How A Boston School Uses Design To Help Heal Students’ Trauma

How A Boston School Uses Design To Help Heal Students’ Trauma

Codman Academy's second-floor hallway makes a gentle path-like curve. Behind glass windows, middle school literacy specialist Kristen O'Brien works with students. Grasses and twigs are sandwiched into the bottom panes. Much of the school is lined with natural woods and has large windows to connect students with the natural environment. (Peter Balonon-Rosen/WBUR)

Codman Academy’s second-floor hallway makes a gentle path-like curve. Behind glass windows, middle school literacy specialist Kristen O’Brien works with students. Grasses and twigs are sandwiched into the bottom panes. Much of the school is lined with natural woods and has large windows to connect students with the natural environment. (Peter Balonon-Rosen/WBUR)

BOSTON — Walk into any classroom, in any school, and you’re likely to find students suffering from severe trauma. Even students in kindergarten? Unfortunately, yes.

When Dorchester’s Codman Academy Charter School expanded to include kindergarten students two years ago, executive director Meg Campbell found herself face to face with this sad fact.

“The children coming in, the 4- and 5-year-olds, so many of them were so … traumatized,” recalls Campbell. “Clearly traumatized.”

She was seeing the kind of severe trauma that typically runs rampant across all grades in urban schools. Trauma from constant exposure to violence. From emotional, physical or sexual abuse. From daily worries about food, housing or safety. Beyond that, those kindergartners had grown up in the aftermath of the 2008 recession and as a result, Campbell says, had many of their social services cut.

Now, to support its entire student body, Codman has turned somewhere unique: the very walls of the building that its lower and middle schools moved into this year. Using what’s known as “trauma-informed building design,” the newly renovated space harnesses architecture as a tool to address students’ social and emotional needs.

A Unique Footprint

As Codman principal Thabiti Brown walks the halls, he seems to know every student in the school, which currently houses kindergarten through seventh grade. (The school is still expanding year by year, so the lower school doesn’t yet have a fourth grade.) As Brown leaves a second-grade classroom, he sees a young student named Bryan standing in the hallway.

The second grader has been removed from class. But instead of scolding him, Brown does something else. Something surprising.

“I’m proud of you,” says Brown with a smile. He shakes Bryan’s hand, and the two exchange a high-five.

Bryan has been removed from class, yes, but it was by his own doing: He decided that he wanted some alone time to calm down. At Codman, students “pick their own fix” when teachers say they’ve been acting out of line. It’s a way staff members try to empower students even in matters of discipline.

“One of the things that is unique about this institution is that we try to not make it an institution. We try to really think about it as a family of learners, students, staff and parents,” says Brown. “And in that we also have a lot of trust for the people we’re working with.”

But where he and Bryan are standing is also unique. While many schools have long, uniform corridors with few distinguishing features, this building for the Codman lower and middle schools is different. (There’s also a high school, in another building.)

Here the second-floor hallway makes a gentle curve, more winding path than hall. Tiles in different colors lie scattered across the floor like fallen leaves. Rooms with glass walls jut out into the hallway, with real grasses and twigs sandwiched between some panes.

Although it may not immediately look that way, they’re all elements of the school’s intentional, trauma-informed design.

“We want every cue that tells you you’re home. You’re safe and you’re home. Because if you don’t have emotional and physical safety, you can’t really learn,” says Campbell.

Every room in the building is a different size and shape. Each classroom has its own color. These visual cues can resonate with children, subtly telling them that the classroom they spend their days in is different, special. That the classroom is theirs.

“What we needed was a design that would serve our neediest children, our most traumatized children,” says Campbell. “Kind of using the idea of universal design, like, if a child needs a wheelchair, we put in the ramp for everybody. Same sort of design here, of taking trauma-informed classrooms and applying it to physical space.”

Addressing Trauma In The School Building

So what exactly are trauma-informed classrooms? They’re classrooms that revolve around a simple idea: Kids who have experienced unresolved trauma or carry around toxic levels of stress simply can’t learn.

In trauma-informed spaces, teachers acknowledge that the student who puts his or her head down, refuses to participate, explodes at a classmate or curses at a staff member is not a bad kid who need to be disciplined.

Perhaps, instead, the child recently woke to a mother’s screams in the middle of the night, dialed 911 in terror, then watched as the police took Dad to jail and Mom to the hospital. Maybe it happened last night. Or last week. Or even last month, but the student is just now processing it.

“The only tools they may have at the moment might be what look like a temper tantrum,” says Campbell. “But there might be something much more going on.”

Much, much more.

“They may be homeless, they may not have food at home, they may be victims of abuse, or they may have someone in their family who may be addicted to a substance,” says Ronesha Herron, an in-home therapist with Children’s Services of Roxbury.

Herron is a Codman graduate who now volunteers at the school, working with at-risk students alongside Codman’s social worker. She knows what may seem like “bad behavior” can often be a consequence of traumatic circumstances.

“They start to act out in those ways because they don’t know how to express it; they don’t know how to talk to somebody about it,” says Herron. “The only way for them to get the attention that they need is to act out, but some perceive it as being bad.”

Trauma-informed classrooms, like the ones at Codman, say that instead of punishment, these kids need support. With this acknowledgment, schools across Massachusetts operate school-based student support teams and coordinate with outside services, like health centers, to address student needs.

Other schools have begun to implement specific curricula designed to teach positive behavior, emotional management and self-regulation. Different approaches can target students with particular experiences — homelessness, incarcerated parents, exposure to violence — or target the school as a whole.

Making Trauma-Informed Care Visible

But how do you apply this approach to physical space? Executive director Campbell and the Codman team worked with architects from Miller Dyer Spears (MDS), a Boston-based architecture firm, to find out.

“As a design concept we took the idea of a calming environment, so we went with the idea of a ‘Walk in the Woods,'” says Gaia Grazia Giudicelli, an MDS architect who helped design the school. “So the kids that came here would feel in a natural environment, in a welcoming environment.”

The “Walk in the Woods” theme is both calming and rooted in health care history.

In 1984, a landmark study by environmental psychologist Robert Ulrich found that, all other things being equal, hospital patients who saw leafy trees from their windows healed faster and with fewer post-surgical complications than patients who saw only buildings. Other studies have concluded that viewing nature reduces anger and anxiety, sustains attention and promotes interest.

The MDS design team believed that open spaces and natural materials — wood, grasses, twigs and the like — could translate this concept into a school. For instance, in the school’s dance studio, they chose natural wood interiors and bright windows.

Kaleisha Chance, Codman Academy dance instructor, poses in the school's dance studio. (Peter Balonon-Rosen/WBUR)

Kaleisha Chance, Codman Academy dance instructor, poses in the school’s dance studio. (Peter Balonon-Rosen/WBUR)

To strike a delicate balance between exposed areas and intimate spaces, the designers embraced glass walls on some rooms, which allow a single line of sight down their path-like hallway, plus nooks with benches.

“For this school, it was having that openness and creating this visual communication between teachers and students,” says Nereyda Rodriguez, director of sustainable design at MDS. “But also allowing students to feel that wherever they are in the school they’re always safe, there’s always someone looking out for them.”

Trauma-informed design seems to be on the rise. The concept is simple: Use aesthetics to help people avoid triggers and ultimately recover from past experiences. Another trauma-informed project, a Los Angeles apartment complex aesthetically designed for people recovering from homelessness, partly inspired Codman’s look.

“We have to start thinking about buildings not just for the space itself, but for the people. That’s not just trauma-informed design, that’s in general,” says architect Giudicelli. “It’s good advice to think about who you have in the space and connect with them not just from an architectural standpoint, but also from a psychological standpoint — trying to understand how people use the space and how people understand the space.”

For that reason, Campbell, the executive director, was adamant that the school would not splash all of their walls in bright, primary colors. Those colors can be a trigger for students with autism.

Instead, the designers chose muted earth tones, exposed brick or natural woods — even in such often-overlooked spaces as a stairwell.

“This is a little detail, but just having a wooden handrail rather than a metal handrail is part of the trauma-informed design,” says Campbell. “It grounds you to be connecting with natural materials.”

It’s that kind of detail that helps tell students this school is different. That it’s special. That it’s theirs.

Challenges Remain

Despite the “trauma-sensitive” classroom culture and building, challenges remain at Codman’s lower and middle school.

Only about half of the overall Codman teaching staff hold teaching licenses (which aren’t required at charter schools); the staff doesn’t necessarily look like the student body (most staff members are white, while the school serves 98.5 percent students of color), and the school’s suspension rate eclipses state averages.

During the 2014-’15 school year, the lower school had a suspension rate of 12.2 percent — 11 students were suspended a total of 32 times. The state average for out-of-school suspensions in 2013-’14, the most recent figure available, is 3.9 percent.

Campbell says that almost all suspensions are for violence or physical altercations.

“We’ve taken a lot of steps this year with the new building to greatly diminish them for the lower and the middle schools,” says Campbell. “We’re working on things for the upper school.”

She says the school is adopting a discipline philosophy known as restorative justice. That’s where schools bring together students in small groups to talk, ask questions and air grievances after an incident, rather than punishing them.

“We are firmly committed to getting this suspension rate down,” says Campbell.

Seventh grade students laugh during a lesson with literacy specialist Kristen O’Brien. (Peter Balonon-Rosen/WBUR)

Seventh grade students laugh during a lesson with literacy specialist Kristen O’Brien. (Peter Balonon-Rosen/WBUR)

‘Our Personal Building’

Still, teachers and students are enthusiastic about the new building and the atmosphere it brings to the school day. Principal Brown says he’s noticed that the young students seem calmer and happier.

“This joy, this palpable joy that you see with them, which is incredible,” says Brown. “We had some of that last year — they’re kids, right? — but it didn’t feel like it’s reflecting off of the space in the same kind of way.”

For students themselves, the trauma-informed design might not be so apparent, but they know that something about the school feels more homey than their old building.

Jamal Jones, a seventh grader, says that when he first walked through the doors, he was shocked that a school that looked so small from the outside could feel so big on the inside. And, he says, it felt different. It felt special.

“The classrooms are better, and we have more space to move around,” says Jones. “It’s our personal building now.”

Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this article included photographs of identified kindergartners. In an effort to more closely align with Codman Academy’s photo practices and to protect the students’ privacy, we have decided to remove the photographs in question. 


  • Lawrence

    It’s so wonderful to see that something positive is being done in the black community to help these kids that are exposed to drugs and violence which all too often hold blacks back from advancement. As we can learn from this article, it’s not always discrimination that holds back advancement in these communities.

    This is the best way forward, not the way Obama thinks. He stated that where one lives shouldn’t determine one’s chances in life and went on to sign the extension to the HUD law that holds cities accountable and responsible for moving blacks from the inner city to wealthy white suburbs with taxpayers money. His thinking is that if blacks can’t move themselves out of the bad sections, we all have the financial responsibility to buy them housing in better areas where people worked all their lives to afford to live.

    Thiis form of welfare is not effective since as this story suggests, problems with learning begin in the home and this program is what is needed.

    • Concerned Senior

      What about both approaches. We know that if inner-city children go to a school that is at least 60% middle class or above that they adopt that culture themselves within a year. So moving part of them is not a bad idea. The above schools may also help.

      • Lawrence

        I am not sure that blacks and minorities will “adopt” the study habits or dedication to academics just because they are in a white middle-class suburb.

        Drug addiction, single parent households, violence, and all those factors that come from the home would still be present. Some communities that were part of this program actually turned into a high-crime ghetto.

        This approach, going into the neighborhood and paying special attention to these kids and dedicating funds for this school seems the best way to go.

        • Concerned Senior

          Read Hope and Despair in the American City: Why There are no Bad Schools in Raleigh by G. Grant. It has been tried and the 60 % figure is what they found out. With 50/50 the poor (minorities mainly) do not adopt the middle class ways but with under 40 % poor, they do. It just takes about a year. Unfortunately, after our economic downturn, Raleigh was no longer able to keep that ratio so the title no longer holds true.

          • Lawrence

            I will indeed read that book. I enjoy learning more about this serious topic. It just may change my mind. Other black authors and activists have suggested that the “giveaways” fail to make blacks self-reliant. A complex topic for sure.

            One thing is certain, these kinds of schools are crucial for young inner-city youth.

  • Gwendolynium

    What an impressively terrible idea to show identifiable students in the photos!

    • Caitlin Y. McCorkle

      Obviously they wouldn’t do it without parental permission. All schools get those permissions at the beginning of the year from parents.

      • Joseph

        We didn’t expect such a horrible portrayal of our children. We are revoking our permissions effective immediately and are strongly considering pulling our child from this school!!

        • jshore

          I agree Joseph. When Codman Charter was doing outreach for their charter school lottery did they just target the families or social service agencies that service traumatized children? In reading the article, and Ms. Campbells remarks, one would think that this is a school made up of DSS referrals of children is desperate circumstances! Now certainly there might be a few, but this is a charter school whose parents filled out a lottery application so their child could attend. These are not children who don’t have parents or families looking out for them. This article is really is a misrepresentation of the student population and their families.

  • Christine Langhoff

    The design of the building is simply beautiful, and I have no doubt it is conducive to a calmer, more productive learning space. Too bad, however, that it is nearly impossible to institute these kinds of settings in the schools with the highest number of city children suffering from traumatic events, the Boston Public Schools, because of the money that charters drain away. Instead, the physical plants of the BPS continue to deteriorate, particularly since there are no private monies from investor fairy godmothers to improve conditions.

    After all, with these high suspension rates common to charters, where do kids go when it becomes apparent they don’t fit in, except to the public school system? And with half of the staff uncertified, why should we feel confident that kids with high needs are in the hands of experienced educators, who possess the background in child development, adolescent psychology and methodology in order to address all the needs of the kids in their care?

  • nicholl

    From the images, I don’t see the special design that Codman Academy has used. I do see the faces of innocent children who were not supposed to be the focus of this article. As someone who has taught traumatized children, I’m a bit concerned that many of the images contain the faces of the children. Why are they so prominently placed in the image when the story was about the design?

  • John

    While I am pleased to see that this school has apparently put enormous thought and resources into creating a beautiful space in which their students can learn and grow, and I am hopeful that this means they are ushering in a new era of safety and trauma-informed care for their students, I think it is vitally important for people — especially parents who are reading this article and thinking about sending their children to this school — to read the section labeled “Challenges Remain” very closely. As someone familiar with this school from a professional standpoint, it is hard to read an article that so glowingly (and, in my opinion, irresponsibly) describes a program that has many significant flaws.

    All children, and most especially those who have experienced trauma, need containment, safety and consistent, predictable limits. They need nurturing and flexibility and compassion, of course, but they also need to know that adults are in charge and will keep them safe. Often times, charter schools bend too close to the trying-to-be-flexible side of this coin, without maintaining limits that help all kids (and especially those with trauma histories) feel contained. This lack of containment, coupled with clear cultural differences between teachers and students in addition to lack of adequately trained staff (and support for them) leads to high rates of explosive behaviors in kids (or “violence”, as the school calls it, in children as young as 5). The result is that teachers do not feel equipped to manage behaviors effectively, causing high rates of suspension for kids who are acting out more due to their own trauma than
    anything else. I’m hopeful that Codman is working on these other concerns now that the environmental aspects of trauma-informed programming have been addressed. As a reader, it would be great to see a more nuanced article that looks at some of these pieces in more detail.

  • smithie30

    I’m curious how this was paid for.