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Best Practices for Trauma-Informed Teaching

trauma-informed teaching
(Image credit: Pixabay)

Unfortunately, most students and their families, and even teachers, have experienced some type of trauma. These emotional adverse experiences range in frequency and intensity for each individual and can include: being the subject of neglect and abuse (physical, emotional, sexual); witnessing and/or being part of violent acts; enduring household dysfuction (parents who are incarcerated, abusing alcolol and drugs, and/or going through divorce or seperation); or experiencing unstable living conditions. 

While trauma-informed care is part of many therapeutic plans of school counselors, those sessions are not as frequent, whereas teachers see students on a daily basis. Given this, it is often necessary to embrace and employ trauma-informed approaches to teaching. 

Here are a few trauma-informed teaching practices that any teacher can add to their pedagogical toolbox.

Educate Yourself On Trauma 

We know as teachers that in order to provide students the most effective educational experience, we must be knowledgeable and build our capacity to facilitate learning. The same is true for non-academic components of our instruction. Utilizing a trauma-informed approach to teaching starts with learning what trauma is, how it impacts students and their families (especially during school time), and finding ways to address it during school. 

The U.S. Administration for Children & Families trauma-related resources (opens in new tab) for schools is a good place to start and includes a trauma toolkit for educators. 

Acknowledge How Bias (opens in new tab) Influences Supporting Students’ Journeys Through Trauma 

As humans, we all bring bias, perspectives, and ways of thinking to the classroom, even if it is intentionally. As poverty, racism, stereotypes, and the delivery of microaggressions are all factors that impact trauma, we must remain cognizant of how our own biases may impede on us supporting students who experience trauma and cause us to lower expectations for them, which is a dichotomous approach to trauma-informed teaching. 

Instead, we should believe that all students have the capacity to be resilient and we should nurture their grit. This includes using language in your teaching that motivates students, encourages a growth-mindset that draws on their strengths and assets (opens in new tab), and addresses “mistakes” as learning opportunities. 

Embed Social-Emotional Learning (opens in new tab) Into Daily Lessons 

Students need time to process, make sense of their lived experiences, and engage in activities that can help them move forward and persevere. Provide learning activities in which students strengthen their executive-functioning skills. In addition, include opportunities for reflection. This can be done in a journal or even voice-recorded reflections (opens in new tab) so students can talk through their feelings. Allow opportunities for students to express themselves creatively too. Include freehand drawing time or on blank online canvases such as a Padlet or Google Jamboard. 

Create Safe and Affirming Spaces 

Some schools, such as St. Malachy School in Philadelphia where I serve on the advisory board, has a “Peace Room.” The Peace Room is a safe space within the school where students can focus on self-regulation, debrief, and calm themselves. It is also located adjacent to both a school counselor and behavior specialist. 

If your school does not have the resources to create a separate Peace Room, you can use an area in your classroom. Virtual healing spaces (opens in new tab) can also be used in online learning environments. 

Incorporate Mindfulness (opens in new tab) Activities 

Before lessons, allow time for students to center themselves and de-stress. While there is no way to know exactly what they are thinking about without them sharing in its entirety, we know that when trauma is experienced, it can be mentally consuming and distract students from focusing on the task at hand. By incorporating mindfulness activities before lessons, students have the opportunity to be present and not overwhelmed with forces outside of their immediate control. 

Draw on Bronfenbrenner's Ecological Systems (opens in new tab) Theory 

Remember, trauma is not something that happens in isolation. Various parts of students’ environment, community, and relationships are intertwined. As you approach teaching through a trauma-informed lens, consider the student holistically and include aspects of “the whole child” in learning activities. This means addressing learning by working toward developing not only students’ academic needs, but also their social, cognitive, emotional, and physical needs. 

These are just a few trauma-informed approaches to teaching that you can start using to support your students. Try some of these or others that you find. The goal is to cultivate learning environments for students where positive outcomes for the students’ holistic development can be achieved, despite past adverse traumatic experiences. Students are resilient and having their teachers on board with trauma-informed approaches to teaching can only be a strength. 

Dr. Stephanie Smith Budhai is an associate clinical professor in the department of Teaching, Learning, and Curriculum at Drexel University, in Pennsylvania. She holds a Ph.D. in Learning Technologies and K-12 teaching certifications in Technology Education, Instructional Technology and Business, Computers, Information Technology, Special Education and Elementary Education. She is also the 2021 Emerging Leader for the Society for Information Technology and Teacher Education (SITE) and the 2017 ISTE Awardee for Excellence in Teacher Education. Dr. Smith Budhai is a Nearpod, VoiceThread, and Google Level 1 Certified Educator.  Dr. Smith Budhai has more than a decade of online teaching experience, and has published myriad books, articles, and invited editorials surrounding the use of technology and online learning in education. Her publications include: 

- Leveraging Digital Tools to Assess Student Learning  (opens in new tab)

- Increasing Engagement in Online Learning: Quick Reference Guide (opens in new tab)

- Culturally Responsive Teaching Online and In-Person: An Action Planner for Dynamic Equitable Learning Environments  (opens in new tab)

- Teaching the 4Cs with Technology (opens in new tab)

- Best Practices in Engaging Online Learners through Active and Experiential Learning Strategies (opens in new tab)

- Nurturing Young Innovators: Cultivating Creativity in the Classroom, Home and Community (opens in new tab)