Trauma-Informed Teaching Strategies

trauma informed teaching strategies

Research shows that more than half of American children have experienced at least one traumatic event. Trauma is a major public health issue, with traumatized students being prone to difficulties in and out of the classroom. The extent of the issue on the nation’s youth has education experts calling for trauma-responsive teaching strategies.

Understanding Trauma

Teachers today must be mindful of the traumatic experiences affecting their students.

According to the American Psychological Association, trauma is an emotional response to an event or set of circumstances that is experienced physically and/or emotionally and can have longer-term reactions including unpredictable emotions, flashbacks, strained relationships and even physical symptoms like headaches or nausea.

Teaching trauma-affected students can be challenging. Traumatized students often do not express their emotions healthily and instead show their frustrations through aggressive behavior, avoidance or other unpleasant ways.

They also have difficulty learning and paying attention, building relationships and have poor academic performance. 

Many schools are incorporating trauma-responsive practices and policies to help students. These educators understand the power of everyday interactions on helping traumatized students.

According to the National Child Traumatic Stress Network, trauma can impact a child’s school performance, including causing:

  • Decreased reading ability.
  • Lower grade point average (GPA).
  • Increased suspensions and expulsions.
  • More school absences.

A Trauma-Informed Perspective

Teachers who are trauma-informed understand trauma and its impacts on a person’s mind, body, emotions and behavior. They recognize that some misbehaviors are the child’s attempt to soothe emotional dysregulation. Lack of this understanding could lead to misinterpretation of a student’s behavior.

By looking through a trauma-informed lens, a teacher can respond to students in a way that will not cause further trauma to the child. Teachers can apply the following principles of trauma-informed care, provided by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration:

  • Safety. Everyone in the school should feel physically and psychologically safe.
  • Trustworthiness and Transparency. Decisions are created and implemented to build and maintain trust between school administrators, faculty, staff, students and families.
  • Peer Support. Through support and mutual self-help, everybody in the school can establish safety, hope and trust.
  • Collaboration and Mutuality. Administrators, teachers and staff members all have roles in developing a trauma-informed school.
  • Empowerment, Voice, and Choice. Focus on how everybody is unique and deserves an individualized approach.
  • Cultural, Historical, and Gender Issues. Strive to be a culturally sensitive and responsive school. 

Importantly, a trauma-informed approach to teaching involves ongoing and purposeful actions that puts the student first.

Trauma-Informed Practices in the Classroom

Applying principles and strategies in the classroom starts with awareness. Teachers must first be able to recognize the signs of trauma. Is a student having difficulty focusing, or struggling with relationships with teachers or other students? Do they have poor self-regulation? Other signs may include excessive absences, changes in school performance, and withdrawing from activities or other people. Upon further evaluation, a teacher may, or may not, find these behaviors are because the student has been affected by trauma.

Next, is class structure. Consistency is important for all students, but is especially helpful for trauma-affected students. They need to feel secure, and structured schedules ease anxiety. Teachers can provide an overview of the day’s activities to help students mentally prepare for the day. They should also define responsibilities and set clear expectations and goals for the class.

Furthermore, social-emotional learning (SEL) techniques teach students how to develop skills in self-awareness, self-control, social awareness, empathy and effective communication. There are SEL curriculum materials teachers use to teach these skills and they offer much-needed support to students who have experienced trauma.

Develop Your Abilities to Meet Student Needs

There are opportunities for teachers interested in becoming more knowledgeable about how to recognize and respond to challenging behaviors in the classroom. Carlow University offers a master’s (MEd) in Secondary Education program, which offers training in trauma-informed practices.