Why We Need Trauma Trained Educators for National and Regional Disaster Teams

Karen Gross
5 min readDec 8, 2017


Lately, I have been dealing on a number of fronts with natural disasters, and how to help schools and their educators can best deal with their aftermath. At the same time, I have been listening to and learning about disaster team efforts across our nation (from across state and federal government), teams that are dealing with the treacherous aftermath of person-made calamities (floods, fires, shootings, hurricanes, tornados, bombs and car/truck intentional crashes). When Veteran hospitals and facilities are at risk, the Department of Veterans Affairs offers their added expertise too.

The ongoing work is remarkable and noble, bringing our best technology and personnel efforts to the table. We can debate how effectively all these agencies/departments work together but there is no question about this: thoughtful people in many agencies and disciplines are efforting disaster remediation. They are being educated to handle the crises before them.

But, even the best prepared teams come to see that with each disaster, they miss some item(s) that affect the effectivenss of the relief efforts. One of the most recent is the fact that the navigation system WAZE sent drivers directly into the California fires, not away from them. That is because the algorithms showed low traffic on the proposed roots; the reason for the low traffic flow: fires were on or near the roads. Yipes. Another example: relief on an island is different from relief on our mainland, ramping up delivery and distribution challenges.

Recently, I listened to the stunning efforts of National Health IT Collaborative for the Underserved (NHIT) under the excellent leadership of Luis Belen. And, I learned of the many challenges (money among them) to facilitate recovery in Puerto Rico, where the level of damage to property, infrastructure and people is vast. For a look at these efforts (short and longer term), see:


But, here is what is troubling me. There are really two main parts of disaster relief: pre-incident planning and post-incident action. Ideally the latter informs the former so that with each disaster we get better and better, with improved coordination and technological interoperability. And the participants on disaster preparation include medical personnel, EMS and ambulance services, IT experts, communications and logistic professionals, pharmacology experts, transportation teams. There are also trained mental health experts that can be mobilized too, both psychiatrists and psychologists and I assume social workers. Telephyschiatry can be important for sure. All of these individuals get training — call it disaster education for a moment.

But, and this a big but, unless I have missed it, these teams have not included education experts who are trained to help students, parents and administrators restart schools and handle students between the time of the disaster and school re-opening. This isn’t, let’s be clear, about educating disaster teams; that happens. This is about educating educators and making these trained individuals part of teams that go into disaster-torn areas.

Some schools in these regions are destroyed. So are their books and supplies. Surely, we know instinctively that post-disaster, students should not return to classroom (whether in their old school or elsewhere) only to be met with the educational equivalent of “Let’s pick up where we were before we were so rudely interrupted. Please turn to Chapter 12, page 7.”

There are strategies that can help schools and their students post-disaster. This require assorted activities in which students can engage in, all designed to temper tensions and reestablish equilibrium; collaborations where students engage with those outside the school community to rebuild connection and trust; mechanisms for dealing with emotions, including through increased engagement between students and faculty/staff/ administrators; and scholarship as a surrogate word for changing the materials studied by students at all ages and stages, altering the educational activities in which students and teachers engage, and ramping up the ways professionals can write about the efforts they are deploying for their own benefit and the benefit of others.

It is not unintentional; the first letter of the words “activities,” “collaborations,” “emotions/engagement,” and “scholarship” form the acronym ACEs, referring to Adverse Childhood Experience Scores (something with which all educators should be familiar although they deal with small t trauma and the topic here is Big T trauma). (For more on the import of ACEs, see: www.breakawaylearners.com.)

We know that trauma affects children — starting at (if not before) birth. We know that infant connections to a mother are key and their absence can lead to brain changes. And we also know from developments in neurobiology that toxic stress and trauma (heightened by disasters) affect the hard wiring of the brain, which in turn an affect school performance, behavior, future health and mental well-being and educational success.

So, if we know this, it seems to me that need teams of educators who can go into disaster zones, much like other disaster relief workers. I appreciate that schooling and education are not as “imminent” a crisis as the need for dialysis when there is no power or the need to vacate premises when flood waters reach dangerous levels. But, if we can expand our lens to see the impact of disasters on the next generation and its well-being, perhaps we can do two things: be better prepared as educators whether the disaster is near or far and add educational trauma experts to teams from the get-go.

The time for doing this is now. Indeed, I am headed to Puerto Rico to read a childrens book that is particularly effective at bringing out issues of courage, strength and endurance, a book that is translated into Spanish. (Lady Lucy’s Quest and the Saga de las Senorita Sofia.) The program under which I am reading is sponsored by KPMG, and I am grateful for their support in purchasing the needed books. (I am volunteering my time and costs to travel to be clear.) But, bringing Lady Lucy/Senora Sofia (the central characters in the story) and sharing her with some of the children of a nation I care about deeply is one small piece of a vastly larger educational need.

I’d welcome sharing thoughts on the development of trauma trained educational teams. If they already exist, I’d like to know that. If not, what better time than now to do some disaster preparedness so that students of today and tomorrow are better able to navigate the precarious futures they will face. And for those organizing disaster teams now, if you want an educator trained in trauma, reach out. I’m more than willing — I am eager — to help.

For an updated version of this article, see: https://www.bbntimes.com/en/society/we-need-lasticity-trained-educators-on-disaster-teams-an-idea-as-we-enter-2018.

Note: I am deeply grateful to MW who introduced me to the whole field of disaster relief and with whom I share a deep commitment to improving the ever more traumatized world in which we live. He understands me; he understands the power of education; he understands how to make things happen, not in just words but in deeds. Juntos, creamos posibilidades y la esperanza. Permitimos que los sueños se hagan realidad.



Karen Gross

Author, Educator, Artist & Commentator; Former President, Southern Vermont College; Former Senior Policy Advisor, US Dept. of Education; Former Law Professor