5 Must-Know Facts About Trauma-Sensitive Teaching


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5 Must-Know Facts About

Trauma-Sensitive Teaching


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5 Must-Know Facts About Trauma-Sensitive Teaching

Trauma-sensitive teaching is a term that you’ve probably been hearing used a lot lately. You may be wondering what that term means. This issue of the Problem Student Problem-Solver is going to explain all that, plus provide solutions and strategies.

Unless you’re a beginning teacher, over the past decade you’ve probably noticed the dramatic increase in the amount of emotional, social and behavioral problems that students present. But, you’ve probably noticed that it’s not just that there’s been a big increase. You’ve probably noticed that the severity of these problems has also increased, and that the problems seems to be starting earlier and earlier.

trauma-sensitive teachingHello from Youth Change Workshops’ Director Ruth Herman Wells, M.S. Counselors, therapists and other mental health professionals like me, have long referred to the elementary years as the “latency” years. That term means that emotional, social and behavioral problems are usually less frequent and less severe during students’ earlier years. However, there are plenty of elementary teachers that now find that term to be woefully out of date as they report seeing far more severe and far more frequent issues in the youngest students. That’s why this article is going to include strategies for K through 12th grades.

Trauma-sensitive teaching AKA trauma-informed teaching simply means that the teacher is skilled in working sensitively and effectively with students who have faced or are facing traumatic events such as a death, severe illness, abuse, homelessness, crises or similar. Prior to the move towards making sure that more teachers know about trauma and how to teach students facing it, there were not widespread efforts to try to better ensure that teachers didn’t add to the problems faced by a traumatized child or teen.

So, for example, a teacher might have stated at the start of the year that students must get their homework in on time and there will never be any exceptions for any reason. However, imagine a student was up all night trying to somehow stop Dad from beating up Mom. By not allowing that student any accommodation of any type– despite the child’s very difficult situation– that can easily add to the damage that the youngster is enduring. Trauma-sensitive teaching means that the teacher carefully attempts to avoid adding more burdens and potential damage to the students’ already heavy burdens.

Trauma-sensitive teaching also means that the teacher realizes that many students may face profoundly serious problems that the teacher doesn’t know much or anything about– but is still expected to not add to the child woes. This may sound impossible, but we’ll show you in the facts listed below that it is in fact doable.

Trauma-sensitive teaching is all about finding a balance between what trauma a student may be facing, or has faced, and still offering this youngster a complete education. Sometimes it can feel like those two goals are incompatible and not easy to balance at all. However, this article is going to help you successfully find the balance between being sensitive to any trauma the child has endured, and your mission to educate.

5 Must-Know Facts AboutTrauma-Sensitive Teaching

trauma-informed teaching1.  Find the Balance Between
Trauma & Education

While it can seem to be difficult trying to find the balance between being sensitive to the trauma and providing academic instruction, it is actually not that hard once you have the facts included in this article.

Here is an important fact that will help: You never abandon your mission to educate, but you don’t accomplish it at all costs. Going back to the example of the child whose father was beating the child’s mother all night, if you don’t allow the child an accommodation such as completing the homework a day late, you are definitely adding a lot of misery to the shoulders of a child who may already be struggling to function.

While it certainly is laudable to hold high standards for students such as “no late assignments ever accepted,” the cost of that policy can be devastating to the child. Further, at a time when suicide rates, attempted suicide rates and self-harm are on the rise, no one can know what can push a student farther into deep despair, maybe even over the edge. By providing education in a way that takes the child’s trauma into consideration, you strike the balance between the child’s woes and your mission to educate.

Instead of unilateral policies with no room for adjustments, a better expectation is for students to work as hard as they can on days they are able, and to get some type of accommodation at other times. This guideline may not be appropriate for other populations but for traumatized students, it’s not just necessary, but critical. Remember: You may be the only sane, sober, humane adult in the child’s universe. If you become one more adult making their life even more terrifying and miserable, that can really crystallize a student’s despair and help drive them to hurt themselves, skip school or class, or just give up entirely.


2.  You Don’t Have to Know Exactly What the Trauma Is

It can feel like you’re in the dark. There may be a few subtle or not-so-subtle clues that a student is facing or has faced significant trauma, but a lot of the time, you may feel that you just don’t have enough information to guide you to determine who may be facing trauma and who isn’t. Here’s the good news: You don’t need to know exactly what is troubling a student, to know that you need to work very carefully and methodically to avoid adding to the load that the child is already shouldering. Here’s a way to remember this point: Must you see the skunk if you can smell it? Most people say that smelling the skunk is sufficient. Your students often give you tiny clues that they are coping with trauma. You don’t need to know the whole story to know that you want to be very careful that you’re your teaching is trauma-sensitive teaching– because if it’s not, you are very likely damaging or exacerbating the stress that the student is already coping with. Of course, if you do become aware of evidence of abuse or similar, you are a mandated reporter who much immediately notify the appropriate authorities.

If you follow the guideline listed in Step 1 above, you are going to be adjusting your expectations for possibly traumatized students by maximizing your expectations for academics when the child is more functional, and reducing those expectations when the child appears to be– or tells you- that they are struggling.


3.  To Better Understand Students’ Trauma, Remember Your Own Crises

Adults usually face crises and trauma at a lower rate than students, but you should be able to think back to a car accident, a death or fire that you lived through to remember what trauma feels like. Do you remember that after the car accident, you couldn’t focus for more than a few seconds, you just hunkered down in bed and didn’t even seem able to pull it together to get dressed?

While you face trauma perhaps only occasionally, your students can face it hourly, daily, weekly or monthly. They may live with beatings, sexual abuse, domestic violence, hunger, poverty, mental illness or verbal abuse. Like you, they feel a lot of the time that they can’t focus, they just want to stay in bad, and they feel too beleaguered to even get dressed. When you felt like this, no boss could have just mandated that you pull it together because you were already doing as good as you could. Your students feel exactly the same. Coping with the trauma takes everything they have, leaving scant resources to learn at a time when simply getting out of bed or getting dressed can seem absolutely overwhelming.

If you pressure a student to perform when facing trauma, you are causing more damage. When your rules don’t allow any exceptions even for a child whose dad hasn’t come home all week, you are causing more damage. That is why using only trauma-sensitive strategies in your classroom is so incredibly important. Either you use them with students who may live with trauma– or you cause more damage.

Are you worried that some students will take advantage of trauma-informed strategies? Read on to find out if that’s an issue.


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trauma-sensitive teaching guide4. Trauma-Sensitive Teaching Methods
Are Not Likely to be Exploited by Traumatized Students

Because teachers are given little training on juvenile mental health, many educators just guess at what to do when faced with students’ emotional problems. When it comes to students’ emotions, many educators may use one-size-fits-all methods with everyone in their class– even though they would never use one-size-fits-all academic strategies. For example, most educators will not try to get all their students to use one textbook because some students need a more advanced option, and others need a more basic option. By switching to trauma-sensitive strategies, teachers are no longer using one-size-fits-all strategies when it comes to students’ emotional functioning.

Trauma-sensitive strategies are not going to be needed with many youngsters who are fortunate enough to not be struggling with trauma. By using trauma-sensitive methods only with students who may be facing trauma, you are avoiding using the strategies with other populations who might very well take advantage of the accommodations offered. So, yes, non-traumatized students might try to exploit trauma-sensitive teaching strategies. By restricting the use of these methods to students who are in need of this type of approach, you limit or eliminate the risk of students manipulating the methods to take unfair advantage.

For students who do live with current or past trauma, they are unlikely to exploit trauma-sensitive approaches. Here’s why: First, remember back to when you last experienced trauma. Remember how you couldn’t even think straight? Remember how you had too little energy to do anything? Your students feel that way too. They would have trouble organizing their thoughts to exploit the methods. They will have little energy to exploit the methods. And, because you are perhaps the only sane, sober adult in their life, they are not going to want to risk jeopardizing their lifeline.


5.  Avoid The Most Common Trauma-Sensitive Teaching Errors

Some staff members look at a traumatized student and say that while they feel bad for the youngster’s difficult situation, that they have to be fair and rigorous in their academic instruction and expectations. A teacher adhering to this philosophy may never allow a traumatized student to submit an assignment late or to take a make-up exam, for example. While it’s great that this teacher is so tightly focused on helping students achieve, this style of instruction unfortunately means that struggling students are being compelled to function at times when they are so deeply in crisis, that almost any functioning is difficult perhaps impossible– never mind learning and mastering new and challenging academics. If you remember back to that car accident you were in, or when you were almost badly hurt in a tornado, there were periods of time when even routine tasks like hygiene and eating were difficult or impossible for you to do. Some of your students face tornado-sized trauma at home or in the community. They can’t function just like you couldn’t function.

Other staff members on your team look at a traumatized student and say that they are so concerned about the youngster that they just aren’t going to expect anything from them. While it’s great that this teacher is being so sensitive to the trauma that a student may be dealing with, but based on this outlook, the teacher may not be offering the child enough academics to prepare the child for life and adulthood. While this viewpoint is the opposite of the view described in the paragraph above, it too has both positive and negative implications for the student coping with trauma. With this viewpoint, the child will be spared avoidable stress and pressure, but the world is not going to care about what this student lived through. The world will still expect this child to be able to spell, make change and fill in job applications– all skills the child may lack if their teacher doesn’t expect anything from them due to the trauma.

Holding one of these two viewpoints is a common way that teachers fail to achieve trauma-sensitive teaching. Now that you are aware of these common pitfalls, you will be able to avoid them. By balancing these two viewpoints, you find the sweet spot that is trauma-sensitive teaching.



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About Ruth Herman Wells

Author/Trainer Ruth Herman Wells, M.S. is the director of Youth Change Professional Development Workshops. In 2011, Ruth was rated as a Top 10 U.S. K-12 educational and motivational speaker by Speakerwiki and Speakermix. She is the author of several book series, a columnist, adjunct professor for two universities, and a popular keynote speaker and workshop presenter. Ruth's dozens of books includes Temper and Tantrum Tamers and Turn On the Turned-Off Student.