Children may experience a variety of trauma as they grow; these could be one-time events such as a sudden or violent death of a loved one, a natural disaster, a serious accident, or one incident of sexual abuse. Some children, however, experience on-going and chronic trauma, which could include continuous abuse and neglect, or witnessing domestic violence and/or community violence.

The Body’s Response to Trauma

When the body experiences trauma, it regulates itself differently in an effort to protect itself and survive (you have likely heard of “flight, fight, and freeze,” the instinctive reactions we have to intense stress). While this type of response is helpful during traumatic events, sometimes trauma leaves children with a conditioned reflex to flee, fight or freeze, even in relatively safe environments and situations. Not only can trauma leave children with difficulty regulating themselves, they may shift to more negative thinking about themselves and others (i.e. “I’m bad and weak” or “no one can be trusted”), and continuously feel the need to be on guard, or hyper vigilant. Trauma can leave someone continuing to feel helpless, experiencing intense periods of fear, and struggling to maintain control over themselves and their environment, no matter what the situation.

How Trauma Might Manifest in your Classroom

In a classroom, children with trauma histories may have a persistent difficulty with the effects of trauma. Loud noises, close proximity and physical contact with others, conflict with other students, and higher stress situations can further exacerbate their struggles. As a teacher, you may not know about a student’s prior experience with trauma. Speaking about and sharing trauma experiences and their impacts is difficult for anybody; and even more so for children, who often generally struggle with expressing themselves and their emotions.

While you may not know that a student in your class witnesses community violence and regular drug abuse in the home, or has been repeatedly sexually abused, you may see the impacts of those experiences in his/her behavior. Difficulty with concentration and memory, trouble connecting with others and being socially isolated, aggressive behaviors, exaggerated startle responses, and the presence of very strong emotions can all be signs that a child has experience trauma.

Strategies for Creating a Trauma-Informed Classroom

As an educator, becoming more familiar with trauma and creating a trauma-informed classroom environment helps individual students who have trauma experiences. As a bonus, it also creates a healthier environment for the entire class and will likely create a less stressful environment for you as well. Let’s look at a few strategies that can further resilience in the classroom – an important place where students spend a majority of their time and could begin to experience safety and healing.

  1. Create an emotionally and physically safe environment
    • Teach emotion vocabulary and work with students to label their feelings. Use active listening when students express themselves; this will help them feel emotionally safe and help them understand that you are a safe person.
    • Strive to maintain your own calm in the classroom, being mindful of your voice, tone, facial expressions, and use of words.
    • Incorporate community-building into curriculum.
    • Maintain an anti-bullying environment.
    • Allow students to have choice and consent in how they are touched in the classroom. Teach students how to voice their boundaries to others and model this by creating choice in how you touch them (high fives, side hugs, fist bumps, or handshakes).
    • Support the student if they access additional resources through the school day -- such as seeing a school counselor or working with a mentor or tutor -- and don’t single them out or make them feel punished for taking that time.
  2. Teach self-regulation skills and allow time and space for students to work on their regulation
    • Teach deep and slowed breathing skills to all students and regularly incorporate those skills through modeling and practice.
    • Incorporate mindfulness techniques tailored for children in your classroom schedule.
    • Create a quiet, safe space in the classroom where students can go when feeling overwhelmed, to take a break and focus on calming themselves. This space could have reminders posted about breathing and mindfulness techniques that you’ve taught.
    • Teach positive self-talk and work with children to identify positive-self statements they can practice and focus on during times of stress and dysregulation. Statements like “I’m a good person,” “I can calm myself,” and “I have control of my body” can be very useful.
  3. Emphasize positive reinforcement and positive attention.
    • This will help combat negative thinking patterns while also helping improve problematic behaviors.
    • Redirect behaviors and encourage skill development such as self-regulation techniques.
    • Use a 10:1 ratio for positive reinforcement to negative corrective statements.
    • Utilize reward systems over punishment systems and maintain consistent expectations of behaviors and outcomes.
    • Help students identify the choices in their behaviors, i.e. “you can complete your work on time and go to recess, or you can choose to not complete your work and complete it during recess.”
  4. Maintain a reasonable amount of consistency and routine
    • Have structure during the school day and try to maintain consistency as much as possible.

When you are aware of possible trauma in the classroom and strive to create a trauma-informed environment, multiple positives outcomes are possible. Meeting the needs of students with trauma history and helping them learn new skills can improve their academic outcomes, increase the likelihood that they continue to pursue their education, help them experience positive and safe environments and people, and increase their self-esteem. Additionally, these strategies will create a more positive classroom (and hopefully school) climate for everyone – including the teachers and staff who could benefit from less stress and fewer classroom management challenges.

Venée M. Hummel, LCSW

Venée M. Hummel, LCSW is a clinical social worker and clinician at the Steven A. Cohen Military Family Clinic at Endeavors in Killeen, Texas, and an instructor at the Garland School of Social Work at Baylor University. She provides clinical services to veterans and military-connected family members, with a specialty focus on evidence-based treatments for posttraumatic stress disorder, suicide prevention, and the impact of deployments on children, couples, and the entire family. She previously completed a fellowship in combat trauma research, assessment, and intervention at the STRONG STAR Research Consortium and Consortium to Alleviate PTSD at Fort Hood, Texas. Ms. Hummel is also the proud daughter of a US Army soldier with over 30 years of active duty service, and she is honored to dedicate her career to giving back to the community that helped raise her.

The opinions, representations and statements made within this guest article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of One in Five Minds or Clarity Child Guidance Center. Any copyright remains with the author and any liability with regard to infringement of intellectual property rights remain with them. One in Five Minds and Clarity Child Guidance Center accepts no liability for any errors, omissions or representations.