The word ‘trauma’ is heard more and more frequently in education today, and for important reasons. Teachers have long understood that students impacted by loss, abuse, illness, and conflict, need additional support, both personally and academically. Students living with trauma often have difficulty relating to or connecting with others, are easily overcome by anxiety or anger, and struggle to create meaning from course content. As teachers and administrators, we can help our students overcome adverse experiences and find success by learning more about the impact of trauma and ways to support students in the classroom. Read on to learn more about trauma-informed teaching.
In her book, Fostering Resilient Learners: Strategies for Creating a Trauma-Sensitive Classroom, author Kristin Souers describes trauma as “an exceptional experience in which powerful and dangerous events overwhelm a person’s capacity to cope.” In addition to the emotional impact of trauma, research now shows that trauma actually changes the way children’s brains are wired. Children impacted by trauma are more vulnerable to stress, have difficulty expressing or controlling their emotions, and may react inappropriately or even violently to challenging situations.
Unfortunately, childhood trauma is often difficult to identify in schools. A negative experience that may impact one child may not affect another child in the same way, and even the same event may lead to different symptoms in different children. In addition, not all children are able or willing to discuss their lives outside school, and in this way trauma remains hidden. These facts make our work as educators especially difficult.
One of the most empowering things we can do as teachers to support students impacted by trauma is to implement trauma-sensitive strategies that support all learners. In this way, we are sure to reach even our most vulnerable students. In addition to the 3 proactive steps listed below, Learners Edge is offers a FREE on-demand webinar, "Trauma-Informed Teaching: Creating Safe Schools & Strong Students." You will leave this webinar with a better understanding of trauma, how you can build a strong, resilient classroom community, and the importance of teacher self-care.
Here are 3 proactive steps you can take to help create trauma sensitive schools and classrooms.
Foster Stable Relationships
The relationship between a student and his or her teacher is a major factor in how students impacted by trauma function at school. In order to learn, students must feel that their caregiver (in this case, their teacher) can be trusted to keep them emotionally and physically safe during their school day.
We all know relationship-building is not always easy. Students who have experienced trauma need support, but they often don’t know how to ask for or accept it. Some students have behaviors that actually push others away. Still others feel they are unlovable or “bad.” Teachers cannot wait for students to be receptive to building relationships and must be willing to work on fostering relationships every day. This can take hard work, but it is worth it.
Even simple gestures, such as a caring word or a friendly handshake, can have a big impact. Traumatized students are almost always on high alert as a result of the constant stress they feel. Kind words and kind actions help students feel safe and calm. (It is important to remember that physical affection can be uncomfortable for some kids, so always follow a child’s lead). Know that even if your students don’t immediately respond to your gestures, you are helping them overcome their all too familiar fight-or-flight response.
If you find yourself struggling to connect with a student, take the time to see the world from their eyes. Write down a list of their strengths to help you focus on their positive attributes, use student surveys to learn more about their personal interests, and then set a goal to personally connect with them in a new way at least once or twice a week. We need to do everything in our power to help students see that we care for them, even if they are unable to return these positive gestures.
Create Predictable Structures
Almost all students thrive on some routine and predictability, but consistency can be especially helpful for students who have experienced trauma. A stable learning environment lets students know that they can trust their teacher to manage their surroundings and create a safe space.
Starting each day with a positive greeting and a short classroom meeting to review the events of the day helps students feel welcomed. Assigned seating charts also help students see that they truly belong and hold a place in your classroom. To reinforce classroom schedules and routines during the day, write the daily schedule on your classroom board and use visual cues to reinforce routine activities (such as placing your own books on your desk before starting silent reading time).
Transitions can be especially difficult for students because the sense of a loss of control can activate their stress response. For some students, even common transitional cues such as ringing a bell or dimming the lights can trigger stress, so it’s helpful to announce these cues before actually doing them. Proximity can also help. Try standing near your students during active periods or transitions to provide an extra sense of security. Safety and predictability reduces stress and gives your students the chance to focus on learning.
Empower Students to Self-Regulate
Another step we can take as teachers to help all students is to teach the skills they need to regulate their emotions and understand the role stress plays in their own responses.
When students understand how stress affects their minds and bodies, they can take active measures to reduce and control these reactions. Consider giving your students a short lesson on stress and the brain early in the year, and use consistent language when talking about stress with students.
Once students understand the basics of the stress response, you can begin to use strategies and activities to encourage self-regulation. Here are a few to try:
- Teach simple breathing exercises as a way to calm down before or after a stressful event
- Provide manipulatives or “fidgets” such as worry stones in class
- Model or role-play appropriate and effective ways to deal with conflict or disruption
- Practice simple yoga postures, stretching, or other movements to refocus or ease transitions
- Encourage students to visit a designated quiet space or quiet room when they are feeling overwhelmed
- Allow students to listen to music, draw, or engage in other creative projects for a few minutes as a way to decompress after especially active lessons or situations
When we use trauma-sensitive strategies to support all learners, we can help our students overcome adverse experiences to build the strength and resiliency they need to find success.
Learn more trauma-sensitive strategies and how to care for your students and yourself as you develop trauma-sensitive strategies to meet the needs of all learners through our free webinar.
- Souers, K., & Hall, P. A. (2016). Fostering resilient learners: strategies for creating a trauma-sensitive classroom. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.