Trauma-Informed, Resilience-Oriented Leadership

Progress Report Series Logo: What It Means to Be a School Leader

In our three-episode series, “What It Means to Be a School Leader”, Dr. Linda Henderson-Smith, a licensed counselor and a consultant for trauma-informed, resilience-oriented care with the National Council for Mental Wellbeing, will discuss how leaders can create a trauma-informed culture, guide their schools during times of transition, and lead when crisis strikes.

In the first episode of this series, Dr. Linda Henderson-Smith describes what a good leader is and what it means to be trauma-informed and resilience-oriented.


  1. Trauma-Informed, Resilience-Oriented Schools Toolkit

Other Episodes in the Series

Episode Transcript

Linda Henderson-Smith: Transformation is really about changing people’s knowledge, skills, attitudes and abilities, and so it’s the leader’s role to support that type of knowledge building, skills building, attitude changing and abilities. It’s their role to make sure that people are able to actually change. My name is Dr. Linda Henderson-Smith. I’m a licensed professional counselor and an educational psychologist by training.

Brent Miller: School leaders have a unique responsibility. From guiding educational goals to developing strategies for the physical safety and mental and emotional well-being of both staff and students, leaders are asked to juggle tasks and work with many diverse personalities. But what does it mean to be a good leader, and how can school leaders learn to collaborate well and be respectful of others’ experiences, perspectives and emotional needs? 

Hello, and welcome to Progress Report, a podcast produced by the National Center for School Safety, the STOP School Violence Program, National Training and Technical Assistance Center, funded by the Bureau of Justice Assistance. The Center is a project of the University of Michigan School of Public Health. 

In this series, What it Means to be a School Leader, Dr. Linda Henderson-Smith will discuss how leaders can create a trauma-informed culture, guide their schools during times of transition and lead when crisis strikes. In this episode, Dr. Henderson-Smith reminds us what a good leader is and what it means to be trauma-informed and resilience-oriented.

LH: Leadership in a school setting is two-fold; there’s building an administrative leadership like school principals, assistant principals, etcetera, and then there are those who actually utilize their relationships and have a circle of influence that is also a level of leadership within a school setting. So the teachers, school psychologists, school counselors, and the circle of influence that they have, they can also utilize those roles as leadership roles as well within a school setting.

BM: So what does it mean exactly for schools and their leaders to be trauma-informed and resilience-oriented?

LH: So trauma-informed, resilience oriented, also in schools called trauma-sensitive schools, is an innovation in which schools infuse the core values of trauma-informed care, which is safety, trustworthiness and transparency, choice, collaboration and empowerment into their multi-level system of supports practices, assessments and program adjustment.

BM: What would you say are the key elements of trauma-informed, resilience-oriented leadership?

LH: The key elements of trauma-informed, resilience-oriented schools and leadership are these four: They realize the widespread impact of trauma and understand the potential path for recovery from that trauma and really work to identify the programs and best practices, both individually and organizationally in the school that are proven to build resiliency at all levels. It’s important that we recognize that and identify how we can improve the resiliency for the students, for the teachers, and then for the school overall.

The second is that you recognize the signs and symptoms of trauma in our students, in our families, in our communities, in our teachers, and really work to create a culture within, or a school climate, where the effects of stress and trauma are proactively addressed instead of reactively. We don’t want to wait until everything happens and then react. We want to work to proactively build resilience in our students, in our communities, in our teachers and in our schools. So that we don’t necessarily have to be as reactive, but their safety and choice and trust and things built from the beginning, so that people can be flexible in those moments, because the definition of resilience is the ability to adapt to stress, trauma and tragedy, we want to build that, knowing that those things are coming.

The third is that we respond. We respond by fully integrating all of the information from the realizing and the recognizing into our policies, our practices, our procedures, and we work to actually create a shared vocabulary and skillset amongst our students, our teachers, our communities that really builds resilience in every aspects of the life of our schools, but also the people within it. And then the last is that we resist retraumatization and really work to improve the health of the entire school and the system within it, by promoting healing, restoration, health and growth in ongoing ways for students, parents, teachers, and community members. Those four elements, again, are the realizing, recognizing, responding and resisting.

BM: Keeping those elements in mind, what then does it mean to be a good school leader?

LH: So a good school leader is someone who’s willing to collaborate with and support their colleagues. One that listens to both staff students and parents, and they’re present with their staff and their students, and they’re willing to message and model the evidence-based actions and the trauma-informed practices that are necessary to create a warm, welcoming environment and still reach the outcomes that they need in the end.

BM: What does that look like in a real-world school context, do you have any examples of leaders who created that welcoming environment while also modeling trauma-informed, resilience-oriented practices?

LH: I mean, we’ve seen counselors, lead teachers and principals kind of head up the work to move towards trauma-informed, resilience-oriented schools, but one that comes to mind was an elementary school principal in Alaska that actually would schedule and attend all the monthly meetings with her team after school at home, where they ate together, they learned about trauma-informed practices together, and they planned what they needed to do with their team together, listening to everyone’s voices and everyone’s perspectives, and including that in the planning process.

BM: Implementing trauma-informed, resilience-oriented practices requires that school leaders be involved in the process and be willing to take an active role in the work necessary to make a desired change. If they don’t, teams can often become discouraged leaving work uncompleted. We’ve talked about how leaders can model good behaviors, but what happens if a leader instead falls short of supporting trauma-informed, resilience-oriented practices? And how can they fix any unproductive decisions they may have made in the past?

LH: Some of the examples that I think that stand out to me the most as it relates to leaders not necessarily supporting the work and creating some dysfunction in the team: The first one is Patrick Lencioni talks about the basic foundation of any team is trust. And so if a leader says, for example, that they’re gonna do this thing or we’re gonna make this change, but then they don’t participate in meetings, they don’t help with the messaging, they don’t engage in that, it sets a precedent for a lack of trust, which is the hugest dysfunction in most teams.

So in one team that we worked within Minnesota, the principal, which was also the kind of team lead, the assigned team lead, didn’t attend the trainings, didn’t attend the meetings, refused to actually message or even acknowledge the work that the Change Committee was doing. And so this team, because they didn’t have any leadership support pulled out of the change process and didn’t want to continue because they just felt like it was too huge of a barrier. Another team in Michigan where the Superintendent kind of allocated work to the district special education and student support leaders, but they themselves didn’t attend the trainings with the teams, didn’t look at how they could remove barriers for addressing the teams, and even when asked to come just welcome the teams to the change process, stood outside and refused to actually come and talk to them directly.

And so what that wound up doing was it created this… They had to re-do all their visions, they had to change the way the district work was kind of focusing, and it really kind of deflated the support that the teams had in making the change necessary towards being more trauma-informed and resilience-oriented. So in order to fix that, there has to be intentionality about team building and trust building in their communication from a leader perspective, and there’s got to be the ability for the leader to kind of give the work back to the team and allow them to have all of their voices heard and be an equal part of the conversation.

BM: It sounds like the tone a leader sets when adopting trauma-informed, resilience-oriented practices is really important. Can you explain what the leader’s role is when transitioning to a new policy?

LH: So the role of a leader during periods of transformation and transition is to be the catalyst for change. They are responsible for messaging and ensuring that people understand the vision and what role they all play in moving things forward, they are responsible for modeling the changes and the behavior that they want, and they are responsible for breaking down any barriers that might actually get in the way of the change. Transformation is really about changing people’s knowledge, skills, attitudes and abilities, and so it’s the leader’s role to support that type of knowledge building, skills building, attitude changing and abilities. It’s their role to make sure that people are able to actually change.

We were working with a school in the Alaska area, and instead of out-of-school suspensions, one of the things that a principal did was decide that as an alternative, they were gonna create Saturday school. But they didn’t just create it and then just put it off on someone else. Instead, they were the ones that came on those Saturdays, met with the students, engaged with the students, built relationships with the students and really engaged in projects with them to give back to the school. So they were working with the students to paint offices, clean up outside, hanging towel containers, all of those things that also taught skills and allowed them to build relationships, to understand what was really going on. And so in that process of transformation, they were able to build healthy healing relationships with those students and create an alternative that was beneficial for both sides.

BM: The goal of creating a trauma-formed, resilience-oriented school community is to make sure everyone in the school feels welcomed, supported, and in position to succeed. By following the six principles of what it means to be trauma-informed and resilience-oriented, which include being culturally competent, school leaders can work with the different members of their community to help make sure everyone feels welcomed, safe and respected. So Linda, what are the key principles of a successful trauma-informed, resilience-oriented school?

LH: The six principles are safety, but not just physical safety, I think a lot of times when people think of safety, that’s where they go to, but we’re also talking about academic safety, cultural safety, emotional and behavioral safety, social safety and moral safety. So ensuring that people feel like it’s okay, they can take care of themselves. It’s okay to make mistakes. It’s okay to engage and communicate with other people that something may be going on with them. That the school itself is actually practicing integrity in terms of fulfilling its role and rules and mission and vision as it relates to both students and staff, but also that people can be who they are culturally without fear of repercussion, so that’s the first principle.

The second one is that of trustworthiness and transparency. As we all know, the foundation to any relationship is trust and transparency and open communication. Collaboration and mutuality is the third one; looking at how we can work together, but also recognizing that everyone within the school system, students, parents, teachers, administrators, leadership, everyone should be able to work in a partnering fashion, so that there’s not as many power dynamics. Peer support, so looking at how to actually implement peer support as a vehicle for students and teachers. Empowerment, voice and choice, empowering those who have historically been marginalized and those who have not necessarily had a voice to not only recognize their voice, but utilize their voice and have choices in their life journey. And then as I just said, addressing the cultural-historical and gender-related issues.

BM: You mentioned that it’s important that people can be who they are culturally without fear of repercussions. Could you maybe explain a little bit more about how culturally competent care relates to trauma-informed, resilience-oriented care?

LH: Culturally competent care is actually a component of trauma-informed care. One of the values of Trauma-Informed care is addressing cultural-historical and gender-related issues, so in order to truly embrace trauma-informed care, you have to engage in culturally competent care as well as diversity equity and inclusion practices with staff and students alike.

BM: Do you have any examples of leaders who successfully implemented trauma-informed, resilience-oriented practices in their schools?

LH: So if you think back to the example that I gave of the principal who wanted the alternative to out-of-school suspension, realizing that out-of-school suspension actually creates a pipeline to prison, didn’t want that to happen, so really worked with the students, the parents, the community and the teachers to come up with what are some alternatives, because they realized that a lot of the students were actually traumatized. They were recognizing the signs and symptoms in their behavior and understanding that behavior is just communication of unmet needs. And so they responded by changing that policy and changing that practice so that they weren’t retraumatizing them. And it was a way for them to promote healing, restoration. If you did something against the school, you were able to do restorative practices and healing in growth in ongoing ways in terms of relationships, but also in terms of personal growth for the students.

BM: For most schools, it sounds like implementing these practices might involve needing to change some of their existing policies. Do you have any examples of when a leader changed a specific practice in order to become more trauma-informed and resilience-oriented?

LH: Another principal in the Alaska area. These children kept coming to their office for violations of the dress code as it related to hats, and so they decided to make some changes about that policy. And what they did was they decided to actually talk to the students and get the why, which was important, and then investigating and working with the teachers and figuring out why they were actually sending them to the office. If it was just because it was a policy and it was what they needed to do or if it really was a disruption. And so what they did eventually was change the rule, so that a student could wear their hat unless it was used to interfere with the learning of others, because some people may be wearing hats to cover up things related to poverty, etcetera, or related to some other things going on at home. And so there was this modification that was made by actually talking to the people that were involved in it to make things more trauma-informed in their policy.

BM: That seems like a really important point to remember, that talking with the people who are involved in a situation or who will be affected by a policy change can help make it a success. Why is it so important to include everyone in the decision-making process?

LH: So what you do by involving the people that are actually involved, if you identify a problem, by actually talking to the people that it impacts or that are involved in it, to understand better what’s going on and to get an idea of what compromise can happen, you create an environment where people aren’t punished per se, and aren’t scared of teachers or scared of administrators. You create an environment that allows for mutuality and collaboration in ensuring that people feel safe to be themselves and to ask questions, which ultimately creates a much better school climate and has also demonstrated some change in terms of school safety. When people feel like those around them actually care about them and that they have a voice, they tend to feel socially safe, academically safe and psychologically safe, which is huge components of school safety as well.

BM: Implementing new trauma-informed, resilience-oriented practices can often involve taking risks, which some colleagues and other community members may not always agree with. However, disagreements are normal and to be expected when changes are being made. It is up to the school leader to communicate what the change is, why it’s necessary and to remain open to others’ concerns.

LH: Resistance is actually expected in all things related to change. And so generally speaking, you have about 20% of the people that are like, “Yes, let’s go, change,” right? You have about 60% that are like, “I don’t really know, I have questions, maybe I’m okay with this. Maybe I’m not.” And you have about 20% that are gonna be resistant and dig in their heels. A leader’s role is to really ensure and make sure that any of the concerns or issues that those that are resistant or the questions that those that are like on the fence have, that those are communicated, messaged and resolved in order to really move forward.

BM: What type of risks might schools need to take in order to implement trauma-informed, resilience-oriented practices, and what role does a leader play in taking those risks?

LH: A school leader or a principal can take the lead in making changes that involve the risk of alienating parents, teachers and school board members who don’t understand why the change is being made. These can include things like moving away from suspension, having teachers address behavior actually in the classroom, and changing policies that are not really trauma-informed and interfere with students engaging and learning. So what’s really important is, again, for leaders to take the approach of communicating for buy-in with all stakeholders, so that they understand why the change is necessary, what’s going to happen, and how it’s going to happen and what some of those potential risks may be. Answering questions is one of the best ways, and really getting the feedback and ensuring that people are bought into what they’re trying to do is necessary when really determining if the risks are worth taking.

BM: When creating a trauma-informed, resilience-oriented school, it may sometimes be necessary to move away from practices or procedures that have long been in use. Dr. Henderson-Smith provides three examples of practices that might need to be changed and what a leader should do when they realize a practice or procedure is not trauma-informed or resilience-oriented.

LH: The first one that pops in my mind is that of authoritarian disciplinary practices that were… Are kind of based in a specific set of consequences and without the exploration of the actual context. So without asking why things were happening, what was going on, what winds up happening is, it just created more problems. It didn’t actually fix the problem. Those that get disciplined don’t necessarily stop the behavior, it just continues in different ways.

So the next one is kind of channeling all the parent engagement specific activities, like open houses or 20-minute conferences where information is given to the parents without the ability to process it or without context, or even talking to the parents about their perspectives and their considerations.

And then the third one is the creation of staff evaluation procedures that are limited to one or two observations, and the sharing of those conclusions by the administrator and the staff has little to no input in that, so those would be three kind of examples that I can think of.

BM: How should leaders approach changing existing policies and practices?

LH: I think I’ve said this a lot today. For me, the first thing you gotta do is bring together a group of people to really explore research, consider and propose a more inclusive process. So it should be cross-representative, so students, families, teachers, leaders, frontline staff, like it should be a cross-representation to really get all of the different perspectives. And then really focusing on how or what the problem is and what some potential fixes to those problems are. And I think that’s always important. Making sure that you find a way to gather input, not just from that team, but from all staff, all parents or students, depending on who’s being impacted by that system and process. So whether that be through surveys or focus groups or interviews, just making sure that there’s a way to actually gather the information, if possible, both quantitative and qualitative, that can give you perspective of what’s going on.

Remain in close communication with the workgroup, the working group that you pull together to create the plan of how to fix things. Especially if you’re not gonna be actually attending, it’s important to create a communication, not feedback, but a communication process to make sure that you understand what’s going on and how you can best support that team in moving forward. And then be there for the team; message alongside them, make sure that if they need you to communicate things to support what they’re doing, that you’re there in those ways to message and be supportive.

BM: Building trust is a key component of any school leader’s job, and it is especially important when introducing new trauma-informed, resilience-oriented practices. Leaders need to build trust not only with staff and other colleagues, but with students and their support networks, including parents and guardians. And when that trust is lost or leaders are faced with disagreement, they need to know how to remain resilient themselves and what actions they could take to begin rebuilding lost trust.

LH: The key to all things trust-building is active listening: Not listening to respond, but actually listening to hear and understand what people are actually saying. People tend not to listen to you until they feel heard. And so as a leader, it’s important for you to actively listen and really gain an understanding of what the pain points are for people and to really work to understand instead of respond.

And then, as I said, communicate, communicate, communicate. If people feel like you’re hiding things from them, if they’re not aware of what it is that you’re doing, why you’re doing it, how you’re gonna do it, what you’re gonna do, etcetera, trust is broken. And so you’ve gotta make sure that you’re looking at how you can always communicate, communicate and over-communicate some more, and also make sure that you are acknowledging people in positive ways. Appreciation goes a long way.

So recognizing that if you want people to trust you, you can’t be judgmental, just like you’re asking them not to be judgmental of you, and being willing and able to separate the fact that people and whom they are is not necessarily the behavior that you see. The behavior is a communication of an unmet need, but that doesn’t mean that that’s who they are. And so you’ve gotta be willing and able to communicate that those are two different things and treat people as the people that they are, students, teachers, community stakeholders, whoever they are, not necessarily just their behavior in that moment.

BM: When updating existing practices or implementing new policies, who should school leaders be communicating with about the change?

LH: I’m an avid believer that any decision that’s going to affect somebody, they should be a part of the process and the decision-making process, but also should be communicated with. It shouldn’t be a surprise, like, “Oh, by the way, ha ha, we just made this whole change in policy and practice and nobody knew anything about it.” That actually induces more resistance to the change to happen. So all stakeholders being involved, so students, teachers, board members, parents, community members. It’s important to ensure that we’re actually communicating to the why, the how and the what that we’re talking about doing, and we’re getting their feedback and addressing their concerns along the way.

BM: That sounds like a great way for leaders to build trust with their community, but what are some things leaders could do if they face resistance or if trust is broken, how can they get it back?

LH: I think the first thing is for leaders to realize and recognize their own boundaries and limits. I think it’s important for us to ensure as leaders that we do and model our own self-care, whatever that may look like, and we set our own healthy boundaries in order to ensure that we have the ability to take care of ourselves as well. The second is to really develop peer support. Find other leaders within the school system or across the country, or what other leaders that you can lean on and talk to when you need that type of peer support. Peer support is a huge component to all of our wellness. Feeling happens in relationships, and so we have to ensure that we can connect with others.

And then I think the other thing about remaining resilient when confronted with adversity or setbacks or any of that. Or when trust is broken is if you mess up, admit it. Model the ability to say, “I’m sorry, I messed up. How can I fix it? What is it that you need from me in order to rebuild this relationship?” Or, “Okay, we tried this, it didn’t work. Let’s try something different.” Whether it’s the process or the actual relationship, both can actually be rebuilt and resilience can really be learned.

BM: Consistency is vital when transforming schools to be more trauma-informed and resilience-oriented. Dr. Henderson-Smith reminds us of this key fact and summarizes the practices that leaders can use to make themselves and their schools more trauma-informed and resilience-oriented.

LH: Consistency is key as it relates to transformation. One of the things that is really important is once a mission and a vision is created, that mission and vision needs to actually stay consistent in order for the work to be done. In order for change to happen, it’s necessary for a vision, an action plan, resources and some other things to be put in place. And a leader’s role is to ensure that those things are constant and that as people can learn and grow, and attitudes change and things of that nature, that they’re growing with and leading the pack on ensuring that those things are fulfilled.

BM: We’ve had a wide-ranging conversation today. What are some of the key facts that you think school leaders should take away from this discussion?

LH: I think the first one would be that of trauma-informed supervision principles and practices. So really looking at how we provide supervision to those that work for us and how we can infuse both the administrative work, but also the reflective work of checking in and building relationships in supervision. I think we oftentimes forget that the people that work with us are actually human beings and have other parts of their lives besides the work that they are here to do. And as supervisors and leaders, it’s important for us to recognize that and engage in conversation about how those two things may be interconnected.

I think the other… Some of the other tools, Brene Brown talks a lot about vulnerability, courage and fear, and recognizing that courage and fear are not mutually exclusive. You can be both at the same time, but it also requires a level of vulnerability. So leaders need to be willing to be vulnerable and be transparent about whom they are, what they struggle with, and how they can actually work to create relationships with others.

The third would be, of course, self-awareness, but also self-grace and self-love. Allowing us to understand that leadership is a growing growth-oriented process. It’s ongoing, and there’s continuous quality improvement and performance improvement that can and should happen. And so we’ve got to really work towards living in our values, never being silent about those hard things and kind of stepping into that void of when people don’t want to do the hard work, modeling that and making sure that that continues to happen.

Ultimately, any trauma-informed, resilience-oriented leader needs to recognize their humanity, but also the humanity of the people that we work with. So it’s important to understand that as humans, mistakes will happen, stuff happens, and so we’ve got to really kind of step into that and lean into that and work towards creating the relationships that can allow for the resilience and the bounce back when those types of things happen.

BM: Thank you for tuning into this episode. For more information about the National Center for School Safety, visit our website: You can also check us out on Twitter and Facebook. This episode of Progress Report was produced by the National Center for School Safety at the University of Michigan School of Public Health. Additional resources and information can be found in the show notes and music is thanks to Makaih Beats.

This project was supported by cooperative agreement, Number 2019-YS-BX-K001, awarded by the Bureau of Justice Assistance. The Bureau of Justice Assistance is a component of the US Department of Justice’s Office of Justice Programs, which also includes the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the National Institute of Justice, the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, the Office for Victims of Crime and the Office of Sex Offender Sentencing, Monitoring, Apprehending, Registering and Tracking. Points of view or opinions in this document are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the official position or policies of the US Department of Justice.

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31 min.

Topic Areas

Capacity Building, Comprehensive School Safety Plans