by Sarah Breeden, MT, 12 year classroom teacher
What does a trauma informed classroom look like and function like? What is being trauma informed?
There is no one answer to these questions, but essentially, being trauma informed is being
educated and informed on trauma so “educators have the opportunity to collaborate in a way that supports a student’s mental and physical health so that learning can occur.” (NEA 2023). A more basic understanding is knowing what students have experienced in and out of school that can create emotional or psychological barriers to succeeding whether in academics or making good behavior choices.
Here are some easy beginning steps to creating a more trauma informed classroom environment.
- Don’t take behavior personally. Behavior that is disruptive, oppositional, or out of congruence with what school or classroom expectations are can be very frustrating. Take a breath and remember, it’s not about you as a teacher, even though it may feel like it. Kids rarely “act-out” in a response to you directly. Also, remembering not to take it personally can keep us calm and remain objective. This is really important if you want to help the student learn a better way of attacking a problem.
- Ask, “what need is the behavior meeting?” For example, if a student never begins an assignment or refuses to do it, could it be because the material is too difficult and they are scared to ask for help? Or have they learned previously, that if they wait long enough, they wouldn’t have to finish an assignment they didn’t want to do? Instead of assuming a sleeping child is bored, could it be because they live in a noisy home with many family members or share a room with multiple siblings and don’t sleep well? I once had a student who was very argumentative, and then I realized after meeting the family with multiple children close in age, that was their way of getting attention from mom in a chaotic household. Once you can find the need the behavior is meeting, you can begin to help the child make better choices in the classroom.
- Be a safe space. Allow children to have feelings, and teach them all feelings are valid. Model this and go back to the first statement again and again. Let students express frustration, sadness, or even apathy if needed. Often, children are not able to express themselves when they’ve experienced trauma. Try to use the phrase, “I can tell you are mad/sad/upset. Let me know if you want to talk about it. I’m going to give you some space until you feel ready.” Just this acknowledgement can make a huge difference.
- Teach emotional regulation to the whole class. Everyone benefits from learning to handle big emotions. Belly breathing, calm down corners, fidgets, mindfulness are all tools school age kids can use frequently to manage their feelings. Students who have experienced trauma don’t have any idea why they feel overwhelmed often, but they know the feelings they have are often too much to handle. Teach many techniques and compliment when you see students using them.
- Most of all, be patient. Being trauma informed means understanding these issues do not resolve themselves overnight. You may work with a student and only see a small amount of progress during an academic year. It doesn’t mean the techniques and trauma informed practices didn’t work. Breaking down trauma and coping mechanisms take time. But putting in the work never has a downside.