Trauma-Informed Classroom: Creating a Trauma-Sensitive Classroom
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Trauma-Informed Classroom: Creating a Trauma-Sensitive Classroom

Children act out all the time, but “naughty” behavior does not indicate naughty kids.

When children deal with stress, their brains move into a fight-or-flight mode. All of our brains do this. It’s the brain’s way of saying, “you’re in trouble, and you better do something about it.”

Children exposed to dangerous situations repeatedly, though, have a difficult time determining when a threat is in fact dangerous. Their brains lean toward the fight-or-flight mode more often, and as a result, they act out.

The trauma-informed classroom recognizes children need to deal with the trauma that puts their brain into the fight-or-flight mode before they can learn math, spelling, and reading.

Keep reading to learn about how to create a trauma-informed classroom.

Trauma Causes, Effects, and Intervention

Before you can create a trauma-informed classroom, you need to understand the basics of trauma. When you understand the effects of trauma, you can begin to shape your classroom management policies and procedures effectively.

What is Trauma?

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration defines trauma according to what it stems from. They qualify trauma as any individual trauma that stems from one of three things:

  1. An event that either harms an individual be it physically or emotionally or that threatens that individual’s life.
  2. A series of events harm a person physically or emotionally or that threatens a person’s life.
  3. A set of circumstances that harm a person physically or emotionally or that threaten a person’s life.

You can see the common thread here. Anything that harms a person physically or emotionally or that threatens that person’s life qualifies as trauma.

But the events or circumstances need another factor to qualify as trauma. These events need to have lasting adverse effects on an individual. Scientists are discovering the long-term effects of trauma on people mentally, physically, spiritually, emotionally, and socially.

In short, trauma affects all parts of the victim.

Examples and Effects of Trauma

The CDC-Kaiser Permanente ACEs Study is a study conducted by the CDC from 1995 to 1997. This study discovered the long-term effects of childhood trauma, proving that adult health conditions stem from childhood trauma.

ACEs are Adverse Childhood Experiences. You can determine an ACEs score by looking at the list of adverse childhood experiences.

For each of these experiences, you receive a score of one. You receive a point for the experience and not for the frequency of the experience, so if you’ve experienced the same thing more than once, you still receive a score of one. These are the ACEs:

  • Physical abuse
  • Emotional abuse
  • Emotional neglect
  • Sexual abuse
  • Physical neglect
  • Household substance abuse
  • Mother treated violently
  • Parental separation or divorce
  • Household mental illness
  • Incarcerated household member

When these things happen in a child’s life, the child experiences trauma. Trauma also happens when a child experiences bullying, homelessness, discrimination, war, and natural disasters.

It’s common for children to have an ACE score of at least one. However, the higher the score and the lower the age of the child, the more adverse the effect.

Children’s brains are developing rapidly, especially in their early years. So when a child has multiple ACEs before the age of three, you will see developmental delays later in their childhood. These delays will manifest themselves in the classroom.

What Is a Trauma-Informed Classroom?

The older, more traditional methods of classroom management focused on rules. They were teacher-centered methods that punished students immediately for not following the rules, assuming that kids who didn’t follow those rules were just plain naughty.

A trauma-informed classroom recognizes that when a child misbehaves or acts out in class or just simply won’t work, their behavior may have nothing to do with being naughty. In fact, their behavior may have nothing to do with the teacher or the classroom at all.

A trauma-informed classroom recognizes that kids have gone through some serious events in their lives. Not only do they carry the memory of those events with them, but their brains are different because of this trauma.

When we’re born, we have 100 billion neurons or brain nerve cells. We do not grow more. As we learn and as our brains are stimulated, the neurons form connections all within the first two years of life.

When a child undergoes a traumatic event repeatedly, their body produces a stress hormone that reduces the connections between neurons. This deficit happens specifically in the areas of the brain dedicated to reasoning and learning.

So when a child encounters an adverse situation, he or she physically cannot handle the reasoning to deal with it. In the classroom, an adverse situation could be something as simple as a spelling test.

In a trauma-informed classroom, a teacher recognizes this response. They can help the child find appropriate coping mechanisms and ways to deal with the stress that causes a reaction to an adverse situation.

How to Create a Trauma-Informed Classroom

Trauma-informed classrooms focus on behavior management. The teacher looks at the whole-body health of a child and not just pounding math facts and spelling words into their students’ brains. They know if they build a community where students feel safe, then they’re truly helping their students by giving them a safe place to learn.

Classroom Arrangement

A trauma-informed classroom will look different than a traditional classroom. Traditional classrooms have desks spaced evenly, all facing the same way. Trauma-informed classrooms have the following changes:

  • Dimmed lights: Most classrooms today use fluorescent lights. These are colder, blue, bright lights. They do not evoke the warmth a trauma-informed classroom needs, so try just dimming the lights or turning off a row for one part of your lesson.
  • Cool-down or cozy corner: Many trauma-informed classrooms have a corner that’s soft with cushions and stuffed animals where a child can go to cool down or just find comfort. Some kids come to school nervous because they just saw their mom being verbally or physically abused, or they went to bed hearing gunshots outside their room. Kids need a place where they can calm down before they begin learning or even in the middle of learning.
  • Warm colors: Look at the colors in your room and start focusing on warm colors. Consider the posters, wall hangings, and the general color of the room. You may not have a choice of what color your walls are, but you have choices of what you can put on the walls and how you can arrange it.
  • Flexible seating:  Flexible seating is the idea that not all students learn well with the same seats. The trauma-informed classroom needs wobble stools or yoga balls or rocking chairs for those students who need small movements to self soothe.

Classroom Safety

You can arrange your classroom ten times over and have warm decorations, but ultimately the teacher is the major component of a trauma-informed classroom. When creating trauma-informed classrooms, go back to what you teach and how you teach.

A good behavior intervention plan will help with behavior management. Your first steps, though, start with your genuine care for your students. You need to understand that some of them come with stunted brain development because of things completely out of their control.

As a result, they do what they must do to survive in the classroom. Their brains move into “fight or flight” mode whenever they feel threatened because every threat feels like a dangerous one. So something as simple as a teacher wanting a child to answer a question in front of his peers can bring on aggressive behavior.

A trauma-informed classroom gives students a safe space. Students will not physically be able to learn until they feel like they’re in such a safe space. So physically and emotionally, make the place safe.

The “cool-down” area mentioned above adds to this as well as the warm colors. But teachers are the most important part of this haven for their students. Teachers who show up and who take care of themselves mentally will influence their students tremendously.

Teachers need to, in a sense, put on their oxygen mask first before they hand off a mask to students. Schools should make sure teachers have adequate training in self-care so they can in turn help their students.

Teachers who care for themselves can then turn around and nurture students with kindness and empathy because their cup is full. They can pass on the good to their students. Students sense teacher anxiety, so a calm teacher helps create a safe space.

Lesson Shift

A trauma-informed classroom understands students need education with a focus on more than math and reading. Teachers trained in trauma will use specific anti-bullying lessons to teach their students how to identify a bully, deal with a bully themselves, and help their classmates deal with a bully.

Anti-bullying lessons begin with building a community in the classroom. Some teachers of trauma-informed rooms will spend up to their first two to three weeks of the class focusing on building a classroom culture to create unity in the classroom.

Good teachers understand they can make an objective fit for any activity, so they use activities to build a community while incorporating objectives.

Intervention

Trauma-informed teachers take a “zero indifference” approach versus a “zero tolerance” approach.  This means they intervene immediately when they see a hurtful exchange, and they teach students to do the same.

Teachers who build a community of students will end up with a group of kids who feel like they belong. They’ll feel like they have their people or almost a family. As a result, the kids will stick up for each other, and those with a high ACE score will learn better because they’ll have a safe group of people.

Teachers in a trauma-informed classroom also teach and model empathy as well as active listening. They ask questions of their students and show empathy for their issues. They also engage in active listening activities and teach their students to do the same for each other.

Brain Lessons

Even the youngest of students can understand the basics of how a brain works. So the trauma-informed classroom can help students understand their trauma and reactions better if they teach them about how their brain is reacting.

Teachers aren’t afraid to use words like “amygdala” to explain why students feel the fear they feel. In turn, they can then teach them how to deal with that fear healthily.

Classroom Management

Good classroom management can make or break a teacher’s year. If you have a class under control, then you can teach them. If you lose them, the teacher will end up exhausted and the student will learn nothing.

Trauma-filled classrooms make classroom management seem impossible. But it’s not. Teachers can put some power back into their students’ hands.

For starters, begin with student-generated agreements and contracts. Teachers can ask students what they think would make for a good learning environment and classroom. Older students especially understand this and will come up with good ideas for a contract.

Allow students to develop and then sign the contracts. You can go back to them when students struggle to obey.

Then, focus on the “zero indifference” approach mentioned above versus zero-tolerance policies. This means you care, your students see you care, and they begin to care. They will begin to advocate for each other in that case.

Teachers can also teach their students stress-management skills when they feel their emotions begin to bubble up or they think they’re going to explode. Implement stress-management strategies so students can process their emotions at the moment. You’re giving them a life-long skill here.

So when a teacher has students take a minute to quiet themselves, feel the ground under their feet, and think about a happy memory for a solid two minutes, the teacher is not wasting time. They’re teaching students how to calm themselves and prepare their brains for learning.

Be Informed

One of the hardest parts of having a trauma-informed classroom comes with tracking a student’s behavior. You can come up with a tally sheet on your own or a spreadsheet. We have software designed specifically to help with tracking in a trauma-informed classroom.

So with a click of a button, a teacher can open a dashboard that takes them to specific student records that are dealing with trauma.

If you’re a school counselor, special ed director, school psychologist, or behavior interventionist, sign up for our free monthly managing student behavior series.

If you’re a director of special education, schedule a 30-minute online personal demo of our software application. Our software helps you create a legally-defensive behavior intervention plan in under an hour.

We’d love to help you and your staff create a trauma-informed classroom that helps students move beyond their trauma and into a productive, healthy life.

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