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The Trauma-Informed Classroom

Written by Evolve's Behavioral Health Content Team​:

Alyson Orcena, LMFT, Melissa Vallas, MD, Shikha Verma, MD, Ellen Bloch, LCSW, Lianne Tendler, LMFT, Megan Johnston, LMFT
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Every Child Has a Story

One thing teachers learn very quickly when they step into the classroom is that every child under their care has a slightly different approach to learning. While many students respond well to traditional teaching methods, others don’t. Although sensitive and creative teachers have always found fresh and interesting ways to bring academic material to their students, research in the 1980s led to a general rethinking of how students learn.

A teacher from New Zealand named Neil Fleming identified an approach to teaching that incorporated students’ unique learning styles into classroom instruction. In addition, the work of education theorist David Kolb introduced the Experiential Model of Learning to mainstream pedagogy. Since then, teaching strategies such as differentiated instruction and project-based learning have become the norm.

However, there remains a subset of our children who face learning challenges that are difficult to identify. Evaluation geared toward all the usual suspects – dyslexia, auditory processing, and attentional issues – can’t seem to get to the root of what’s going on. Over the past decade, however, a new trend in research and teacher training has raised awareness regarding a segment of our student population that might previously have been falling through the cracks: those who’ve experienced some type of childhood trauma.

Types of Childhood Trauma

Childhood trauma can take many forms. In an article entitled “The Three Pillars of Trauma Informed Care” published in 2008 by the journal Reclaiming Children and Youth, Dr. Howard Bath identifies two distinct types of childhood trauma:

  • Type I: Acute Trauma. Acute trauma results from a child’s exposure to a single overwhelming traumatic event.
  • Type II: Complex Trauma. Complex trauma is also known as relational or developmental trauma and results from a child’s exposure to multiple, ongoing, prolonged traumatic events, which are usually of an interpersonal nature.

The consequences of both types of trauma can have far-reaching effects on the emotional, social and academic development of a child. The most common primary outcomes of significant childhood trauma are:

  • Post-traumatic stress type symptoms, such as internal re-experiencing of the original traumatic event due to cues and/or triggers
  • Difficulties with concentration and focus
  • Disproportional startle response
  • The inability to efficiently regulate internal emotional states such as anger, fear, depression, anxiety and hopelessness

Most classroom teachers have their hands full with the monumental job of teaching children academics. Not to mention preparing them for careers, college, and life in general. However, awareness of the signs of childhood trauma can be the key that unlocks their ability to communicate with students who struggle with these issues. A teacher or childcare worker who knows what to look for can also initiate an evaluation process that leads to a student getting adequate help and support.

Fundamentals of Trauma-Informed Care

Most teachers understand that in addition to their typical classroom duties, they also acts as informal child psychiatrist and counselor. However, these jobs are neither their original purpose nor their specialized areas of training. That said, knowledge of the basics of trauma-informed care is essential. It helps teachers create an atmosphere in which students with early trauma have a more successful classroom experience. Research indicates that the most effective methods of care for children with a history of trauma are based on the following three principles:

1. Safety.

Teachers can create an environment that feels safe by being consistent, kind, and supportive with all their students. Rules and consequences applied in a reliable manner to all students result in the feelings of trust and stability essential for emotional healing.

2. Communication.

Children of trauma sometimes tend to be suspicious of adults and develop negative associations with authority figures. The key to breaking down these habits is open and honest communication. It takes time and patience. But when teachers show students that they are there to help and support them, those students have a better chance of restructuring their relationships with adults.

3. Emotional Literacy.

 The ability to proactively and positively process impulses and emotions is the most challenging factor in the life of a child who’s experienced some type of trauma. It’s also the thing that’s most likely to cause problems in the classroom. Teachers, especially those in the early elementary grades, regularly embed core emotional skill-teaching when they establish class norms. These skills help their students later in life. For instance, rules such as speaking kindly to one another establish social fundamentals. In addition, rules like raising hands/waiting to be called on and keeping hands to oneself build on these skills. Above and beyond these basics, the best practice for teachers who know their students have issues with emotional regulation is to refer the child to the school counselor. They can also talk with parents to gauge their openness with regards to professional support for their child.

Help Where It’s Needed

Children who experience some sort of early trauma in their lives often lack the support thye ned. They might score high on IQ tests but perform below expectations in the classroom. Or, they might do well in their academic work but develop defiant attitudes toward authority figures. This can ultimately sabotage both their academic careers and their ability to lead full and productive adult lives. These children need adults around them with sensitivity and compassion. They need adults with the ability to recognize the signs of early trauma. They need adults who foster an environment in which they can learn, grow, and heal.

Thankfully, a heightened awareness of the complex, long-term effects of trauma is becoming more and more common. Parents with children who’ve experienced trauma should ensure that everyone in direct contact with their child understands the importance a trauma-informed learning environment. After healthy food, plenty of sleep, regular exercise, and generous doses of love, it’s what these kids need the most.

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