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8 simple ways to add trauma sensitivity to your classroom

It isn't in my past. It's in my everyday.
Illustration by Courtnay Hough

Trauma can manifest itself in students’ lives in a variety of forms. What many of our students have witnessed and experienced breaks our hearts. As much as we wish we could protect them from all the evil and harm in the world, it is sadly impossible. 

However, there are many ways to help students feel safe and process their feelings/experiences. 

Here are 8 simple ways to increase trauma sensitivity in your classroom. Good news! You’re probably already doing many of these.  

1. Communicate your desire to create a safe environment for them. 

Make sure your students know that their safety is a priority for you. Communicate with them how you plan to ensure their safety. This may come in the form of discussions started by routine drills like fire drills and lock downs. This creates a good opportunity to show you think of their physical safety at school. 

You may also work this into your classroom design. Posters that state your commitment to safe spaces for all students, or emphasize how you prioritize an inclusive environment can speak volumes without you having to say a word.

Create opportunities for them to process. Allow students to ask earnest questions about this. 

Be honest. Your plan may not be perfect, that’s okay. The transparency of conversing about this with your students makes them feel valued, cared for, and considered. Those feelings also help them feel more safe and protected by you. 

Some may think that not talking about these things protects students. But, your students are already thinking about it. Maybe they are scared or worried. Model for them how to process and discuss these understandable feelings. 

Keep in mind, current events can trigger students who have experienced trauma in the past, and a few minutes of discussion in your class may be just what they need to face the day without as much distress. 

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2. Build a classroom community 

Making sure students feel safe also includes cultivating a community within the classroom. Set up activities and games for students to build positive relationships with one another. 

Plus, play/activity time is great for students of all ages. Teenagers need brain breaks too. And it is so joyful as an educator to watch your students, who have to deal with so many adult issues and struggles outside of your room, have an opportunity to be a kid and have some fun. 

Structure the groups strategically. Groups can increase the efficiency and effectiveness of student-led learning. And it can help students take chances, learn from one another, and develop confidence. 

We recommend thinking about your students’ strengths, behaviors, and goals. Of course it is important to separate any behaviors or blurters, but creating strategic groups can be even more powerful than that.

Think about students whose leadership you could develop. Maybe talk to them outside: tell them you see great leadership potential in them, and have selected them to encourage the students in their group. 

I taught English so I also tried to make sure there was a strong reader and a strong writer in the group (or a student who loved to complete assignments/someone who referred back to their notes). 

Try to have balance, and set up the groups with different skill sets so every student has the opportunity to shine. Also, this provides the groups with the ability to be as independent as possible while relying on each other 🙂 

Encourage cohesion with teambuilder and classbuilder games. Make sure all students are included appropriately. It’s extra powerful to offer rewards for working well as a group (instead of just for the finished product).

3. Develop student autonomy 

Provide opportunities for students to make decisions. This cultivates buy in for your classroom community and curriculum. Additionally, students can explore their own identities and develop leadership skills. 

Students like to feel like they have some control over their lives and destinies. This is especially true for students who have experienced trauma. 

Their autonomy and control were ripped away from them by trauma. Providing safe opportunities for them to re-establish their sense of identity and control and within the classroom is so powerful.

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4. Model healthy coping mechanisms

Provide ways for students to process and cope with their emotions and experiences. Model different ways to deal with different scenarios. 

Provide safe and structured opportunities for students to practice. Encourage them to keep trying different coping mechanisms to find the ones that work best for them. 

For example, let’s say students in your class are upset about a school decision. Hold a classroom discussion for them to productively communicate their feelings. Give them examples of ways they can deal with their frustration: go for a walk, listen to music, maybe write a letter to the principal. 

Some students have trouble confidently and appropriately communicating their needs. Set up role play scenarios and activities for them to practice. Have them practice firmly telling people who are making them uncomfortable to leave them alone. Maybe even pair students up with a mentor who can help them outside of the classroom. 

You can even use your own experiences here. Maybe you’re having a rough day, or are bummed by something. Students usually notice this. If someone comments, you can state that you are feeling sad or frustrated and how you plan to address it. 

It may go something like this, “Why, yes, Student, I am rather frustrated today. I did some breathing exercises at lunch and will go for a run later to feel better. Thanks for checking in on me, that was thoughtful.” 

5. Utilize growth mindset/curriculum that builds self-esteem 

Encourage students to take chances and try new things. This is all part of the learning process. Failure will happen. Help that become more comfortable for them. 

Show what it looks like when you make a mistake. Model how to move on and try again. This helps build rapport with students and demonstrates that they don’t have to be perfect. They only need to keep working and trying. 

Positively reinforce when they attempt new skills. Provide lots of opportunities for students to build their self confidence and esteem. Cheer on small milestones, even if they haven’t totally mastered a new skill.

Provide models of peer acceptance. Teach students how to cheer each other on and help when needed. 

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6. Build strong relationships

Get to know your students. Learn what their interests are, personality types, and what’s important to them. 

Listen. Provide opportunities for students to express themselves and share. Truly listen to what they have to say. As they feel comfortable with you, they will open up to you.

Let them get to know you too. Share your quirks and interests. Don’t make it all about you, but do let them see you as an actual human. 

Like all healthy relationships, set good boundaries. Let them know off the bat what limits may be on your relationship so they won’t feel betrayed later. 

Let them know that as their teacher things that threaten their physical or mental well-being have to be reported on. Let them know about any other boundary you maintain with them as well as why they exist. 

They’ll appreciate the honesty and know how much they can open up to you. 

7. Try to limit surprises

Give students a heads up if something in their environment or routine will be different. For example, let them know if their schedule will be interrupted, the furniture moved, etc. 

There are times when you need to practice safety routines like fire drills, lock downs, etc. Administration usually expects you to not tell students exactly when that will be. 

Perhaps instead tell them there will be one next week. That way, they can prepare mentally for the change/disruption. 

If you notice some students’ anxiety rises over this change: process it and practice it. Let students discuss how they handle it. Provide opportunities for them to give advice to each other. If they’re still feeling nervous: practice the routine (that’s the whole point of a drill anyway). 

If the risk to their well-being is too high when it comes to drills, this may be something that can be written into an IEP or 504 plan that they are notified ahead of time.

Students who have experienced trauma may need more assurance and practice. That’s okay. You’re investing in their future. You are helping them process and prepare for the unexpected. That’s life. Help them communicate their needs and establish coping skills that make them feel safe and valued. 

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8. Make space for students to process and safely share 

Create a put-down free classroom environment. Encourage students to talk positively to and about each other. 

Put downs usually indicate a feeling a student doesn’t know how to process. Get to the bottom of it. Teach them how to advocate for themselves and their feelings. I statements are really powerful tools to help students speak up for themselves. They also help to preserve other students’ self esteem. 

Ask your students what makes them feel safe/comfortable in a classroom. Try some of those suggestions. Maybe try a calm or focus playlist. Music can be a powerful tool in the classroom. Read more on that here

Journaling is a great way for students to safely share and process. Be sure to communicate beforehand if the journals will be read aloud or shared with other people.

Ask for their feedback after trying some new ideas. Feedback will also help them to feel heard, valued, and empowered. 

Much of this blog is from our experiences in the classroom helping students process trauma and this amazing resource Children of Trauma: Stressful Life Events and Their Effects on Children and Adolescents. If you’d like to read more from experts on the subject of how children process and deal with trauma, please click here to purchase this powerful book. 

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