Trauma-Informed Practices

Building a Trauma-Sensitive Space

An administrator shares ideas for giving students a place of their own within the school to use when they need an emotional break.

December 11, 2023
LightFieldStudios / iStock

When you feel the weight of the world bearing down on you, or you simply don’t think you can take another step without imploding or breaking down, don’t you just want to get away from it all? 

Imagine what children are feeling after the last several years. Much of the uncertainty in the world is having a haunting effect, pushing into their sleep, echoing their worries and pain back at them, magnifying it, not allowing them time to process, grieve, heal, or recover. In short, they’re afraid, they’re uncertain, and they begin to wither. That’s traumatic.

It’s a lot harder for them to get away from everything because they’re not really in control of their worlds—especially during the school day—and when they’re  struggling, that can make things feel a whole lot more out of (their) control.

The Reality of the weight: Fight, flight, freeze, appease 

According to the 2021 Youth Risk Behavior report from the CDC, more than four in 10 (42 percent) students felt persistently sad or hopeless, and nearly one-third (29 percent) experienced poor mental health; more than one in five (22 percent) of students seriously considered attempting suicide, and one in 10 (10 percent) attempted suicide.

On an average school day, a child could be wrestling with any number of things—trauma, performance anxiety, depression, a language barrier, bullying, their sexual identity, fears about the world and current events, a loss in their family, or just a really hard day with big feelings. Keep the following in mind during these moments:

  • It’s important to understand that what children are experiencing becomes the center of their universe. 
  • It’s critical to validate their emotions and stories.
  • Recognizing your essential role and building trusting, empathetic relationships with students goes far in times like this when they need to know you are close by.
  • It’s equally important for children to be able to pull the emotional ripcord and have a way to take a break, get some space, and work through what’s going on inside.

 A trauma-responsive solution

Providing trauma-sensitive spaces to K–12 students is one of the most mindful and compassionate gifts that school leaders can provide. Supported by contemporary psychology and educational research, a trauma-sensitive space is exactly what it sounds like—an area in an office or classroom, a designated room or corner within the school setting, that supports a student who is experiencing a state of dysregulation, trauma, or an emotional crisis moment, or just needs a quiet space to decompress. 

The space is at its most supportive when designed not just for students, but with students. Having design and implementation conversations with students gives them agency and a voice in shaping what the space looks like, as well as the expectation for how and when to appropriately use it.

Based on the age and grade level of your students, the space itself can take many forms. An 11th-grade space, where cell phone time is allowed in school, may include a partitioned-off area of a class space or office with subdued lighting, where there are a variety of phone chargers and headphones/earbuds so that students can sit back on a chair or soft seating and listen to their favorite music to turn down the rest of the volume around them.

A first-grade classroom might incorporate a mini-tent, one that has a graphic (e.g., castle) on it, filled with pillows and soft, plush animals, perhaps a beanbag chair, where they can check in with themselves, look at a book, and practice their breathing with a breath activity poster in the space.

The gift of a trauma-sensitive space is that it’s designed to support a preventive process whereby students learn how to understand their emotions and what they need when they have those feelings. They can advocate for their needs and ask to engage with the space prior to their emotions escalating.

Everyone needs a break from time to time; everyone needs to step away and breathe. Everyone needs to be able to have some distraction from the debris and noise that can pile up during the day, and they deserve a place and time to clear a path through the clutter in their head, heart, or body. Having this space dedicated to supporting these needs benefits all students. It’s from here, their emotional touch point, that they can then move to a trusted adult in the building to help process what they’re feeling.

Here are some considerations when designing a safe place:

  • Locate and build the space with stakeholder consensus.
  • Establish ground rules for when and how the space can be used.
  • The space is sacred; invest the time to identify why, as well as how the group can maintain that with using the space.
  • Subdued lighting can stabilize mood and ease tension; fluorescent lighting can be triggering or overstimulating.
  • Utilize colors that create a sense of calm and ease (pastel hues); avoid dynamic colors that are bold or visually stimulating (neons).
  • Acknowledge student safety, and prioritize items that they can use for self-regulation (headphones, weighted blanket, stuffed animal, journal and crayons) but are also safe for the student in the space, as well as staff and peers.

I examine additional trauma-responsive approaches in my upcoming book Heartleader: A Trauma-Responsive Approach to Teaching, Leading, and Building Communities.

Becoming responsive

In preparing for this work, it’s essential to evaluate the readiness of a school—the administration, staff, and community—by conducting a self-audit for trauma responsiveness and sensitivity needed to elevate this work in a school and build support spaces.

The Leading Trauma-Sensitive Schools Action Guide notes that when building out this work in a school community, “if motivation is low, school leaders may consider spending more time educating staff about trauma and its impact as well as facilitating discussions with staff about the relevance of trauma to their work. Reasons for low buy-in may be less about the topic than about the current climate or culture of the school, in which case addressing issues related to general capacity may be a critical first step.” 

Children come to us with all of this, while we are tasked with the mission to serve and educate, but this is some of our most human work: recognizing need and taking action to be both preventive and responsive in order to support and mitigate a need with actionable solutions, love, and compassion. You don’t need to know a child’s trauma or what they are working through to love them, but in our work, we must be ready to build with them a physical space that is safe when everything else may feel like it’s not.

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  • Trauma-Informed Practices
  • Administration & Leadership
  • Classroom Management
  • Mental Health

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