Five things every teacher needs to know to create a trauma-informed classroom.

For students who have experienced trauma, learning can be a struggle. Here’s how you can help.


Five things every teacher needs to know to create a trauma-informed classroom.

For students who have experienced trauma, learning can be a struggle. Here’s how you can help.

By Jesse Mintz

As for what this looks like in practice, a glance at Currier’s playbook suggests it begins with understanding where students are coming from. In her case, that empathy is rooted in personal trauma.

Childhood trauma is a public health crisis. That’s the headline from the most recent National Survey on Children’s Health, which revealed that half of all children in the United States have gone through an adverse childhood experience, or ACE, while a quarter of young people have survived at least two. Experiences include abuse, neglect, witnessing violence and growing up amidst substance abuse.

The takeaway: there is trauma in every school. And Jessica Kennedy, from Mental Health America, says these life experiences change the way children think, learn and process emotions. But there is something teachers can do about it.

Mental health experts and teachers on the vanguard of this movement point to a trauma-informed approach as the key to helping students dealing with stress and pain. This new approach starts with teachers trying to understand what has happened in students’ lives to make them feel and act the way they do. From there, teachers employ strategies and tactics to help students understand their feelings, regain a sense of safety, get more from their education and, ultimately, thrive.
All teachers can bring these strategies into their classrooms. A new program developed by WE, and supported by Walgreens, called WE Teachers offers evidence-based, free resources to help teachers do just that. Covering everything from mental health and gun violence to bullying and poverty, WE Teachers resources have the social and scientific context needed to make sense of critical issues, and the classroom activities and practical tips to address them in lesson plans. The resources were developed with the support of Mental Health America, the country’s leading non-profit addressing the needs of those living with mental illness and promoting the well-being of all Americans.

Early adopters across the country are already using WE Teachers to create safe spaces that enable students to build trust and reconnect with their learning (we have some handy tips from them below).

By becoming a WE Teacher you can access free resources to address critical social issues with students while getting virtual training sessions and joining a network of like-minded, dedicated educators. In the meantime, here are five tips from WE Teachers, Kennedy and educators across the country to help you get started.

1. Understand where your students are coming from

When kids act up in class, there is often a reason. “A lot happens to a student before they show up to class,” says Kennedy. If those experiences are negative—like bullying by schoolmates or neglect in the home—they bring those feelings into the classroom. “Instead of saying, ‘don’t do that’ or punishing them, pause and try to understand what has happened to that person that makes them feel the way they do.”

2. Understand what’s possible

Trauma floods the nervous system with stress hormones, damaging the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex. That’s what’s happening in the brain. To your students, though, it can feel like they’re being pulled in a million directions if they’re worried about their dad in prison or suffering anxiety about the latest school shooting. “Academic achievement isn’t top of mind for young people in trauma,” says Kennedy. That doesn’t mean they can’t learn. But they need to feel support and trust first.

3. Emotional support looks different for every student

Arlinda Davis’ first-grade classroom in Birmingham, Alabama, may look a little out of place in a school, but it’s her secret weapon to reach her students. There’s a cozy corner, with blankets, pillows, stuffed animals and mobiles. And a fridge, stocked with snacks. “I had one girl tell me she couldn’t sleep the night before because of gunshots outside her door,” says Davis. “Other students come to class on empty stomachs. You can’t teach them when they’re sleepy. You can’t teach them when they’re hungry.” You also can’t teach them without making an emotional connection. Adds Davis: “You have to develop a relationship with your students; not just in the classroom, but as an individual, based on what they’re going through.”

4. Students thrive when they feel trusted and empowered

At the beginning of every school year, Mandy Currier lets her second-grade students take the lead in decorating their O’Fallon, Missouri, classroom. That explains the splashes of color adorning the display boards, with decorative ribbons in the shape of flowers and confetti-lined inspirational quotes. The experience helps her students to feel ownership, often for the first time in their lives. “These kids have the world against them, so when they come to the classroom, they already feel like they can’t do things.” Trauma can drain student’s sense of self, stripping them of control. Setting them up to succeed reminds them of their worth. In the classroom they’ve helped create, the students routinely gather on the carpet, lights dimmed and calm music playing, while Currier reads to them. “On the hierarchy of needs, if they don’t feel emotionally regulated then nothing else is going to matter.”

5. Protect yourself

Thirty-five million children in the U.S. have experienced at least one or more type of serious childhood trauma. That trauma has its roots in the home and community—but it all ends up in the classroom. “The teacher isn’t responsible,” says Kennedy, “but they risk taking on vicarious trauma when they help.” Just like you’re asking students to lean on you, you have to build a support system of co-workers, friends, family and professional counseling.

This is the third in a series about WE Teachers and how you can bring a trauma-informed approach into your classroom. Look for more articles for additional tips from fellow teachers and insight from experts. Visit teachershub.we.org to register to become a WE Teacher to access free resources, virtual learning, exclusive events and more.