Trust as the Beginning Place

Over the last five years or so, government agencies, research institutions, training organizations and more have established guiding principles for trauma-informed work, most notably the US Center for Disease Control in collaboration with the Substance Abuse Mental Health Services Administration. While safety is usually the number one consideration, trust or trustworthiness is also found in these guiding principles.

Before the focus on trauma, however, trust was described as an essential part of strong and supportive school cultures. The solid body of research around trust has also shown it as integral to effective organizational change, successful school reform efforts, transformative educational leadership, and much more. As author Barbara Smith writes, “Trust…is the beginning place, the foundation upon which more can be built.” The purpose of this article is to explore the concept of trust from the beginning place, with the goal of finding a common understanding of trust and identifying the research-based ways to increase trust in places where our children and young people live and learn. Unlike many articles that highlight recent research, this article focuses on a few seminal pieces on trust and the work of researchers who paved the way for current research on student engagement and more.

What Is Trust?

Dr. Megan Tschannen-Moran, Professor of Education at William and Mary, has studied trust for over 20 years and defines trust this way: “One party’s willingness to be vulnerable to another based on the confidence that the other is benevolent, reliable, competent, honest, and open” (2004). Probing deeper into that definition, trust is understood as a two-fold process. Trust first involves a choice to be vulnerable to another, to acknowledge the potential for being hurt by that person. The second part of placing trust in another is perceiving that person to be of good will, genuine, accepting, and capable. Both the choice to be vulnerable to another and the perception of the benevolence of another are necessary to build trust.

Building the trust needed for healthy and supportive schools and agencies requires shifting this interpersonal concept to an organizational perspective. This is not the trust established around an institution and its purpose, rather it is relational trust, a set of interdependencies among people within the organization. Relational trust is found in social exchanges and is reflected by respect, personal regard, competence, and personal integrity (Bryk & Schneider, 2003). To explain, respect is evident through deep listening, perspective-taking, and acknowledgment, and personal regard refers to a perceived willingness to go beyond established expectations. Competence in core role responsibilities inspires faith that desired outcomes will be realized, and personal integrity reflects a set of moral-ethical standards that guide behavior. Relational trust allows for collective decision making, shared ownership, and more. As Professors Anthony Bryk and Barbara Schneider  (2003) explain: “relational trust is the connective tissue that binds individuals together to advance the education and welfare of students” (p. 45).  

When thinking about school reform, organizational change, and culture building, establishing trust should be a deliberate and transparent process. Through their research on school change, Bryk and Schneider (2003) identified several conditions that foster relational trust in schools. First, building leaders play a crucial role in strengthening relational trust by setting the standards for behavior and reflecting the respect, personal regard, competence, and integrity found in relational trust. Second, teachers must be acknowledged as the crucial element in engaging parents; in order to build relational trust with parents, they must be supported and empowered in this effort. Other conditions that Bryk and Schneider suggest are smaller school communities that allow for more face-to-face interactions with central leadership, stable school communities where staff have longevity within buildings, and voluntary association, meaning that students and their families have some school choice and school officials avoid forced building assignments.

Research on Trust in Schools

In studying the role of educational leadership on effective school change, Karen Seashore Lewis (2007), focused specifically on the importance of trust at the high school level. She was able to expand the previous work of Bryk and Schneider (2003) which focused on elementary schools and found that complex change was likely to occur in high schools where teachers had high levels of trust in their administration. These teachers noted integrity as the most important aspect for that trust. Among other recommendations, Lewis suggests pre-assessment and monitoring of trust levels during a change process and teacher involvement and ownership in decision making. One important finding is the need for trust within the teaching staff. She notes that teachers who do not trust each other “cannot work together effectively to create systemic change” (Lewis, 2007, p. 19).

Hoy and Tschannen-Moran (2007) studied the impact of staff trust on school culture and climate with findings that are important to consider in current trust-building efforts. First, they found that trust is spread throughout a building, meaning that in schools where teachers trust their administrators, they also tend to trust each other and to trust their students. This also works in places of distrust, where “broken trust is likely to ripple through the system” (p. 109). When thinking about both parent and student engagement, these researchers found that distinguishing the difference in trust of parents and students was impossible. In short, when teachers trust students, they also trust parents, and vice versa, leading the researchers to consider students and their families as one entity.

The final study highlighted here is The Colorado Trust (2008) study. The report Build Trust, End Bullying, and Improve Learning describes the impact of a school and community bullying prevention initiative that touched the lives of over 50,000 students. The report cites increases in academic achievement and highlights the critical role of adults in effective bullying prevention. With particular attention to the impact of trust, however, students reported the importance of teachers and administrators showing genuine concern about student issues and being knowledgeable about and appropriately responding to issues of bullying. These students self-reported the aspects of trust that Bryk and Schneider (2003) describe: respect, personal regard, competence in roles, and integrity.

Final Thoughts

Before the current focus on trauma-informed approaches, there was ample research confirming that the most successful school reform efforts have evidence of strong relational trust.  In these efforts, trust will be found across school buildings and will be identified within student populations, across the school and district staff, between schools and their parents, and so on. Building trust is a deliberate and transparent process that requires continuing monitoring and adjustment. By looking at trust at the beginning place, it remains a part of the foundation of all efforts to improve the health and well-being of students and their families.


Bryk, A.S., & Schneider, B. (2003). Trust in schools: A core resource for school reform. Educational Leadership 60(6):40-45. Retrieved from http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational-leadership/mar03/vol60/num06/Trust-in-Schools@-A-Core-Resource-for-School-Reform.aspx.

The Colorado Trust (2008). Build trust, end bullying, improve learning: evaluation of The Colorado Trust’s bullying prevention initiative. Retrieved from Denver, CO: https://www.coloradotrust.org/sites/default/files/COTrust_FINALAPRVD_112408.pdf.

Hoy, W., & Tschannen-Moran, M. (2007). The conceptualization and measurement of faculty and trust in schools (pp. 87-114). In W. Hoy and M. DiPaola (Eds.) Essential ideas for the reform of American schools. Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing.

Louis, K.S. (2007). Trust and improvement in schools. Journal of Educational Change, 6(1), 1-24. Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/259754500_60_Louis_KS_2007_Trust_and_improvement_in_schools_Journal_of_Educational_Change_61_1-24.

Tschannen-Moran, M. (2004). Trust matters: Leadership for successful schools. Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Julie E. McDaniel-Muldoon, PhD

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