A Primer on Healing School Systems

What is a trauma-affected school system?

Childhood trauma is increasingly well understood by educators, including an acknowledgment that the classroom can be the most stable and consistent location in a trauma-affected student’s life. Trauma-aware teaching expands the possibilities for all students by maintaining attention toward the healing of developmental deficits, while simultaneously providing pathways toward psychological growth at school (Brunzell, Waters and Stokes, 2015).

Now the field must also shift to consider that teachers and students are embedded in a school system, and systems, like individuals, can become trauma-affected. Smith et al. found that when systems have significant relationships with one another, they can develop similar affects, cognitions and behaviours, which are defined as ‘parallel processes’ (1989).

For instance, trauma-affected people often develop chronic hyper-arousal as the central nervous system adapts to the constancy of threat. Similarly, organisations may become chronically hyper-aroused, so that everything becomes a crisis… as one manager has said, “it’s like managing with your hair on fire” (Bloom, 2010). Under conditions of constant crisis, emotional distress escalates, tempers become short, decision making becomes impaired and driven by impulse, while pressures to conform reduce individual and group effectiveness.

Taking a systems view of schools

Our understanding of trauma-affected systems informs our approach to developing healing school systems. In part, it is the volatility and uncertainty present in the world today that demands we now take a systems view of schools. The web of dynamic and complex relationships at the heart of any school system means that trauma symptoms showing up in one area cannot be reliably separated from the health and wellbeing of the whole school climate (Capra & Luisi, 2018; Meadows 2008).

Therefore, just as all living systems are constantly responding to their environment, teachers must engage in action learning to discover and account for how their patterns of relating ripple out across the entire school system (Senge et al., 2012). Healing school systems begin to emerge when teachers feel supported to deepen this awareness and integrate trauma-aware strategies into their pedagogy and lives.

New values for the transition to healing school systems

 We fervently hope these values will catalyse a transition toward healing school systems:

  • Acknowledge the cultural and political nature of trauma-aware practice

Trauma-aware practice is inherently political and cultural, often masquerading as clinically objective and apolitical. To accept and reconcile the wrongs of the past means we must position the voices of the vulnerable and culturally marginalised at the centre and listen deeply. Policy and practice must reflect the lived experience of community to nurture, and no longer harm, future generations.

  • Embrace interconnectedness and interdependence 

Our individual health and wellbeing is inseparable from the health and wellbeing of the systems of which we are a part. From the way our brains attune to displays of emotions in others, from the particles that we breathe in as others breathe them out; everyone contributes to everyone’s wellbeing. A trauma occurring to one, therefore, has an impact on all. When we accept this, however, we also accept its dual opposites: 1) The healing of one individual has an impact on the entire system; and 2) Systems have a vital role to play in healing individuals.

  • Practice radical acceptance and compassion

We live in a world that is constantly changing and uncertain. Yet it is in our nature to strive for permanence and certainty, which is why systems change can feel so personally challenging. Paradoxically, it is only through radical acceptance of the complex emotions surrounding this striving that we can move towards an embrace of the wholeness within ourselves, and the systems we inhabit. After all, wholeness, as Parker Palmer (2009) tells us, “does not mean perfection: it means embracing brokenness as an integral part of life.”

  • Live action learning

Research premised upon static measurements of set points in time cannot adequately account for constantly evolving and dynamic systems. Therefore, it is imperative to create space for action learning in our lives. Action learning enables reflection on action, generating feedback, experimentation, and integration. Making trauma-aware teaching an everyday part of our practice requires action learning occur consistently at multiple scales, including individual, small group, whole school, and whole system.

Whether you are leading a school, are a classroom teacher, or work in a school in any other capacity, this is a call for courageous leadership in a time of change; to be open to practicing and living compassionate approaches to education that will be reflected in our education systems and society.


Bloom, S. L. (2010). Trauma-organized systems and parallel process. Managing trauma in the workplace—Supporting workers and the organisation, 139-153.

Brunzell, T., Waters, L., & Stokes, H. (2015). Teaching with strengths in trauma-affected students: A new approach to healing and growth in the classroom. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 85(1), 3.

Capra, F., & Luisi, P. (2018). The systems view of life. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Meadows, D. (2008). Thinking in Systems: A Primer. US: Chelsea Green Publishing Co.

Palmer, P. (2009). A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life. John Wiley & Sons.

Senge, P., Cambron-McCabe, N., & Lucas, T. (2012). Schools That Learn (Updated and Revised). New York: Random House US.

Smith, K. K., Simmons, V. M., & Thames, T. B. (1989). “Fix the Women”: An Intervention into an Organizational Conflict Based on Parallel Process Thinking. The Journal of Applied Behavioural Science, 25(1), 11-29.

By Jack Greig, Ash Buchanan, Tom Brunzell and Brendan Bailey

Originally published in the TLN Journal vol. 26, no. 2, available at tln.org.au

*Photo by Alex Eckermann on Unsplash

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