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A Case Study of Military-Connected Principals' Trauma-Informed Decision-Making




Dickinson, Suzanne

Type of Degree

PhD Dissertation


Education Foundation, Leadership, and Technology

Restriction Status


Restriction Type

Auburn University Users

Date Available



A substantial body of research spanning almost two decades has demonstrated that widespread trauma from adverse childhood experiences and toxic environments exists within the American population and is predictive of increased rates of mental illness, chronic diseases, and premature death (Chafouleas et al., 2019; Larkin et al., 2014; Zarse et al., 2019). These experiences, which occur cumulatively prior to age eighteen, are also predictive of limitations in neural development during childhood and adolescence, and both internalizing and externalizing behaviors contribute to poor academic success and social isolation (Larkin et al et al., 2014; Zarse et. al., 2019). From a public health perspective, researchers have examined ways to leverage the public school system as a delivery method for systemic prevention and intervention under the umbrella of “trauma-informed” care, focusing their efforts on grades K-8 and leaving a gap in the literature for grades 9-12 (Chafouleas et al., 2019; Crosby, 2015; DePedro et al., 2018; Gubi et al., 2019). Military-connected children are a subset of the population identified as having high risk factors for adverse childhood experiences or traumatic events (DePedro et al., 2018; Richardson et al., 2016; Boberiene & Hornback, 2014; Brendel et al., 2014; Cole, 2016; Wolf et al., 2017). While researchers have begun to examine school-based trauma-informed interventions targeted at other subsets of students, there is lack of research directed toward school-based trauma-informed interventions for military-connected students. While many military-connected students attend regular public schools within the continental United States, dependents of active military and civilian contractors living overseas often attend American military-connected schools. This collective case study uses a complexity leadership theory framework to examine the understandings that school principals in these American military-connected schools have regarding trauma-informed practices, how those understandings inform their leadership approaches, and the barriers they perceive. This study sought to provide current information to principal preparation programs and professional development trainers regarding the needs of principals and staff in schools attended by military-connected high school students with trauma. Twelve principals of American militaryconnected high schools outside of the continental U.S. participated in semi-structured interviews with eight principals participating in abbreviated follow-up interviews. Initial interview data was analyzed using iterative rounds of in vivo coding. Follow up interviews used a priori coding, and artifacts were collected for triangulation. The use of all five functions of leadership were identified using the complexity leadership theory framework, and overlapping concepts with SAMHSA’s Six Key Principles of Trauma-Informed Practice were highlighted in the discussion. Key findings include that principals of military-connected high schools have some understanding of trauma, but they struggle to explain trauma-informed practices; they are engaged in strategic leadership activities to address trauma in their schools; and they perceive structural and knowledge barriers for themselves and their staff that impact their leadership regarding implementation of trauma-informed practices. The findings suggest that further research is needed targeting the implementation of research-based interventions in high schools and with military-connected populations. Findings also suggest that military-connected schools overseas conduct internal reviews of their programs for issues related to student-staffing ratios and long-term vacancies in student support service areas as well as the need for more training and support for principals and staff regarding trauma-informed practices.