When considering implementing trauma-informed practices in your school, you might find yourself asking: How do I know which students have experienced trauma, so I can teach those students in a trauma-informed way? While it’s important to identify students in need of extra support, we can use trauma-informed practices with every single student because they benefit them all.
Think of a wheelchair-accessible ramp to a building: Not every single person needs it, but it significantly removes barriers for those who do, and signifies to everyone that the building is an accessible place. We can do the same thing for our students impacted by trauma when we remove barriers and use trauma-informed strategies as a whole school.
We can never know without a doubt which of our students have experienced trauma and which haven’t. Some have experienced trauma but not told anyone, or had an experience they won’t label as trauma until years later. Some students are living in traumatic situations and can’t or won’t share this for their own safety. When we use trauma-informed strategies with all students, we ensure that the students who can’t ask for support are still getting it.
Trauma-informed strategies can also help to proactively establish protective factors. The National Child Traumatic Stress Network describes protective factors such as self-esteem, self-efficacy, and coping skills as “buffer[ing] the adverse effects of trauma and its stressful aftermath.”
Some protective factors are inherent to a child’s nature or a result of early caregiving experiences, but we can teach coping mechanisms, help develop healthy self-image, and provide opportunities for practice in managing stress. Providing these supports to all students bolsters these protective factors. While not every student will experience a significant trauma in life, all of us as humans experience loss, stress, and challenges. Building up our students’ resilience will help them through these experiences.
One of the most important things you can do for a child who has experienced trauma is provide a caring, safe relationship, infused with hope. Child trauma expert Bruce Perry writes, “Resilience cannot exist without hope. It is the capacity to be hopeful that carries us through challenges, disappointments, loss, and traumatic stress.” We can commit to building caring, trusting relationships with all students, relationships in which we hold hope about our students’ ability to persist and succeed.
The foundation of these relationships is unconditional positive regard for each student, the belief that every student is worthy of care and that worth is not contingent on anything—not compliance with rules, not good behavior, not academic success. When our students know we’ll care about them no matter what, they can feel safer to take risks. This risk taking in a safe environment, with support and opportunities to reflect, is one way to build resilience—in all students.
Trauma in childhood and adolescence can impact a person’s development, and these students often benefit from extra support in learning how to manage emotions in healthy ways. But learning healthy coping strategies can benefit all students, and incorporating the teaching of these strategies can be as simple as teacher modeling.
During a class in which I’m feeling overwhelmed, instead of trying to hide that, I can use it as a learning opportunity by naming it and modeling a coping strategy. “Hey everyone, I’m feeling pretty flustered because that last activity didn’t go how I thought it would. When I’m feeling flustered, it helps me to stretch for a minute. Let’s all shake it out together.”
That’s very simple, but it indicates to students that it’s normal to notice and name their own emotions. Modeling and teaching positive coping skills benefits all students by normalizing the fact that we all have tough emotions sometimes and need to use strategies to manage them.
Furthermore, if we focus on a dichotomy of “student who experienced trauma” and “student who hasn’t experienced trauma,” we lose an opportunity to expand the social-emotional toolbox of every student. Even children with no adverse experiences benefit from expanding and practicing their coping skills and strategies.
Whole-school strategies—such as creating a space for self-regulation in each room or implementing a more trauma-informed approach to discipline—can create the circumstances for individual students to get the support they need. Perhaps most importantly, when all of the adults in a school are committed to creating a safe and caring environment, it increases the chances that children will feel safe asking for help.
One essential whole-school support is a focus on wellness and self-care for teachers. As Kristin Souers puts it in the book Fostering Resilient Learners, “It’s crucial... that teachers not brush aside self-care as an unnecessary luxury; on the contrary, taking care of ourselves is what enables us to take care of our students.” A school environment that values wellness for teachers and students supports the ongoing journey of a healthy life for each of us.
When considering whether it’s worth the time, effort, and commitment to make the cultural shifts within your own practice and your school toward becoming more trauma-informed, remember: It will all be worth it if one student can ask for or access support who thought they couldn’t before.