Safety and Support in Schools: Trauma-Informed Design in K-12 Educational Spaces

Safety and Support in Schools: Trauma-Informed Design in K-12 Educational Spaces

In the pursuit of creating learning environments that prioritize safety and support in schools, it is critical to design spaces that address the diverse needs of students, enhancing their mental health and education. We have discussed the importance of creating accessible spaces for students with disabilities, designing environments to support students with a range of sensory needs, and nurturing social and emotional learning through transformative learning spaces. But creating educational spaces that truly address every student’s unique needs is an ongoing commitment that requires schools to be attentive, proactive, and accommodating.

Acknowledging Child Traumatic Stress in Educational Environments

For many students, school is not only an institution of learning, but also a sanctuary from the challenges they experience outside of the classroom. Not all students arrive at school equipped with the same sense of security; many carry the burden of trauma, whether from adverse experiences or external stressors. According to the National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN), child trauma or child traumatic stress occurs when a frightening, dangerous, or violent event that poses a threat to a child’s emotional or physical wellbeing, including witnessing a traumatic event that threatens the life or physical security of someone else.

Notably, the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in increased child trauma rates, which were disproportionately higher for children in socioeconomically disadvantaged communities. With more students experiencing trauma than ever before, it’s crucial to enhance safety and support in schools by creating responsive learning spaces that consider students’ different experiences, challenges, and vulnerabilities.

Winter Haven Elementary Media Center

Trauma-Informed Design to Address Diverse Student Needs

Recognizing this reality, designers and administrators who are developing learning spaces are turning to trauma-informed design to create environments that not only facilitate learning, but also meet students’ hierarchy of needs. According to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, basic survival needs must be satisfied before an individual can satisfy higher level needs. Once students’ physiological needs are met, such as shelter, food, and water, schools can address higher needs, such as safety, security, and belonging. Trauma-informed design in educational spaces is just one tool schools can use to accomplish this.

At the core of trauma-informed design is the understanding that physical environments can either reduce or amplify the impact of students’ traumas. By thoughtfully shaping educational spaces with student wellbeing in mind, schools can foster a sense of safety, security, and belonging, laying the foundation for an emotionally and academically nurturing environment.

SUNY Orange Student Center Space

Adaptability and Flexibility in Learning Spaces

The principles of adaptability and flexibility are central to trauma-informed design. Because all students interact differently with educational spaces, it’s important to enhance safety and support in schools by ensuring that furnishings, technology, and other resources can accommodate diverse student needs, fostering a positive experience for all. For instance, mobile chairs are a good option to meet students’ physical and comfort needs, allowing them to not only adjust their seats for ergonomic purposes but also to move around and make choices about their personal space. Similarly, modular desks and mobile tables make it easy to rearrange learning spaces when students’ physical space or social interaction needs change.

Developing a Comfortable and Safe Atmosphere for Safety and Support in Schools

The atmosphere of a learning space––sounds, temperature, lighting, and other visual stimuli––plays a vital role in developing trauma-informed environments. Schools should strive to minimize sensory overload by incorporating functional design elements like acoustic panels and calming color schemes. Simultaneously, it’s important to prioritize atmospheric features such as lighting and temperature to ensure students feel safe and comfortable throughout the day. By creating environments that engage the senses in a positive way, schools may be able to mitigate the potential triggers students associate with trauma.

Balancing Social Spaces and Private Spaces

Finding a balance between social spaces and private spaces in an educational environment is an important consideration for trauma-informed design. On one hand, community and connection are key to help students build a network of support as they process their traumatic stress. On the other hand, private and quiet spaces provide a refuge, allowing students a space to decompress and re-regulate when they are overwhelmed or triggered.

It’s important to design spaces that encourage student interactions, enhancing safety and support in schools, which can help foster a sense of belonging. This includes common areas, outdoor gathering spaces, media centers, and cafeterias. When creating social spaces, trauma-informed designers must consider all aspects of student safety, including creating accessible and navigable spaces and providing clear lines of sight, especially into closed rooms and secluded corners or hallways.

Within private spaces, designers should focus on student comfort and security. Students need spaces where they can decompress, reflect, or seek support. Breakout or study rooms, sensory spaces, and calming nooks all provide students with different levels of comfort when needed. Access to support services like counseling is also key, with the stipulation that student confidentiality is paramount to get students to take advantage of these services. Confidentiality and privacy should be built-in to the architectural design of a space, ensuring the office for these services are not exposed or located too closely to common spaces or main hallways of the school.

Durango - Impact Career Innovation Center Commons

Fostering Trauma-Informed Environments

Trauma-informed design offers a holistic approach to developing educational spaces that prioritize students’ physical and emotional wellbeing. By taking a trauma-informed approach to designing learning environments, schools can foster a safe and supportive environment and culture. As we continue to explore innovative ways to satisfy students’ hierarchy of needs through trauma-informed design and practices, we enhance safety and support in schools, creating more inclusive spaces where students feel empowered to thrive.

Dr. Christina CountsDr. Christina Counts, ALEP, VP of Education for MiEN Environments, is a proven leader with a successful background in transforming learning spaces into modern engaging learning environments. Dr. Counts has worked in education for over 17 years with experience as a classroom teacher, district instructional leader, school administrator, and digital and innovative learning designer. In her most recent position, Christina leads a team of professionals that support schools making the transition to a flexible, collaborative, & student-centered learning space.  She holds a doctorate in K-12 Educational Leadership, National Board-certified, and Google & Apple certified. Dr. Counts envisions a learning space in which educators are empowered to transform education through design, technology and innovative instructional pedagogy to create learners ready for any future!