Compassionate Schools
A trauma-informed initiative

by John McMahon •

David Thompson

Trauma is a common experience for American children. According to one study, by age 16, two-thirds of children in the U.S. have experienced a traumatic event (Copeland, et al., 2007).

This is a challenge for schools, because trauma and traumatic stress reactions can disrupt learning not only for the child who experiences the event, but also for peers, teachers, and the school community (NCTSN, 2018).

Realizing this, some schools are striving to be more trauma-informed. An example in North Carolina is Buncombe County Schools, which has developed and is implementing “Compassionate Schools.” This district-wide initiative seeks to keep all students engaged and learning by creating and supporting a healthy climate and culture in each school. To achieve this goal, Compassionate Schools offers strategies schools can choose from to create compassionate classrooms and foster compassionate attitudes among school staff. The idea is to benefit all students, especially those exposed to chronic stress and trauma.

Implementation with elementary and intermediate schools is underway. Buncombe County Schools plans to expand the initiative to middle and high schools starting in 2018-19.

To learn more about this initiative we spoke with David Thompson, a leader behind Compassionate Schools and Director of Student Services for Buncombe County Schools.

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Compassionate Schools seems like a shift from the traditional approach schools have taken.

It is. For adults working in the schools, the question becomes different. It becomes not, “What’s wrong with the child?” but “What happened, and how do we help?” It becomes the job of the adult to figure out “How can we make this better?”

We know kids’ brains can heal, that the brain is able to find different pathways to get to a different behavior. We have to help our students get to that point.

What does Compassionate Schools look like in action?

The beauty of this framework is it will not look the same at every school. But there are certain things every school must do, some non-negotiables.

One of these is teaching social-emotional skills. We have to teach kids how to be empathetic and how to regulate their emotions. We have to teach them problem-solving skills. And we have to teach them skills for learning or “executive function” skills—the paying attention, sustaining their attention on things, deciding what’s relevant information at the time, and being able to respond to the right cues. Those things are the core of the social-emotional learning curriculum, and they’re non-negotiable.

What does Compassionate Schools offer on top of those non-negotiables?

We support a lot of evidence-based practices that are really shown to have good outcomes. These get very much integrated into a school’s Positive Behavior Intervention and Supports (PBIS) and all that they are doing. It becomes part of their culture.

For example, we use a “mindful schools” model that was created for schools. is a great resource. We actually have two master trainers who finished their training through Mindfulschools this summer so they can mentor other counselors. We try to use models where we train trainers, so we can be sustainable over time.

We also use Community Resiliency Model (CRM) skills that work on self-regulation and help us be present in the moment so that we are able to solve our problems.

Is there overlap between CRM and mindfulness?

There is. You don’t have to do both. That’s what we’re saying to schools. You can do one or the other, or you could do both.

We also use something called Zones of Regulation, which is an evidence-based model teachers find really easy to use in the classroom. It uses a color-coding system where you can say to students, “Where are you in the zone?” and the student’s response helps the teacher know how to respond and helps the student know how to respond because they have skills that are associated with those colors.

So rather than saying, “What’s wrong with you, what’s going on?” you can say, “What are you feeling? Which zone would you put yourself in right now?” and then give them a few minutes before they talk about what’s going on with them. It’s about giving our students the tools they need to be able to get back engaged in learning. It impacts their ability to stay in class and learn.

What results are you seeing?

We have measured our K-5 social and emotional learning skills. We do screening at the beginning of the year and then we do some assessment at the end of the year. We are showing growth in social-emotional skills from the beginning to the end of the year. We’re also seeing that growth carry over to the next school year, when we look at the same kids the next year. So they are not losing it during the summer. They’re able to start at a higher level and then build on those skills the following year, which is what you want to see.

We’re also seeing that in many cases schools that had the highest growth in social-emotional skills also had the highest growth academically. Not that I can say it is cause and effect, because there are many other things that are happening around curriculum and other things that impact growth. But it’s always good to see that when you have that strong implementation of social-emotional skills that you are also seeing growth academically.

We’re also seeing some decreases in out-of-school suspensions.

What would you say to resource parents, who often care for children who’ve experienced trauma?
I’d say educate. Don’t assume that the teacher understands the child’s behavior. Work with them, connect them to resources where they can also get that training and knowledge and understanding about trauma and its impact.

Another thing I would say is, let the school know what we need to do. Let us know how we need to support kids. What works? Help us know what to put in place.

Don’t come in and just tell us everything that happened to the child. Because teachers can sometimes get really scared when they hear about all the negative experiences students have had. We might need to know they’ve experienced trauma, but we don’t need to know all the details.

What we need to know is what works. How do we put a plan in place? What has school looked like for the student in the past? How can we make it better?

It’s important to try to have that plan in place up front as much as you can. Just showing up on the day they’re going to start may not be the best plan. Although that often is what happens.

If the foster parent and the agency ask how they can support the school and tell the school how it can support the child, if we start the conversation there, the other things will come. I think you’ll find schools really open to the conversation.

John McMahon is editor of Fostering Perspectives.