Trauma-Woke: The Pivotal Key for Change!

Adapted from the Missouri Model: A Developmental Framework for Trauma-Informed, MO Dept. of Mental Health & Partners (2014).

Trauma-Woke was the best way I could describe my trauma-informed journey as I spoke on a panel to a room full of educators.

Oxford’s Dictionary defines ‘woke’ as an ‘alert to injustice in society, especially racism.’

That definition may seem abrasive or harsh in the context of educational pedagogy. It’s hard for us in education to pause (a gift that is often elusive in our profession) enough to do a self-check of our own practices. When we think of injustices, we are quick to point out what is happening in the political, judicial, or social arenas. But, we too have our own tsunamis. The displacement of our waters (students) due to numerous off-shore earthquakes (students ‘lived’ expereinces) has led to our educational seismic activity known as student discipline ‘Disproportionality’.

Now, take that disproportionality pertcentage and add any other students that can be linked to 4 or more (at-risk) Adverse Childhood Experiences Study (ACEs) score.

Did that get your attention? I’m guessing your percentages were as alarming as mine!

This was about the time that I realized “I” had been a part of the problem.

This became my “Trauma-Woke” moment!

The narrative of what I had based my entire educational pedagogy on was now obsolete. That left me with only one choice; to use my district positional power to help change school cultures to one that had a more trauma-informed lens.

This message resonated that day speaking on that panel to a group of like-minded educators. But, the real question or challenge comes from scaling this movement within school cultures that have been based upon punishment. Many schools self-described themselves as data-driven, but too often this doesn’t include how student behaviors are handled.

So, where do we even begin?

Social justice activist Bryan Stevenson provides a great blueprint for us in education in his ‘Four Steps to Change the World’. Step One, states that you have to get ‘proximate’ in order to make change happen. If we are ever to change our system we will need to get closer to the people who are suffering.

That would also be my advice for any trauma-awareness presenter. Helping your audience to see how getting proximate and connecting the ‘brains in pain’ into strengths-based and empowering systems-level changes can create some beautiful school communities! If you can help the adults make this connection within their own ‘lived’ experiences, they will become so inspired to change that you will have to apply the brakes from time to time!

So, with the recent surge of trauma-informed practices, research, and conferences flooding the educational scene, the hardest step for a school leader may be that first step: Where to begin?

Don’t get lost with trying to figure out the entire journey. Stay present. That alone may be counterintuitive to your leadership training. But trust the journey and empower collective teacher efficacy.


Looking back on my journey, healthy adults make for healthy students. I’d say start by helping the adults connect their dots. In other words, how has their past experiences impacted their behaviors & life decisions. It’s making sense of our own pain and ‘lived’ experiences and how they have impacted and shaped our thinking and outcomes. That process alone can lead to a place of empowerment that cultivates empathy like none other. It’s an epiphany, or an illuminating realization that your current practices are actually part of the problem. Once a person makes that self-discovery, they will want to shout it off from the highest mountain! They will also understand that they can no longer go back to their former exclusionary disciplinary practices.

All of this gets back to what you already know: It’s all about your School Culture.

You change your school culture lens with reframing the question from “what’s wrong with you?” to “what happened to you?” and then allow your team the gift of charting the “now what?” or “how can we help?” questions.

Don’t get caught up thinking you need to be an expert in trauma or in educational neuroscience. Let the basic Adverse Childhood Experiences Study (ACEs) kick-start your movement. Keep repeating to your staff that this is NOT a program rather a framework or a ‘way of becoming’. A framework that is rooted in the belief that each of us has value and collectively we can strengthen the village.

Addendum: There are many trauma-informed models. I was fortunate at the time of my trauma-informed discovery that my state (Missouri) had created the Missouri Model: A Developmental Framework for Trauma-Informed. This model laid out the process into four stages:

  1. Trauma-Aware (Awareness & Attitudes)
  2. Trauma-Sensitive (Knowledge, application, & skill development)
  3. Trauma-Responsive (Change & Integration)
  4. Trauma-Informed (Leadership)

All it took for me was that 90 minute trauma-awareness seminar (with appreciation given to Dr. Jerry Cox; @jcpsyd) that ignited my awakening. As a district leader, I didn’t know what life at school would look like when I returned to school, but I did know it would never be the same.


ACEs Too High. Got Your Score? (2018). Disproportionality in student discipline. Connecting policy to research.

Hattie, J. (2018). “What is collective teacher efficacy?”

Oxford Dictionary (2017).

Missouri Model: A Developmental Frameowrk for Trauma-Informed, MO Dept. of Mental Health and Partners (2014).

SAMHSA. Adverse Childhood Experiences.


Jim Walters

Written by