4 Trauma-Informed Teaching Strategies

When I began my career as a middle school teacher in Coral Springs, Florida, I felt well-prepared to encounter students with a wide range of backgrounds and experiences. I understood that their experiences would impact their learning, just as my living in six states prior to the age of 11 had played a significant role in my learning.

However, nothing in my years at university had prepared me for how drastically some of those life experiences impacted every aspect of students' lives. The child who was hit by a car walking home from school and nearly lost an eye. The child who had seen his father commit suicide less than a year before. The year my team lost one of our students to a fatal brain tumor. Multi-language learners from Haiti, who had lost their entire families in an earthquake, were still expected to make adequate yearly progress. And then, of course, all students and educators just lived through a pandemic that disrupted school, ruined businesses, and hurt millions of people.

After living through trauma, students often exhibited certain behaviors: anger, lack of trust, feeling out of control as if they were “waiting for the other shoe to drop.” Many were unable to focus or would exhibit bursts of extreme behavior. How was I supposed to ensure these students were engaged in learning content when so many had personal challenges they were grappling with? How could these students be successful on state tests? Did it always matter?

What Is Trauma-Informed Teaching?

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), adverse childhood experiences, or ACEs, are “potentially traumatic events that occur in childhood (0–17 years).” ACEs can do far more than cause short-term emotional stress; they can change brain development and affect attention, decision-making, and, critically, learning. Trauma-informed instruction entails strategically teaching children who have experienced ACEs.

My experience learning how to work with students who had ACEs took trial and error, along with difficult conversations with colleagues throughout the district. Over years I developed an arsenal of trauma-informed teaching strategies to personalize with students—strategies that continued to evolve with colleagues when I transitioned out of the classroom.

Living Through Trauma

None of that prepared me for February 14, 2018. I had been out of the classroom for a few years by then, but I was still deeply connected with my Coral Springs and Parkland community through regular visits and social media. It was social media, first, that broke the news of an active shooter at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. Glued to my phone, I repeatedly hit refresh, watching the feeds of colleagues and former students, waiting anxiously to see if any friends or children from my last group of students were among the dead while the news blared in the background.

In the following days, I saw in myself the behaviors I had seen in so many students in the past. I was jittery, on edge, and angry. I was anxious and negative. The feeling of losing control was overwhelming. I couldn’t stop the shooting; I couldn’t stop the grief and pain for the community. There was nothing I could do. That overwhelming feeling of lack of control seeped into other areas of my life, and in an attempt to control something, I spent excessive time on activities I could control; my house may have suddenly been immaculate, but my emotions and my physical health were still a mess. How was my Coral Springs and Parkland community processing this trauma, and how could teachers and administration continue to support students when they returned to school in the following months and years?

While the CDC advises that prevention of ACEs is feasible through various tactics, what do educators do when the adverse and traumatic experiences have already occurred? Here are a few trauma-informed practices in schools that I have found helpful over the years.

Strategy 1: Prioritize Relationships Before Rigor

A positive relationship with a student can go a long way. Trauma can affect decision-making or attention, so if the teacher does not first take the time to acknowledge and address that trauma, the student may be distracted and fall increasingly behind, regardless of the quality of curriculum. Building those relationship connections in a classroom is essential, but stronger results will occur if social and emotional learning becomes a cornerstone of the whole school, district, and community.

We recently published an article where fifth-grade ELA teacher David Jamison II discusses how he went viral both before and after COVID for mastering hundreds of individual handshakes with all of his students “with the intent of giving them a sense of value.” With those handshakes, Jamison ensured every student felt significant and special. Establishing rapport with students is time-consuming, but when you share their interests and encourage them to speak openly about their culture, identity, and the things that matter to them, those relationships with students can unlock future success more than any individual math or reading standard.

“How was I supposed to ensure these students were engaged in learning content when so many had personal challenges they were grappling with?”

Strategy 2: Build Trust with Positive Communication

Students with a traumatic life experience “may be overly defensive, anticipating adult criticism, or defiant, as a way to assert control.” These students often respond to authoritative behaviors with a fight-or-flight response. As a result, simply changing an authoritative directive into statements with more choice and control can establish trust with a student. This can be as simple as changing the directive to a student from “get a pen from my desk” to “what color pen would you like to use today, green or blue?” Or, instead of assigning one activity to assess a student’s understanding of a concept, provide a menu of assignment options they can choose from to take ownership of their work and feel a sense of control in their choices.

Strategy 3: Create Predictable Routines

As I experienced my own feelings of loss of control, I focused on controlling what I could—like cleaning. Predictable classroom routines can help re-establish a sense of control and predictability to students who may feel like other aspects of their lives are spiraling out of control. If you plan to change a routine at any time, preview the change and explain the reasoning.

Establishing consistent routines supports the classroom in a number of ways. It helps if students know exactly what to expect each day and what is expected of them. Having consistent routines around the transitions, or the start and end of the class, not only provides structure and predictability for students who may lack those elsewhere, but it also allows for a more smoothly functioning classroom and ultimately, more time to devote to building relationships and learning content.

Strategy 4: Use the Positive Sandwich Method

Children who have experienced trauma are more likely to experience negative thoughts or a negativity amplifier. Use the positive sandwich method when providing negative feedback, such as (1) “I love how you used adjectives to describe the character”; (2) “You made a small grammatical error there”; (3) “Great job on your conclusion paragraph.” This reduces negative thinking and helps soften constructive feedback they may perceive as harsh.

The Future of Trauma-Informed Instruction

After a tense school year taking place amid a pandemic, trauma presents a crisis facing educators in the years to come. It affects children across all societal strata. If you're a current teacher, it's safe to say you work with students who have experienced trauma. We recognize that providing trauma-informed instruction is a difficult and ongoing process and encourage you to explore these strategies and customize them to your unique students and situation.

***

This article is part of a series of free articles and resources to guide trauma-informed teaching practices, including our guidance for talking about traumatic events, our strategies for helping students see the bigger picture, and our podcast interview with Sarah Lerner, a teacher at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

Be the first to read the latest from Shaped.