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Tips for Teachers and Classroom Resources Updated September 24, 2020

Essential Trauma-Informed Teaching Strategies for Managing Stress in the Classroom (and Virtual Classrooms)

By The Editorial Team

Poverty, violence, hunger, abuse, and an unstable world are causing chronic stress for our nation’s kids. Add to that, the stresses caused by COVID-19, adjustments for distance learning, and increasing political turmoil. The sad truth is that prolonged exposure to stress can damage the centers of the brain associated with learning, cause behavioral problems, and increase the cycle of violence. Nearly half of the children in the United States, or almost 35 million kids, have experienced “at least one or more types of serious childhood trauma,” according to a survey by the National Survey of Children’s Health (NSCH).

As teachers are the adults who see students for the longest periods of time throughout the day, they play a critical role in recognizing the symptoms of trauma and treating it at the classroom level. After reading our brief synopsis on trauma below, keep reading to learn tips that are absolutely essential for anyone working with trauma.

What is trauma?

Trauma can be broken down into these eight categories, according to the work of Bonnie L. Green, PhD, Professor Emeritus of Psychiatry at Georgetown University (Wilson & Sigman, 2000/Green, 1993):

  1. Threat to life or limb.
  2. Severe physical harm or injury, including sexual assault.
  3. Receipt of intentional injury or harm.
  4. Exposure to the grotesque.
  5. Violent, sudden loss of a loved one.
  6. Witnessing or learning of violence to a loved one.
  7. Learning of exposure to a noxious agent.
  8. Causing death or severe harm to another.

For young students, traumatic stress can severely impact a student’s ability to learn, function in social environments, or manage their emotions and behaviors. Becoming a trauma-informed educator means becoming more acutely aware of how trauma alters the lens through which its victims see their world, and building practices that honor that reality. The good news: beyond these tips below, there are professional development opportunities that can greatly help you support your students (and yourself).

Implementing trauma-informed best practices in the classroom

Know the signs

According to the National Child Traumatic Stress Network, children experiencing traumatic stress can have difficulty self-regulating emotions, may be aggressive, skittish, impulsive, or require extra attention while simultaneously remaining fearful of new or unfamiliar situations or people. Teachers may also notice physiological symptoms of trauma such as appetite issues, weight changes, exhaustion, frequent illness, or poor hygiene. When these changes are sudden, it’s especially telling that a student may be experiencing traumatic life events. A comprehensive list of traumatic stress symptoms can be found in the NCTSN Toolkit for Educators. Are any of your students exhibiting one or more of these signs?

Provide consistency and structure

Students who experience trauma can feel triggered by a lack of clear structures, boundaries, and routines. As we’re sure you can imagine, providing classroom consistency, daily structures, clear expectations, and reliable warmth and love help stressed students feel safe. Normalcy is profoundly healing and comforting, particularly for students who do not feel in control of their lives.

Implementing even small classroom systems can greatly alleviate emotional stressors and prevent behavioral incidents. For example, sharing a clear agenda for the day’s learning makes a student aware of what’s ahead and expected, giving them time to get comfortable. This decreases the stress and uncertainty caused by classroom activity transitions and the roll-out of assignments. Additionally, offering a student some choices throughout the day gives them a sense of dominion, developing a mending sense of self-control over their environment.

These practices also apply to virtual classrooms. Some tips for setting consistency with online students include: setting expectations together, develop and repeat a class mantra, defining digital learning experiences, and conducting regular surveys with your virtual pupils. For more details about each of these tips, read our article about defining your virtual classroom culture.

Get serious about social-emotional training

Traumatized students require explicit emotional training to regulate their emotions, process stress, and heal from their experiences. Ideally they should receive counseling, but on the classroom level, social-emotional learning can include things like meditation, breathing exercises, and mindfulness practices that provide students with time to pause and reflect on their emotional state.

Teaching students to recognize negative emotions, pause, and process them before they manifest into negative behaviors also builds coping skills and reduces the need for disciplinary measures. “When well taught and when practiced regularly, [mindfulness] has been shown to be capable of improving mental health and well-being, mood, self-esteem, self-regulation, positive behavior, and academic learning,” according to research by Katherine Weare, Professor Emeritus of Education at the University of Southampton (2013).

Use restorative practices over zero tolerance policies

Students with traumatic backgrounds benefit from clear boundaries and limitations, coupled with a restorative approach to discipline, rather than a punitive one. Restorative practices rebuild a traumatized student’s relationship to authority and to the adults and peers in their daily lives. Restorative circles, team-building exercises, meditations, and counseling can all reform a traumatized student’s belief in fairness, as well as their capacity for conducting themselves with integrity.

“Restorative Justice is particularly impactful for traumatized students because it prioritizes de-escalation. It’s about getting to the root of a student’s triggers, underlying issues, and motives, teaching healthy communication skills,” says Gina Angelillo-Farieri, a Restorative Justice Coordinator in the New York City Department of Education. “Relying solely on punishment leaves out the important and healing lessons that students of trauma so desperately need.”

Take care of yourself

Working with individuals who have experienced a traumatic event can make someone more susceptible to secondary traumatic stress. In other words, if you’re working with kids who are coping with trauma, there’s a chance it could affect you too. That’s why it’s so important to take care of yourself — a healthy teacher is a more effective teacher. According to the Treatment and Services Adaptation Center, awareness is the key to managing secondary traumatic stress. They recommend regular small group check-ins, regular exercise, a healthy diet, and sufficient sleep.

For more on trauma-informed teaching, check out these resources:

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