Learn how you can expand your practice of trauma-informed teaching and further nurture a safe and supportive classroom space that honors your students’ unique history and experiences and positively influences your school’s overall ecology.
What is Trauma?
Trauma is defined by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) as “an event, series of events, or set of circumstances that is experienced by an individual as physically or emotionally harmful or life threatening and that has lasting adverse effects on the individual’s functioning and mental, physical, social, emotional, or spiritual well-being.” For children, this may include experiencing any form of familial abuse, neglect, poverty, unstable housing, parents separating or divorcing, exposure to violence, or bullying. Trauma can also result from being exposed to a caregiver’s untreated substance abuse or mental health issue, or from sociocultural norms and systems of oppression, like sexism, homophobia, or racism.
Additionally, many children may be unconsciously carrying the intergenerational trauma of their ancestors. While researchers are still working to understand the phenomena, what is currently understood is that intergenerational trauma can cause a person to feel “shame, increased anxiety and guilt, a heightened sense of vulnerability and helplessness, low self-esteem, depression, suicidality, hypervigilance, and difficulty regulating emotions.” Given its broad and deep-reaching effects, intergenerational trauma can have a profound impact on how children are able to be present, learn, and participate.
Trauma is a multilayered and complex experience that can impact a child’s physiological, psychological, and social development and wellbeing in multiple, nuanced ways. Students who have experienced or are experiencing any form of trauma may demonstrate one or several behaviors that interfere with their ability to pay attention, connect with others, and learn. For instance, students who have experienced trauma may have difficulty with attention, emotional self-regulation, impulse control, negative thinking, hypervigilance, executive function, and forming relationships with teachers and peers. Signs of trauma in school may include displays of emotional volatility, consistent fatigue, difficulty concentrating, low self-esteem, social withdrawal or clinginess, anxiety or panic attacks, aggression, irritability, perfectionism, self-harm, and poor attendance.
How to Help Children With Trauma In a School Setting
As one of their primary developmental environments, schools can help children with trauma in myriad ways. Through trauma-informed teaching, educators can create relationships that openly meet students where they’re at and foster safe, predictable spaces that are conducive to learning and thriving.
What is Trauma-Informed Teaching?
A practice of compassion, equity, inclusivity, and healthy boundaries, trauma-informed teaching is a pedagogical mindset that aims to promote optimal learning by creating secure, supportive, and equitable school environments that promote the wellbeing of students, educators, and staff. With the aim of nurturing a culture of belonging and support, trauma-informed teaching focuses on supporting individual students with strong, healthy relationships, and cultivating intentional school and community cultures and communication styles that help meet the social and emotional needs of students, staff, and teachers.
Put simply, trauma-informed teaching creates a container of safe, brave space that acknowledges the detrimental impact of trauma alongside the potential students have to heal and thrive, in their own time and throughout their lifetimes, with the support of conscious, caring adults and communities.
Trauma-Informed Teaching Strategies
A mindset of curiosity and compassion, trauma-informed teaching is best understood as an ongoing practice, rather than a checklist. Experiment with the strategies below and give yourself plenty of space to keep refining your approach and seeking support from your administrators, fellow teachers, and community.
Learn to Identify Potential Symptoms of Trauma
When you are concerned about a student’s attention, engagement, or behavior, zoom out and consider that they may be expressing one or more symptoms from a past, current, or ancestral trauma. Taking a vantage point of spaciousness can allow you to work from caring objectivity (also called detached compassion), and steer clear of a “good student/bad student” binary. If you are unsure or sense the student may benefit from additional support, you can reach out to your school administrators or counselors for guidance and resources.
Move Away from Negatively Labeling Behaviors
Before the rise of trauma-informed teaching, common practice was to automatically label a student’s trauma-response behaviors as “problematic, “disruptive”, “defiant” — you get the idea. Trauma-informed teaching encourages open, compassionate inquiry that considers why a student may be behaving a particular way. Rather than taking behaviors at surface value, trauma-informed teaching acknowledges there may be one or more underlying causes for behavioral or emotional challenges.
Move Toward Secure Relationships
Strong teacher-student relationships are important for all students, especially those who may not be having all of their needs for safety, security, and connection met at home. Along with consistently embodying presence and care, you can also support your students with clear communication and healthy boundaries, so students have the opportunity to viscerally experience safe communication they can trust.
Continue Your Own Anti-Oppression Work
For all of us, cultural conditioning and stereotypes run deep. Though our cognitive minds may not welcome the idea that certain people are less valuable than others based on arbitrary measures, such as race, gender, ability, and class, all of us hold some degree of unconscious conditioning that requires our consistent and tender care to bring to light. Along with seeking resources on how different forms of oppression can overtly and subtly manifest, surround yourself with a wide range of human experiences and perspectives via your favorite media platforms.
As neuropsychology continues to blossom, the potential of mindfulness for helping a wide range of humans cope with anxiety, insomnia, anger, stress, and trauma continues to increase. Part of this rich and growing body of research demonstrates that mindfulness can help reduce the impact of trauma and adverse childhood events (ACEs) by decreasing the hyperactive physiological, psychological, and behavioral adaptations a student may have had to develop to cope with trauma.
More Trauma-Informed Resources for Educators
As an educator, you’re bound to encounter trauma in your students, peers, and even yourself as we all navigate being human. Working with children experiencing trauma can be rewarding, challenging, and much in between, which is to say that it can require a lot of your energetic resources. To the best of your ever fluid ability and in a way that works for your unique needs, prioritize regularly tending to your physical, psychological, and social needs. Rest, unplug, have fun, and seek support from friends, loved ones, and professionals.