Trauma-Informed Teaching Strategies

Dr. Lori McDonald
Dr. Lori McDonald
Elementary School Teacher; Ed.D. in School Leadership/Administration
Young boy crying by himself at his desk while other children play.

For anyone who has been in education for any length of time, it is painfully clear how prevalent childhood trauma has become. In fact, according to the CDC, as many as two-thirds of children experience at least one type of serious trauma. Trauma can be any event relating to abuse, neglect, witnessing violence, or a natural disaster, just to name a few examples. Traumatized students can struggle in a variety of ways, many of which may not be at all obvious. So for that student that is in a constant struggle, there may be a very good explanation for that behavior. It is important that we know how to recognize traumatized students and how we can help through trauma-informed teaching.

How Do You Define Trauma

Events that can be traumatizing for children, called Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), may be broader and far more common than we, as educators, realize. Of course, we recognize that when students are being physically abused or neglected, that is obviously traumatizing. The signs of physical abuse or neglect are the ones that we, sadly, are probably most familiar with and can recognize most easily.

There are many other types of trauma that may not be as easily spotted. For example, a child that has been through a natural disaster such as a tornado or earthquake could be traumatized from that experience. Some children may not be the victim of violence but may have witnessed it. Perhaps the child continually witnesses spousal abuse, either physical or verbal, in his or her own home. Another student may be witnessing drug abuse or some other type of criminal activity regularly. This may lead to the arrest of a parent or family member, which can seriously traumatize the child.

So trauma is any negative event that results in long-lasting thoughts and behaviors that can be brought on by the memory of that event. These are called Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs). Trauma is also very individual. The event that traumatizes one child may not traumatize another. But when a child has experienced trauma, it is likely that there are certain things, maybe a sound, a song, a person, a smell, or certain words, that may trigger the memories of that event. When a traumatized child experiences a trigger, the effects of that can manifest very differently depending on the child.

Trauma-Informed Teaching Strategies

With the prevalence of traumatic events in the lives of students, it is very important that we can recognize signs of trauma and triggers, as well as how to respond to students coping with such serious issues with trauma-informed teaching strategies. There are five steps that teachers should be aware of in dealing with childhood trauma in the classroom:

Know What to Look For

Signs of trauma can be very different depending on the personality and age of the child. Here are some recognizable signs, as noted by The National Child Traumatic Stress Network, that you might expect to see at different stages:

Preschool children – excessive crying and fear, loss of appetite, sleeplessness, nightmares, developmental delays, changes in behavior, concerned about death,recreates traumatic event through play

Elementary school children – anxious and fearful, trouble sleeping, fatigue, clingy with teacher or parent, lack of concentration, changes in behavior, changes in school performance, hyper-focusing on fear of death, illness, or injury, worries about safety of self and loved-ones

Middle and high school children – feelings of being depressed and alone, talks about the traumatic event, use of drugs and alcohol, becomes sexually active, takes risks, trouble sleeping, changes in behavior

So while the developmental stage of the child may have a huge impact on how the child responds to trauma, there is one element common throughout all stages – expect the unexpected. In each category, a change in behavior is listed as a sign of trauma. This means that anytime a child behaves or responds in a way that is unexpected or out of character, it may warrant some investigation. There may very well be underlying trauma that has been triggered.

Utilize Social-Emotional-Learning Practices

Social-emotional learning (SEL) is comprised of practices that can be used in schools to develop within students the skills of managing one’s emotions. These skills are taught hand-in-hand with the regular, academic curriculum.

In SEL, students are exposed to the five components, which are self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making. By participating in activities that support these components, students are better equipped to talk about and manage trauma. Also, the classroom is more conducive to open, honest communication regarding emotions and relationships, which helps teachers to know students better and more effectively provide help when needed.

Provide Structure and Promote Consistency

The presence of structure and consistency can’t harm children, but the absence of it certainly can, particularly with children who have experienced trauma. By providing a predictable, consistent environment for students, teachers are able to provide a culture in which students know they are safe and don’t have to worry about the unexpected. They know exactly what to expect.

Reduce Negative Thinking with Supportive Feedback

In order to minimize the negative thinking that can be an effect of childhood trauma, teachers can provide a great deal of supportive feedback. Students who have dealt with trauma can be more easily discouraged by failures in the classroom. By always providing feedback – positive feedback – teachers can provide encouragement that can help immensely with students who are struggling emotionally.

Foster a Feeling of Safety and Inclusivity

Perhaps the best and most effective trauma-informed teaching strategy that a teacher can utilize to help students with trauma is creating an environment that is safe, loving, and welcoming. This means showing genuine love for them every day and being truly interested in getting to know them. When you have invested the time necessary in the relationships with each and every student, they will feel loved, safe, and included. This can provide the support they need to cope with the traumatic situations that have, unfortunately, happened in their young lives.

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