Trauma-Informed Strategies to Use in Your Classroom
All children face disappointment and fears, but some students deal with more serious, often traumatic, hardships at home. The term “trauma” can encompass many situations, explains Lori Sanchez, Ed.D. “In the past, when you talked about a child experiencing trauma, you assumed abuse or neglect,” she says. “Now we understand that trauma can mean a lot of things—families dealing with divorce, serious illness, a natural disaster, a military deployment, and more.” Of course, you can’t undo the painful experiences your students have gone through, but you can make a difference in their learning and their resilience by bringing innovative strategies into your classroom.
To help students deal with stressful situations at home, many schools are using innovative trauma-informed strategies. Here are some of the most effective tools for teachers.
Look beyond the behavior
Research has shown that traumatic experiences alter the brain and can affect children socially, emotionally, behaviorally, and academically. It’s a quadruple whammy. Toxic levels of stress and anxiety shape behavior and may make kids appear angry, depressed, checked out, uncooperative, or distracted, says psychologist Jamie Howard, PhD, of the Child Mind Institute in New York City. “When you adopt a trauma-informed perspective, you approach that student’s behavior with openness and curiosity,” she says.
“Rather than jumping to the conclusion that she’s a problem, ask yourself, ‘What happened to this child and why is she behaving this way?’ ” Howard recalls one student she worked with who didn’t want to go to the front of the classroom to write on the board. “He seemed defiant, but actually it was scary to him to have his back exposed to the whole room,” she says. It turns out he had an unstable home life and was bringing some of his fears and insecurities into the classroom.
You already know how important it is to have good relationships with your students. But for children who have been affected by trauma, strong connections are vital. Rich relationships with teachers help children form the foundations of resilience.
Building bonds is a central component of August Spiegelberg’s classroom at Bruce Vento Elementary in St. Paul, Minnesota, where more than 90% of the students qualify for free or reduced lunch. Spiegelberg regularly invites one or two of his fourth graders to eat lunch with him, using the opportunity to get to know them better. “I ask questions and then set them up to answer what they feel comfortable sharing,” he says. He also tries to form relationships with the student’s whole family. “But when a parent isn’t super responsive, I try even harder to build a relationship with the child. The better we know students, the better we can teach them.”
Create a safe environment
You play a critical role in making your students feel welcome in your classroom. “Students have to feel secure and connected, both to adults and to peers, in order to learn,” says Susan Cole, director of the Trauma and Learning Policy Initiative in Boston.
That’s the kind of environment seventh-grade teacher Lauren Jansen, EdD, fosters at North Middle School in O’Fallon, Missouri. “I’m keenly aware of how my students interact with each other,” she says. “When I see anything negative beginning to happen, like one student picking on another one, I stop it immediately and have a conversation with the child, reminding them why it’s not OK. My classroom is a place where students know they can be themselves and won’t be made fun of.”
It’s also key to recognize that any student, regardless of their home life, can grow scared and anxious by a national news story such as a school shooting or a devastating hurricane. To ease children’s fears in the wake of a tragedy like this, talk about the news as a group (in an age-appropriate way, of course), and reassure them that they’re not in danger.
Meet students where they are
To help a student experiencing trauma feel settled in the classroom, you might need to make special accommodations. When Lori Sanchez, EdD taught sixth grade, she came up with creative solutions for students who were dealing with the aftermath of trauma.
She remembers one student who had been abandoned as a baby. Although the child was living with wonderfully supportive adoptive parents, she would periodically burst into tears in the middle of class, afraid that her parents were going to leave her. Sanchez kept a phone on her desk and allowed the girl to call her parents whenever she got anxious. “Just knowing the phone was there was enough to calm her,” she says.
Perhaps you have a student in your class who’s cranky and disruptive in the morning because he doesn’t have a regular bedtime, or who melts down easily because her parents are fighting. Setting up a “safe space” in your classroom, where a child can take a short break to calm down, de-stress, and even take a short nap if they’re tired, can make a world of difference.
Feeling out of control is one of the hallmarks of traumatic experiences, so adhering to a clear, predictable routine in your classroom provides students with a sense of stability. Tammi Mueller, a first-grade teacher at Riceville Community School in Riceville, Iowa, has students who live in foster care, a situation that often involves trauma and disruption. “I try to keep a scheduled classroom to help anchor the kids,” she says. “I have a visual schedule at the front of the room, and I keep to a routine as much as possible. If I have to change things, I make sure I tell them.”
You can’t adopt a trauma-informed approach in your classroom all on your own. It takes teamwork and sharing what you know with colleagues. “Meet with the educators and others in your school and start a study group,” advises Susan Cole. Think about strategies for working with a small team and get the support of your principal. The best news is that trauma-sensitive techniques don’t just benefit kids who are struggling; they help all your students build resilience, confidence, and well-being.