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Classroom Strategies to Support Students Experiencing Trauma

December 8, 2021

SRI International
   Nancy Perez, REL Appalachia

Teacher/counselor providing guidance to student in school setting

Students across the country are facing increased stressors and trauma stemming from the consequences of the opioid epidemic, racial injustices, and the recent COVID-19 pandemic. In the Appalachian region, particularly in West Virginia, rates of opioid abuse far exceed the national average. 1 The ongoing stress and difficult circumstances imposed by family and community opioid use, compounded by the added stress and uncertainties arising from COVID-19, can cause basic needs insecurity and chronic psychological trauma. The impacts of exposure to trauma can profoundly affect students' performance in school, contributing to a range of negative social-emotional, behavioral, and academic outcomes. 2, 3, 4

Schools are uniquely positioned to provide students with academic and social-emotional supports that can address many of the potential impacts and symptoms of trauma. Many students spend most of their time at school and school staff consistently and frequently interact with students. These interactions enable school staff to be aware of and sensitive to studentsí needs in the context of the surrounding community and their family life. Importantly, safe, engaging, and supportive learning environments, as well as healthy and supportive relationships with caring adults, can serve as potential protective factors that buffer against the negative impacts of trauma and stress. 5

Educators can adopt a trauma-informed approach to develop and implement additional supports for students in their classrooms. Adopting a trauma-informed approach requires understanding the widespread impact of trauma, recognizing the signs and symptoms of trauma, and responding by fully integrating knowledge about trauma into systems, policies, and procedures while avoiding potential triggers (for example, harsh or shaming disciplinary practices) to resist re-traumatization. 6 REL Appalachia and the West Virginia Department of Education co-developed the “Addressing Trauma in Educational Settings” webinar series, a three-part professional development series, which speaks to this overwhelming need with practical strategies for educators. This blog discusses trauma-informed strategies and practices that educators can implement in the classroom to effectively support students experiencing trauma.

Understanding potential impacts and symptoms of trauma

Adopting a trauma-informed approach in classrooms requires an understanding of the widespread nature of trauma and its potential impacts on students. Trauma negatively impacts how our bodies and brains develop and function, for example, by wearing out the stress and immune systems. 7, 8, 9 The impacts of trauma are multifaceted and highly individualized, so students may respond very differently to experiences of trauma. As such, trauma can impact studentsí learning and behaviors in the classroom in various adverse ways. For example, students may have trouble concentrating on schoolwork, demonstrate chronic absenteeism and tardiness, or withdraw from peers, teachers, or other activities. Educators can learn more about identifying and understanding potential symptoms and impacts of trauma by viewing Module 1 of the REL Appalachia “Addressing Trauma in Educational Settings” webinar series.

Developing trauma-informed classroom strategies and practices

Educators can use the key principles of a trauma-informed approach to guide their development of classroom strategies and policies to support students experiencing trauma: 10
  • Safety, trustworthiness, and transparency: Think about your classroom's layout and ensure that it conveys a sense of physical and psychological safety. Designate at least one or two “anchor” spots that don't change and are always used in the same way, like a reading corner with a cozy bean bag. Enforce consistent classroom rules, using supportive language and positive, nonthreatening messaging around consequences. Anticipate changes in the environment that may make a student feel unsafe, like a fire drill or the presence of a substitute teacher, and brainstorm strategies with students to overcome them. Maintain a calm presence, monitoring your body language and tone of voice.
  • Peer support, collaboration, and mutuality: Encourage students to respect, support, and celebrate each other. Model the language of respect that you want them to use. Develop a sense of “our classroom” ownership by working with students to designate a class name, logo, or mural. Let every student be the “helper,” but always ask students for permission before assigning them to this role. Discourage any unnecessary competition between students.
  • Empowerment, voice, and choice: Give students choices for engagement by presenting a menu of options for demonstrating mastery (e.g., writing an essay, creating an oral presentation, or developing a creative project). Conduct an inventory of your classroom assignments, noting each assignment's associated potential stressors and alternative options for students, and only use high-stakes, high-stress assignments when necessary. Remember that some students are not used to being empowered to make choices, so provide support to teach them how to say, “I don't want that one.”
  • Cultural, historical, and classroom considerations: Conduct a cultural/gender inventory of your classroom materials and consider how this relates to your students. Ensure each student can find materials, activities, and representations that speak to their own uniqueness, as well as their inclusion in the classroom. Have students read accounts of the same historical event from different perspectives and discuss. Think about how you celebrate differences without making children feel “different,” and use activities for the whole group that emphasize many ways of being the same.
  • Avoiding re-traumatization: Minimize potential trauma triggers, like loud noises and physical touch, as much as possible. Recognize students' reactions to triggers and respond in trauma-informed ways by communicating that students are safe and that you are there to support them and providing choices to guide them to a safe or quiet area if appropriate. Keep schedules and rules as consistent as possible to avoid surprises. Check in regularly with students one-on-one as much as possible and let them know that they can come to you for support.

Educators can learn more about trauma-informed classroom strategies and practices through viewing Module 2 of the REL Appalachia “Addressing Trauma in Educational Settings” webinar series.

Considering school systems, policies, and procedures

Educators can work with great energy to implement trauma-informed supports in the classroom, but systematic improvement and sustainability require involvement and buy-in from school leadership. School leaders have a great influence on school culture and must participate as key members in the movement to successfully develop and maintain trauma-informed schools. 11 Schools need effective leaders who can clearly articulate the purpose of building a trauma-informed school, mobilize resources, address ongoing concerns, connect people and programs, and weave trauma-informed supports throughout the school to transform the school culture and environment. 12 REL Appalachia designed Module 3 specifically for school leaders to learn more about developing and implementing school systems, policies, and procedures to support students experiencing trauma.

Resources for further learning

  • Supporting Students Experiencing Trauma During the COVID-19 Pandemic: This REL Appalachia blog post showcases an infographic on common trauma symptoms in students and everyday strategies that educators can implement in the classroom and the virtual setting to support students exhibiting symptoms of trauma.
  • Trauma Support for Schools. This website from REL Appalachia's Cross-State Collaborative to Support Schools in the Opioid Crisis (CCSSOC) includes extensive resources including mindfulness videos, training modules, factsheets, blogposts and much more for diverse stakeholders committed to supporting students and educators experiencing trauma.
  • Resource Roundup: Trauma-Responsive Practices: This REL Southwest blog post compiles resources on trauma-informed care and trauma-responsive practices from across the Regional Educational Laboratory Program.
  • Addressing Collective Trauma and Supporting the Well-Being of Students and School Staff: This REL Southwest webinar provides participants tools for working through collective trauma, particularly racial trauma, and for learning how to integrate trauma-sensitive strategies and SEL to support a holistic approach to meeting student and staff needs.

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Footnotes:

1 M. Meit, M. Heffernan, E. Tanenbaum, & T. Hoffmann. (2017, August). Appalachian diseases of despair. The Walsh Center for Rural Health Analysis, NORC, University of Chicago. https://www.arc.gov/wp-content/uploads/2020/ 06/AppalachianDiseasesofDespairAugust2017.pdf

2 B. Ganzel, & P. Morris. (2011). Allostasis and the developing human brain: Explicit consideration of implicit models. Development and Psychopathology, 23(4), 955–974. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0954579411000447

3 M. Perfect, M. Turley, J. S. Carlson, J. Yohannan, & M. P. Saint Gilles. (2016). School-related outcomes of traumatic event exposure and traumatic stress symptoms in students: A systematic review of research from 1990 to 2015. School Mental Health, 8(1), 7–43. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12310-016-9175-2

4 L. W. Phifer, & R. Hull. (2016). Helping students heal: Observations of trauma-informed practices in the schools. School Mental Health, 8(1), 201–205. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12310-016-9183-2

5 T. Wright, T. (2017). Supporting students who have experienced trauma. NAMTA Journal, 42(2), 141–152. https://eric.ed.gov/?id=EJ1144506

6 Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (SAMHSA). (2014). SAMHSA's concept of trauma and guidance for a trauma-informed approach. https://store.samhsa.gov/sites/default/files/d7/priv/sma14-4884.pdf

7 N. L. Colich, M. L. Rosen, E. S. Williams, & K. A. McLaughlin. (2020). Biological aging in childhood and adolescence following experiences of threat and deprivation: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 146(9), 721–764. https://doi.org/10.1037/bul0000270

8 D. Cross, N. Fani, A. Powers, & B. Bradley. (2017). Neurobiological development in the context of childhood trauma. Clinical Psychology, 24(2), 111–124. https://doi.org/10.1111/cpsp.12198

9 M. D. De Bellis, & A. Zisk. (2014). The biological effects of childhood trauma. Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Clinics of North America, 23(2), 185–222. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.chc.2014.01.002

10 SAMHSA, 2014.

11 S. F. Cole, A. Eisner, M. Gregory, & J. Ristuccia. (2013). Helping traumatized children learn: Creating and advocating for trauma-sensitive schools. Massachusetts Advocates for Children.

12 Cole, Eisner, Gregory, & Ristuccia, 2013.