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Children, Violence, and Trauma: Interventions in Schools

Anyone who works or volunteers in a school setting—teachers, school counselors, athletic coaches, administrators, custodians, bus drivers, crossing guards, lunchroom staff—is in a prime position to notice children’s behavior, recognize clues that something is amiss, and take appropriate action. Physical aggression on the playground or in the halls, withdrawal from social activities, and unusual shifts in a student’s attention to schoolwork may be reactions to violence in a child’s life. For these children, school can be a safe haven—a respite from the stress and anxiety of living in a chaotic environment.

In fact, school officials are more likely than police or medical professionals to be aware of violent incidents in students’ lives.1 In most states, school personnel are mandated by law to report suspected child maltreatment to specific authorities, most commonly a designated child protection agency and/or law enforcement. Reporting is essential to ensuring that families and children at risk receive appropriate services, such as assistance with housing or other basic needs, mental health counseling, and substance abuse treatment. Public and private preschools, elementary and secondary schools, and colleges and universities all have established clear policies for making these reports.

Research has confirmed that adverse childhood experiences—including exposure to violence as either a victim or witness—can seriously impede children’s ability to learn.2 They may have behavioral or emotional problems that become apparent in school, trouble concentrating, or more frequent absences. To meet the challenge of educating children who are coping with violence and trauma, schools are partnering with experts and resource organizations in their communities to build strong support networks. Many educators proactively strive to involve the parents of their students in efforts to promote safe, secure, and nurturing relationships. The Compassionate Schools Initiative in Tacoma, Washington, and Safer Tomorrows, in Grand Forks, North Dakota, are two examples of school systems working to build safety nets for their students.

Unfortunately, for some children and youth, school is not a safe haven from violence. In 2011, students ages 12–18 experienced nearly 600,000 violent incidents at school or on their way to or from school.3 These incidents ranged from simple assaults to robberies and rapes.4 Cognitive Behavioral Intervention for Trauma in Schools is a specialized, evidence-based, therapeutic program for students who have been exposed to violence in their school or community.

Bullying and cyberbullying are also common problems, especially for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning/queer students.5 Some children who bully others are also victims of other bullies, and these "bully-victims" are at greater risk of adverse psychosocial and mental health outcomes.6 Educators can turn to several tested, evidence-based curricula to teach their students how to recognize and stop bullying when they see it.

Dating violence is another form of victimization that can have serious psychosocial consequences for students’ behavior and performance in school. Nearly 1 in 10 high school students reported being physically hurt by a boyfriend or girlfriend in a recent year.7 Coaching Boys into Men is a curriculum that supports teachers and coaches in guiding their students toward healthy interpersonal relationships.

An effort to quell violence on school property—especially in the wake of several school shootings—uniformed law enforcement officers are an increasingly visible presence in many schools. These School Resource Officers wear multiple hats: educator, informal counselor, and law enforcement officer. With proper training and supervision, they can be positive role models, build rapport with students, and help create school communities that are safe and secure environments for learning.8

Related Resources


National Association of School Psychologists
National Association of School Resource Officers
National Network of Partnership Schools
Start Strong: Building Healthy Teen Relationships

Web Sites

Child Welfare Information Gateway
Defending Childhood Initiative
Resources for School Personnel (National Child Traumatic Stress Network)
Stop Bullying Now
Supporting Safe Schools (Office of Community Oriented Policing Services)


Dating Matters: Understanding Teen Dating Violence Prevention


Child and Youth Victimization Known to Police, School, and Medical Authorities
Child Trauma Toolkit for Educators
Family-School Partnerships: Information and Approaches for Educators
The Heart of Learning: Compassion, Resiliency, and Academic Success
Helping Children Cope with Violence and Trauma: A School-Based Program That Works
Implementing an Effective School Resource Officer Program (Fact Sheet)
Psychological First Aid (PFA) for Students and Teachers: Listen, Protect, Connect—Model & Teach
Mandatory Reporters of Child Abuse and Neglect
Schools (Issue Brief 3 in Moving From Evidence to Action: The Safe Start Center Series on Children Exposed to Violence)
Suicide and Bullying (Issue Brief)
Trauma-Informed Care for Children Exposed to Violence: Tips for Teachers
Understanding Teen Dating Violence (Fact Sheet)
What Works for Bullying Programs: Lessons From Experimental Evaluations of Programs and Interventions (Research Brief)

1 D. Finkelhor, R. Ormrod, H. Turner, and S. Hamby (2012). Child and Youth Victimization Known to Police, School, and Medical Authorities. Washington DC: Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.

2 See, e.g., C.M. Perez and C.S. Widom (1994). Childhood victimization and long-term intellectual and academic outcomes, Child Abuse & Neglect 18(8), pp. 617–633.

3 S.I. Robers, J. Kemp, and J. Truman (2013). Indicators of School Crime and Safety: 2012. Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics, U.S. Department of Education, and Bureau of Justice Statistics, Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice.

4 Ibid.

5 J.M. Zweig, M. Dank, P. Lachman, and J. Yahner (2013). Technology, Teen Dating Violence and Abuse, and Bullying. Washington, DC: The Urban Institute.

6 C.P. Bradshaw, L. O’Brennan, and A.L. Sawyer (2008). Examining variation in attitudes toward aggressive retaliation and perceptions of safety among bullies, victims, and bully/victims. Professional School Counseling, 12(1), 10–21.

7 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Injury Prevention and Control (2012). Understanding Teen Dating Violence. Fact Sheet.

8 C. Na and D.C. Gottfredson (2011). Police officers in schools: Effects on school crime and the processing of offending behaviors. Justice Quarterly, pp. 1–32.