Trauma-Informed Teaching: What It Is and Why It’s Important
By Mary Montero
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Over the past few years, the practice of trauma-informed teaching has become more recognized. More schools are becoming aware of what childhood trauma is and how it’s related to student performance in the classroom. Administrators are recognizing the importance of being trauma-informed and training teachers to respond to childhood trauma. But what exactly is childhood trauma and how can teachers be more informed about how to respond to it?
While this is not a topic that I am anywhere NEAR an expert in, the trauma-informed classroom is something I am passionate about. I have seen firsthand the impact simple awareness can make, and I believe that all schools and teachers should have specific training on this topic by experts. I have collaborated with another teacher who specializes in trauma-informed teaching to write this post. Please see the bottom of this post for even more resources.
Trauma in Kids: What is It?
According to the CDC, Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) are indicators of childhood trauma. There are currently10 ACEs that are used to define childhood trauma:
- Physical, emotional, or sexual abuse
- Physical or emotional neglect
- Incarcerated relative
- Mental illness or substance abuse in the home
- Witnessing violence
Researchers have also begun to recognize bullying, racism, hunger, homelessness, loss of family members, deployment of a parent, and community violence as ACEs. These are so important to recognize because children with higher ACE scores are at greater risk for future substance abuse, mental health issues, physical illnesses, and risk-taking behavior.
ACE scores aren’t everything, and it’s important to avoid getting stuck on a less-than-definitive list of events that might “qualify” a child as having experienced trauma. This is not about placing a label on children, and a child’s trauma does not have to define them or their future.
Remember that trauma isn’t always long-term: an arrest, fire, or medical emergency in the community (or news) will often create a ripple effect that will affect multiple children within the school.
A startling number of children (over 60%) have experienced at least one of these experiences. Consider what that means for the students in your classroom and how important the year they spend in your classroom will be.
How Does Trauma Affect School Performance?
Children with trauma can react in school in a variety of ways. Sometimes a teacher or other caring adult might not even know that a child has experienced trauma. Other times children living with trauma exhibit behaviors in the classroom, including outbursts, violence towards peers or adults, defiance, work refusal, withdrawal, and poor self-regulation. Due to these behaviors, children with trauma are at increased risk of being labeled as having ADHD or a learning disability, when that might not be the true reason behind their behavior.
A child’s brain chemistry changes when he or she experiences trauma, but ADHD medication and traditional methods of teaching children with learning disabilities often do not work in these cases because the root cause of the child’s difficulty is trauma. Being unable to form bonds with adults and peers can exacerbate the issues at hand, so this is where the practice of having a trauma-informed classroom comes into play.
What Does Trauma-Informed Teaching Look Like?
Training teachers and administrators to recognize childhood trauma is the first step toward trauma-informed teaching. Adults in close contact with the students should be aware of the home situations of students and events in the community. It can be difficult to gather this information from some parents or guardians, so building relationships with the students and their guardians is crucial.
Recognizing and understanding that a flight, fight, or freeze response from students may be the result of trauma, rather than defiance, is the first step to creating a trauma-informed environment. We can’t take away the trauma children have experienced, but we can put supports in place.
We’ve said it before, and we will continue to shout it from the rooftops, but relationships are truly number one, not only for students who have experienced trauma, but for ALL students. While students with trauma may have a harder time forming those relationships, the more emphasis that is placed on it, the better.
Self-regulation is a massive part of trauma-informed teaching. Trauma-informed schools and classrooms can do a variety of things to help assist children with self-regulation. Some ideas that can be implemented class-wide are:
- Making connections with kids in the classroom through Morning Meetings or daily check-ins
- A mentorship program with community members for students who are most at-risk
- A calming place in the classroom where students can go if they are feeling the need to decompress
- Regular lessons or discussions about how to regulate emotions
- Increased numbers of school counselors
- A quiet environment within the school building and strategies to encourage de-escalation
- Pairing students up with a trusted adult within the building who can be their go-to “safe space” as needed
- Having a therapy dog come to visit the classroom or certain children in the school
- Yoga or guided meditation
- Brain breaks
- Plenty of recess time and outdoor activities
Some of these practices require system-wide change, but there are many changes you can make in your own classroom to facilitate being trauma-informed! Remember: One of the biggest parts of trauma-informed teaching is changing the way you view and respond to your students and their unique struggles.
More Trauma-Informed Teaching Resources
- If you’re looking to better understand childhood trauma, Fostering Resilient Learners: Strategies for Creating a Trauma-Sensitive Classroom (Amazon affiliate link) is a great resource.
- 5 Resources and Articles on Student Trauma for Your Teacher Toolbox
- Helping Students Cope With Trauma Starts With Taking Care of Yourself
- A Crash Course on Trauma-Informed Teaching from Angela Watson
Have you ever tried any of these strategies or others to create a trauma-informed classroom? I would love to hear your experiences!
I’m so glad you are here. I’m a current gifted and talented teacher in a small town in Colorado, and I’ve been in education since 2009. My passion (other than my family and cookies) is for making teachers’ lives easier and classrooms more engaging.