Trauma-Informed Practices: What Educators Need to Know
By: Jennifer De Lapp
Why use trauma-informed practices?
As teachers in today’s classrooms, we see traumatized students every day. Students face not only traumatic events frequently but traumatic life conditions regularly. Unfortunately, universities and school districts do not always train educators to spot trauma responses or cope with them. We often mistake challenging behaviors and noncompliance as deliberately designed to disrupt our teaching efforts. However, in the context of education today, it is time to reframe our narrative about the process of teaching and learning.
What are trauma-informed practices and trauma-sensitive philosophies?
Our role as teachers is two-fold: 1) to facilitate the learning process, and 2) to create growth opportunities. We are not mental health workers or social workers, but there are many strategies and skills we can employ as educators that will allow us to meet the responsibilities of an educator more effectively for all of our students.
Frontloading, or setting the stage, with students is a critical time in relationship- and trust-building—without which learning will be difficult, if not impossible, to achieve for many students. Empowering students from the beginning to take responsibility for establishing and meeting class expectations will create personal and community accountability. Collaborating on classroom expectations that emphasize respect, connection, and community well-being will result in more effective instruction throughout the year. Teachers need to explicitly discuss these expectations' words and behaviors and provide modeling and practice time.
Agreeing on procedures that will be followed by all stakeholders when they do not meet expectations and emphasizing repairing harm to individuals in the community or the community as a whole allows students to connect their behaviors to the actual harm caused. Modeling how to make amends and repair damage to relationships as a teacher can be incredibly powerful for students. We all make mistakes, get tired, have bad days, get frustrated, and we can all learn to repair the harm done, whether intentional or not.
When educators address the realities of brain functioning, they gain more high-quality instruction time, greater student engagement with fewer disruptions, and better student academic outcomes.
Challenging behaviors are often trauma responses developed to survive. For evolutionary reasons, children’s survival and development depend on their ability to connect with caregivers throughout childhood. During this time, the brain becomes attuned to threats and danger on all levels that affect our survival, including harm within relationships needed for survival. The brain does not differentiate these threats from physical danger.
Students are often triggered in the classroom and respond in ways that teachers tend to label “inappropriate,” “disrespectful,” “aggressive,” “noncompliant,” “willful,” and “unmotivated.” However, students often developed these behaviors for survival and self-protection in contexts most likely unknown to us. Addressing students in these moments requires detaching from taking their behaviors personally while maintaining compassion without judgment. The fact remains, educators must meet a student's needs for safety and connection before learning or reasoning can occur.
The brain is a hierarchical structure in which the needs of the lower levels must be met before moving upwards through the structure. Learning occurs in the frontal and prefrontal cortex regions, the highest levels of the brain. However, the threat detection system resides in the subcortical region of the brain. Unless teachers meet the need for safety, a student will continue to operate from the lowest region of the brain, and stress chemicals will hijack the cortical regions. When this occurs, learning becomes virtually impossible.
Connecting with students allows movement through the limbic system, or the emotional brain, and will enable the student to begin operating from the cortical region. Often, a quick check-in at the beginning of class and utilizing connection methods efficiently can move a class into learning mode relatively quickly. However, the process may take longer depending on the needs of the class. Co-regulation, in which a well-regulated adult aids a student in regulating their emotional state, requires the ability to de-escalate. Calling out a student on their challenging behaviors, given the part of the brain operating at that moment, will likely lead to disaster.
Creating a growth mindset in students who have bought into the narrative of failure, that they will not succeed even if they work hard, can take time. However, a teacher's unequivocal belief in a child's ability to grow, along with genuinely valuing the student for who they are, can carry a student until they can believe in themselves.
No matter the myriad of mistakes the student will most likely make, the teacher’s faith cannot waiver. With someone consistently believing in them, students begin to believe in themselves. Their belief is fragile at first and needs much bolstering, but their belief will grow with time as each achievement, however small, builds their belief in themselves.
How can educators build trust and empower all students?
Building trust with students requires teacher self-awareness and self-regulation. We get triggered, too, especially when tired and overwhelmed. We are human. Philosophies that may help educators include: (a) respond rather than react: take a deep breath and a few extra moments to make a wise choice about a response, (b) model the process verbally with students to demonstrate the power of choice in responding to life circumstances we may not control (c) connect before correct to emphasize the value of the relationship to the student, and (d) provide diagnostic, as well as evaluative feedback, so improvement feels possible.
Validating a students’ emotional experience does not condone an action. However, listening and eliciting students' perspectives without judgment while using the art of asking questions in the quest to understand can allow a teacher to establish safety for the student and re-connect. This process will bring the student back into the part of the brain that can understand the harm their behavior may have caused. When we make mistakes and we will, because we are human beings and often exhausted and overwhelmed, as educators, we have a tremendous opportunity to model sincere apologies and sincere compassion, as well as a desire to prevent the harm from occurring again. Our students learn best from watching us.
Teachers can facilitate student empowerment through choice. Educators must teach to academic standards, which set the parameters for content, but within those parameters, the opportunity exists for student agency in platforms and formats. Providing clarity, consistency, predictability, and routine are valuable practices for students who deal with trauma. However, offering reasonable flexibility when facing the unexpected and acknowledging each student's unique challenges can build trust and facilitate the learning process.
Maintaining high standards and providing the necessary supports and scaffolding for students to reach those high expectations is crucial. Our job as educators is to implement effective instructional methods and interventions when our instructional methods are insufficient, the necessary initial scaffolding for students to meet expectations, and adequate support so that students have access to the knowledge and skills needed for success. It is not our responsibility to limit our students, even with good intentions of protecting them from disappointment. Each student deserves the right to discover and decide for themselves what their limits are if any.
Many students who have experienced trauma believe that asking questions or seeking help means they are stupid or inferior and, therefore, very risky. Teachers must deliberately create a class culture where they welcome, even celebrate, questions. When teachers consider asking for, receiving, and giving help, collaborative and cooperative, it becomes a valuable addition to the class. This culture of encouragement may open up opportunities for students who would otherwise feel unsafe engaging in learning.
We are not therapists or social workers, but K-12 educators see students more often than any other professional. Our responsibility to our students lies in facilitating the teaching and learning process for all students.
Trauma-sensitive practices make educational opportunities accessible to all students. Effective, inclusive education requires the acquisition of specific skills in multiple dimensions, and implementing trauma-informed practices can change students' lives.
Agorastos, A., Pervanidou, P., Chrousos, G.P., & Baker, D.G. (2019). Developmental trajectories of early life stress and trauma: A narrative review on neurobiological aspects beyond stress system dysregulation. Frontiers in Psychiatry,10. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyt.2019.00118
Bronfenbrenner, U., & Morris, P. A. (2007). The Bioecological Model of Human Development. In Damen, W., & Lerner, R.M (Ed.), Handbook of Child Psychology (pp. 14–828). Wiley. https://doi-org/10.1002/9780470147658.chpsy0114
Brummer, J. & Thorsborne, M. (2021). Building a trauma-informed restorative school: Skills and approaches for improving culture and behavior. Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
Cathomas, F., Murrough, J.W., Nestler, E.J., Han, M.-H., & Russo, S.J. (2019). Neurobiology of resilience: Interface between mind and body. Biological Psychiatry, 86(6), 410-420. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.biopsych.2019.04.011
Cook, A., Blaustein, M., Spinazzola, J., & van der Kolk, B. (Eds.). (2003). Complex trauma in children and adolescents. National Child Traumatic Stress Network, Complex Trauma Task Force. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/e404122005-001
Cook, A., Spinazzola, J., Ford, J., Lanktree, C., Blaustein, M., Cloitre, M., DeRosa, R., Hubbard, R., Kagan, R., Liautaud, J., Mallah, K., Olafson, E., & van der Kolk, B. (2005). Complex trauma in children and adolescents. Psychiatric Annals, 35(5), 390-398.
Craig, S.E. (2017). Trauma-sensitive schools for the adolescent years: Promoting resiliency and healing, grades 6-12. Teachers College Press.
Cross, D., Fani, N., Powers, A., & Bradley, B. (2017). Neurobiological development in the context of childhood trauma. Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, 24(2), 111-124. https://doi.org/10.1111/cpsp.12198
Hammond, Z. (2015). Culturally responsive teaching & the brain: Promoting authentic engagement and rigor among culturally and linguistically diverse students. Corwin.
Izard, E. (2016). Teaching children from poverty and trauma. National Education Association. https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED594465.pdf
Jennings, P.A. (2019). Trauma-sensitive classroom: Building resilience with compassionate teaching. W.W. Norton & Company.
National Child Traumatic Stress Network Schools Committee. (2008). Child trauma toolkit for educators. National Center for Child Traumatic Stress. https://www.nctsn.org/resources/child-trauma-toolkit-educators
O’Drobinak, B. & Kelley, B. (2020). Teaching, learning, and trauma: Responsive practices for holding steady in turbulent times. Corwin.
Powell, W. & Kusuma-Powell, O. (2010). Becoming an emotionally intelligent teacher. Corwin Press, Inc.
Venet, A.S. (2019). Role-clarity and boundaries for trauma-informed teachers. Educational Considerations, 44(2), Article 3. https://doi.org/10.4148/0146-9282.2175