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Trauma-Informed Teaching: What You Need to Know

By Trynia Kaufman, MS

Understood's resources for educators are backed by research, vetted by experts, and reviewed by classroom teachers.

Understood's resources for educators are backed by research, vetted by experts, and reviewed by classroom teachers.

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Imagine you’re being chased by a tiger. Your heart races as you feel a surge of adrenaline preparing your body to fight, flight, or freeze. Now imagine that right after escaping the tiger, you have to learn how to multiply fractions. You would likely find this task near impossible, even if you usually find math easy.

Trauma can slow down or completely stop our ability to learn. When our bodies sense a threat, energy rushes toward brain regions specialized in averting danger. This is essential for keeping us alive. But it also means that energy shifts away from the brain regions that help us learn. 

As a teacher, you’ve probably seen this in action. Traumatic situations like the coronavirus pandemic or the mass protests about racial injustice can negatively impact how you teach—and how your students learn. You might be more distracted or take longer to complete tasks. You might feel more irritable or jumpy.  

Students experiencing trauma are more likely to fall behind in class or get in trouble for behavior issues. Understanding trauma and its impact on teaching and learning can help you find strategies that can help. 

What Is Trauma?

Trauma is a physiological and psychological response to any deeply upsetting or threatening situation. These situations can range from child abuse or neglect to a serious car wreck. Ongoing adversity such as discrimination, bullying, poverty, or community violence can also cause trauma.

Most kids will recover from a traumatic event after a few weeks or months. But repeated trauma or chronic adversity can cause more long-term issues. A traumatized brain has practiced responding to danger. This puts the brain on high alert, looking for the next threat. This is called hypervigilance. It can cause students to overreact to seemingly neutral interactions, like a teacher asking them to turn in a homework assignment.

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What Does Trauma Look Like? 

When you know a student has experienced trauma, you’re better prepared to support their educational and emotional needs. But often, students won’t say anything. So how can you know if they don’t tell you?

The first step is to take note of any change in behavior, since it could be a signal that something is going on. A normally outgoing student may become more reserved. A student who is typically organized may suddenly be missing assignments.

Keep in mind that if the trauma happened or started in previous years, you might see these behavioral issues within the first few weeks of school. Students whose severe or ongoing trauma goes unnoticed may even have a reputation for having behavior issues. 

Potential signs of trauma:

  • Overreactions to everyday challenges

  • Negative outbursts or aggression

  • Frequent stomachaches or headaches

  • Appearing very sad

  • Inappropriate social interactions

  • Trouble with executive functioning skills like focus, organization, and self-regulation

  • Falling behind with classwork

Many of these behaviors could also be caused by other issues. Students might have a medical condition, anxiety, or learning and thinking differences. Using compassionate curiosity can help you uncover what might be causing the behavior.

Trauma and Learning and Thinking Differences

Researchers agree that trauma negatively impacts learning and attention. But can trauma cause lifelong challenges like learning disabilities and ADHD, or vice versa? That’s unclear. What we do know is that accurate identification is essential to providing appropriate treatments. 

Students who have experienced trauma are more likely to be referred to special education. Trauma might sometimes be misidentified as ADHD since the symptoms have a lot of overlap. Hyperactivity, restlessness, disorganization, and trouble focusing can be signs of either trauma or ADHD. Referring students for an evaluation can help identify the underlying issue. But it’s important to find an evaluator who has experience with ADHD and trauma if both are a potential concern.

What You Can Do

As a teacher, you know the importance of building positive relationships with students and their families. These relationships are even more important for students who are experiencing trauma. 

Show students you care about them. Providing support and understanding after a traumatic event can help the recovery process. But keep in mind that students can respond in different ways to the same experience. The coronavirus crisis is a perfect example of this. Some students may be traumatized by the experience, while others may not be. 

Give students opportunities to talk or write about their experiences. This can help you understand how they’re feeling and how that might impact their learning or behavior. Understanding the reasons behind a student’s behaviors can help you respond with empathy

Strategies for teachers:

  • Be mindful of your own emotions. Identifying and managing your feelings is the first step in helping students manage theirs.

  • Expect that students will overreact sometimes. Provide the space and time they need to calm down. Let them know this is a normal response to trauma.

  • Remind yourself that behavior is a form of communication. Try not to take it personally.

  • Communicate with families about what you’re seeing. They might have ideas you could try in class. Or they might ask you for ideas on how to help at home.

  • Make sure your teaching is culturally responsive and doesn’t exacerbate traumatic experiences students may have had. 

  • Teach and model social and emotional skills, including positive behavior strategies.

  • Ask the school counselor or other mental health specialist for recommendations and support. For behavior issues, a functional behavioral assessment can help identify what is causing the behavior and how to help. 

Learning more about trauma-informed teaching strategies can help you support your students. Making simple changes to your class structure and your interactions with students can have a huge impact on students experiencing trauma.

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