By Taylor Stewart, MDiv, MA
September 4, 2020
More than 60% of students in the U.S. have experienced trauma by the age of 16. Trauma can include but is not limited to: physical and sexual abuse, racial trauma, dating violence, natural disasters, war, verbal abuse, emotional abuse, and neglect. It can be acute, chronic, or complex. Regardless of the type or frequency of trauma that a student experiences, it can have many negative impacts on their educational experiences and academic performance.
In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and senseless racial violence and injustices, it is crucial that educators implement trauma-informed pedagogical practices in their classrooms. As many schools begin this academic year via remote learning or re-opening their doors in the midst of pandemic, implementing these trauma sensitive practices is even more paramount. Below are four trauma-informed educational practices that teachers can use within their in-person and/or online classrooms in efforts to better support their students who are affected by trauma.
Teachers have the opportunity to model to their students what a healthy relationship looks like through the teacher-student relationship. While building these relationships is beneficial to all students, this modeling can be particularly helpful for students who have experienced challenging relationships at some point throughout their lives. These challenging and sometimes harmful relationships can cause students to have difficulty navigating and forming relationships with their teachers, peers, and other administrators on campus.
Building positive, trusting relationships with your students can involve simple practices such as checking in with students individually, learning about your students’ personal interests and experiences, sharing your personal interests and experiences, smiling at your students, greeting them in the hallways, and leaving your classroom door open outside of class periods. In taking these actions, teachers may gain more of their students’ trust and become a role model of a positive adult and authority figure. The intentional actions taken by teachers to establish positive, trusting relationships with their students affected by trauma can aid these students in learning how to operate in healthy relationships, while also having a positive impact on their academic performance.
Students who are affected by trauma may experience heightened nervous system responses (i.e., fight, flight, or freeze responses) and/or difficulty regulating their emotions and behavior. Teaching your students self-regulation skills within the classroom can aid them in learning how to bring themselves to a more calm and regulated state when they become dysregulated. These skills can be particularly helpful if you notice that certain students are having difficulty concentrating, seem withdrawn, or are behaving disruptively.
Teaching self-regulation skills can be as simple as asking students to do self-reflective exercises such as: “What do I need in order to best learn today?” at the beginning of class. It can include encouraging students to stand up and stretch if they feel comfortable to aid them in releasing tension from the body. It can be asking students to pick a color or write a word to describe how they’re feeling, taking a few minutes in class to do deep breathing, or encouraging students to take “brain breaks” after a certain amount of instruction. Incorporating these strategies into your online and/or in-person classroom spaces may help students feel more supported and be more present.
Students affected by trauma may experience negative thoughts, negative self-talk, and/or be accustomed to having their perceived shortcomings emphasized by authority figures and/or peers in their lives. Drawing more attention to students’ deficits rather than their strengths can negatively impact students’ self-esteem, academic performance, and result in self-fulfilling prophecies. For example, if a teacher constantly tells a student that they’re disruptive, school is not for them, or reprimands them without adequate explanation, eventually the student may begin to internalize these comments and believe them to be personal character traits.
Teachers have the opportunity to intentionally draw attention to students strengths and provide positive feedback, which can promote desired student behaviors. For example, acknowledging students’ growth, positive behaviors, accomplishments, interpersonal and academic improvement, and showing concern can not only make a student feel valued, it can also provide students affected by trauma with positive corrective experiences. Providing positive feedback to students reinforces to them that you care about them and that they are a valued member of the class.
Classrooms have the potential to be inviting and warm spaces that make students feel safe and supported. There are many ways that teachers can make their physical and online learning spaces feel inspiring and comfortable. In a virtual classroom setting, you can create a virtual background that students and you can use when they are in your class that promotes positive emotions as well as feelings of security and belonging. You can screen share a graphic of a feelings chart at the beginning of class, ask students to identify for themselves where they are emotionally at the present moment, and invite them to share in the chat with the class or with you privately if they feel comfortable.
Within the physical classroom setting, teachers can have motivational posters on the walls, a list of class ground rules, a calendar of students’ birthdays, plants, natural lighting, stress balls, snacks, and/or have a calm down area (i.e., a section of the classrooms where students can go to recharge and/or self-regulate) amongst many other creative classroom ideas. The physical layout of the classroom can aid students in feeling welcome and supported, which can have a positive impact on students affected by trauma. These carefully curated virtual and physical classrooms can provide students with an increased sense of safety when they are in your classroom which they may or may not experience in other facets of their lives while also teaching them the importance of balance and emotional regulation.
The aforementioned suggestions are four ways that educators can begin incorporating more trauma-sensitive pedagogical practices into their classrooms in order to better support all students. During this pandemic, trauma-informed educational practices are essential as we learn to navigate the difficult realities of this current moment. In addition to implementing trauma-sensitive practices within their classrooms, it is also important that educators are equipped with resources within the school to support them in this work (i.e., school counselors, mental health care workers, and administrative support). Similarly, educators equip themselves with the tools necessary (i.e., therapy, friend/family support, outlets, etc.) to navigate their own trauma and vicarious trauma responses so that they are able to care for themselves, prevent burnout, and show up to this essential work more fully.
Additional resources for educators:
Taylor Stewart is a doctoral student in Counseling Psychology at Boston College Lynch School of Education and Human Development. She is a researcher for the Institute for the Study and Promotion of Race and Culture and a sits on the Advisory Council for The Institute for Anti-Racist Education. You can follow her on Instagram @taylortalkshealing and hear more of her thoughts from our panel: How Trauma Manifests in the Classroom.