top of page
  • Writer's pictureChristine

Trauma-informed Design Evaluation Tool for K-12 Schools Is Here!

Updated: Nov 22, 2023

is pleased to announce the new

This tool is the first of its kind--an evidence-based tool to facilitate interior design renovations and new builds of K-12 schools! It can be used to evaluate the physical space and identify changes that can lower the stress levels of students and staff. The tool is grounded in the Substance and Mental Health Services Administrations' guidance for a trauma-informed approach, the Trauma-informed Design (TiD) Society's framework, and feedback from almost 100 educators, school administrators, and designers across the country.

This project, which was supported by the American Society of Interior Designers (ASID) Foundation and had institutional review board (IRB) approval, brought together educators and designers to bridge the gap in their understanding and areas of expertise and identify design impacts on educational outcomes. The Society partnered with nine schools nationwide, to evaluate their spaces and gather information about when and where students and staff experience the most dysregulation, and used this information to inform the creation of an evaluation tool for schools and designers.

Trauma's Impact on Education

Traumatic stress can cause lasting brain changes, impact memory, and alter biochemistry levels. This can lead to dysregulated nervous systems, impaired ability to modulate emotional highs or lows outside the “Window of Tolerance.” When students’ stress responses result in hypoarousal, behaviors are misinterpreted as lazy or unengaged, while those experiencing hyperarousal can be seen as disruptive, willfully disobedient, threatening, aggressive, or even dangerous. Schools’ response to these behaviors often escalate into harsh discipline measures, including seclusion, restraint, suspensions, expulsions, and school arrests.

Additional responses to traumatic events include difficulty concentrating, rumination, racing thoughts, time/space distortion, difficulty making decisions, and suicidal thinking. These then create barriers to the higher-level rational thinking required to engage in schoolwork. Studies demonstrate that individuals exposed to toxic stress exhibit “problems in cognitive control and learning.”

If youth are not provided both a safe environment and the skills to reduce their stress levels, they will not be able to access educational opportunities provided by their schools. Trauma-informed design becomes essential when looking at school spaces such as classrooms, regulation rooms, availability of outdoor spaces, and even hallways and bathrooms. The composition of the interior environment has the capability of transforming students’ emotional and behavioral health and supporting better learning outcomes.

Disproportionate Impact on Marginalized Communities

Data indicates a high prevalence of ACEs in marginalized communities. People with disabilities are more likely to have experienced ACEs than the general population. There is also a dose-response relationship between ACEs and children with special health care needs: 14.3% of children with no ACEs had special health care needs, increasing to 43.5% among children whose parents reported 4 or more ACEs.

There are racial disparities as well. Reports of ACEs varied significantly by race/ethnicity and household income. At 36.2%, American Indian/Alaska Native families reported the highest percentage of children with 2 or more ACEs, while the lowest was reported by Asian families (6.0%). Across race/ethnicity groups, the percentage of children with 2 or more ACEs decreased as household income increased. The results also show that Black children were:

  • Reported to have higher ACE scores than white children; and

  • Over-represented among children with 2 or more ACEs.

Additionally, more than 70% of LGBTQ students reported feelings of worthlessness and hopelessness within the past week, and only 26% always feel safe in their classrooms. LGBTQ+ youth are more likely to attempt suicide, use illegal drugs, or experience homelessness, anxiety, depressive symptoms, and feelings of isolation. Those who are gender nonconforming are at increased risk for childhood abuse and school victimization.

In addition to being more at risk for trauma, students from marginalized communities are also more likely to incur disproportionately harsh school discipline. Suspension and expulsion rates for BIPOC students—especially BIPOC girls—are significantly higher than for white students. Students with disabilities receive twice as many out-of-school suspensions than those without disabilities, and BIPOC students with disabilities are disproportionately physically restrained and placed in seclusion or involuntary confinement. Black students represent 27% of students referred to law enforcement and 31% of students subjected to a school-related arrest, despite making up only 16% of student enrollment.

Leveraging Design

The space in which students learn can communicate safety and promote secure attachments with teachers, or it can symbolize lack of dignity and agency, encouraging re-traumatization. With an evidence-based TiD approach, schools can create environments which help students remain within their window of tolerance, and ideally expand this tolerance zone. The window of tolerance is the arousal zone that allows a person to be at an optimal state of alertness, neither over- nor under- stimulated.

Trauma-informed design is an emerging field, with initial conceptual frameworks being proposed by designers and other TiD practitioners. As more designers apply this approach, the need for a scalable, adaptable set of design imperatives becomes essential. Different people, cultures, environmental context, places, and spaces require varying TiD design imperatives. Existing design approaches, such as: inclusive, sensory, therapeutic, resilient, salutogenic, and biophilic design inform the TiD approach.

The first step in applying trauma-informed design guidelines is the ability to evaluate the space appropriately. Using feedback from designers and architects, we identified stressors and potential triggers in the participating school's spaces, which informed the creation of the TiDEvalK12. Facilitating calm, yet alert, behaviors through interventions in the physical design of schools, will support K-12 educators to apply an integrated trauma-informed approach. Designers are key partners in developing K-12 spaces that facilitate the educational approach to developing safe, caring, and effective environments.

Bridging the Gap

The TiDEvalK12 provides a lens through which users can better understand the relationship between spatial and interior design elements and student experiences and behaviors. In order to achieve trauma-informed design, it is necessary to bridge communication between educators and designers. Both groups bring valuable experience and knowledge, but cannot be fully understood without a common language. The tool provides an opportunity to create greater insight into both common and unique needs of each school and the ways in which designers can help.

Using the Tool

The tool identifies and defines several key domains, and provides users a score in each. This can alert users to areas that might be contributing most significantly to dysregulation within the school. Schools are encouraged to have both, designers and school professionals familiar with the space, complete the tool and engage in conversations about their perceptions and experiences. These observations can inform decisions about the school community and the types of changes that will be most successful.

TiD Society's Hypothesis & Next Steps

The Trauma-informed Design Society hypothesizes that evidence-based, trauma-informed designed schools can reduce stress levels of staff and students, resulting in:

  • Less dysregulation;

  • A reduction in harsh disciplinary measures; and

  • Increased learning.

Students should be more able to self-regulate, and would have a place where they can safely do so, reducing the need for discipline measures. Over time, students' academic performance should increase, as they are more able to access the classroom material.

Now that the TiDEvalK12 tool has been developed,

we can't wait for schools to apply it to their spaces!

encourages schools to reach out

for help in applying the tool

and interpreting its results.

Please reach out with any feedback, questions, or concerns about the tool as you apply it in your community. It is our intention to use such feedback to continue refining the instrument over time. Please also stay tuned for an eventual TiDEvalK12 toolkit, which would provide evidence-based design recommendations to address areas of concern identified by the tool.

Eventually, we would also love to partner with one or more schools for a longitudinal study. We would start by collecting baseline data on academic performance and use of school discipline, including removal from the classroom, isolation, detention, physical restraint, suspension, arrest/school security/resource officer involvement, and expulsion. We would then provide an evaluation of their school environment using the TiDEvalK12 tool, and work with the school to help them implement recommended changes. Following the changes, we would follow:

  • The academic performance of the students, to see if it improves; and

  • The use of school discipline, to see if it decreases.

Please do not hesitate to reach out to us, the Trauma-informed Design Society is here to help you create learning spaces that sooth the nervous system in a revolutionary way!

Immense Gratitude

This project would not have been possible without the many people and organizations that partnered with us to make it a reality.

First and foremost, this research would never have been conceived without the generous support of the forward-thinking ASID Foundation's Transform Research Grant Program. The program provides essential funding to address critical gaps in industry knowledge, advance design understanding, and transform the practice of interior design for improving the human experience. Thank you for recognizing how the TiDEvalK12 tool's development merged with your focus on how diversity, equity, and inclusivity can be supported through interior design!

Next came the brave schools, that put their faith in the Society, and offered up their time, encouraged staff to participate in surveys and interviews, and offered up photographic and other evidence for a new type of critique. Without your participation, we wouldn't have been able to create a tool that accurately represents the reality of today's schools.

Thank you, also, to Erin Peavey, Design Research and Architect and HKS, Inc.! Erin was vital in offering an outside perspective and helping us develop our methods with laser-sharp focus.

To the team at Huckabee, including Vice President of Educational Practice Kerri Brady, Fay Perez, and Rob Robbins, who swooped in when our deadlines loomed, words cannot express how thankful we are! You helped us stay on track and collect the feedback from designers and architects that was an integral part of this process. We wish you all the best as you continue to build for education, with physical and emotional safety as a foundational pillar of design.

Finally, thank you to all the designers and architects who offered their critique of the evidence provided by our partner schools. Your feedback was invaluable, and formed the springboard from which we began constructing the TiDEvalK12 tool.

The Trauma-informed Design Society is a transdisciplinary team with a focus on turning research into practice, and back into research. Located across the United States, the Society merges the co-founders’ extensive experience in human services and interior design with an understanding of trauma science, to help organizations implement a trauma-informed approach in their services and create stress-reducing physical spaces.

With the Society's involvement on a project, designers and architects can rest easy knowing that they are receiving the best-of-the-best in this field. As leaders of one of the only trauma-informed design organizations in the world, their knowledge of this burgeoning field enables them to provide a service to firms which is uniquely beneficial for each specific project and the occupants they will serve. They bring empathy, while using evidence-based design practices to enhance the experience of the end-users of created spaces. This results in safe, holistic, soothing, forward-thinking design. With their combined experience, they bring the elusive element of resilience to projects, resulting in deeply profound and successful designs that can be showcased.

Project Team

J. Davis Harte, PhD, was this project’s principle investigator and the Director and Faculty of the Design for Human Health master’s program at the Boston Architectural College. She is WELL AP credentialed—a health and well-being credential that denotes expertise in the WELL Building Standard.

Co-leader of Global Birth Environment Design Network (GBEDN) and co-founder of the Trauma informed Design Society, she is educator, advocate, practitioner, and speaker bridging trauma-informed designed spaces, children’s places, and also birth environments with brain, neuroscientific and environmental psychological knowledge. Davis holds a PhD in Health from the University of Technology Sydney, investigating “‘The Childbirth Supporter Study’: Video-ethnographic examination of the physical birth unit environment.” Her Master’s degree in Design for Human Environments (interiors) investigated preschool children’s attentional behaviors.

Janet Roche, MDS, Janet Roche is a leader in designing for health and wellness and is faculty at the Boston Architectural College (BAC) where she has taught Environmental Health, Human Conditions + Design, and, currently, Biophilia. She also sits as the BAC’s current Chair of the Alumni Advisory Council.

She owns Janet Roche Designs, LLC, which specializes in universal design, and the design of environments for those who are aging in place or seeking accommodations for other human conditions such as physical, psychological, or cognitive differences. Her company believes that they can find real design solutions to the human condition. In 2019, she launched her own podcast, Inclusive Designers™ (IDP) where she is a host, co-producer, and writer. As she is a longtime advocate for dignity in design, IDP is a collaborative forum for designers to share creative ideas for different human conditions for inclusivity, equality, and diversity.

In addition to her Masters in Design for Human Health from BAC, Janet holds a B.S. in Social Work from Boston University and a Certificate of Business and Management from Harvard University Extension School. She was named Woman of the Year in 2011 by the National Association of Professional Women. She sits on a variety of boards and committees. She is active in her hometown of Boston, is a Red Sox fan, and you can find her on the slopes of Killington, Vermont in the winter, where she is a volunteer ski instructor for Vermont Adaptive Ski and Sports with the Professional Ski Instructors of America.

Christine Cowart, MA, is a dually-certified trauma professional and human services policy analyst, focusing on justice systems and family services. Her career includes working as a legislative analyst in two states, analyzing programs for the New York State Division of Parole, and serving as a contract and grant specialist for the Vermont Department for Children and Families, where she co-chaired a racial equity workgroup. She is currently the policy manager for the Vermont Department of Corrections.

Christine is married, and an adoptive mother of two children with traumatic backgrounds. In her spare time, she volunteers as a member of her local school’s diversity, equity, and inclusion committee and as an adaptive sports instructor.

Her experiences have led her to develop an understanding of trauma, its possible effects, and what can be done to change the story. Christine founded Cowart Trauma Informed Partnership to help others implement trauma-informed practices.

Recognizing that the physical spaces in which we spend time can impact our perceptions, stress levels, and ability to regulate our emotional responses and behaviors, Christine joined forces with Davis and Janet and cofounded the Trauma-informed Design Society.

Molly Pierce, OTR/L, is a Pediatric Occupational Therapist (OT) for 35 years, with specialties in neurodevelopment and sensory processing/integration. She is currently working as a school based OT supporting K-12 students and schools in developing sensory spaces for all students. She holds a Masters degree in Arts Management and certificate in Nonprofit Management, with focus on arts and the design for human health. Molly served as an adjunct faculty for 23 years, with the University of Oregon’s Health & Science University's Child Development and Rehabilitation Center, offering graduate-level instruction to University of Oregon Special Education and Early Intervention programs. She has expanded to include community cultural development and collaborative work, through art and the creation of sensory spaces that support health. Molly focuses on thoughtful and innovative design of environments, through the lens of sensory processing that support all abilities.

573 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page