You may know by now that taking a trauma-informed approach in your classroom is important. By creating a trauma-informed classroom environment, you can make sure that all students feel safe and are ready to learn — no matter what kind of experiences they’ve had.
But what, exactly, does it take to create a trauma-informed classroom? Here’s how to create a safe, trauma-informed environment for the students at your school.
What Is a Trauma-Informed Classroom?
First of all, what do we mean when we talk about a “trauma-informed classroom?”
Trauma-informed care is a relatively new concept that is mostly used in the health and education fields. Whether it’s used at a hospital or at a school, trauma-informed care is based on the understanding that traumatic experiences affect the way people relate to the world around them. Research has proven that trauma can affect your mental health, physical health, and relationships. It can cause an overactive stress response and hyperarousal.
People who practice trauma-informed care also have the awareness that traumatic experiences are a lot more common than you may think. Over 50% of people will experience at least one traumatic event (including assault, witnessing violence, or a severe natural disaster) in their lifetimes.
A trauma-informed classroom applies these concepts to the school setting. Students experience trauma as well; some reports say that two-thirds of children experience at least one traumatic event by the time they reach the age of 16. That means that, whether or not teachers are aware of it, there may be students in every classroom who have been affected by trauma.
In previous decades, classrooms were focused on rules and structure. Students who didn’t follow those rules usually received the same punishment, regardless of what motivated their behaviors. But students who’ve been through trauma may act out because of an overactive stress response that puts them into constant fight, flight, or freeze mode. In other words, they may be reacting from their physiological stress response — not from reasoning or logic.
A trauma-informed classroom is a safe place for these students. Trauma can interfere with learning in serious ways; research has shown that children who have survived trauma have trouble paying attention and are more likely to have behavioral difficulties. They may also become overwhelmed with painful emotions, which also gets in the way of effective learning.
In a trauma-informed classroom, these factors are taken into account so that every student is able to learn effectively. Rather than punishing these students further and retriggering painful emotions, trauma-informed educators learn strategies to work with them in ways that are effective and make them feel safe.
How Do You Make a Trauma-Informed Classroom?
There are several things that teachers can implement in their classrooms to make them trauma-informed. Many factors that make a trauma-informed classroom have to do with teachers themselves, and how they interact with their students. There are also some physical changes that you can make in your classroom to make them feel safer for students who have gone through trauma.
What are the 5 characteristics of a trauma-informed classroom?
There are many things that make up a trauma-informed classroom. According to the National Child Traumatic Stress Network, the 10 essential elements that create a trauma-informed learning environment are:
- Identifying and assessing traumatic stress
- Addressing and treating traumatic stress
- Teaching trauma education and awareness
- Having partnerships with students and families
- Creating a trauma-informed learning environment
- Being culturally responsive
- Integrating emergency management and crisis response
- Understanding and addressing staff self-care and secondary traumatic stress
- Evaluating and revising school discipline policies and practices
- Collaborating across systems and establishing community partnerships
Based on these essential elements, 5 characteristics of a trauma-informed classroom include:
Predictability creates emotional safety. You can create predictability in your classroom by being clear with your students about both daily and weekly schedules, and the expectations you have of them. Create visual reminders of what will be happening each day. If there is anything in your curriculum that may trigger a trauma response, consider changing it or preparing students for any strong emotions that may come up.
To be trauma-informed, teachers must have enough knowledge about how trauma affects their students. This includes learning about how trauma affects children in general. But there may be a need to learn about how trauma affects your specific student population. For example, teachers of students belonging to historically oppressed communities should commit to learning about how this oppression has affected their students.
As a teacher, you should also try to be aware of which of your students have experienced trauma in their past. This involves learning how to recognize signs of trauma in your students, and connecting them to emotional support when it’s necessary.
Classrooms should also be physically safe for all students. This can be complicated to achieve, especially if you have many different students with trauma in your classroom. For example, one student with trauma could have an overactive fight response, leading them to be aggressive with you or other students. This could feel unsafe for other students with an overactive flight response. You can use mindful classroom management strategies to limit behavioral difficulties in your classroom.
Other ways to create physical safety include adjusting the lights (bright, fluorescent lighting may be triggering for some students), providing alternative seating options, and creating a “mindful corner” where students can go to calm down.
A trauma-informed classroom is a non-judgmental space. Instead of judging or condemning students for their behaviors, trauma-informed educators strive to understand. What could be causing this student to behave this way? Has this student experienced trauma, and what has triggered their fight, flight, or freeze response in this moment?
Implementing non-judgment in the classroom may also involve changing rules and policies to be more understanding of the way trauma affects students. How can policies be changed so that students feel supported rather than criticized?
Lastly, teachers need to have self-awareness in order to successfully create a trauma-informed classroom. It’s important to reflect on how you feel about certain students. Some students will be more difficult or triggering for you than others — and that’s okay. Just be honest with yourself about how your actions may or may not be creating a trauma-informed learning environment — for all of your students.
Self-awareness also means being aware of any vicarious (or secondary) trauma you’re experiencing, and taking steps to practice healthy self-care. Secondary traumatic stress is very real, and can affect anyone working with people who have experienced trauma. Notice the way you react emotionally to your students, and take a mindful moment when you need to.
Try Calm Classroom’s Trauma-Informed Mindfulness Training for Teachers
Calm Classroom’s school-based mindfulness program trains educators and other school staff to teach mindfulness in a way that is trauma-informed. To learn more, get in touch with our team today.