Trauma-informed teaching—also known as trauma-informed education or practice—is a set of classroom practices that teachers can use to mitigate the impact of trauma on student learning, an important priority as schools work to help students recover from the pandemic.
The work starts with understanding what trauma is and how it affects a student’s emotions, behavior, and learning so that teachers can respond to students’ needs and create safe and supportive learning environments. Childhood trauma can occur when students witness or experience poverty, community violence, abuse or neglect, bullying or other forms of adversity.
Without the proper support, adversity can turn into trauma, affecting students long after the events have ended. Their response to stress becomes heightened and their brains shift to a more constant “fight, flight or freeze” mode.
That can impact students’ ability to regulate their emotions, concentrate in school, and form healthy relationships, including inappropriate responses to seemingly insignificant classroom events, such as bright lights, the loud thud of a dropped textbook, or accidentally bumping into a classmate. In many cases, a trauma-induced response is mistaken for misbehavior or defiance, often leading to negative outcomes for students.
Once teachers understand trauma and its classroom consequences, experts say, they can avoid misinterpreting behaviors and begin integrating strategies to help mitigate trauma’s impact on their classrooms. That could include planning instruction that helps students regulate their behaviors and emotions, changing disciplinary approaches, and creating classroom environments that make students feel both physically and emotionally safe.
“Trauma-informed teaching is a journey, not a destination,” says Brandon Stratford, deputy director of education research at Child Trends and lead author of a 2020 research review on the topic. “It is about the daily practice of responding to students’ needs.”
It could mean starting the school day with mindfulness activities, where the lights are off and kids focus on breathing, clearing their minds, and preparing for the day ahead. It could mean arranging classrooms into pods or “families” of desks to facilitate relationship-building and ending the use of schoolwide buzzers to signal the end of classes. Lessons may include journaling to help students reflect on their emotions.
When students start to feel stressed, a teacher versed in trauma-informed practices might have them go to a ”cool-down corner” filled with comfortable seating, calm lighting, books, headphones, or other things to help them collect themselves.
While such practices can benefit all students, the responses should be matched to the needs of particular students and school communities to be most effective. Different students at different ages and developmental stages and from different cultural backgrounds have different needs.
A 2021 literature review by the American Psychological Association found that trauma-informed programs improve the academic and academic-related functioning of students with a history of childhood adversity. Students who were exposed to the strategies were better able to regulate their emotions, build resilience, achieve greater academic results, and pay better attention in class. Researchers have found that clear classroom rules and routines and trusting student-teacher relationships are key contributors.
Trauma-informed teaching and social-emotional learning share a commitment to helping students process their experiences and regulate their behavior. They emphasize relationship building and self-awareness, an understanding of how one’s emotions, thoughts, and values influence behavior. They stress self-management—controlling one’s emotions, thoughts, and values.
Many educators and social workers identify the number of what experts call adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) to measure the level of adversity students have endured, including physical and emotional abuse, neglect, death of a family member, violence, and poverty. Researchers have found that higher ACE scores often are associated with negative life outcomes, though support, especially from caring adults, can mitigate the long-term impacts of adversity and trauma.
The National Association of State Board of Education’s State Policy on School Health Database reports that 16 states require teachers to receive training on trauma-informed teaching, largely in response to the spate of school shootings in recent years. Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Oregon, Washington, and Wisconsin have developed statewide initiatives to help teachers respond to trauma, including teaching the strategies in teacher-training programs.
The federal government has provided significant funding to support trauma-informed practices and related mental-health initiatives through the 2015 Every Student Succeeds Act and three rounds of pandemic-response funding since March 2020.
Experts say it’s not easy to secure the necessary buy-in from already-taxed teachers to implement trauma-informed strategies and use them consistently, while critics dismiss the practices as “coddling” students and an unwarranted distraction from schools’ focus on academic achievement. Proponents counter that learning cannot be prioritized if trauma is not addressed first, and trauma-informed teaching has garnered widespread support among mental-health advocates.