Trauma-Informed Teaching–What it is and Why It Matters

Students should feel safe, supported, and ready to learn when they enter a high school…

By Anna Sudderth

Students should feel safe, supported, and ready to learn when they enter a high school classroom. Yet, for many students who have experienced trauma, showing up prepared to participate in class could be a challenge.

Trauma can impact students’ ability to focus, self-regulate, and connect with others. The effects of trauma can look different for individual students, but the bottom line is the same: trauma makes it difficult for students to learn, build relationships, and feel connected to their school community. 

Trauma-informed teaching is an approach that seeks to support and better understand the learning needs of students who have experienced trauma. It begins with teachers and other school adults recognizing the real neurological effects of trauma on students and working to understand its impact on student behavior. By understanding what causes trauma and how it affects students, educators can work together to create a culture in both the classroom and the school at large where all students feel safe and can succeed.

The How and Why of Trauma-Informed Practices

The American Psychological Association defines a traumatic event as “a frightening, dangerous, or violent event that poses bodily or psychological harm or is a threat to a student’s life or a loved one.” Traumatic events can be one-time occurrences or take a more chronic form, such as ongoing abuse, homelessness, or violence. The COVID pandemic is one recent example of a chronic, collective trauma that impacted virtually all high school students while hitting already underserved students the hardest.

Exposure to trauma of any kind can have significant, long-lasting psychological effects. For high school students, these effects can impact their ability to focus, self-regulate, and form relationships at school. Trauma-informed teaching understands these behaviors as symptoms of trauma, not as deficits within students. It works to respond to students’ needs so they can learn and grow.

The Importance of Having a Trauma-Informed Lens

Adopting a trauma-informed lens is especially crucial for high schools. High school students can experience trauma from various experiences, such as bullying, abuse or neglect, death, and economic hardships. In addition, students may also experience collective trauma, where a group or culture experiences a large-scale shared trauma such as the pandemic, natural disasters, or other global catastrophes. These events are not mutually exclusive, compounding and further complicating a student’s well-being.

Trauma-based behavior is sometimes misidentified as students acting out, leading to incomplete information about what students need. Adopting a trauma-informed lens is crucial to interrupting cycles that prevent students from achieving their full potential.

How Trauma Impacts the Brain

Research has shown that traumatic experiences can alter adolescents’ brain structure, changing how the brain responds to stress and identifies risk. Trauma can interfere with developing high school students’ social, cognitive, and coping skills and negatively impact their academic learning. The Child Mind Institute identifies five ways that trauma impacts students’ psychological development, including:

  • Trouble forming relationships
  • Poor self-regulation
  • Negative thinking
  • Hypervigilance
  • Executive function challenges
Understanding how trauma impacts student learning can help educators better support their students’ individual needs. (Photo by Maya Wali Richardson)

How Prevalent is Trauma Among Students?

Trauma is extremely common among high school students. The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study, a landmark study from the 1990s, emphasized the prevalence of traumatic experiences for youth: the study found that 61 percent of adults reported experiencing at least one trauma during childhood, and almost one in six reported having experienced four or more traumas.

The ACE study alone greatly transformed how we understand and approach trauma regarding early childhood experiences. The development of the ACE Pyramid also helped us better understand how different external and environmental factors can negatively impact a student’s life into adulthood.

In terms of high school, this means that most students come to class having experienced trauma of some kind. Recognizing how trauma shows up in the classroom requires understanding common patterns of student behavior as potentially stemming from trauma.

Trauma’s Impact on Student Learning

Trauma can increase a student’s sensitivity to stress and perceived threats. In this state of hypervigilance, typically neutral pressures, like an assignment deadline or a direction from a teacher, may become extremely stressful. In this elevated state, it can be very difficult for students to pay attention and devote energy to learning.

Trauma can also impact students’ executive functioning: initiating on tasks, getting motivated, staying organized, and remembering instructions can all be affected. This may be misidentified as ADHD or misinterpreted as a sign that the student doesn’t care about learning, which is why it’s important to identify if there is or was some layer of trauma involved.

Trauma’s Impact on Student Behavior

Similar to its negative impact on learning, trauma can also increase students’ sensitivity to stress—decreasing their ability to control their impulses and leading to disruptive behavior. Students may be unable to regulate their emotional responses when confronted with stressful situations, inadvertently acting out aggressively toward teachers or other students. 

Again, it’s important to note that trauma can show up differently in people. It may cause one student to become overactive, interjecting in class while having trouble staying in their seat. But it may cause another student to appear more distant or emotionally numb. 

Trauma’s Impact on Schools and Their Communities

Strong relationships help build strong schools and communities, yet exposure to trauma can make it hard for students to trust adults. Trauma can decrease the quality of relationships students have with their teachers, peers, and other adults at their school. Thus, a collective traumatic episode can seriously impact relationship-building within a school.

Trauma can also disrupt learning for all students, not just those experiencing trauma. When teachers don’t have the resources and training to address trauma-related behaviors in the classroom effectively, the whole learning environment risks disruption, impacting every student in the class.

Principles for Trauma-Informed Teaching and Learning

Responding to and supporting students who have experienced trauma is most effective when there is a whole-school approach. The National Education Association outlines the importance of involving everyone at school through collective, trauma-informed practices so that a network of supportive adults and services surround students.

Taking a systems-level approach to addressing trauma is also a question of equity. As Simona Goldin and Debi Khasnabis write for EdWeek, thinking about trauma-informed teaching solely at the level of individual students risks pathologizing student behavior—particularly for students of color. Trauma-informed teaching must examine how existing systems might contribute to students’ trauma and actively build more supportive, liberatory systems at the whole school level. 

One unique example of this is at the XQ school Da Vinci RISE in Los Angeles, California. The school creates a holistic and integrated model for the needs of youth navigating the most challenging types of disruptions: homelessness, foster care, and contact with the juvenile justice system. RISE has three locations that share space with nonprofit service organizations. Other models include community schools in New York City and other places that offer on-site social services. 

Creating a Safe and Supportive Classroom Environment

Teachers can support students experiencing trauma by creating a classroom environment where everything—from the posters on the walls to the classroom routines—creates a sense of safety and affirmation. Teachers should involve students in creating classroom norms and culture which affirm and reinforce the potential of every student. Doing so fosters a classroom culture where students feel invested in their co-created community.

This unified, encompassing vision for student success is one of the ideas behind the XQ design principle strong mission and culture: a set of unifying values and principles that give a school a sense of common purpose and a fundamental belief in the potential of every student. 

Educators can also build a safe, supportive community through the XQ design principle, youth voice and choice. This means involving students in decisions around what and how they learn, both in the classroom and in the community of the school at large. Students who have experienced trauma often feel a sense of powerlessness; giving students a real voice can restore a sense of power and agency.

Building Positive Relationships with Students

Students who have experienced trauma may have difficulty trusting others or believing that adults will keep them safe and help support their needs. Adults can work to undo these impacts of trauma by intentionally building caring, trusting relationships with students—another XQ design principle. Research shows that students with at least one close relationship with an adult at school are more likely to succeed. Research also shows that forming positive relationships in adolescence can alleviate trauma’s impacts. 

Understanding and Addressing Trauma-Related Behaviors

There’s no one template for how trauma will show up in students. However, there are some common behaviors that teachers can look for as possible signs a student is experiencing or has experienced trauma. These include but are not limited to:

  • Shyness and difficulty forming relationships
  • Attachment/detachment troubles
  • Forgetfulness
  • Difficulty focusing
  • Apathy

Teachers can explore this resource from the National Child Traumatic Stress Network for an extended list of behaviors to watch out for. 

It’s crucial to note that while teachers can monitor students for signs of trauma to better respond to and manage their behavior in the classroom, teachers can’t address the root causes of trauma. Teachers who suspect a student is experiencing trauma should contact school psychologists and administrators who can connect the student with professional support.

How to Bring Trauma-Informed Practices to Your High School

By implementing trauma-informed practices, high schools can create an environment where students feel safe, valued, and supported, allowing them to overcome challenges and thrive academically and emotionally. Adopting these strategies will benefit individual students and contribute to building a resilient and compassionate school community.

Here are key points educators should consider when determining when and how to bring trauma-informed practices for a school-wide approach:

Key Points to Consider:

  • Educate Yourself—Gain a deep understanding of how trauma affects student learning and behavior. Familiarize yourself with trauma-informed teaching principles and strategies, staying updated on the latest research and best practices in trauma-informed education.
  • Advocate for a Whole School Approach—Emphasize the importance of a school-wide approach to trauma-informed practices. Encourage administrators, teachers, staff, and parents to embrace collective responsibility in creating a supportive environment by advocating for school-wide professional development opportunities focused on trauma-informed teaching.
  • Foster Positive Relationships—Prioritize building trusting and supportive relationships with your students. We’ve identified caring, trusting relationships as one of our six XQ Design Principles—research-backed principles used by teams across the country to redesign their existing schools or design new ones. Incorporate activities that promote empathy, active listening, and understanding. Create a safe space where students feel comfortable expressing and learning about their emotions.
  • Implement Restorative Practices—Explore restorative justice principles to address student conflicts and discipline. Focus on healing and repairing harm rather than resorting to punitive measures. Provide opportunities for dialogue and reflection to promote accountability and personal growth. We discuss the importance of restorative practices more below.
  • Understand Collective and Second-Hand Trauma—Recognize the possibility of collective trauma within your school community. Cultivate a culture of compassion and understanding to support individuals affected by shared traumatic experiences. Offer resources and referrals to mental health professionals when necessary.

When developing a school-wide approach, all stakeholders need to be involved. Identify when and how school staff, administrators, and district personnel should step in when responding to student needs or providing professional services. Schools and districts should also identify the appropriate course of action by having a flexible plan in place for quick and easy reference. Knowing when to intervene and when to pull back and call for professional services is essential for student safety and well-being.

One of the key tenants of any school-wide approach to trauma-informed teaching is fostering positive relationships. (Photo by: Chris Chandler)

Using Professional Development to Support Educators

By providing professional development to educators on trauma-informed teaching, schools can ensure that all teachers have a common language of how trauma impacts students, what those impacts look like in the classroom, and how to respond most effectively. 

review of research around trauma-informed practices emphasizes the importance of professional development and highlights some areas where such levels of training are particularly important, including:

  • The neurobiological effects of trauma
  • Understanding what is and isn’t trauma
  • De-escalation strategies
  • Teacher self-care

Trauma-Informed Teaching Strategies

For teachers managing a classroom filled with students with various needs, responding to trauma at the moment can be extremely challenging. The research underscores the importance of providing teachers with training around trauma-informed practices so they can feel confident in supporting students. In this way, all adults in a school can operate from an overall mindset that treats trauma-related behavior not as a deficit but as an area for growth. 

Provide Consistency and Structure

Knowing what to expect from class can be crucial for students experiencing hypersensitivity to stress or threats due to trauma. Teachers can consider:

  • Having a regular schedule for how the class runs
  • Posting classroom expectations visibly in the room
  • Verbally reminding students of routines
  • Providing opportunities for students to share their understanding of expectations

Utilize Social-Emotional Learning

Social-emotional learning (SEL) is a set of skills and mindsets that enables students to navigate relationships, regulate their emotions, persist in the face of adversity, and understand their own learning—all of which can help students experiencing trauma. 

Teachers looking to emphasize SEL in the classroom might try:

  • Building frequent opportunities for collaboration
  • Taking class time to do community-building activities
  • Working with students to develop coping strategies to use when they feel themselves getting stressed or overwhelmed in class

For an example of SEL in action, explore how schools implement the Imagine Project, a seven-step journaling process to help students process their trauma through writing, creating a new story for themselves.

Use Restorative Practices Over Zero-Tolerance Policies

A tenant of trauma-informed teaching understands that students may act in disruptive ways that harm others because of their own traumatic experiences. Rather than punishing these students with zero-tolerance policies, which don’t actually address the harm and complicate student stress, schools can adopt restorative approaches to discipline. 

Cult of Pedagogy explains how the primary goal in a restorative justice framework is to repair the harm for all parties involved. These approaches have been shown to reduce repeat offenses, increase satisfaction for everyone involved, and reduce post-traumatic stress caused by the initial harm. 

Teachers and other adults preparing to implement restorative practices can start with the following:

Trauma-informed teaching resources

Teachers looking to adopt trauma-informed teaching practices don’t need to go it alone. Explore these resources for supporting students experiencing trauma, including:

Teacher Self-Care While Being Trauma-Informed

Second-hand trauma is real, and responding to students’ trauma can affect teachers’ mental health, personal life, and ability to work. As a teacher, checking in with yourself and noticing how caring for students impacts your own life is the first step to developing strategies to cope with their worries, emotions, and stress. 

No one strategy for self-care works for everyone, but teachers at Edutopia suggest a few approaches, including:

  • Finding people to talk to—friends, colleagues, or a professional therapist 
  • Anticipating high-stress moments throughout the day and planning coping strategies
  • Building rituals for coming home that establish boundaries between school and personal life

Key Takeaways

Trauma-informed teaching seeks to support students who have experienced trauma by recognizing the neurological effects of trauma on students and creating a culture where all students feel safe and can succeed. Trauma can impact students’ ability to focus, self-regulate, and connect with others and is extremely common among high school students. Trauma-informed teaching strategies include providing consistency and structure, utilizing social-emotional learning, and using restorative practices over zero-tolerance policies. Teacher self-care is also important when responding to students’ trauma.

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Photo at top by Gari Askew