George Lucas Educational Foundation
Mental Health

Trauma-Informed Classroom Strategies

One teacher uses student survey responses to shape the trauma-informed strategies in her classroom.

November 26, 2019
Richard G. Bingham II / Alamy Stock Photo

When trauma impacts students, negative classroom behaviors may occur, but trauma-invested strategies can help foster positive classroom learning environments and mitigate the impact of trauma. Student input can be an important way to determine what strategies work to help students de-stress. I used a survey to ask about the perceived effectiveness of specific strategies as well as the effect of the classroom environment. Several questions were adapted from Teaching to Strengths: Supporting Students Living with Trauma, Violence, and Chronic Stress by Zacarian, Haynes, and Alvarez-Ortiz. Incorporating student input facilitates a more trauma-informed classroom. 

Building Relationships

Relationship-building is an important element of addressing trauma because students rely on stable relationships. Predictability and dependability are especially important for trauma-affected students. 

Start with a simple getting-to-know-you activity. Students can build connections as a class through discussions of basic elements of their lives like their weekend plans or favorite songs. Once the foundations are established, conversations can move to more content-based topics, such as critiquing character decisions or providing candid feedback regarding activities. Based on student input I received during community circle conversations, I adjusted instructional activities to address their interests. Using community circles as a means to communicate allows opportunities for students to discuss their thoughts and connect with the entire classroom community.

My students took anonymous surveys about their perceptions of circles. One student’s response demonstrated how the circles reduced stress: “You were able to work with the teacher to work things out so I didn’t feel stressed because I knew we would take care of it.” Having a designated place to work together to address issues can lessen stress for students. 

Active listening is a key part of relationship building. In the survey, almost all of my students said they associated my listening with less stress. One student wrote, “The way you teach and listen to students, it makes it a lot easier to feel comfortable in the room.” 

Don’t be afraid to admit when you fail. Modeling apologies repairs relationships and develops students’ relationship skills. For example, when having a circle conversation about upcoming goals, a student shared a grade-based goal. Instead of being grade-focused, I encouraged the student to consider personal growth and learning. That very weekend, my own experience as a doctoral student turned my attention to grades. On Monday, I shared my personal experience as a student and I publicly apologized during class, admitting that I was wrong to try to influence the student’s personalized goal. In response, the student accepted my apology. I felt an even stronger connection with my entire class. I showed them that I am human and can make mistakes, and I modeled the way an apology can repair a relationship. 

Encouraging Responsibility

Creating a sense of responsibility is important in trauma-informed education because it fosters a belief in students that they are in charge of themselves. Responsibility involves feeling a sense of self-worth, having competence, and experiencing a sense of efficacy. Allow students to submit selected assignments early for feedback so they can develop competence as they revise the assignment before the final due date. If a student submits early and the assignment meets the expectations, it will be graded ahead of the assignment deadline. Allowing students opportunities to submit their work early fosters a sense of worth and competence. To further support students’ sense of competence and self-efficacy, I also allow students to rework assignments after they are graded. Students have an opportunity to better demonstrate their learning and increase their grade. These two processes provide opportunities for students to see themselves as competent learners—whether it’s the first time they submit, the second time, or a resubmission after the assignment is graded. Students know they will be able to reach a level of competence.
My survey results reflected that providing opportunities to rework assignments decreased students’ stress. Providing due dates two to four weeks early builds students’ responsibility. Almost all of the students said in the survey that it was helpful that they were held accountable for their work. Providing deadlines early also was associated with less stress. “There was no rush on assignments with due dates,” one student wrote. Students perceived responsibility strategies as effective and de-stressing. 

Promoting Regulation

Regulation strategies such as soothing music and brain breaks allowed students to manage physical and emotional responses, which is especially important for students who have experienced trauma. 

Throughout the year, I played instrumental music during writing assignments, arrival to class, and small group work. My student survey responses indicated that the music lessened their stress. One student wrote, “The music helped me focus and not think about anything but working,” and another commented, “It was peaceful and made the room not feel so empty when no one was talking and doing work.” 

Weekly brain breaks and incorporating physical movement into content-based activities helped students develop self-regulation. With discussion questions, I asked students to stand in parts of the room to indicate their response, using signs with the words “Agree” and “Disagree” on opposite sides of the room. I also used signs that said “I know it and can explain it,” “I’ve heard of it,” or “I haven’t heard of it (yet).” Students moved to their self-selected location and explained their rationale to the class. During the discussion, if students’ opinions changed, they moved to the correct sign. 

Start Where You Start

There is no wrong place to start implementing trauma-invested strategies. To nurture strong relationships, express interest in partnering with students so the activities are successful. Be sure to gauge students’ perception of stress by getting feedback from them—determine activities they feel make them least stressed—and plan accordingly. Implementing trauma-invested strategies to foster relationships, responsibility, and regulation can be achieved by any teacher and create less stressed students. 

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  • Teaching Strategies
  • 9-12 High School

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