Trauma-Informed Classrooms: Why They Are Important and How You Can Become a Trauma-Informed Educator, Part 3

From the trauma-informed educator, to the trauma-informed education setting to creating trauma-informed communities

“It’s easier to build strong children than to repair broken men” – Frederick Douglass

As trauma-informed educators, our task is not to fix broken children. Also, children who are experiencing or experienced toxic stress or trauma are not broken. No one who has experienced trauma or many ACEs is damaged beyond repair, and that is especially true at a young age, when neural plasticity is still very high. Our task as teachers is not to be a psychologist, and we don’t have to conduct therapy sessions and see our students as patients. Our task is to build a nurturing environment for our students to grow up in, foster their psychological resilience and empower them. By doing this, we are contributing to ‘building strong children’.

As Bruce Perry’s research has shown, even if a child had to endure poor early experiences, future experiences can have buffering characteristics and thus a positively stimulating effect on their neurodevelopment. Positive experiences and trauma-informed interventions from family, schools or communities, can help to optimize the child’s development, and can even have a preventive role in a child’s brain development.

This practically means that while each and every educator can work on becoming more trauma-informed, the school or other educational settings and the community as a whole also have an important role to play. This is shown in the model below, called the “HEARTS model” (Healthy Environments and Response to Trauma in Schools) by the University of California San Francisco. Similar models of trauma-informed, ACE-informed, or mental-health informed communities have been proposed and are easy to find in governmental websites from the US, Canada, the UK, or Australia.

As Waite and Ryan discuss, ‘…it would be helpful to incorporate integrative multi-level, transdisciplinary systems and professionals given that inequities in education and exposure to ACEs have their origins in the structure of society and manifest the disparate life opportunities.’ Since children frequently spend most of their time at school and at home, policies that promote trauma-informed practices on both spaces are more important than ever.

School settings can become places that promote:

  • resilience and inclusion for all students (those that experience stress and trauma and those who do not);
  • cooperation between the school staff members, to help them process their own traumas;
  • continuing education for all staff members.

It is important to find allies within the school setting that can support the work of their colleagues and promote this culture of being trauma-informed. A whole school approach is necessary.

Linking it back to last week’s story and wrapping it all up. How do we move on from here?
Going back to my story from last week and looking at it through a trauma-informed lens, I can think of a million questions and answers my student and I could have engaged in and I have replayed this moment in my head many times throughout the years. I reflected on the strategies that deserve a more prominent place in how we are educated as teachers. I have come to realize that if I had approached this from a trauma-informed perspective, I would have facilitated *connection before correction* with the student – first build a relationship before acting in a correcting way. Moreover, there was actually no need for me to know his background story. Educators who use trauma-informed practices routinely assume that many or most of their students may have been experiencing toxic stress, trauma, or be trauma survivors and they modify their teaching, approach, and discipline to be empathetic, inclusive and humane. I also might have paid closer attention to my own triggers and impulses; I might have reflected on my personal experiences in the classroom and the teachers I came across as a young student. I might also have used calming strategies like meditation, journaling exercises, and other tools that help lower stress levels, or maybe even therapy.

Depending on where you start your journey as an educator and the specific population you work with, you will walk a path that may differ slightly or substantially from the path of your colleagues. Below, you will find lots of different resources that can help you reflect on your role. Some of these resources can be used as food for thought for whole school establishments, so feel free to share with everyone that you feel may find these resources useful!

List of Resources for Educators
(The following list contains links from all three blog posts on Trauma-Informed Education)

The Original ACE Study:

  • Felitti V.J. et al., 1998. Relationship of childhood abuse and household dysfunction to many of the leading causes of death in adults. The Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study. Am J Prev Med. May;14(4):245-58.





  • The Brain Architecture Game. A great resource for educators and people working with children ages 1-5. This game shows you how positive, tolerable and toxic stress experiences affect your brain’s development. You can download a DIY guide to play the game or order it here:
  • The Resilience Interactive Game. Choose positive experiences to help children become more resilient in the face of adversity.
  • Dan Siegel’s Hand Model of the brain to help you understand how thoughts and emotions interact. This has been used by many teachers in the classroom to explain to children how their brain works and how to get regulated again, engaging the “logical”brain.

Useful Websites:

Trauma-Informed Classrooms: Why They Are Important and How You Can Become a Trauma-Informed Educator, Part 2

Last week we focused on the importance of a trauma-informed education that takes into account the different stress triggers, toxic stress sources, adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) and traumatic events. This week we will focus on how the brain and the nervous system respond to different triggers and on what a trauma-informed educational setting and educator look like. Throughout this blog post, you will find a number of resources that will allow you to continue educating yourself on this important topic.

The science of healthy brain development
The brain is an interrelated organ: chemicals in the brain and our emotions are mutually constitutive. Our state of mind, our receptiveness to learning, our ability to regulate our behaviours, and more are controlled by them. Everytime the brain perceives a situation as threatening or unpredictable, it releases stress hormones. Not all stress is toxic; some stress is positive (like the stress you experience while planning a vacation), some stress is tolerable (like the impact a serious illness might have) and some stress is toxic (like the repeated exposure to adversity with the lack of support from an adult that helps the child to co-regulate and process emotions).

(Image source is here.)

The brains of children that experience toxic stress such as early childhood trauma or ACEs, develop differently with regard to neurophysiology; things that appear normal or even positive for most children, can appear threatening for them. These children can miss or misinterpret important social cues coming from their peers or teachers. They might feel overwhelmed because their brain is constantly on the lookout for cues that a situation may be threatening. This can lead to two different reactions: they can become hyper aroused and aggressive (as they go into the fight or flight state, or they can appear compliant, numb and maybe even dreamy (as they go into the freeze state). This video shows you  how a child experiencing toxic stress unconsciously interprets the social cues around them as scary or threatening.

According to Peter Levine, trauma specialist, children who are experiencing toxic stress and trauma, could show hyperarousal, muscle tension and fatigue, sleep problems, tummy aches and headaches or back pain. They might exhibit ADHD-like symptoms, hyperarousal, ‘restless leg’, agitation, lack of motivation, failure to complete work, fidgeting, darting eyes, ‘head in the clouds’, blank stare, and more. They could be visiting the school nurse more often or be absent more often.

And according to Bessel van der Kolk, another trauma specialist: ‘Despite the well-documented effects of anger, fear, and anxiety on the ability to reason, many programs continue to ignore the need to engage the safety system of the brain before trying to promote new ways of thinking. The last things that should be cut from school schedules are chorus, physical education, recess, and anything else involving movement, play, and joyful engagement. When children are oppositional, defensive, numbed out, or enraged, it’s also important to recognize that such “bad behavior” may repeat action patterns that were established to survive serious threats, even if they are intensely upsetting or off-putting.’

What areas does the trauma-informed education system focus on?
In order to understand how the trauma-informed model works, you have to start from the base (what happens inside the brain) and move up to the cultural and humanistic ripple effects of this approach. At its core, such an approach is filled with empathy and making education more accessible to those students that have difficulties adapting to the current educational system. How can you go about this?

Work towards understanding the different aspects of trauma!
Trauma can have many effects:

  • neurobiological (finding it difficult to respond to stressful, unpredictable situations and new people);
  • physical (being sick more often, being overweight or obese, dealing with mental health problems);
  • social (not being able to build and maintain friendships, for example because of being marginalised due to your ethnic background or social class or to not having access to healthcare or good nutrition);
  • psychological (developing or dealing with stress disorders, depression and more).

Work towards changing the way questions are posed!
Instead of asking: “What’s wrong?”, you can ask: “What happened?”
Many trauma-informed practitioners and experts ask “What has happened to you?” instead of “What is wrong with you?” The first invites someone to tell a story, a life narrative with personal meaning-making nuances, where the latter is much more judging, more accusatory in its character. This last approach will, once again, only add to the already existing trauma. In a classroom setting, asking “What did you do?” has a judgmental overtone; it causes feelings of insecurity, stress and guilt in the students. Asking “Would you like to share with the group, what you two are talking about?”, like in the story I shared last week, implies blaming and shaming. Understanding this mechanism makes it more easily understandable that my student lashed out at me; all humans will try to avoid situations that are threatening and might cause them shame or trouble.

Work towards checking any assumptions, preconceived notions, or stereotypes you yourself might have!
Decolonizing the mind changes lives (), and can help to disrupt ‘the culture of fear and failure’, as Liz Dozier calls it in this video.

Photo by Megan Soule on Unsplash

Work towards using strategies to cultivate more empathy!
Humans are born with the capacity for empathy (to consider what it might be like to walk in someone else’s shoes) and this capacity can be increased by engaging in actions of empathy. A classroom that is built on empathy helps students understand each other and build friendships based on trust. Practicing empathy can also help you, the educator, to have more empathy towards yourself, learn about your stress triggers and come up with strategies to help you self-soothe when you are the one who needs to take a deep breath.

Work towards viewing humanity as the center of any action or strategy you employ in the classroom!
Being trauma-informed means that we can see fear and stress as a shared human experience. From that perspective, trauma (which is essentially fear that one cannot turn off) can be better understood. Many trauma-informed practices focus on how to soothe the nervous system and through this lens, discipline in the classroom can be achieved by helping the students co-regulate with the group, instead of singling them out for … being human, human in their vulnerability or in their experience of pain and disconnection from the self.

Work on building resilience with your students!
Stress is sometimes inevitable and trauma is a possibility in any one of your students’ lives. Resilient people have skills that allow them to deal with common or more rare stressors or to overcome trauma. Sometimes they can even thrive despite the toxic stress or trauma in their lives. You are already fostering some of these resilience-building skills such as problem-solving, planning, seeking help and support from others, and maintaining focus. You could help your students still more by helping them develop a sense of control in their lives, even if it is secondary control (you cannot control what happens in your life, but you can control how you react to it). You could also share with them stories of people who faced trauma or adversity and how they overcame it to foster positivity, teach them age-appropriate mindfulness techniques to teach them self-soothing skills, and encourage journaling or art as a means of lowering stress and taking control of their personal narrative and their story.

Next week, we will look at trauma-informed education from the  perspective of the school setting and the wider community. We have included lots of resources throughout Part 1 and Part 2 which we will collect in next week’s blog (Part 3). Feel free to share your thoughts and ideas on trauma-informed education on our social media accounts and to share our blog posts with your colleagues or anyone else interested!

Trauma-Informed Classrooms: Why They Are Important and How You Can Become a Trauma-Informed Educator, Part 1

Very vividly do I remember the first time I walked in a classroom in a Dutch school and taught my first lesson. I was a substitute teacher since the regular English teacher was on sick leave, and did not know when and whether she would return that year to our school. I had taught as an intern many times before, I had tutored many students, I wasn’t a rookie. But that first time as I walked in that classroom, with a booklet that I had never taught before, with 20 teenagers looking at me and waiting for me to step in and teach them, I was sweating and my heart was racing. So I got up there and started my lesson, trying to calm my nerves, pretending I had everything under control, and wondering whether they could hear my heart beating louder than my voice telling them what they should expect to learn this trimester.

I thought that I was doing relatively well; they were nodding in understanding, and they were skimming through their books. I saw one of my students talking to his peer, looking at me and laughing. “Oh dear… What is it?”, I thought. So I asked in my teacher’s voice: “What are you two talking about? Do you care to share with the group?” And then … hell broke loose! My student expressed his disappointment about the way English was taught this year. In a strong tone of voice, he said the level was sub par and that the lesson was “nothing like last year!” There was more, but I cannot remember all of it now. What I do remember is how much I cried after this lesson, how many colleagues I asked about this child and how many looked at me in disbelief: “But he was such a wonderful kid last year! He is a sweetheart.”

What I didn’t know then was that this student had lost one of his parents last year.  His school, his friends and his favourite teachers (one of whom was his English teacher) were the ones giving him a sense of comfort, belonging, and security in the midst of his grief. After being informed about the loss of the parent, I realised that this boy had at least one ACE. With the loss still being so recent, he may have been experiencing high (or even toxic) levels of stress. Me standing there, instead of the teacher he was so fond of, was another loss on top of it. And then me lecturing him about talking to his peer, without having a secure, attached relationship first, was probably adding to his stress even more.
Events like these are food for thought: in what way can we create a more secure environment for our young people within the educational setting?

The current education system
The current education system is set up on the assumption that students have or can develop skills to acquire and apply knowledge. The education system assumes that they are cognitively intact, safe and calm. And as educators, we tend to focus on the cognitive part of our students’ brain, teaching academic skills, trying to raise our students’ test scores, and making sure that they achieve their goals.

At the same time, there are professionals within the education system who are looking for other ways to inspire students; they try to reduce the number of tests students have to take, and wonder how, as teachers, they can be more connected to their pupils and inspire them in their learning process, whatever background they bring to the table. The reason many of us teachers may have a hard time achieving such attachment relationships is probably that the majority of us were not trained to understand the impact of stress, severe loss and trauma on the way our students learn or behave. The Ohio Department of Education created the following infographic to educate their teachers on what the typical brain development of a child not experiencing trauma looks like and how it changes when the child is experiencing trauma.

But what is trauma exactly? And in what ways can it affect a person? Let’s take a look at several definitions which may be helpful.
Trauma, and the toxic stress often leading up to it, can be described in different ways: ‘Trauma is a wound that injures us emotionally, psychologically, physiologically, and spiritually’, says a document of the Crisis and Trauma Resource Institute.
Another wording by Gabor Maté says: ‘Trauma is a psychic wound that hardens you psychologically that then interferes with your ability to grow and develop. It pains you and now you’re acting out of pain. It induces fear and now you’re acting out of fear. Trauma is not what happens to you, it’s what happens inside you as a result of what happened to you. Trauma is that scarring that makes you less flexible, more rigid, less feeling and more defensive.’
Trauma specialist Bessel van der Kolk chimes in with the previous ones: ‘[T]rauma is specifically an event that overwhelms the central nervous system, altering the way we process and recall memories. Trauma is not the story of something that happened back then. It’s the current imprint of that pain, horror, and fear living inside people.’
And trauma specialist Peter Levine mentions that ‘trauma is not in the event itself; rather, trauma resides in the nervous system.’

Toxic stress and trauma are generally believed to be less common than they actually are and although we all want children to thrive, we often lack a collection of tools that can help them if they go through adverse experiences, or have a lot of stress. In the original ACE study by Felitti and Anda 87% of the participants had 1 adverse childhood experience. Scoring 4 ACEs and more, was associated with a higher risk for behavioral and physical health conditions later in life. An interesting finding is that of the 17,000 participants surveyed, most were white, caucasian middle class, educated and employed. They were not a marginalized, repressed group. They could be the student that comes from a middle class household whose parents have good jobs and a seemingly good life.  According to Margaret Paccione-Dyszlewski, however,  ‘There is hardly a child who crosses the threshold of a school who does not carry with them a reservoir of trauma. Whether this pain is the size of a pencil case, knapsack, or duffel bag, the odds are that some degree of trauma is present and that it hurts.’ In this article, she provides data for the millions of children in the United States who have to deal on a daily basis with abuse, neglect, poverty, domestic violence, street violence, alcohol addicted parents and incarceration of family members.

As adults, we are often also not informed about the effects of toxic stress and trauma on our own way of functioning and responding to others and to things that happen in our social environment. We may be triggered by behaviors our students are showing us and this can lead to us being traumatised over and over again. In addition, our consequently unbalanced or insufficiently compassionate response to students may re-traumatise them – a truly sad vicious circle in its double sense. On both sides, all of this can lead to chronic stress and anxiety, lower compassion satisfaction (the satisfaction and self-efficacy one feels when helping others), burnout, depression and more chronic diseases. What is probably the biggest obstacle for us as teachers in finding a motivational approach in which we are connected to our students with mutual authenticity, compassion, and satisfaction, is that despite all the knowledge in our specific subject, we have not been educated and trained to work from a trauma-informed perspective. What exactly does this consist of? What do we need to know to be sensitive to possible trauma with students? These are questions that will be dealt with in Part 2 of this blog post.