The Trauma-Informed Classroom

Every Child Has a Story

One thing teachers learn very quickly when they step into the classroom is that every single child under their care has a slightly different approach to learning. While many students respond well to traditional teaching methods such as large group instruction, worksheets, question sets, independent or small-group projects and weekly tests or quizzes, there are others for whom alternative approaches are necessary. 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, and 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. Yet still 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

While most classroom teachers have their hands full with the monumental job of teaching children academics and preparing them for careers, college and life in general, awareness of the signs of childhood trauma can be the key that unlocks their ability to communicate with students who are struggling 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 perform, by default, the additional jobs of child psychiatrist, psychologist, counselor and therapist. However, these jobs are neither their original purpose nor their specialized areas of training. That said, knowledge of the basics of trauma-informed care will help teachers create an atmosphere in which students who’ve experienced some type of 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:

  • Safety: Teachers can create an environment that feels safe by being consistent, kind, and supportive with all their students. Rules and consequences that are applied in a reliable manner to all students result in the feelings of trust and stability that are essential for emotional healing.
  • 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.
  • 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 and the thing that is 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 classroom rules such as speaking kindly to one another, raising hands/waiting to be called on and keeping hands to oneself. 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 or to talk with parents to gauge their openness with regards to professional support for their child.

Help Where It’s Needed

Children who’ve experienced some sort of early trauma in their lives often don’t get the support required to set them up for success. 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, which 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, compassion and the ability to recognize the signs of early trauma, and who will work to get these children in 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 in schools across the nation. Parents with children who’ve experience trauma – either acute or complex – would do well to engage the teachers and administration of their child’s school to ensure 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.