Compassionate Schools: It’s Not a Program, But a Process

hands2“You cannot address a student’s academic needs when they are in a state of fight or flight”, says Deborah Luckett, NC Licensed School Counselor and CLASS (Counselor Leaders Advancing School Safety) Grant Coordinator. She and David Thompson, the Director of Student Services at Buncombe County Public Schools wrote the grant that helped bring the Compassionate Schools model to Buncombe County Schools.

*Compassionate Schools is an initiative that focuses on students who are chronically exposed to stress and trauma in their lives. The goal is to keep students engaged and learning by creating and supporting a healthy climate and culture within the school where all students can learn. Compassionate Schools focuses on 10 key principles, including: focus on culture and climate in the school and community; train and support all staff regarding trauma and learning; identify vulnerable students; and determine outcomes and strategies for continuous quality improvement.

“The Compassionate School model is about building resiliency. It helps all students, but especially those who have experienced traumatic events and are living with chronic stress,” continues Luckett.

For the 2014-15 academic year, schools started implementing techniques they learned in the comprehensive training sessions to fully implement the compassionate schools model. For example, Eblen Intermediate has implemented the “Growth Mindset”, a technique that is as simple as adding the word “yet” to challenges students face. Instead of stating, “I can’t solve this problem,” the student is encouraged to say “I can’t solve this problem, yet.” It immediately instills a sense of hope and possibility into the situation.

The 2015-16 academic year will be the first full year that the nine Buncombe County pilot schools will implement the techniques and students’ social-emotional data will be collected. Each school received comprehensive training on the ACES study and how childhood trauma and chronic stress can affect a student’s academic and behavior performances, along with techniques on effective interventions. But how the schools will enlist the trainings and techniques is up to each individual school. “It would be much easier if this was a program, and not a process,” says Luckett, “but it wouldn’t be as effective.”

“Our schools will be putting the focus on understanding where the student is coming from, and what has led them to this point, instead of merely disciplining them.”

One major component that attracted Thompson to the Compassionate Schools model are the strategies that help engage the brain via “brain gym” techniques. These techniques help the students’ ability to think and solve problems as well as how to self-regulate, manage stress, solve problems, and apply knowledge academically.

“When we can positively impact these actions, the results are nothing less than phenomenal,” says Thompson. “Grades have been recorded, reviewed, and assessed since the first wooden schoolhouse was built in 1702, but we’ve never really had a way to measure social-emotional skills on any kind of ongoing basis. While school psychologists and counselors obviously play a key role in identifying issues in this regard, most didn’t historically get involved until a true “problem” was identified and needed addressing.”

With the awarding of the CLASS grant, a number of objectives have been put in place, *including improving student access to certified counselors and implementing trauma-focused school strategies. Schools will also implement comprehensive school counseling programs (to include research-based social emotional learning, anti-bullying strategies, and increased parent engagement) and digital accountability systems to monitor safe schools planning, responsive services, and individual behavior intervention.

In an effort to better gauge their students social-emotional skills, all students will go through a national-accredited screening process, with those students needing additional support receiving more in-depth screenings and interventions. School counselors will work with students in small groups that will teach techniques in problem solving, empathy, skills for learning and emotional management. Resiliency strategies will be offered to students who have experienced trauma, toxic stress, or intense anxiety, and suicide prevention programs will be put in place.

Thompson notes that academic data and interventions were always readily available, “but that was pretty much the end of the line. And while teachers and administrators accepted the fact that the gap existed, they’ve since come to understand the critical parallels among mental health, stability, and academic progress.”

*The social-emotional aspect of education is only going to grow in the coming years, and schools need to be ready to address it and intervene appropriately. According to the National Center for Homeless Education’s most recent data (National Center for Homeless Education, 2014), during the 2012-13 school year, 1,258,182 students enrolled in public schools across the country were homeless. That number represents an 8 percent increase over 2011-12, and a more than 85 percent increase from the 2006-07 school year (“pre-recession”). Of those more than 1.25 million students, the NCHE reports that 75,940 are unaccompanied youths (i.e., living on their own). Combine these numbers with the volume of K-12 students who are exposed to domestic violence, managing disabilities, and dealing with other situations that can cause chronic stress, and the need for schools to get involved with social-emotional development is both relevant and obvious.

Thompson is looking to change the question from “what is wrong with this child?”  to “what has happened to this child, and what can we, as educators, do to help him or her overcome these issues? When you look at the situation from this perspective, and when you enlist data and related tools into the equation, you come away with insights that were probably never even considered.”

*(Harnessing Student Data: Going Beyond the Numbers David Thompson, Director of Student Services at Buncombe County Public Schools)

For More Information 

The Compassionate Schools Initiative within Learning and Teaching Support provides training, guidance, referral, and technical assistance to schools wishing to adopt a Compassionate Schools Infrastructure. Compassionate Schools benefit all students who attend but focus on students chronically exposed to stress and trauma in their lives. These schools create compassionate classrooms and foster compassionate attitudes of their school staff. The goal is to keep students engaged and learning by creating and supporting a healthy climate and culture within the school where all students can learn. It is not a program; it is a process and as such is not “one size fits all.” Each school and community will develop their own unique compassionate “personality.”

Ten principles of a Compassionate School

  1. Focus on culture and climate in the school and community.
  2. Train and support all staff regarding trauma and learning.
  3. Encourage and sustain open and regular communication for all.
  4. Develop a strengths based approach in working with students and peers.
  5. Ensure discipline policies are both compassionate and effective (Restorative Practices).
  6. Weave compassionate strategies into school improvement planning.
  7. Provide tiered support for all students based on what they need.
  8. Create flexible accommodations for diverse learners.
  9. Provide access, voice, and ownership for staff, students and community.
  10. Use data to:
    • Identify vulnerable students, and
    • Determine outcomes and strategies for continuous quality improvement.

Staff from The Learning and Teaching Support section of OSPI and the Woodring College of Education at Western Washington University in Bellingham have co-written a 246 page handbook entitled The Heart of Learning and Teaching: Compassion, Resilience, and Academic Success as one resource to be used by those schools wishing to adopt a compassionate approach to learning and teaching.

The purpose of the handbook is to inform, validate, and strengthen the collective work of educators to support students whose learning is adversely affected by chronic stress and trauma. This handbook provides current information about trauma and learning, self care, classroom strategies, and building parent and community partnerships that work.

It includes many case studies and vignettes from classrooms across Washington as well as an introduction to the Compassionate Schools Initiative which has already been successfully implemented in several schools across Washington State.

From the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction at



This story is part of a series collected by The Success Equation. Under the umbrella of Children First/CIS, the Success Equation is an initiative that unites community to reduce and prevent the root causes of poverty so all children can thrive. Get involved! Learn about action steps, volunteer opportunities, and help share these messages by going to To find more, go to