As teachers, we’re all well aware of the diverse needs of our students. While we tend to pay close attention to things like learning styles and cognitive difficulties, one thing that we often forget is the trauma our students may have experienced.
Sadly, according to studies, more than 25% of American children will experience at least one traumatic event by the age of 16 – and that’s likely a conservative estimate. These experiences have a lasting effect on students’ emotional and academic success, but far too often, we ignore these experiences and the role they play in education.
In this post, we’ll take a look at what trauma-informed instruction is and how you can best implement it in your classroom.
Trauma can leave a lasting effect on a child’s emotional, cognitive, and social development, leading to academic struggles, behavioral difficulties, and mental health issues. There are various types of traumas that can affect students, such as physical abuse, sexual assault, neglect, community violence, natural disasters, and more.
The prevalence of trauma in special education students is staggering – perhaps more serious even than the statistics we cited earlier in this post.
According to the National Child Traumatic Stress Network, up to 80% of children with disabilities report experiencing at least one traumatic event in their lifetime.
As educators, it’s our responsibility to provide a safe and supportive learning environment for all students. Trauma-informed approaches emphasize the need for compassionate and culturally sensitive practices that address the unique needs of traumatized children. This kind of education involves recognizing and responding to the signs of trauma, providing opportunities for healing and resiliency, and promoting a sense of security and trust in the classroom.
Implementing trauma-informed practices can have a significant impact on student success. Research shows that a trauma-informed approach can improve academic achievement, reduce negative behaviors, and foster positive relationships between teachers and students. By prioritizing trauma-informed education, we can create a more inclusive and empathetic learning environment that supports the well-being and academic growth of all students.
With trauma being a common factor among many students with learning disabilities, it becomes essential that teachers develop a trauma-informed approach to instruction.
Trauma-informed instruction refers to teaching that prioritizes safety, trust, and a connection to learning. This approach recognizes that students with traumatic experiences require unique support, such as a safe and nurturing environment that celebrates their strengths and abilities.
One of the most significant benefits of trauma-informed instruction is an improvement in learning outcomes. By creating a safe and supportive learning environment, students feel more engaged and motivated to learn. As a result, they’re more likely to retain information and perform better academically.
Furthermore, research has shown that trauma-informed instruction contributes to improved student attendance rates. Traumatized students may feel anxious or unsafe and may not see school as a safe space. When educators establish trusting relationships with their students, parents, and families, students are more likely to attend school regularly.
Emotionally resilient students are better equipped to cope with challenging situations in and outside the classroom. Trauma-informed instruction provides tools and strategies to help students develop emotional resilience, helping them thrive academically, socially, and emotionally.
And finally, trauma-informed instruction has been associated with a reduction in behavioral issues among students. By prioritizing safety, trust, and connection to learning, students feel more supported and are less likely to engage in problematic behavior.
Before you started to read this post, you probably already knew how important understanding the role of trauma in education was – but you may not have known how to incorporate that understanding into your teaching.
Here are some tips.
One of the most important aspects of trauma-informed teaching is building trust and connection with our students.
These strategies for establishing a safe and supportive classroom environment, like creating a welcoming learning space, using positive reinforcement, and providing consistent feedback, can help establish a positive relationship between the teacher and students. A strong relationship between teacher and student then allows for the student to feel more comfortable and willing to participate in class.
Fostering a sense of community in the classroom is another vital aspect of trauma-informed teaching.
Creating a classroom environment where all students feel included and valued, helps them feel safe and secure.
Partnerships with family members and members of the community can also help to create a community within the classroom. Inclusive teaching strategies, such as providing different learning opportunities for students with different learning styles, culturally responsive teaching, and ensuring accessibility for all students in the classroom, are all key to providing a welcoming and inclusive classroom environment.
Equally crucial to ensuring students’ success in a trauma-informed classroom is practicing self-care and self-awareness.
As a teacher, you need to manage your own stress and trauma as well – this is essential. Implement tips for self-care and self-reflection and encourage students to practice them.
These self-care strategies will differ between people but might include mindfulness, taking breaks, and engaging in self-reflection activities.
When working with students who have experienced trauma, it’s important to approach them with a positive mindset that fosters a sense of safety and belonging. Strength-based language and approaches emphasize a student’s strengths, abilities, and accomplishments, rather than focusing on shortcomings or weaknesses.
This type of language helps to build self-esteem, promote a positive outlook, and create a more supportive and nurturing learning environment. Furthermore, this approach emphasizes what a student can do, which can be particularly relevant when trauma has taken away a sense of control and agency.
For example, instead of saying “stop being disruptive,” a strength-based approach would say “let’s work together to find a way to help you stay on track.” Instead of saying “you’re not good at math,” say “I know you have a lot of potential, and let’s find a way to make math more exciting for you.”
Using a positive and strengths-based approach does not mean ignoring students’ challenges or avoiding difficult conversations. Rather, it’s an effective way to encourage students to believe in themselves and take on challenges in a supportive environment.
Mindfulness is the process of paying deliberate attention to the present moment, with a nonjudgmental awareness of one’s thoughts, feelings, and sensations. These practices can be especially helpful for students who have experienced trauma, as it helps them develop coping strategies for managing their emotions and increases resilience.
By practicing mindfulness, students can learn to reduce their stress levels, regulate their emotions, focus better and deal with intrusive thoughts.
Some examples of mindfulness practices include guided meditations, breathing exercises or yoga poses. Mindful coloring or drawing activities can also be effective.
To incorporate mindfulness into the classroom, teachers could begin or end lessons with a few moments of quiet reflection and deep breathing. You could also offer optional mindfulness activities during break or transition moments or create designated areas where students can go for quiet reflection or practice mindfulness.
Trauma-sensitive teaching strategies refer to approaches that address the unique needs of students who have experienced trauma.
By being trauma-sensitive, educators can support these students and enable them to better meet their academic goals, reduce negative behaviors, and improve their long-term mental and emotional health.
As a baseline to get started, use the list of common red flags of trauma in this document to identify students in their class experiencing trauma. Once you know which students have experienced trauma, you can implement support and refer your students for additional assistance whenever necessary.
Next, take some time to create a safe space. This might look different for every teacher and every classroom, but in general, it might include the integration of posters with positive affirmations and praise, proper room lighting, reducing unnecessary noise, etc.
Finally, develop a trauma-sensitive de-escalation protocol to prevent crises or address the aftermath of them. This protocol could involve providing students with calming techniques, offering a safe and quiet place for students to go when they feel overwhelmed, or providing additional support services.
Collaborating with mental health professionals can provide additional support and resources for students who have experienced trauma. Other educators can also provide a different perspective and share best practices for trauma-informed instruction.
Building a collaborative team approach to trauma-informed instruction can be done through strategies such as regular team meetings, sharing resources and materials, and creating a culture of trust and support.
As a team, we can work together to identify the needs of our students and provide appropriate interventions to support their academic and social-emotional growth.
Encouraging communication, collaboration, and creativity can help build a strong support system for students.
Students who have experienced trauma may struggle with communication and social skills, so it’s important to create opportunities for them to practice and develop these skills. Collaboration with other professionals and participating in creative activities can provide a safe and supportive space for students to express themselves and build positive relationships.
Social-emotional learning is also a key component of trauma-informed teaching practices. Fostering emotional intelligence, self-awareness, and self-regulation can help students cope with the effects of trauma and build resilience.
Incorporating activities that promote social-emotional learning, such as mindfulness exercises, journaling, and group discussions, can provide students with the tools they need to manage their emotions and succeed in the classroom.
By implementing these trauma-informed instruction tips, you can create a safe and supportive learning environment for your students with special needs.
Remember, every child deserves the opportunity to learn and grow – and with your help, they can truly thrive.
The child who is ‘left behind’ most is the one who leaves school without transition readiness.
Dr. James Stanfield, Ed.D.