The How And Why Of Trauma Informed Teaching

The How and Why of Trauma-Informed Teaching

Working with adolescents who have experienced trauma is a delicate balancing act.

We recognise the negative consequences of the past and believe in the possibility of a more peaceful future. In order to maintain professional boundaries, we establish a safe setting for students to share their lives with us. We must not just care for and assist others, but we must also take attention to our own health and well-being as well. We put in the hours in our classrooms, but we rely on the generosity of our community to get by.

Teachers who took part in Edutopia’s recent Twitter chat on the topic of trauma and social and emotional learning came away with a clear understanding of what they needed to do (SEL). In the midst of the back and forth, two parallel concepts developed. First and foremost, as educators, we must place a significant emphasis on the individual student and the strong, one-to-one connections that assist our traumatised students. Second, building these ties necessitates a broader cultural adjustment and reprioritization, in which the entire community collaborates to cultivate an environment in which students, instructors, and staff members may thrive.

What about classrooms that haven’t been through a lot of trauma? If we presume that our children have not experienced trauma, we run the danger of being wrong. According to a seminal study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, childhood trauma is significantly more prevalent than previously believed and is frequently unnoticed. Participants in the conversation agreed that trauma-informed and social-emotional learning (SEL) techniques are beneficial to all children because they help them develop essential abilities such as self-awareness, self-regulation, empathy, and an openness to teamwork and cooperation. According to the NGO Zero to Three, take a “universal approach” and “believe that all children have been traumatised and require social and emotional learning teaching and assistance.”

A growing body of evidence supports that point of view. For example, a 2017 metastudy of nearly 97,000 K–12 children discovered that positive social and emotional learning practises increase academic progress, decrease disruptive conduct, and minimise emotional distress over the long run.

So, how can we strike a balance between an individual emphasis and a commitment to trauma-informed self-care on a community level? Fortunately, our Twitter conversation participants had some excellent suggestions to share with the rest of the group.


The usual classroom paradigm should be flipped in order to better accommodate children who have suffered trauma: Dozens of educators insisted that relationships must take precedence over content in the classroom.

Even though it’s a straightforward guideline, it goes against the grain and needs to be regularly reinforced: According to Wendy Clark, when it comes to the sequence of events that leads to true learning “if you’re not addressing trauma and students are distracted, tuned out, and falling further behind,” even the best curriculum will be rendered ineffective. As if that weren’t enough to get to the heart of the subject at the end of the thread, Bill Waychunas got right to it by flipping the initial proposition on its head: In response to Edutopia’s initial salvo, he wrote, “A better question,” asking, “How do you teach academics WITHOUT having SEL woven throughout your teaching and classroom?”

That is an excellent question. We wished we’d thought of it first.

Even if teachers believe that one-on-one interactions are the most important building blocks of strong self-esteem and trauma-informed practise, how can that effort be expanded to 20 or 30 kids, each of whom has experienced trauma in a unique way? Fortunately, it is not all on the shoulders of individual teachers; system-wide supports are required to distribute the work and foster a greater sense of belonging and mutual support among students (more on that below). Within that environment, however, all instructors must work together to achieve the same result: According to Mathew Portell, principal of Fall-Hamilton Elementary, a trauma-informed school in Nashville, the key is to never lose sight of the individual student: “Trauma affects children in a variety of different ways. Some children are hyperactive, whereas others are more quiet. It is critical to understand the pupils’ backgrounds in order to provide them with appropriate support.”

With so much suffering in the classroom, educators should be aware that traumatic life experiences can sometimes manifest themselves as behaviours that we might otherwise label as challenging. Educators should be mindful that traumatic life experiences can sometimes manifest themselves as behaviours that we might otherwise label as challenging. “Trauma can present itself in a variety of ways! When a child’s nervous temperament is recast as a probable response to a stressful home environment, Sarah MacLaughlin says, “hypervigilance can masquerade as hyperactivity.” “Fear can manifest itself in the form of aggression: flight, freeze, or fight.”

It is not only extremely young children whose behaviour may be a symptom of an underlying problem. Math teacher Kareem Farah believes there is a link between rage and trauma in his high school students: “Students from low-income families have been taught to hide their feelings of suffering.” Anger is a common manifestation of this condition. We must remember that frustrated students are frequently those who have undergone the most pain and require the most compassionate attention.”

That’s not going to be easy.


While developing relationships in the classroom is essential—and one-on-one time with students is essential—the impact of the work is enhanced and reinforced only when it takes place in the broader contexts of the school and community.

Many teachers who participated in the talk stressed the need of taking a consistent, team-based approach. “Being trauma-informed is not a checklist, but rather a shift in one’s perspective,” as Carmen Zeisler put it. The importance of everyone in the building working towards becoming trauma-informed cannot be overstated.” A number of other educators concurred, noting that administration and school board support are required to ensure that these reforms are sustained.

The following are some suggestions from teachers for increasing staff buy-in: Sarah Giddings noted that colleagues at her school meet in small groups to hold one another accountable, and that this extends to support personnel such as computer technicians. In Lindsey Mattingly’s Nashville-based school, Valor Collegiate, every member of the faculty participates in restorative circles, allowing instructors to get firsthand knowledge of the social and emotional skills expected of students in that model—with dramatic results: “When teachers have a thorough understanding of trauma and its expressions, the perspective will shift from one more thing to do to THE thing we have to do,” says the author.

It’s only natural that there will be some opposition. The recognition that there is sometimes scepticism about wide, new programmes is beneficial; not all teachers and administrators will get on board with enthusiasm all of the time. Several educators suggested that trauma-informed practises be linked to the already existing compassion and empathy among teachers: “You show them what they are already doing.” Then they understand that they are already a portion of the way there,” says Alison Killy, an English instructor. Likewise, Joe LaCasse felt that the foundations of trauma-informed practises were already there in many classrooms, and that it was only a matter of emphasis: “At their core, all teachers care about children.” As a result, this gets right to the heart of what it means to be a teacher. “It’s more than just a nice little addition.”


That’s precisely right. What are your thoughts?

In terms of intellectual and emotional difficulty, the teaching profession is demanding. Many instructors who participated in the talk acknowledged that the social and emotional work must begin with the educators themselves. Passionate advocates emerge from educators who recognise the importance of a practise in their own lives, and the learning ecosystem can only be considered healthy when all members of the community are flourishing. In other words, by assisting instructors in feeling emotionally grounded and supported, we are also assisting students. Please remember that teachers have SEL needs as well! “Pay attention to teacher well-being and give them the tools they need to meet their own needs,” said the nonprofit Move This World. Teachers can more genuinely develop and model positive social and emotional skills for their students in a school culture that places a strong emphasis on wellbeing for both students and staff.

Support for teachers’ social and emotional well-being can also help to mitigate the effects of secondary traumatic stress and vicarious trauma—both of which occur when teachers experience symptoms similar to those of post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of the stress of bearing witness to other people’s trauma. Peer ties that are supportive are a vital component of that prevention: “Don’t make teachers who are dealing with difficult pupils feel isolated,” Rosa Derricott said. “It should be a school-wide approach, with everyone working together to help each other.”

We can’t, of course, expect our schools to solve structural problems like poverty, crime, and drug addiction on their own. It is necessary to cast a wider net when it comes to accountability. As one chat member, Mom of All Capes, pointed out, “a trauma-informed approach to social emotional learning necessitates collaboration between counsellors, teachers, parents, and other trusted people in order to guide students through short- and long-term challenges.” She was not alone. While it’s important not to put too fine a point on it, it was likely user Belinda Talonia who stated it the best way: “SEL belongs to all of us.”