Redefining Trauma-Informed Care

Redefining Trauma-Informed Care

by Steve Fiedeldey

Everyone has a story.

As our family settled into our cozy living room sofas, my eldest daughter, Tess, turned on a favorite television singing competition. That is when it happened. I heard my own words through the mouth of my daughter. As the hosts of the show became emotional about the contestant’s experience, Tess reflected, “Everyone has a story.” It was during these emotional backstories that I would often reach for the remote to fast-forward, finding it too difficult to bear witness to others’ trials given my previous trauma as a cancer survivor. 

Unlike my personal cancer experience, the trauma we all faced during COVID-19 has been a shared, albeit different, experience for each of us. As we welcome our students back into our classrooms this September, I can’t help but worry that we are sending our teachers back into the classroom while still depleted from the previous two years. I wonder how many teachers have been given the proper tools and paid time to unpack their own experiences?

If you feel you are being ushered back into a “normal” start to the school year, below you will find actionable steps to help you and your students process trauma, bear witness to our collective and individual struggles, and develop a collective community of care.


Redefine trauma-informed care.

As a former school psychologist and current Director of Special Education, I have seen too many professional workshops that miss the mark of addressing the complexity of trauma-informed care. As a result of this frustration, I decided to examine my own personal and professional experiences to shape a framework that is actionable and makes sense for immediate application in schools. My framework utilizes an upstream approach, focused on hope while leveraging evidence-based interventions, to educate our way to a more collective classroom community that values the lived experience of every individual while reducing the negative impact on mental health.

Put on the tourniquet. Stop the crisis. Focus on hope.

Phase One, Evidenced-Based Emergency Response, starts with our students most at risk: those contemplating suicide. Our country was facing a mental health crisis before COVID-19 turned our lives upside down. Now more than ever, we need to dig deep and direct professional learning to support students and staff in crisis. Through all my higher education, not a single course or professor had us ask the question. The suicide question. As typical of higher educational institutions, we intellectualized the dilemma from a perspective of despair. We talked about ideation, intent, access, and means. But no one ever prepared us (or had us practice) to sit across from the table from a small child and ask the question

The words get stuck in your throat.  As you sit there alone with a child in crisis, you hope talking around words like death, kill, or suicide will dislodge this uncomfortable feeling. The words we avoid are in fact the most essential, but we feel unprepared to use them. This is why Phase One focuses on responding to a mental health crisis.

Questions to ask your district:

  • Do we have a standard operating procedure for risk assessments?

  • What tool do we use to assess suicidal intent?

  • What type of training has our staff received to identify risk factors / warning signs for suicidal behavior?

  • Has our staff been trained in and verbalized the suicide question?

How can I champion change?

  • Volunteer to join the crisis management team to review your practices. Support staff benefit from the perspective of classroom teachers, paraprofessionals, and administrators.

  • Encourage your district to utilize the Columbia Suicide Severity Rating Scale (C-SSRS) to assess risk of suicide. It is the gold standard, endorsed by the CDC, WHO, and FDA. Protocols and training are free.

  • Question, Persuade, Refer (QPR) Suicide Gatekeeper training. This is an evidence-based program that has changed my life and is meant for everyone. It is not a form of clinical intervention. Instead, it gives you the exact words on how to ask the suicide question and refer a person in crisis to help. Built on a message of hope and prevention, not doom and gloom, you can get trained yourself online or better yet, have your entire district trained.


Ditch the mindfulness rooms and Himalayan salts. Ask the hard questions.

Flex seating. Newly laid carpeting. Dim lights. Sounds of waterfalls. News media LOVES reporting on mindfulness rooms, but do they really make a difference? Individuals suffering from significant depression struggle to get out of bed in the morning, brush their hair and teeth, and get to school. Why do we expect them to have the awareness during a social studies class to access the mindfulness room, turn on the aromatherapy, and practice self-care? Research shows that targeted, not passive, intervention is most effective.

Rather than being reactive, Fiedeldey Consulting’s Trauma Informed Framework is proactive in identifying and supporting struggling students. Phase Two calls for universally screening our students for mental health and adverse childhood experiences (ACEs). It’s as simple as asking kids the hard questions. While critics say that we shouldn’t open the proverbial Pandora’s box of students’ feelings, these children with depression are sitting in our classes regardless of whether we’ve screened them. Not asking the question is the equivalent of burying our head in the sand and pretending the problem doesn’t exist. Since 2018, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that all students ages 12 and up should be screened annually for depression. Since we can only successfully educate our students if we first address mental health barriers, universal screening falls on the shoulders of our schools.

Questions to ask your district:

  • Do we assess the mental health of our students? If so, how?

  • What evidence do we have that previous interventions helped improve our students’ mental health?

  • How many students require suicide-related medical clearances each year? How can we lower this number?

How can I champion change?

  • Start in your classroom by teaching the power of affective language, while modeling the vulnerability that it’s okay to not be okay.

  • Bring the evidence.

    • Share with your colleagues and administrators the results. I led the Ringwood Public Schools in New Jersey to be the first district in the state to implement universal screening for depression. Students showed a 40% decrease in depressive symptomatology after six to eight weeks of school-based cognitive behavioral therapy.

    • Share with your school evidence-based screeners such as the free Columbia Depression Inventory Scale for Children that consists of 22 yes/no questions. Screening for depression has and will continue to save student lives.

  • Get up to speed on adverse childhood experiences. It is a game changer.

  • Share the Center for Youth Wellness’s ACEs Questionnaire (completed by caretakers) with your district. Make screening for ACEs part of your beginning-of-year forms so we can be proactive in addressing the trauma students have endured.


Mainstream the marginalized.

The Third Phase of Fiedeldey Consulting’s Trauma Informed Framework is creating a collective community of care. As a community we must address how the intersectionality of the marginalized aspects of our identity impacts mental health. By tapping into the indigenous roots of restorative practices, our classrooms can model a respectful environment that values our collective wisdom and the lived experience of every student and teacher. By creating a community of care, the secondary trauma that fell solely on the shoulders of teachers now becomes the shared responsibility of the entire classroom, and we are stronger because of it.

Questions to ask your district:

  • How are we intentionally creating a space in our classrooms for all learners to feel accepted?

  • What does a culturally responsive classroom library look like? What is our long-term plan to achieve this?

  • What are the barriers to mainstreaming marginalized voices in my district?

  • How can I work with all stakeholders, hear their concerns, and move forward in a way that is good and inclusive for all children?

How can I champion change?

  • Encourage your district to hire professional facilitators to lead Listening Circles on the impact of COVID-19. Through this workshop, staff process their own trauma of the past two years while developing a practice they can use in their own classroom the next day. Understanding the impact of COVID-19 on our students’ lives is necessary before we can begin addressing academics.

  • Reflect on your own lived experience and what biases you may bring to the classroom. Have courage and take heart; we all must do this internal work. Register here if you want to do the work together.

  • Check out free webinars from the International Institute for Restorative Practices.

  • Remember: Names matter. Pronouns matter. Mental health matters.

My hope is that through this intentional and actionable framework, educators have enough support from their districts to unpack, process, and reintegrate their own traumas so that they can bear witness to the beautiful, unique, and lived experiences of their students. With more of these practices in place, we’re all less likely to reach for that "remote" to fast-forward through the pain.


What's next?

Tune into the Teachers Talk Shop Podcast on 9/29/2021 for a conversation between Steve Fiedeldey and Patty McGee on implementing trauma-informed care and restorative circles in the classroom. Register to receive a notification!


About the Author

Steve Fiedeldey

Steve Fiedeldey, founder of Fiedeldey Consulting, is a restorative practitioner who has a diverse background in education. He is a passionate and dedicated advocate for children, with over 12 years of experience in teaching, support services, and educational leadership. Steve holds his BA in Psychology, MA in Educational Psychology, and MA in Educational Leadership, while also holding certificates as a school psychologist and principal, and in restorative practices.  

The creation of his trauma-informed framework has provided practical support and guidance to school districts looking to prioritize student mental health through the lens of an anti-bias, anti-racist institution. In his free time, Steve can be found at the lake with his three children, Tess, Nate, and Julia; working in his woodshop; or trying to create a new recipe with his supportive and brilliant wife, Sarah.