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Using trauma-informed teaching strategies can make classrooms welcoming spaces for all students--not only those who have experienced trauma.

Trauma-informed teaching strategies can benefit all students

Reaching students who’ve experienced trauma requires education, patience, compassion, and creativity

Key points:

Although our communities strive to maintain safety, nearly half of all American children have experienced some form of trauma. Some of these include everyday Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACES) such as bullying, witnessing violence, experiencing physical, verbal or sexual abuse, or neglect. According to the National Child Trauma Stress Network, these experiences can spark strong emotions and physical reactions that can persist long after an initial trauma event.

Traumatic events can cause a variety of physical and emotional symptoms and can impact children at home and at school. In addition to struggling with schoolwork, children who’ve experienced trauma may overreact to routine requests, engage in negative outbursts or aggression, show signs of sadness, have difficulty focusing, and may struggle to interact appropriately with peers and teachers.

Educators don’t necessarily know which students have been affected by trauma. However, because it impacts such a large number of students, you can use specific strategies to help all students develop resiliency and improve emotional regulation. Here are some trauma-informed teaching strategies you can use to intentionally strengthen your relationships with students and support their success.

Create classroom routines

Research focused on classroom norms and expectations shows that students want and need academic and behavioral expectations from their teachers. Establishing simple daily routines for your students–such as daily warm-ups or ice breakers–and establishing procedures for asking questions and turning in classwork create a sense of stability and predictability. When you create predictable routines, your students will have an easier time understanding what steps they need to take to be successful in your classroom.

Set clear expectations

More than 25,000 schools nationwide already use Positive Behavioral Interventions and Support (PBIS) frameworks to support students’ behavioral, academic, social, emotional, and mental health. By extending your school’s PBIS framework school-wide, your teachers can maintain consistent expectations and reward students for their progress and achievements. For example, some PBIS solutions allow teachers and staff to immediately acknowledge positive student behavior from mobile devices. Students earn PBIS points, which can then be tracked and redeemed. This helps teachers eliminate manual paperwork and reporting which increases instructional time.

Adopt restorative–rather than punitive–practices

Zero-tolerance classroom policies that focus on disciplinary actions do not equip students with the skills they need to improve relationships or de-escalate conflict. Instead, they remove students from their learning environments and deny them the opportunity to make positive changes. Conversely, restorative practices, such as mediation or peer conflict resolution, allow students to take responsibility for their actions, engage with others, and develop empathy and understanding.

Introduce calming techniques

Students who’ve experienced trauma encounter significant challenges with emotional regulation. Research suggests that early trauma exposure fundamentally alters the way children process and prioritize emotional information. Other behavioral studies that look at the behavior of children with trauma histories show “enhanced attention to and difficulty in disengaging from emotional stimuli (Tottenham et al., 2010).” By encouraging students to engage in mindfulness practices, you can help them better manage their emotions and behaviors. Some techniques include walking meditation, body awareness, and breathing exercises.

Engage in social-emotional learning (SEL)

Children who’ve experienced traumatic events may have an even greater need to master social-emotional learning skills. A strong SEL curriculum not only benefits these students, but it builds skills school-wide. According to the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), the fundamentals of social-emotional learning include:

  • Developing the knowledge, skills and attitudes to create healthy identities
  • Managing emotions and achieve personal and collective goals
  • Feeling and showing empathy for others
  • Establishing and maintaining supportive relationships
  • Making responsible and caring decisions

In order for SEL to be effective, curricula should be backed by evidence-based research, be age-appropriate, and be engaging for students. Solutions should also be flexible enough to allow districts to tailor their programs to meet the diverse needs of their students. The overarching goal of SEL is to make all students feel safe and supported, which leads to better mental health and greater engagement for all students–including those who’ve experienced trauma.

Regularly encourage and recognize your students

Trauma significantly impacts a child’s self-esteem and sense of self-worth. People who lack safety or a sense of belonging develop survival skills to better cope with their situation, according to Psychology Today. These adaptive behaviors can make children prone to loneliness, depression, anxiety, or other self-sabotaging behaviors. By taking the opportunity to acknowledge their contributions to your classroom so that they feel valued, capable, and successful, you can help them develop a positive self-image.

The prevalence of childhood trauma doesn’t have to result in power struggles, behavior problems, or academic deficiencies. Reaching students who’ve experienced trauma requires education, patience, compassion, and creativity. By creating welcoming spaces and using proven tools and techniques that help you get to know all of your students better, you can guide them toward academic–and lifelong–success.


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