What is Trauma-Informed Teaching?
The American University’s School of Education defines Trauma-Informed Teaching as a “space for students to build trust and recognizes that content may need to come after the forging of relationships”.
Why is this so important?
Trauma affects more kids than you may realize. American University’s School of Education provides statistics about the impact of traumatic events on school-aged children studies from 1990-2015. Of the most shocking statistics:
- 69%-71% of school-aged children surveyed had experienced assault or physical abuse.
- 70% had witnessed violence.
Additionally, the National Education Association (NEA) confirms this in an article from 2016:
- One in four U.S. students will witness or experience a traumatic event before the age of 4, and more than two-thirds by age 16.
These high percentages alone help to show why trauma-informed teaching strategies are necessary in the classroom. This is a lot of students. This is not a handful of children in a school, trauma is affecting large portions of classes. Trauma-informed teachers are able to apply these skills and strategies to all students, not just the ones who have experienced trauma. Society as a whole is recognizing that every student deserves a space in which they feel safe and are able to form meaningful, trust-based relationships.
How does trauma impact a child?
Children who experience trauma can experience chronic stress as a result, which has a negative impact on their cognitive development. Children can be triggered by memories of trauma. When these memories are triggered and recalled, the child’s body reacts as if in a dangerous or unsafe environment.
Because the child’s brain is processing these moments as unsafe, their body goes into ‘survival mode’ and becomes reactive. It can become difficult for the child to control their behavior and this can lead to outbursts in the classroom.
The NEA found kindergartners who have experienced trauma may achieve lower test scores, struggle to pay attention in class, and are likely to react aggressively when feeling challenged or frustrated, due to being unable to regulate their emotions. Additionally, young students who have experienced trauma struggle to form meaningful relationships.
All of these effects of trauma can ultimately negatively alter a child’s ability to achieve academic success a child’s education. Trauma can also impact a child’s memory, attention and focus, social skills and more. Often, a student’s trauma-based reactions impact their behavior in the classroom, which leads to them being removed from the learning environment as a consequence. Or if they stay in the classroom, they may be distracted from learning due to fear or anxiety.
Trauma-Informed Teaching Strategies for a Teacher
Trauma-informed teaching strategies include social-emotional learning throughout the day, not just in isolated moments or brief lessons. Trauma-responsive schools also elevate the need for students to feel safe by implementing trauma-informed strategies with intention. What might appear as a student acting out, is their trauma induced response trying to regulate their feelings of safety.
One helpful piece of advice the NEA provides to teachers who are working to create a safe classroom environment, is to recognize trauma responses in students and give them time to regain their sense of calm. Remember that this is the innate reaction to stress, and the flight or fight response is something that helped early humans survive. Though it’s not necessary in school, their bodies don’t know this and they need help learning to work through these responses.
The idea of educating teachers and staff about the science of how trauma affects the brains and bodies of children can be a game changer. Understanding why and how trauma informs student behavior can change the ways teachers view students behavior. Teachers are able to make sense of outbursts and understand why they can occur in students who experienced trauma.
Trauma impacts many school aged children. There are proven ways we can support these students in school through professional development and having schools that are willing to dedicate themselves to building a safe and trusting environment. To make this change we will need to build relationships with our students first, then we can move to teaching content.
To read more on these important topics, here are a few sites to get you started:
Tiffany Verhoosel is currently a Computer Science teacher in the Baltimore City School District. Coming from a background of business she joined the Baltimore City Teaching Residency over ten years ago to make the career change into education and has never looked back. Her degree from Johns Hopkins, a Master of Science in Digital Age Learning and Educational Technology, helped propel her from Special Educator to her current teaching position where she teaches Kindergarten to eighth grade students how to code.