You never know what all your students are going to be bringing into your classroom. Each one has a metaphorical backpack stuffed full of different items brought from home — from divorce to abuse to food insecurity to mental illness — and these weigh heavy on students even while they are at school. Although we wish we could have students leave their worries at the classroom door, this is not possible. Therefore, we must be aware of how trauma impacts our students’ behavior and learning and learn to foster a trauma-sensitive classroom so that each student can be successful.
Is there trauma in my classroom?
Almost every student has experienced some trauma in their past. Repeated studies show that 45% of children have experienced at least one traumatic childhood event, commonly referred to as an Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE). One in ten children has experienced more than three ACE events. The most common examples of trauma include:
- Physical, emotional, and sexual abuse
- Physical, emotional, medical, and educational neglect
- Mental illness in the household
- Incarcerated family member
- Divorced parents
- Death of a loved one
- Substance abuse in the home
- Extreme poverty and food insecurity
- Witnessing violent acts, particularly domestic abuse and acts resulting in death
- Disaster and tragic accidents
As a teacher, what can I do To Help Traumatized Students?
Being able to identify the symptoms of a trauma-affected student is the first step to helping those students be successful.
Trauma manifests itself in many different ways and can have symptoms ranging from behavioral (social withdraw, drop in attendance, impulsive behavior), emotional (moodiness, jumpiness, inability to self-regulate or self-soothe), cognitive (poor memory and attention span, a drop in grades), and physical (headaches, stomach aches, excessive daytime sleepiness).
Once you are aware of how trauma may appear in your classroom, then you are more equipped to provide these students with a proper learning environment.
Here are seven ways you can foster a trauma-sensitive classroom:
1. Change your perspective
As educators, we must change our mindset about our students from “What is wrong with you?” to “What has happened to you?” It’s easy to label a student a “troublemaker” or a “bad kid,” but these quick judgments fail to consider the reasons behind their behaviors. Negative behaviors that students may exhibit, such as consistently being off-task, having angry outbursts or emotional meltdowns, and destructiveness likely stem from past trauma that has occurred outside the school walls. Instead of blaming the child for their misbehavior, become curious about the reasons behind their behavior.
2. Create a safe place
Because we never truly know what’s going on at home, teachers must do everything they can to ensure their classroom provides a safe and learning-friendly environment for the students. School may very well be the only place where a student feels safe, protected, and loved. Make sure each student feels welcome in your classroom by greeting them warmly and by being sensitive to their individual needs.
3. Model healthy behaviors
While it can be challenging, it’s essential not to take student behavior personally. It’s not about you. It’s a defense mechanism or avoidance technique they have maybe even subconsciously devised to protect themselves from what appears to be similar traumatic situations or feelings. It is crucial, then, to practice self-regulation in front of your students, modeling what healthy and mature actions and reactions look like and sound like. Students may not have positive role models outside of your classroom, so it’s educational for them to witness an adult react in appropriate fashions and maintain composure and fairness in a world where much so much is out of their control.
4. Discipline the individual
Instead of having one predetermined, set plan for discipline regardless of the student, we need to remain flexible and remember that every student’s situation is different. Some students respond well to certain types of discipline, while others may feel traumatized by the same thing. Students with trauma inherently have a distrust of adults, so you must discipline and enforce consequences while maintaining consistency and positivity. Don’t discipline out of anger; discipline out of love.
5. Keep consistent routines
Life at home is anything but predictable for many of our students, so in the classroom, consistency is key. The routines and systems you set up in the classroom might provide the most stability they get in their everyday life. Keeping organized and predictable systems helps students by making their day feel a little less out of control. And when you know something’s coming up that will change your normal direction, such as a fire drill or planned absence or assembly, let your students know ahead of time; when they know what is coming, they are in less of a reactionary state.
6. Keep them in the classroom
When a student acts out, it can seem so easy to just send them out in the hall or to another trusted teacher’s classroom. Instead, create a safe and calm place within the classroom where the student can go to practice self-regulation skills. For younger kids, this could be a carpet square or special chair behind the bookcase or in the corner with some calming toys. For high schoolers, this could look like sitting at a table in the back with their head down or headphones on, or it might actually include letting them “take a walk” or go get a drink. By teaching them healthy ways to manage with unbearable feelings, students can learn to self-regulate on their own and join the class when they are ready.
7. Consider their physical needs
Trauma can create physical needs within your students that can be helped in the classroom. Students who experience food insecurity might be relieved to know that you have granola bars or fruit snacks available if they need them. Bright, fluorescent lights can be overstimulating to some students, so consider using lamps or more natural light in your classroom. Some students may need extra physical space to feel safe, so provide them a separate desk or keep fewer classmates at their table. Give frequent “brain breaks,” or short periods of time where students can engage in physical activity such as stretching, yoga, jumping jacks, dancing, etc., to provide some relief after the impossible task of concentrating. And despite what anyone tells you, (and as long as it’s done appropriately and with witnesses), there are some times when what a kid really needs, more than anything, is a simple hug.
Is your classroom a trauma-sensitive classroom?
Our students come to us with the world on their shoulders, and it’s up to us, their teachers, to provide a safe and protected environment that can foster their learning success. Remember that many behaviors are a manifestation of the trauma, so look upon those students with sympathy and curiosity rather than animosity. Show them what it feels like to be loved and respected because you might be the only person in their life who does.
For more information on trauma-informed classrooms and teaching strategies, check out the course offerings from Credits For Teachers. We offer self-paced online Professional Development courses in topics such as effective discipline, Love & Logic, Safe Learning Environment, and Building Relationships with Students. These courses not only provide graduate credit through our university partners for salary advancement or license renewal, but they can give you the tools to create a more trauma-sensitive classroom. Learn more here.