trauma informed virtual classroom

Teaching With Compassion: A Guide to the Trauma-Informed Virtual Classroom

Change is traumatic. When the World Health Organization characterized COVID-19 as a pandemic on March 11, 2020, the world changed, and trauma ensued.

Businesses shut down. Schools sent kids home, believing they’d come back eventually. Instead, they ended up shutting down for the entire school year, many going virtual for their final academic quarter.

Many kids were already dealing with trauma in their lives. Community samples reveal that more than two-thirds of kids experience trauma before their sixteenth birthday. Add the shift of moving from a school with caring, trauma-informed adults back to a home where the trauma occurs, and you have a recipe for a social and community disaster.

A trauma-informed classroom can mitigate the damage caused by trauma in a child’s life. Teachers get this. They understand they have to do more than teach a child how to read or multiply three-digit numbers.

Keep reading to learn about how you can transform a virtual classroom into a trauma-informed classroom.

What Is a Trauma-Informed Classroom?

To understand the trauma-informed classroom, you need to understand trauma. What is trauma?

Trauma is more than just the overwhelming feeling of too much homework. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders-IV and V defines trauma as the exposure to actual or threatened death, sexual violence, or serious injury.

Childhood trauma occurs when a child is directly exposed to traumatic events, witnesses traumatic events, or hears about traumatic events. So when a child’s parent has a near-death experience and shares the details with a child, the child experiences trauma as well, according to this definition.

It’s important to note that trauma is the response to the event and not the event itself. When the traumatic event occurs, the child is so traumatized that they are temporarily helpless. They cannot cope with the feelings they’re experiencing or defend themselves from the onslaught of emotion and physical responses to the trauma.

If a child does not receive adequate help in the midst of or after a traumatic event, they will continue to have responses.

ACES Study

You can determine a child’s level of childhood trauma with the ACEs test.

ACE stands for Adverse Childhood Experiences. ACEs are events that occur to individuals from ages 0 to 17, that qualify as potentially traumatic events. The incidents can range from experiencing and/or witnessing violence to growing up in a home with substance abuse or mental health problems.

Even witnessing your parents’ divorce can qualify as an ACE.

An ACE score is the number of adverse childhood experiences a child has encountered. The frequency of the incidents does not matter, but the number of the different types of incidents does. So, for example, if a child witnessed their parent being abused regularly, it gives them a score of 1, even though they have witnessed the event multiple times.

ACEs are a completely normal part of childhood in that almost everyone has one or two experiences that qualify. However, when an individual receives the support necessary to overcome the trauma, they do not have to deal with the aftereffects of childhood trauma.

Those kids who come into a classroom with high ACE scores and no outlet will be the ones who need the trauma-informed classroom the most.

Trauma is a lens to help you understand students. Do not use it as a label.

When we use labels, we tend to believe a kid will always behave the way they behave. We stigmatize the child.

When you use a lens, you’re able to see that child, understand their behavior, and then help them. A lens clarifies why someone thinks the way they think or does the things they do. So understanding that child’s ACES score will help you see what you can do to better create a trauma-informed classroom.

A New Type of Education

The trauma-informed classroom, thus, is one that focuses just as much on a child’s social-emotional wellbeing as it does on the academic wellbeing of the class. Teachers and education providers do more than teach kids to read and write. They can be the people that help kids overcome trauma and turn into a functioning, healthy people.

A trauma-informed classroom has educated teachers. If your teachers haven’t received training on trauma or ACEs, seek out workshops and in-service opportunities. There’s a wealth of information out there for educators.

Best Trauma-Informed Practices in Traditional Academic Setting

With the right training, you can quickly see how everything from the design of your classroom to the guidelines you set out for students can teach students how to handle trauma better. Your job is to help kids learn to cope with their trauma so they can better adjust to the world around them.

Avoid Triggers

Loud noises, bright lights, bright colors, and even unexpected visits from strangers can trigger a child’s overactive stress response system.

You can avoid a trigger by having dimmer lights when kids come into the classroom. Keep your colors muted, and do not startle anyone with loud noises.

People, in general, thrive on routine. We like to know what’s happening. Children need a routine to help create stability.

So when you spring a surprise on your class, you’re running the risk of triggering an overactive stress response from a child who has already had trauma in their life.

In the long run, an overactive stress response causes chronic health conditions like heart disease and diabetes. In the short term, an overactive stress response will look like misbehavior. A child might yell or throw a chair or cry uncontrollably.

The trigger could be something small that would not cause a response from an average child. However, a child with a background of traumatic events will interpret the trigger differently and have a quick, seemingly inexplicable response.

So the first key in having a trauma-informed classroom design is simplicity. Keep the routine clear and simple, and keep the classroom look soft and simple.

Safety is Key

Many kids who have experienced trauma come from an unsafe environment. A trauma-informed classroom will help them feel safe again.

Set the room up with defined areas for defined behaviors. Use appropriately sized chairs and tables for kids so they feel comfortable. If you can create areas where adults feel comfortable as well, you’ll end up with a great place for adult-child interaction.

Once again, well-established routines will make kids feel safe, so establish them and stick to them. If you use clear routines, students will know what to expect.

Routines are one of the best trauma-informed approaches to classroom management as well. You will spend less time and energy redirecting your class when they know what to expect.

Practices and Design

Trauma-informed practices in the classroom will keep the trauma in children’s lives in mind. You will change the way you do things because you’re considering the trauma-impacted child. Consider the following trauma-informed classroom checklist:

  • Are your shelves packed with items that make them look cluttered? Clean them out and make fewer items more visible.
  • Do you change your materials frequently? Do this to keep kids interested.
  • Do you have a place for a single child to work independently?
  • Did you provide a soft place for a child to relax if they need to?
  • Do you have a ton of visual messages on the floors and walls? If so, remove them.
  • Is your decor culturally sensitive?
  • Are your lights too bright and sounds too loud?
  • Do you have self-serve snacks with no restrictions?
  • Did you sequence your learning activities for all competencies?

This checklist gives you some ideas on how the design and practices of a trauma-informed class are different from a traditional class.

Best Trauma-Informed Practices in Virtual Learning Environment

Nothing caused quite the stir in the world of education like the Covid-19 pandemic. When kids went home in March, many thought they’d be back to school in a couple of weeks. Most did not return.

Those who had to face trauma daily no longer had the respite of the routines in a classroom. They moved to a virtual learning environment.

You can still use the same practices for a virtual learning environment that you use for the face-to-face trauma-informed classroom.


In the same way that you’ve designed your brick-and-mortar classroom purposefully, you need to design your virtual classroom purposefully. Do no use bright, distracting colors on the website or education platform. Try to keep your colors soft and muted.

Keep your platform design simple and easy to navigate. Spend time training your students purposefully on how to navigate the classroom. Make the virtual classroom visually pleasant, simple, and easy to use.


A sense of routine helps your students maintain a feeling of control because they will know what to expect. A virtual classroom can completely throw them off their game because it is so different from the traditional classroom.

In March 2020, schools in the United States went from brick-and-mortar to completely virtual in the span of a weekend. Students went home on Friday and never came back to the building. Teachers had to learn to teach virtually in two days.

One middle school principal, Dr. Cotton Koch, began to create videos. Every morning Dr. Koch created a simple video of him at his desk. He would greet students, stand up, say the pledge of allegiance, give morning announcements about classes, wish students happy birthday (and even sing), and share stories.

In short, he did what he had been doing all year long, just on a video instead of in person.

Middle school students at Dr. Koch’s school knew what to expect because he kept the same routine he had done since September. His voice was a welcome respite in the middle of a chaotic world because it was a sound they were all used to.

Create and keep a routine for students. For example, you can give your students a schedule to help them structure their time. This will give them some idea of what to do in different parts of their day.

You should also maintain a schedule. Check-in with your students at the same time of the day. Require students to complete given assignments during a specific time.

Then have specific times for debriefing with students. Give them a chance to exhale, to share stories that build solidarity. Consider the mindfulness activities that you’ve done in the traditional classroom and continue to do them virtually.

Remember, teachers have the opportunity to teach students coping mechanisms so they can deal with their trauma and function in the world around them.

Behavior Management

How do you create an effective behavior-management plan if you’re not even in the same room as your student?

When teachers hear “classroom management,” they automatically think “discipline.” But done right, classroom management does not require discipline.

Begin by building an engaging online environment. You want to create a virtual space for your kids similar to what you’d have in the classroom, with areas for academics and others for “lounging”, such as a chat area.

Then build a community of students. Develop ways for students to learn about each other.

Also, present your expectations from the start, and don’t be afraid to be transparent with your students. The more they see you as a real person, the more they’re able to relate to you and listen.

Take Care of the Factory

Teachers and education providers are susceptible to secondary traumatic stress, also known as compassion fatigue. Students’ trauma can increase a teacher’s trauma. As a result, teachers could respond in similar ways that students do when they experience trauma.

A teacher could retreat instead of reaching out or react with frustration, denial, and avoidance. None of these are healthy responses.

Teachers and educators need to take care of the factory, so to speak. They need to maintain themselves before they can assist their students who’ve experienced or are experiencing trauma. Here are a few ideas on what teachers can do.

  • Call a colleague, family member, or a friend
  • Go outside and breathe fresh air
  • Read
  • Cook
  • Write letters
  • Exercise

Fill your tank in whatever healthy way you can so that you protect your emotional reserves. This allows you to receive your students’ distress more readily. You can meet them where they are and validate what they’re going through.

Don’t Go Alone

The trauma-informed classroom is a challenge to create under normal circumstances. But if you take the philosophies you’ve adopted for your brick-and-mortar classroom and apply them to your virtual classroom, you’ll see your kids blossom.

Data is your friend as you look ahead. If you’re a school counselor, special education director, school psychologist, or behavior interventionist, you have your work cut out for you. But we can help.

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