Responding to Trauma in the Classroom

Responding to Trauma in the Classroom

Responding to Trauma in the Classroom

I’ve always known “Trauma-Sensitive Classroom” was an important concept in education, but I wasn’t exactly sure what it looked like in my lesson plans or day-to-day interactions with students.  I’m in the teaching field, and I consider myself a nice person—that should be enough to indicate I’m considerate to students and their trauma, right? Wrong. My assumptions of what it means to react to student behaviors in a trauma-sensitive manner were way off base.

On the surface, integrating trauma-informed care into the classroom appears to be a no-brainer. We recognize that trauma affects the brain development of our students. Trauma can alter the way children learn and behave, and as teachers, we accommodate accordingly.

It sounds so simple, but as I dive into my first year of teaching, I find it is much easier said than done.

From what I can remember from my time as a student, and then as a soon-to-be educator, the cycle goes as follows: Students display unwanted behavior. Teachers give a warning and maybe talk to them briefly after class (which is sometimes announced in front of all their peers). If the behavior continues, teachers respond with one or more actions, which include giving them a poor grade in the class, detention, in-school suspension, and/or out-of-school suspension.

These reactions to student behavior are more ingrained in me than I realized. Breaking the cycle so I can be a trauma-sensitive teacher has been a challenge. Even when I know the exact nature of the enormous challenges my students are facing, it is difficult to respond appropriately to their difficult behaviors in the classroom.  

Empathy and accommodation are just the beginning—trauma-informed care has so many other layers. Trauma-informed care is about…

  1. Identifying children who have gone through an adverse childhood experience. Because I am at Dakota Memorial School (DMS), the on-campus school of Dakota Boys and Girls Ranch, this is easy. All our kids have had many adverse childhood experiences. Just being in residential treatment is a traumatic experience. And kids who come to DMS as day students are here because they were unsuccessful at their home school—which more than likely resulted from or caused trauma.
  2. Learning to interact with kids who have gone through trauma. This one was tough for me. I didn’t think I was qualified enough to listen to the traumatic stories my students shared with me and tended to panic when a student confided in me. I remember the first time this happened. This young girl was quiet during the lesson which was unusual, so I asked her to stay after class to see if there was anything going on. She immediately started to cry and shared a traumatic experience from her past. My initial reaction was that I should tell her to pause and call her therapist. Fortunately, I realized that would be extremely insensitive of me. Asking her to stop sharing her story would send the message that her trauma is simply her issue, when trauma is everyone’s issue. It may also have made her think I didn’t care, that her story was so awful I didn’t want to hear it, or that her story was something to be ashamed of.  (I did report and update her therapist, but first I listened.)
  3. Learning about the accommodations you can make for students, while ensuring they get an education. Each child has different accommodation needs. You learn what these are by listening and developing relationships with students. To continue with the example above, after I took the time to listen to my vulnerable student, we were able to brainstorm ways to move forward together. We came up with a plan that helped me identify when she needed a break and set guidelines for responding to those needs. If she becomes unresponsive and starts staring into the distance, that means she needs a break. When she puts her head down in class, that also indicates she needs a break. She agreed that I should check up on her when these lasted for more than five minutes. Other students have agreed on hand signals I can do to indicate I’ve noticed they may need a break or space.
  4. Knowing the limits of your role as a teacher (or friend or neighbor) so you can get children to a mental health professional when they need it. At DMS, we have mental health professionals on campus every day. Each week, our kids go to psychiatry, psychology, therapy, and occupational therapy sessions. I am learning to determine when a child’s needs surpass my abilities and training to provide help, and to reach out to the mental health and OT professionals on staff.

I’m sure you know a child who is struggling with mental health issues. If nothing else, you have seen children in the grocery store or at the mall “creating a scene.” As you interact with these kids in your own life and in the community, stop and think before you judge. Ask yourself this question: “If I were a child going through a traumatic experience, what kind of support would I want from the teachers and adults in my life?” and “If I were a parent struggling to control my child’s behaviors, what would I want from my family, friends, and neighbors?”

Finally, when you look at children who are misbehaving in a big way, ask not “What is wrong with this child,” but “What happened to this child?” It’s funny how such a simple reframe can change your entire perception of the child in front of you.


Madi Novacek, Teacher
Dakota Memorial School

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