7 teacher tips for supporting students who’ve experienced trauma

Students who’ve survived early childhood adversity or trauma – such as violence, abuse, or a death in the family – can have unique needs in the classroom. Here are some tips to meet those students where they're at.

By Team XQ

Students who’ve survived early childhood adversity or trauma – such as violence, abuse, or a death in the family – can have unique needs in the classroom. As part of our ongoing “How-To” series, here are tips from XQ school staff about how teachers can create supportive environments for vulnerable students.

Tips from Molly Graham, mental health coordinator at Washington Leadership Academy:

What is trauma? Trauma is a deeply distressing or disturbing experience, as defined by the survivor, that is beyond the survivor’s capacity to cope. Emotional responses to trauma can include shock, denial, unpredictable emotions, flashbacks, strained relationships, and physical symptoms.

Secure attachment vs. insecure attachment. There is a direct correlation between students’ emotional skills, which begin to form in early childhood, and student success. A secure attachment can lead to self-confidence, self-regulation, and an ability to navigate other relationships. An insecure attachment can lead to an anticipation of negative interactions with teachers, peers, and school staff, which can create a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Implicit trauma memories and responses. Trauma memories can be triggered by events or scenarios that we as adults know are not threatening but can be perceived as threatening to students. Behavior is a way of communication. It’s like an iceberg – we only see the surface behavior, not the underlying cause or trigger.

Building the environment. There are a number of classroom strategies that can assist with building a trauma-informed environment. Some strategies include: learning as much about the student as possible; modeling calmness; providing opportunities for increased self-worth; avoiding power struggles; giving specific praise; setting clear limits on expectations and behavior; using a buddy/support system; providing safe spaces; offering choices when possible; anticipating difficult times and planning for them; using post-it notes for silent intervention; modeling tone; and avoiding sarcasm.

Tips from Anastasia Resner, case manager, and social worker, and De’Amonta Casey, school psychologist, both at Da Vinci RISE:

Mindset. A trauma-informed environment begins with a shift in mindset. Behavior is like an iceberg. Use the 10/90 rule when thinking about student behaviors: 10 percent is what you can see, while 90 percent is what’s going on beneath the surface.

Approach. Building a trauma-informed environment involves a few approaches. Connect: focus on relationships. Protect: promote safety and trustworthiness. Respect: engage in choice and collaboration. Redirect: encourage skill-building and competence.

Strategies. Consistency and choice are key to successful classroom strategies. Create a sense of consistency and have clear expectations and predictable consequences. It’s crucial to show consistent and controlled reactions and give students choice rather than ultimatums. By normalizing mistakes and framing them as learning opportunities, you empower students to grow.


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