Understanding Trauma-Informed Communities

Tuesday May 21st, 2024

Supporters of United Way know that community schools work to break down nonacademic barriers low-income children face keeping them from being successful in school. A child’s life circumstances can greatly impact their ability to learn and thrive. Members of Women United for Community Schools attended a presentation by Dr. Melanie Hetzel-Riggin, Director of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at Penn State Behrend and Professor of Psychology, titled “Understanding Trauma Informed Community in Community Schools.” Dr. Hetzel-Riggin shared how trauma impacts a child’s ability to learn and how the Community Schools Model is structured to address this nonacademic barrier to learning. 

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Dr. Hetzel-Riggin shared trauma is defined as an event, series of events or set of circumstances that are harmful or life-threatening and have lasting adverse effects on functioning.

When children experience trauma, their energy and focus go towards basic functions: keeping themselves safe, warm and fed. When these needs aren’t met or are threatened, children are unable to work on higher-level skill such as controlling emotional responses, relationship building, problem-solving and language development. 

 Many students in community schools are dealing with ongoing trauma; for many students, this is a result of living in poverty or low-income households. According to the US Census Bureau (2022), 33.8% of children in the city of Erie / 18.9% of children in Erie County are living below the poverty level. 


A trauma-informed community, then, values trauma-informed principles: safety, trustworthiness and transparency, peer support, collaboration and mutuality, empowerment, voice and choice, and considers cultural, historical and gender issues.

 Dr. Hetzel-Riggin then joined a panel with Meghan Easter, United Way’s Community School Director at Pfeiffer-Burleigh Elementary, and Rachel Pierce, United Way’s Community School Director at East. The three panel members answered questions from attendees about trauma-informed interventions already in place at each community school, and how the schools continue to grow and shift their approaches with data-driven information and input from their families.

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Bringing trauma-informed practices into community schools has required changes to classroom regulation and discipline. In many instances, children’s behavioral challenges stem from trauma and they have been unable to build the emotional and social skills required to thrive in school. Punishing children for what they have little control over is only another negative life experience and does not help to build these skills. The panelists discussed the positive outcomes they have seen when replacing punishment with positive reinforcement. Students receive recognition and incentives for good behavior.

Family relationships, community partnerships and bringing community support services directly into the school are at the core of United Way’s Community School Model. Building a trauma-informed school community is central to ensuring that students are prepared physically, socially and emotionally, to succeed in school and therefore in life. 

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