As educators, we have a responsibility to provide learning environments that support our students holistically. Because we can never know the full extent of everything that’s weighing on them, we should be proactive in this support for every child, and one way to do that is to intentionally practice and come to embody trauma-responsive educational practices in each choice that we make.
This is always important, but it is especially urgent at this moment, as children cope with the uncertainty, loss, and trauma that have accompanied the continuing Covid-19 pandemic. Trauma responsiveness lives in every choice that we make as educators and takes time and practice to embody fully.
4 Key Mindsets of a Trauma-Responsive Educator
1. Relationships are everything. Childhood trauma is correlated with significant challenges later in life, but these challenges can be mitigated through a safe, nurturing relationship between the child and an adult. We can be these adults. By making time for regular check-ins, asking students to share about themselves and their communities, and modeling vulnerability by sharing parts of ourselves with students, we build trust with students and prove to them our care and support.
We do this further by consistently leading with empathy, validating all emotions, and always giving opportunities for restoration following challenging situations. We build strong relationships with students by showing them, time and time again, that we believe in their abilities to grow and that they will always be accepted and supported in our care.
2. Consistency creates safety. A key component of building safe and secure relationships with students is the consistency of our own actions. Students feel safe when they know what to expect. They naturally seek out patterns around them and use these patterns to develop guidelines through which they understand the world. Therefore, we should strive for consistency over every element of the learning environment—from the daily schedule to routines, logical consequences, and our own reactions to students.
There should be a visual schedule that is followed and reviewed each day. Students should know exactly what to do when they need to do routine things such as walk in line, ask for help, or clean up materials. These should be taught and practiced at first, but students will quickly pick up on these routines, internalize them, and begin to lead them. This consistency provides students with power and control over their environment—something that experiencing trauma often strips away.
Further, by remaining consistent in our own reactions and the logical consequences we administer in response to specific student actions, we are building trust with students. We are showing students that they can rely on us to show up and support them again and again and that we will remain steadfast in our commitments to and expectations for them and for ourselves.
3. We can’t expect what we don’t teach. No matter the student’s age, it’s unfair to hold them accountable for meeting expectations that we neither share nor teach them how to meet. We can strip away assumptions about what students should and should not be able to do, and instead set the foundation and support each student with developing the skills to thrive in our classrooms. We can explicitly teach social and emotional learning (SEL) strategies, including (but not limited to) how to collaborate with others, how to express and manage emotions productively, and how to navigate social conflicts.
If we never teach a child how to ask for a turn, we cannot fairly administer a consequence when they yell and grab the toy from another student—we have no way of ensuring that they have ever learned or seen modeled a different way of solving this problem. If we ask this child to choose a new learning center, they will become more frustrated and confused. They still do not know how they could have acted differently or how to successfully get a turn next time. We should keep this in mind for every situation that our students might need to navigate in our classrooms—even if it seems minute.
4. Student voices matter. Traumatic experiences strip children of their agency, power, and sense of control. We can provide students a sense of control in our classrooms by actively seeking and listening to their feedback and releasing the power to make decisions to students. We do this by inviting students to cocreate shared classroom expectations with us, following their preferences in daily activities (e.g., songs, gross motor activities), and inviting students to choose their learning centers and materials. This autonomy must also extend to the SEL strategies that we teach and allow students to use in our classroom. We can teach and provide students with multiple options for navigating themselves and their environments productively.
This might look like teaching and providing social problem-solving cards (such as those available for free from the Center on the Social and Emotional Foundations for Early Learning), setting up a safe place for students to utilize emotion-management strategies, and asking harmed students what they need to move forward following challenging situations.
By consistently empowering students to make decisions about their own actions and learning environments, we are showing them that their voice and identity matter and that they have the power to influence their environment. This adds to the sense of safety we are building for our students when they are with us and further strengthens our relationships in the classroom, thus helping students to mitigate the harmful impacts of experiencing trauma.
Trauma responsiveness lives in every choice, every action, and every word of an educator. Often, it requires us to critically reflect on our practices and strip ourselves of assumptions and techniques that may have served us in the past but are not serving our students today. To make sure that we show up fully for every student, with everything that they are carrying with them, we should work to embrace trauma responsiveness, beginning by using these mindsets to drive our decision-making.