesting as a sense of persecution. Lipsky recommends that we recognize the reality that we may truly be overworked or exploited, but that “there is often a clear path around our obstacles if we allow ourselves to back up, untangle ourselves from the brambles, and find another way.” For me, saying no is a way to do this untangling.

The following examples are just a few ways to practice boundaries. Consider how you might start small, carve out even a little space for yourself by saying no. That small space can provide an opening for you to enter a more sustainable way of navigating work. 

Just saying no

The simplest way to say no is just to say no! This can just look like literally saying no, or can include setting a limit, clarifying our role, or reminding people of context. For example, in the student-focused sentences below, you can remind students of your role or of “time and place” for some conversations alongside limit-setting. 

When it feels scary to say no, remember that “no” is clear communication. Nedra Glover Tawwab, author of Set Boundaries, Find Peace, writes: “let’s assume that people only know what you tell them, honor only what you request, and can’t read your mind.” If I say “maybe” or “I guess that’s fine” or “I can make that work,” I have to remember that others have no reason to disbelieve me or read between the lines. To be heard saying “no,” I have to actually say no. 

Saying no to coworkers or administrators can sound like: 

  • “No, I can’t take that on right now.”
  • “My current role focuses on _____. I don’t have room on my  plate for that.”

Saying no to students can sound like:  

  • “No, I don’t accept friend requests from students.” 
  • “No, I can’t have students in my room for lunch today.” 
  • “I’m here to help you learn ___, so I am not going to talk about ___ with you right now” 

Of course, saying no isn’t actually simple, because we have to be prepared for the consequences of saying no. Tawwab cautions that “there is no such thing as guilt-free boundary setting.” Sometimes people will be unhappy when you say no, or push back. If your boundaries matter enough to state, they matter enough to stick with. 

Slowing it down

Sometimes I get nervous to say no and set a boundary. I feel pressured to give a response in real time. Often when I say “yes” to something I wish I had refused, it’s because I panicked in the moment. So try slowing things down to give yourself time and space to truly consider a request and then say no. You may even find that creating space to slow down helps the other person rethink their request, or helps you recognize when things actually are doable. 

Slowing down with coworkers or administrators can sound like: 

  • “Can you tell me more about how you see that fitting in with my other responsibilities?”
  • “I’m potentially interested but I’m not sure how that will fit into my current workday. Can we discuss?” 
  • “I need to check my calendar,” “I need to assess my capacity for that,” “I’d like to consult our contract.”

Slowing down with students can sound like: 

  • “Let me think about it and I will follow up in class tomorrow.”
  • “Thanks for asking me about this. Let me check with the principal and I will give you an update at the end of the week.”

After you slow things down, remember to follow up with your “no.” Pushing off conversations indefinitely isn’t helpful, so make sure to close the loop with clarity. 


Boundaries aren’t necessarily just saying “no, I can’t do that.” They sometimes require us to also say “but this is who can.” Seeing yourself as a bridge-builder can help you say no, especially when you walk across those bridges alongside students. 

To create the conditions for a bridge-building “no,” understand who is in your students’ “village.” What are the resources within your school and in the community? Who are the support people in your students’ lives? Do your homework ahead of time so that you feel more prepared in the moment to set boundaries and build those bridges. 

Similarly, understand the roles of yourself and your colleagues. If you’re not sure about the difference between the role of the counselor and the social worker in your building, ask! If roles have gotten fuzzy on leadership teams or PLCs, put some conversation time on your next agenda to suss it out. When you know who’s in the village, you can feel more confident in calling in those connections to support students and teachers. 

Bridge-building with coworkers and administrators can sound like: 

  • “That doesn’t fit within my current role. It sounds like a good fit for _____ to take on in their role, however.”
  • “It sounds like you’re asking me to create X resource. I wonder if something like that has already been created by XYZ Community Group so we don’t have to reinvent it.” 
  • “I appreciate you thinking of me for this, but I don’t have the right training/expertise. Can I loop ___ into this conversation so they can help you find the next step?” 

Bridge-building with students can sound like: 

  • “I want to help you get support but I’m not the right person for this conversation. Let me introduce you to…”
  • “I’m so grateful that you trusted me to share this. I have to tell you that I can’t give you the support you need, but I will help connect you to…”

The biggest pushback I get when I suggest bridge-building is when teachers say, “that’s well and good, but what if there actually is no one else to take this on?” This is a legitimate concern. For example, many schools actually don’t have enough counselors or social workers to meet student needs. At the same time, just because someone else can’t do it doesn’t mean you should. And indeed, sometimes when we take on work outside of our role, expertise, or training, we can give a false sense that the community has the resources to meet the need, or worse, we can do harm by stepping into work that’s not ours to do. Tawwab writes, “The more you appear to handle, the more work you’ll be expected to handle.” Be honest about the limits of your role, and if possible, push back with a group of colleagues for more fair working conditions and workloads. 

Try it out

Boundaries take time and effort to put into place and to sustain. Practice saying no to low-stakes things first: what does it feel like to say no to someone offering you food, or to say “I’d rather not talk about that right now,” or to step away from a venting session that’s stressing you out? Notice how you feel and use that awareness to help you with larger boundary-setting moments. You may also find it helpful to rehearse or role-play boundary-setting with a trusted friend or colleague. This is a skill like any other; don’t get discouraged if you struggle at first. 

And remember that boundaries require follow-through. It would be lovely if we were able to say “no” once and then never have to address something again, but sadly that’s not how it works. Recognize that boundaries require consistent communication. Treat yourself gently as you practice this, and celebrate small wins when you or others around you successfully set boundaries.

Solving my skipping-lunch problem didn’t happen in a day. I had to let go of my ego a little bit and recognize there were others who could help. I had to learn to delegate. I had to learn to discern what was truly urgent and what just felt urgent. This work was all worth it, though. I am a better leader when I’m taking care of my body and prioritizing self-care, and the leadership of those around me flourished when I stopped trying to be the only problem-solver. As you go through your school year, I hope that saying no allows you to experience true self care and community care, too.

Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash. Thank you to Chanea Bond and Rhiannon Kim for feedback.