Healing School Systems

School systems throughout the United States need collective healing. The COVID-19 pandemic sent a shock through the nation resulting in many families experiencing job loss, food insecurity, increased financial and emotional stress, and mental health issues for the first time, while exacerbating such issues for many other families who already experienced them. And as schools reopened after extended closures, teachers reported being more stressed than before the pandemic, highlighting the cumulative effects of a year of remote and hybrid instruction, COVID-19 variants upending in-person instruction, the need to address students’ unfinished learning while also attending to their social and emotional needs, and severe staffing shortages burdening an already taxed workforce.

This brief describes the experiences of three educational systems that are striving to address the adversity that affects their school communities. They are shifting away from reactive, student-level interventions and exclusion in response to challenging student behavior, and toward whole-system approaches focused on healing, prevention, and cultivating psychologically safe and supportive environments for all. A whole-system healing-centered, trauma-engaged approach moves beyond viewing trauma as an individual experience and recognizes that there is collective trauma affecting the entire school community, thus, a need for collective healing. This brief is based on lessons learned from conversations with state and district leaders, who shared their insights on how they are recognizing the presence of chronic stress and trauma in their staff members and students; interrogating their systems, policies, and practices; and providing resources to the teaching workforce, so educators can both be healers for students and receive healing support for themselves.

Structural and policy changes

  • Initiatives or frameworks to guide system-level change
  • Reviewing district policies
  • Using data to track resources and implementation

Support to increase educators’ capabilities to heal and promote their well-being

  • Professional development in healing-centered, trauma-engaged practices
  • Shifting mindsets through critical discussions
  • Professional learning communities
  • Empowering teachers to create trauma-engaged initiatives
  • Mental health and behavioral health teams at schools
  • Resources to promote the well-being of school leaders and staff members
  • Reflective supervision

Document Details

Publication Type
April 2022
Portilla, Ximena. 2022. “Healing School Systems.” New York: MDRC.