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WRITTEN BY RACHAEL THOMPSON • 5 min

A trauma-informed teacher assisting her students

Buzzwords like trauma-informed practice and trauma-informed teaching are increasingly common when discussing what’s important in today’s classroom.

But just how common is student trauma and why does it matter at school?

One study found that 60% of adults have experienced abuse or other difficult family circumstances during childhood and 26% of kids in the US will encounter a traumatic experience before the age of four.

Teachers and schools need to be aware of trauma because children who have experienced a traumatic event have an increased risk for academic, social, and emotional problems. More on that later.

Addressing mental health issues in the classroom helps teachers better accommodate and support students affected by trauma.

However, to address this vital issue, teachers and schools must genuinely understand it, explore evidence-based solutions, and implement best practices.

In this article, we’ll unpack the following critical topics around trauma-informed education:

  • What are the causes of student trauma?
  • How can trauma present itself in the classroom?
  • What is a trauma-informed teaching practice?
  • How do you become a trauma-informed teacher?
  • Adopting a holistic approach to safe and healthy schools

Let’s start at the top.

What are the causes of student trauma?

Trauma is defined as “a deeply distressing or disturbing experience.” If that sounds like a broad definition, it is.

There are varying theories on the types and causes of trauma, but the most widely known categories when considering child or student trauma are the following:

Bullying – deliberate action with the intent of inflicting social, emotional, physical, and/or psychological harm to someone. This can happen at school, in the community or at home.

Community violence – exposure to intentional acts of interpersonal violence in public areas by individuals who are not intimately related to the victim.

Complex trauma – describes both children’s exposure to multiple traumatic events—often of an invasive, interpersonal nature—and the wide-ranging, long-term effects of this exposure.

Disasters – includes hurricanes, earthquakes, tornadoes, wildfires, tsunamis, and floods, as well as extreme weather events such as blizzards, droughts, extreme heat, and wind storms.

Early childhood trauma – early childhood trauma generally refers to the traumatic experiences that occur to children aged 0-6.

Intimate partner violence (IPV) is also referred to as domestic violence; it occurs when an individual purposely causes harm or threatens the risk of harm to a partner or spouse in the household.

Medical trauma – refers to a set of psychological and physiological responses of children and their families to single or multiple medical events.

Physical abuse – occurs when a parent or caregiver commits an act that results in physical injury to a child or adolescent.

Refugee trauma – many refugees, especially children, have experienced trauma related to war or persecution that may affect their mental and physical health long after the events have occurred.

Sexual abuse – child sexual abuse is any interaction between a child and an adult (or another child) where the child is used for the sexual stimulation of the perpetrator or an observer.

Terrorism and violence – families and children may be profoundly affected by mass violence, acts of terrorism, or community trauma in the form of shootings, bombings, or other types of attacks.

Traumatic grief – while many children adjust well after death, other children have ongoing difficulties that interfere with everyday life and make it difficult to recall positive memories of their loved ones.

Example: The intersection of race and complex trauma.

Black children are at very high risk for complex trauma exposure. Black children living in racially and economically segregated communities are more likely than children in other communities to:

  • Live in poverty,
  • to be placed in foster or substitute care,
  • to be exposed to both familial and community violence,
  • to lose a loved one to violent death,
  • to have a family member incarcerated,
  • to experience contacts with police and the justice system,
    or to become homeless.

On top of the high rates of exposure to trauma and other types of adversities, Black children and families must cope with the effects of historical trauma and the intergenerational legacy of racism and slavery.

There is increasing evidence that the direct experience of racism and race-based stressors is a strong predictor of emotional distress, psychiatric symptoms, and the development of PTSD.

Source: The National Child Traumatic Stress Network

How can trauma present itself in the classroom?

The most common impacts of childhood trauma are typically categorized as:

  • Poor school performance
  • Difficulty in social settings
  • Emotional and physical distress
  • Providing support for students impacted by trauma requires various approaches and community support

However, becoming a trauma-informed school and implementing trauma-informed practice can positively impact students that are victims of trauma and contribute to creating a safe and healthy school.

What is a trauma-informed teaching practice?

Knowing that there are so many potential causes of trauma, understanding how educators, school leadership, and additional school staff can help affected students in their school community is vital.

Trauma-informed practice is created based on six core principles and creates a shared understanding and common language to create a welcoming, caring, respectful, and safe school.

The six principles to a trauma-informed practice are:

  • Safety
  • Empowerment, voice, and choice
  • Collaboration and mutuality
  • Trustworthiness and transparency
  • Peer support
  • Cultural, historical and gender issues

How do you become a trauma-informed teacher?

It all starts with focusing on the role of school leaders and the role of teachers.

Having the appropriate training and establishing clear guidelines empowers you and your school community to recognize behavior which may be reactions to trauma, and effectively respond.

The key to success is school support.

A schoolwide approach that fosters communication and implements positive intervention strategies contributes to healthier classrooms and a safer space for both students and teachers.

To learn more about trauma-informed practices and teacher training, download the Student Trauma and Trauma-Informed Practice Guide below.

Download the guide.

Adopting a holistic approach to safe and healthy schools.

In addition to trauma-informed teaching practice, it’s important to prioritize the wellness of your school with a holistic approach. Meaning that other key topics impact the overall safety and health of your school and its community.

Traditionally the teacher, leadership, school, and district approaches to health and safety have been addressed in a somewhat siloed approach and are often reactionary. Which means we usually only look to solve the problems at hand. Those issues can include mental health, trauma-informed practice, physical campus safety, or student discipline, to name a few.

How does a holistic approach to school health and safety compare to the traditional idea of a safe school?

This approach focuses on overall wellness, including parent and community support and implementing research and evidence-bast best practices specifically for both leadership and classroom educators.

A great example is the Safe and Healthy Schools Certification Program from the Johns Hopkins Center for Safe and Healthy Schools. This program provides two specific learning paths that address the roles of school leaders and classroom teachers and encompasses all aspects of the school community:

  • school shootings,
  • student and teacher mental health,
  • adverse childhood experiences,
  • tenets of whole-child learning,
  • SCHOOLWELL and COPEWELL models and more.

While approaching issues like student-trauma may not be simple, rethinking our approach to emergency preparedness and overall school health and safety can help schools across the US foster the safe and healthy schools our students deserve.

For more information on this program check out the full Safe and Healthy School Certification Program curriculum.