Behind the behaviors: Trauma-informed education

This is the first of a three-part series about emotional and behavioral regulation in learning environments.

One of the newer movements in education over the past decade is trauma-informed education. Why is it necessary to be aware of what this phenomenon looks like? 

It’s our job, as practitioners and educators, to create a safe space for students—as much as we can—so they can focus on learning. And let’s face it, today, almost everyone has trauma in their past—if not their present.

We’ll start by defining what trauma is and why we need trauma-informed education. 

Trauma can be physical or emotional. Or both. It’s easy to see physical trauma, but psychological trauma depletes our ability to adapt emotionally, cognitively, physically, spiritually, and socially. Both physical and emotional trauma have activated the fight-or-flight mode in our bodies. It can be caused by a one-time event or a series of events. Check out Psychology Today for more information on trauma.

One thing we know: School districts can mitigate the effects of some trauma by implementing Family Literacy programming. In NCFL’s publication, Defining Our Work, practitioners are able to see the impact Family Literacy has on families. Parents increase their skills and are better able to support their children’s education as well as increase their employment opportunities. It may not be a quick-fix for trauma, but it’s a step in the right direction. Building positive relationships is a partial solution; that’s something practitioners can—and should—do in the classroom. Without solid relationships, working with trauma survivors can be superficial. Someone with childhood trauma could struggle with even the most basic of skills–such as writing a sentence with a noun and a verb—without a positive relationship. 

Collective trauma affects a community or country and can also be a one-time or series of events. Family Service Learning is one way families can identify problems in their neighborhood and create a plan to address them. In this way, adults and children working together build their 21st century skills and develop the ability to be flexible and adapt. They also show initiative and self-direction, improve social and cross-cultural skills, and demonstrate productivity and accountability as well as leadership and responsibility per NCFL’s Family Service Learning Brief. This investment in community can be part of the healing process for this type of trauma.

If we use human-centered design (HCD) and other learner-driven theories of instruction, we are taking into account trauma. HCD is a powerful tool that brings in three important perspectives: getting to know learners, developing new ideas to meet learner needs, and planning and testing new solutions. Empathy is the key. Both as students and teachers, adding empathy to the mix is essential. In this article, the benefits of HCD in a family engagement setting are discussed. However, HCD can be applied to the PK-12 setting as well. Other classroom instructional design strategies that are beneficial for students—in general, as well as those with trauma—include Understanding by Design and Layered Curriculum

The days of the talking head in front of the classroom are over. Students don’t need us to deliver instruction as much as they need us to share ideas reciprocally. By taking into account learners’ experiences, we validate them as people. There are definitely areas in which a student can be an expert and share their knowledge—even youngsters.

Do you use trauma-informed practices in your classroom? Have you adapted any strategies that could be considered trauma-informed? Sound off in the comments about the pluses and minuses.