Students in a library

How to create trauma-informed classrooms





Date Published

26 April 2021

When I started to research and speak about trauma-informed practices in education, it was very much centered around the experiences of refugees and survivors of terrorism and acts of war. Little did I know that we would enter a global pandemic, causing trauma for all and bringing this research into every home and school. Here I will introduce some simple ideas to start your journey to making your space trauma informed.

Trauma itself is not easy to define; many things can cause trauma, and in reality, one person’s traumatic event might not even register on the radar of someone else’s. Think about how COVID-19, has impacted different countries, races, and communities very differently, even though we are all experiencing the core, a pandemic.

However, broadly speaking trauma can be categorized in three different ways:

  • Acute: usually caused by a one-off event. For example, a hurricane that devastates an area, or a terrorist event.
  • Complex: Trauma that is repeated over a longer period of time. For example, bullying or domestic violence.
  • Developmental: Early traumas might lead to developmental, academic, or social arrested development.

While there may be many root causes of trauma, our reactions and the way we deal with trauma can be easily broken down into three reactions: Fight….Flight….Freeze.

Think about your reaction to a traumatic event, or how you have coped during this period of lockdown that has undoubtedly affected us all. For me, I fight. I become over-productive, shepherding my students and friends with positive reinforcements. But among my colleagues, there are those whose instinct is that of flight, at the first sign of the pandemic they rushed to leave the city and to hide away from what was happening. Then there is the most common, the freeze category. This is the group of people who just do not know how to react to trauma and, therefore, tend to ignore it completely.

There is no right or wrong way to react to trauma, and while there are categories, there is no research that indicates who fares better at overcoming trauma.

At this point, you might be wondering what this has to do with teaching? Well, I would argue that it has everything to do with teaching. Teachers are frontline workers, even if they are remote. They are working extra hours to get through this and often having issues with their workspaces or having children at home. It isn’t ideal, we are all in a mess, and the reality is, we are not even at the stage of processing the trauma.

Trauma-informed teaching

With this in mind, how are we supposed to identify trauma in our students? Well, certain behavior might help you to spot trauma. A few ways that this is identifiable are in common behavioral signs, such as, but not limited to, falling asleep in class, displaying aggressive behavior, or exhibiting hyper-vigilance.

So how can we make our spaces trauma-informed? Well, it is much easier than you may think, but it does take mindfulness and needs to be consistent. Here are a few activities that I love to include in my school.

  • Incorporate daily check-ins. Get your students to verbalize their real feelings, steering clear of the "I'm fine thanks" response. Make a space where saying “Oh, I am a little tired today" is encouraged. Why? This response is about feelings and sets the standard for your students to trust that sharing feelings is safe.
  • Be consistent. Don't change things suddenly. If you teach a certain way, that is fabulous, and if you try new things, again, fabulous, but don't start rapping at your students, or changing the rules. Consistency is the keystone to feeling safe.
  • Change your approach to questions. Ask about feelings, even towards grammar exercises. Yes, there IS a right answer, but how about phrasing it like “how do you know this?", "how do you feel about this grammar?" (Note: the aim is for the student to feel confident to tell you that they are struggling or happy with what they have learned).
  • Be open to learn. It should go without saying, but treat each student as an individual. There is no such thing as a typical student from x country. We are not experts on the cultures of our students, and we should feel confident to learn from them and about them. Give them the teaching space and flip your classroom once in a while, where you will create a sense of engagement, belonging, and trust with all.
  • Don’t ban L1. Something I am passionate about is not banning L1. I know, as educators we feel that students benefit from only speaking English, but students need to process information. Can you think of a single instance in your life when you have been prohibited from speaking your language? Probably not!

Trauma-Informed spaces are critical, and coming out of COVID-19, they will be needed more than ever. We have a unique opportunity to rewrite our industry. So why not try to incorporate some of these tips into your teaching/school. You might be surprised by the positive outcomes for your community as a whole.

Remember, you are not a psychologist, but you can create a space that allows for students to ask for help. When they do, you should be equipped to find them the right person to talk to. Just know, that you created a safe space; that is wonderful, and that in itself, helped your students.

And lastly, consider taking a workshop, or reaching out to trauma-informed practitioners for more information, and get your school involved. A truly trauma-informed space is a healthy learning environment and will enhance your business... trust me!

  • Do you use trauma-informed principles in your teaching practice? We’d love to hear about it on our LinkedIn page.

About the author

Caroline McKinnon works with Survivors of Torture, Trafficking and Violence through her own non-profit, Felt NYC, a Trauma-Informed Education Platform and is the Director of Courses for TESOL, Rennert.