Trauma-informed teaching is not a curriculum, set of prescribed strategies, or something you need to “add to your plate.”
It’s more like a lens through which you choose to view your students which will help you build better relationships, prevent conflict, and teach them effectively.
What is childhood trauma?
One of the best definitions I’ve heard of trauma comes from researchers Rice and Groves (2005): trauma is an exceptional experience in which powerful and dangerous events overwhelm a person’s capacity to cope. Every child has a different capacity to cope, so this definition honors each child’s individual reactions and interpretations. Trauma is not necessarily violence. It could be things like divorce, major/frequent/sudden changes in living situations, or bullying.
Trauma is an epidemic right now, affecting kids across racial and socio-economic lines. It’s probably safe to say that every teacher is working with kids who have experienced trauma. And yet most kids who have experienced trauma will not receive any kind of special services or counseling. The kids will simply show up to the classroom, and you’ll be expected to understand, process, and manage all those complex emotions and behaviors on your own. Here’s what you need to know to support them.
5 things to understand about trauma
There’s a book called Fostering Resilient Learners (by Kristin Souers and Pete Hall) which gives a general overview of how to be trauma-sensitive. At the beginning of the book, the authors provide five baseline understandings about trauma. I like that as a foundational structure, so I’ll share those five things here and tell you a bit about what I’ve learned about them.
1) Trauma is real.
We have to let go of this notion that kids can just “leave their problems at the door,” forget about everything that happened outside the classroom, and focus on learning. We’re not even able to do that as adults when there’s something upsetting happening in our lives. We cannot expect little kids and teenagers to do that.
When we pretend that nothing has happened and ignore kids’ lived experiences, we find ourselves getting into conflict and confrontation with kids unnecessarily. Understanding that trauma is real and not minimizing or discounting it is the first and most important step to being trauma-informed.
2) Trauma is prevalent.
This is not just something happening to a certain type of kids. We have to examine our biases and understand that trauma is prevalent among kids of all races and all socio-economic statuses and neighborhoods. There are kids in your classroom right now who have experienced trauma that you are not aware of and may never find out about.
You don’t need to uncover the trauma, necessarily, but you do need to believe that it is happening to the kids in your classroom. Knowing that will help you be trauma-sensitive: You’ll be on the alert to look for signs of trauma and respond in an appropriate way instead of assuming kids are fine and taking their misbehavior at face value as just them “trying to give you a hard time.”
3) Trauma is toxic to the brain and can affect learning and development in a multitude of ways.
Here’s what Alex Shevrin Venet has to say about this — she’s an educator currently teaching at the university level, as well as a school consultant, and she’s currently working on a book about holistic trauma-informed approaches:
Trauma just really messes with healthy development in all kinds of ways. It can be anything from difficulty regulating emotions to difficulty regulating body temperature. I have had students who wear shorts the entire year-round or who are always wearing a hoodie in the middle of the summer, and it’s connected to a difficulty regulating how hot or cold their body feels. Really, when you think about the impacts of trauma, you can throw everything you know about regular child development out the window and start to look at each individual kid and say, “Where might they need some help in developing a skill or practicing something that for whatever reason, didn’t develop along the way?”
Trauma is especially toxic to the brain and impactful on learning when it’s chronic or ongoing, as happens frequently for students living in poverty. I spoke with Jeff Baker about this — he’s a therapist who’s worked as a school counselor, and is also a journalist and noted activist and organizer:
The fear that children feel when experiencing trauma has a very indelible imprint on their development. Popular related stresses are ongoing — they don’t go away. It’s not a one-time life event to live in a poor neighborhood that has a food desert, or that is rife with gang or community violence, or where it’s common to see police brutality. These things happen every single day, and so the stress becomes chronic over time. When stresses become chronic, the neurological side of things is that the stress hormones remain in the body, because the mind is telling the body that it must always be alert for triggers and a lack of safety. So, students bring this mindset and really the embodiment of trauma into the classroom and to the school. We like to separate these contexts in which the child develops and grows; however, they are all very interlaced and inextricably linked in a way.
4) In our schools, we need to be prepared to support kids who have experienced trauma, even if we don’t know exactly who they are.
Sometimes the trauma manifests in really bold, obvious ways and with seemingly obvious causes, but most of the time, kids who have experienced trauma will not really be aware of their trauma or even able to name it. Many of them will be well into adulthood before they have labels for what they experienced and are able to understand and process how it’s impacted them.
This is important to understand because it will help us apply trauma-sensitive practices to all our students rather than just the ones we know for sure (or assume) have experienced trauma. Alex calls trauma-informed teaching a “universal approach” which all kids will benefit from, so we don’t need to isolate and identify trauma-impacted children and apply the strategies only to them.
5) Children are resilient, and within positive learning environments, they can grow, learn, and succeed.
Kids who have been impacted by trauma are not hopeless cases. They do not need our pity. We don’t need to focus on all the ways they’ve been harmed, make excuses for them, or assume they’re less capable. Kids who have been impacted by trauma simply need to be conscious of and sensitive to their lived experiences.
How does trauma impact student learning and kids’ behavior in school?
Alex gives a great summary of things to look out for:
A kid who has experienced trauma is really finely attuned to safety and danger. They are constantly looking out for, “Am I safe or am I in danger right now?” And their ability to accurately process those cues gets all messed up. If you as the teacher have what you feel like is a neutral facial expression, your student might actually be interpreting that as you being angry or upset with them, and then they might go into survival mode where they feel like, “Okay, my teacher might be mad so I’m going to put up my defenses so that I stay okay.”
It’s not just about the facial expressions or the social interactions but also really tiny cues in the environment of the classroom that you might not even notice, like if something goes by the window, or if there is a loud sound from a different floor of the building, or if there’s a student who moves unexpectedly. Any of those types of things can trigger that survival brain for students.
The three responses of survival mode that people usually talk about are fight, flight, or freeze. You can probably picture many of your students going into any of those three categories.
Freeze might look like shutting down, head on the desk, and not responding to any of your verbal cues. Flight might look like that kid who is constantly going out into the hallway without saying anything to you or is moving around the classroom a lot. Fight is where trauma behavior and what we might call challenging student behavior might look exactly the same, because fight can look like talking back, getting aggressive, throwing stuff, or look like any of those types of things that we sometimes write off as being disruptive.
That might actually be their survival brain coming out. When you’re in survival brain, you can’t learn and you can’t have a calm interaction that follows complete logic. If you’re just trying to survive, you’re doing whatever it takes, and I think that a lot of teachers don’t realize how many of their students and how often those students might be going into survival mode as opposed to being in a calm state and ready to learn.
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Mistakes to avoid when working with kids impacted by trauma
- Don’t assume you know who’s been impacted by trauma and who hasn’t, the extent of the trauma, or the reason for it. There’s always more that kids don’t tell us or that we haven’t uncovered. Be humble and realize you will always be working with incomplete information.
- Don’t label kids or unnecessarily advertise their trauma. Working with kids impacted by trauma is not a bragging right for the teacher to prove how hard his/her job is. You don’t need to announce it to people, as this can result in children being labeled. Other adults can easily make assumptions about kids if they only know about the trauma and not about all the other qualities and experiences — including positive ones — that students bring to the table. Don’t make a kid who’s been traumatized into THAT kid who everyone whispers about and feels sorry for.
- Don’t judge the trauma or compare traumatic situations. It’s not for us to decide if an experience was “not that bad.” When you find yourself feeling jaded in this way, and thinking things like “I’ve seen worse” and “Come on, kid, get over it,” it probably means you’re feeling overwhelmed with all that’s on your plate and you’re not emotionally strong enough at the moment to be trauma-sensitive. It’s natural to have those moments, so be on the lookout for them and be prepared to do a bit of self-care so you can step back from the situation and see it from a bigger and more compassionate perspective.
- Don’t take the behavior personally. It’s not about you, and if you can avoid taking misbehavior as a personal disrespect or affront to your authority, it will be so much easier to respond constructively. Remind yourself that the student is not giving YOU a hard time, the student is HAVING a hard time. Look for ways to help the student deal with those challenging emotions instead of adding more emotions to the mix.
- Don’t try to dig up trauma and psychoanalyze kids. Students may not understand what happened or be able to label their experiences as traumatic, and you probably don’t have the time, energy, or training to do a deep dive into your students’ issues. Fortunately, you don’t need to know all the details of what happened to students in order to help them. Spend less energy figuring out the cause and more on understanding solid ways for responding to the effects in your classroom. Alex calls this shifting away from playing the “trauma detective” and instead, seeing yourself as the “connection maker” who can connect students to people who do have the resources to help them manage trauma.
- Don’t take on the burden of fixing the trauma for the child. You are not responsible for solving the problem or restoring the child to wholeness. If you try to do that, you will carry the emotional weight of that trauma vicariously, and that does nothing to help the student. The student needs you to be emotionally available and strong, not in a ball of tears because you’re so upset about what the child has experienced. Make it your goal to be compassionate and caring while being lovingly detached from the situation. It is not yours. Do not take it on.
Practical strategies for trauma-informed teaching
Be present and emotionally available.
There are ways to communicate to kids that you are there if they want to talk and letting them know you are a safe adult. From a practical standpoint, this looks like being in the moment with kids instead of frazzled, distracted, and seemingly overwhelmed. The older they get, the more kids will pick up on those cues and they will not see you as someone they can talk to. Slow down a bit. When you ask a child, “How are you?” really listen for the answer. Allow some silence so the student can respond from an honest rather than reflexive place.
Ask kids directly how you can help them.
When you see a student is struggling with emotions that day, it’s sometimes best to be direct. Say, “I notice you seem to be feeling upset today. Is there anything you need me to do right now?” If the child doesn’t know or doesn’t respond, ask, “Is there anything you DON’T want me to do right now?”
Try to read the students’ body language and notice patterns in the way they behave so you can read between the lines on the days you can’t get a direct answer. You can also remind the student about resources and coping strategies that are available: “Feel free to sit over in the library area and get yourself together for a few minutes if you think that would help.”
Watch for triggers, even the innocuous ones, and respond proactively.
I once taught a student who would crawl under his desk and sob whenever I asked the class to take out a certain textbook. I taught another student who would cry and bang his head on his desk when we played a specific multiplication game. I didn’t entirely understand why either of those two reactions occurred, but after the second time for each, I realized those were triggers and started taking proactive steps to help the students understand what was about to happen and find coping mechanisms.
When you see an outburst, shift from judgment to curiosity.
Instead of asking what’s wrong with a child, ask what’s going on with the child. Changing your perspective a bit might not sound like a concrete strategy, but it is! Thinking this way will shift your countenance, demeanor, and energy. It will help you respond in productive and trauma-sensitive ways and students will be able to sense that shift.
Learn more about the families and community you serve, asking “What else could be true besides my assumption?”
Here’s Jeff on that:
I definitely think that it starts with a curiosity about the students and their families, but also about the communities that they’re coming from. One thing that I’ve found helpful is asking what else could it be besides what I’m perceiving besides the subjectivity and bias that I might be bringing to the situation and the assumptions that I might be making.
I’ve found that this is hard because a lot of teachers don’t live in the same communities that their students are coming from. It’s impossible to know unless teachers are very intentional about finding out more about what their students’ lives are like on a day-to-day basis beyond their classroom.
Provide structure and predictability to counteract students’ feeling of being “on high alert” at all times. Jeff had something to say about this, too:
Part of the reaction to childhood trauma is sort of this uncertainty that looms over each day, not knowing what’s going to happen and staying in the constant state of alertness that is really stressful to navigate simultaneously while paying attention. Having a very predictable, structured day can often provide the stability that students don’t have in other environments.
Making the classroom a quiet, safe space where students can work uninterrupted, without distractions, or surprises really, and also having sensory materials (small rubber balls to squeeze when they’re stressed, stuffed animals, pillows with different fabrics, rocks, crystals, etc.) particularly for young children, can be coping strategies and outlets for expressing the stress that they’re going through which aren’t often present in the home.
Dismantle structures and discipline policies that strip kids of power and control.
Some of the ways that we traditionally “do school” can be triggering for kids who are impacted by trauma. Alex explains:
There are some structures in school that inherently just don’t go with the trauma-informed approach. For example, some of our discipline practices like automatic suspensions, or shaming kids in front of the class, or giving a random consequence for something that they did all take power and control away from students. If you’ve experienced trauma, one of the first things to go is your sense of power and control over the world.
As teachers, if we perpetuate that feeling — that you’re actually not in control over your world — we might be making things worse. It’s not just about building relationships and everything will be great. We have to think about how we are participating in systems that might be making things worse for kids.
The reason that I think that it’s hard for teachers to talk about this is because a lot of teachers are in a school system where they don’t have power. They are told to do this curriculum at this time, and you’re going to get an evaluation and you don’t have control over it. Or, you can’t choose how to run your classroom because everyone in the school has to run it this way. It’s really difficult for teachers who feel that way because they kind of pass on that feeling of being controlled to their students.
Be mindful of the potential impact of vicarious trauma.
Teachers can experience a sort of secondary PTSD from dealing with students’ responses to trauma all day. This takes a toll on you emotionally, so it’s important to recognize that and build in self-care practices. Here’s Alex on that:
That’s called vicarious trauma which is basically when you feel the impacts of trauma because you have been bearing witness to the impacts of trauma for someone else. It’s really common for teachers and social workers and other care providers to have. There are a few things you can do.
One is self-care and wellness that we talk about all the time, but really committing to that and taking care of your physical, mental, and emotional health. The biggest thing that a lot of teachers don’t do is make time to process what’s going on.
By process, I don’t mean vent (like when you go to happy hour at the end of the week where you complain about the challenging student behavior from the week before). What I mean is sitting with one trusted colleague, or therapist, or clergy member, or whoever that safe and supportive person is for you, and not necessarily talk about what the students did that week but about how it made you feel.
Maybe you had a student that was acting out all week, and not necessarily talking about that it was so frustrating … but did you feel helpless? … not good enough as a teacher because you can’t figure this kid out? … like you need more support from your administrator? Talk about what’s actually going on for you and not letting those feelings sit and fester and grow — that’s what I encourage teachers to do and find that way to make sense out of all these various things that are happening to you every week.
Working with kids impacted by trauma is challenging, but we don’t need to save kids from their trauma. We need to really see kids and help them become the best versions of themselves.
Alex Shevrin Venet is a Vermont-based educator currently teaching at the Community College of Vermont, Castleton University, and Antioch University. Alex’s experience as a teacher and leader at a therapeutic middle and high school showed her the power of a relationship-based, trauma-informed approach in helping students learn and grow. She is an education writer and community facilitator for Edutopia, a school consultant, and is currently working on a book about holistic trauma-informed approaches. You can find her on Twitter at @AlexSVenet and her website is unconditionallearning.org.
Jeff Baker is a mental health counselor, educator, noted journalist, and activist. A published writer with an M.Phil.Ed. in Professional Counseling from the University of Pennsylvania, and an Ed.M. in Human Development and Psychology from the Harvard Graduate School of Education, his commentary on social justice issues has appeared in numerous publications. As a trained counselor, Jeff has expertise in feminist therapy and sociocultural issues, as well as general counseling topics. Broadly, Jeff’s work in education focuses on child and family welfare, education policy, and school mental health. In addition to his work around education and mental health, Jeff is a vocal advocate for the prevention of bullying, child abuse, and sexual assault. You can find him on Twitter at @Fight4TheYouth and on his website at jeffbaker.org.
This post is based on the latest episode of my weekly podcast, Angela Watson’s Truth for Teachers. A podcast is like a free talk radio show you can listen to online, or download and take with you wherever you go. I release a new short episode each Sunday and feature it here on the blog to help you get energized and motivated for the week ahead. I’d love to hear your thoughts below in the comment section!
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