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Teaching Opinion

Response: Strategies for ‘Trauma-Informed Teaching’

By Larry Ferlazzo — May 20, 2019 17 min read
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(This is the first post in a two-part series)

The new question-of-the-week is:

What is trauma-informed teaching and what does it look like in the classroom?

Editor’s Note: This two-part series is being “guest-hosted” by a longtime regular contributor to this column and a widely respected educator, Rita Platt. Dr. Christy Wolfe, Jason Harelson, Chris Weber, and Jenny Grant Rankin, Ph.D. contribute responses in today’s column.

I was able to talk with Rita, Christy Wolfe, and Jason on my BAM! Radio Show on this topic. You might also be interested in The Best Ways For Responding To Student Trauma - Help Me Find More, as well as resources found in previous posts here on Race & Gender Challenges.

Introduction By Rita Platt

Rita Platt (@ritaplatt) is a national-board-certified teacher and a proud #EduDork! Her experience includes teaching learners of all levels from kindergartner to graduate student. She is currently the principal of St. Croix Falls and Dresser Elementary Schools in Wisconsin, teaches graduate courses for the Professional Development Institute, and writes for MiddleWeb.

If you are currently a practicing teacher, chances are that you have heard the term trauma-informed teaching. These days, it seems there is quite a bit of buzz about the topic, and educators are clamoring for tools and strategies to help students who are affected by traumatic experiences big and small.

This year is my first as the principal of an elementary school. It is my 25th as an educator, and I still have so much to learn. What I struggle the most with is what strategies I can use when students exhibit extreme behaviors. Read the email I recently sent to a dozen of my principal colleagues who serve in diverse settings across the country.

Dear Friends and Partners in Teaching & Learning,

Please help me puzzle out a question that kept me from sleep last night. As you know, this is my first year at the helm of my wonderful school. It’s going well, but I could use some support.

Like almost all schools, I suppose, we have an increasing number of children displaying extreme behaviors. Yesterday, right at the end of the day, two of our sweeties, one a 2nd grade girl and the other a 4th grade boy, had meltdowns that were intense. Later, at the after-school program, one of them completely lost control and was violent toward another student. I took a few good punches, too (no worries, I am made of cold hard steel, LOL!).

We are a very proactive building and surround kiddos with nurturing. The relationships are in place. We have a strong classroom/school management system in place, use behavior-intervention strategies pulled right from PBIS World when needed, and we work hard to do our best. I am in constant contact with parents and do home visits with some frequency. But, for some hurting students, it is not enough.

I am reaching out to learn from your experience. That was the set up, here are the thought questions:

  • What strategies are you using to help children affected by trauma to be successful?
  • How do you keep extreme behaviors from hindering the experiences of the other children?
  • How are you helping teachers who are exhausted and feel ineffective?

Thank you so much! I truly look forward to any thinking you can share.

Hugs & love to each of you!


Unfortunately, my colleagues near and far felt just as humbled by the challenges of teaching our students who suffer from trauma-related issues as I do. That makes me think that it’s time for us to put our collective heads together and seek some answers. Which leads to this guest column graciously offered by fellow answer-seeker Larry Ferlazzo.

In this two-part series, you’ll read answers to the questions of what trauma-informed teaching is and strategies for using it in your practice.

Response From Dr. Christy Wolfe

Christy Wolfe, Ph.D, J.D., is an assistant professor in the Education Department at Coe College, Cedar Rapids, Iowa. She teaches courses in educational foundations, secondary teaching strategies, and social-justice issues in education. Her favorite thing about teaching is, of course, the students:

Trauma-informed teaching is a huge topic. I want to share three points. One, every teacher will teach students who have suffered from trauma. Two, acknowledging that trauma is important. Three, holding high expectations and teaching all students to persevere and live in hope can be a game-changer for many.

I am a college professor who works with preservice teachers. Once, when a colleague and I were discussing the trouble one of our students was having in a math-methods course, my colleague said, “I wonder what happened to her in 4th grade. ... " When I looked at her quizzically, she explained, “I can tell when one of our students experienced trauma based on what math skills she lacks. Divorce, a move, a family death, or extended illness—I don’t know what kind of trauma—but I know what grade they were in when it happened based on what the student struggles with: long division, fractions, decimals.”

Through the years, as I’ve seen students shudder at the thought of taking a college-level math class, I’ve asked them about their elementary school math experiences. A student would recount that, when she was in 3rd grade, Grandma came to live with the family as Grandma fought (and eventually succumbed to) cancer. It was hard for her to learn that year, and that is why fractions still bewilder her. Another would roll his eyes as he talked about his parents’ divorce and how he learned to navigate two homes and his parents’ new dating lives but not how to navigate the area of 3D figures.

One of the common misconceptions of trauma is that it has a beginning and an end. Trauma is more like a broken leg—it takes a long time to heal, it’s never quite the same, and, in the right conditions, when the weather changes, it aches for seemingly no good reason. Consequently, all teachers are teaching to trauma, be it a new break or an old bone, aching with a change in the weather. Teachers must learn to triage the new breaks, but we also can’t forget the scars left behind, possibly years ago, that get in the way of a student’s learning.

When my daughter was in 8th grade, we suffered a family tragedy; two of my sisters—Lizzie’s aunts—were murdered. It was devastating to our family, and we all walked blindly for a while. But as the rest of us got used to the new normal, my daughter got stuck. She would cry at school, sitting in the counselor’s office for hours at a time. She stopped doing homework. She stopped going to school. It got to the point where it was hard to tell where the tragedy stopped and the trauma started.

Acknowledging a student’s struggle is important: “I know, it’s hard, but we’ll just keep working.” My daughter was fortunate. At her junior high, teachers, counselors, and administrators gave her space but also closed in on her when she needed support. Several shared their own stories of loss and perseverance. Most just gave her a place to feel safe until her anxiety passed and she could get back to work.

In addition to offering empathy and support, teachers must continue to maintain high expectations and standards for students who have lived with trauma. What a powerful gift we could give to students if we could lead them to persevere in the face of adversity. This doesn’t mean forsaking flexibility altogether. Extending a deadline is OK; letting the student skip the assignment is not. Asking the student to try is important; giving them a “day off” is not.

Another element that needs to be present in trauma-informed teaching is hope. Let students know: One day does not define them. Trauma is part of their experience but not who they are. Help students forget the chaos long enough to dive headfirst into a new math concept or engage with a short story. Make a student laugh with a dumb joke or silly lesson. At the end of the day, say, “See you tomorrow, have a great night.Tomorrow, everything will be different; hopefully, everything will be just a little better! But, even if it’s not better, I’ll be here waiting for you.”

Response From Jason Harelson

Jason Harelson is an educator, father, golfer, and guitar player. His experience includes educating students at every grade from pre-K to college. Jason is currently the principal at Luck Elementary School in Wisconsin:

I learned very early on in my teaching career that students never acted out without reason. Perhaps the student was tired, hungry, had a fight with a friend, had gotten scolded by a parent or another teacher, or was simply having a bad day.

If you spend enough time in the classroom with a group of students, you’ll notice that some seem to have a bad day every day, and it usually isn’t long until you find out why. For these students, it may be a divorce, a sick relative, a recently deceased pet, and in extreme cases, you find that sometimes students are victims of past or even ongoing abuse; in short, trauma is at the heart of the issue.

There have been countless meetings in schools where iterations of this conversation have played out:

Teacher A: “What is going on with Madison these days? She doesn’t seem herself.”

Teacher B: “You didn’t hear? Madison’s parents are going through a divorce; seems her father is an abusive alcoholic.”

But being informed of trauma isn’t the same as trauma-informed teaching. The conversation above illustrates the easy part—figuring out the why of student behavior. But, it’s the the now-what? part of the equation that is important. Too often, teachers will let students like Madison off easy; they might feel sorry for her and let assignments go unfinished, not mention when she’s five minutes late to class, or let it go unaddressed when she is disrespectful. How should we respond appropriately when one of our students shows symptoms of a trauma in his or her personal life?

Unfortunately, the most common response isn’t the most appropriate one. We want to let things slide, we want to take it easy on the student. We feel that to act in this manner is appropriate compassion. Not only is this not the answer, it is inaction. While we must acknowledge the trauma and by no means not ignore it, educators also have a duty to teach students when it matters most—when the chips are down and students are at their most vulnerable. We have a duty to teach resilience and perseverance.

In my experience working with children affected by trauma, I have found that there are three keys: acknowledgment, compassion, and consistency. Trauma has to be acknowledged, but we cannot let the trauma define. Compassion is also important. Once the trauma is acknowledged, it is OK to express that you have empathy and even share a similar harrowing ordeal or offer other resources to help students see themselves reflected in other places and people. Last, consistency in offering a quality education and expecting students to treat themselves and others with respect is critical, too. That means avoiding letting things slide and avoiding treating students differently because of what you know. Holding a student of trauma to the same expectations as everyone else helps reinforce that trauma does not define us. Unfortunately, facing traumatic experiences is a fact of life. In fact, trauma is all too often right around the corner for all of us, but we cannot let it win. We are human beings, and history has taught us that we can persevere through it all; really, we have had no other choice.

Part of the human experience is tragedy. Teaching students to deal with tragedy and trauma is just as important as teaching the alphabet. As the profession of teaching is continuously honed and fine-tuned over time, we must endeavor to improve our responses in trauma-informed ways because our students will inevitably face trauma.

Response From Chris Weber

Chris Weber has been a high school, middle school, and elementary school teacher and has served as a secondary and elementary school administrator. He has worked at district offices in districts in California and in the Chicago public schools. A graduate of the U.S. Air Force Academy, he was a pilot in the U.S. Air Force before becoming a teacher. He earned his Ed.D. from UCLA and has written books on PLCs, RTI, behavior, and mathematics that have supported well over a quarter of a million educators:

There are far too many students who have experienced or are experiencing traumas in our schools. And, there are too many times when we do not know who these children are or about their experiences. While there are experts from whom we all have so much to learn, I believe that there are also three practical steps that we should take in schools.


Let’s improve our screening practices, actively seeking information on students’ literacy, numeracy, and behavioral skills and about their lives so that we can proactively prepare both Tier 1 and Tier 3 support

* Let’s commit to creating Tier 1 environments where positive mindsets exist, in which students:

  1. Feel as though they belong because, without expectations, they feel connected to someone and something at the school.
  2. Believe that they have the chance to succeed and make progress.
  3. Find relevance and value in activities, curriculum, and instructional strategies.
  4. Know that their ability grows with effort.

* Students who have experienced or are experiencing trauma will, logically and tragically, experience difficulties in school. These difficulties may appear as challenges with transitions, adverse reactions to sensory inputs, or hyperactivity and inattentiveness. These symptoms reveal needs in the areas of precognitive self-regulation and emotional and sensory-input coping skills. Educators are skilled in teaching academic skills; we can and must similarly teach the skills that students need to succeed, emotionally and socially, in school and life.

With advanced information from screening, we can have supports in place for students who are most vulnerable before school years even begin. Timely and specific information from screening will also allow us to develop a suite of wraparound supports for students experiencing trauma. We can both work with districtwide and communitywide agencies to leverage resources and develop and implement school-based Tier 3 plans that involve more frequent check-ins and monitoring and students’ involvement in small-group or individual counseling supports. If it’s predictable, it’s preventable. We can predict that students in these tragic situations will very likely need supports. We can go a long way toward preventing difficulties, or the exacerbation of difficulties, by proactively supporting students most in need.

Response From Jenny Grant Rankin, Ph.D.

Dr. Jenny Grant Rankin teaches the PostDoc Masterclass at the University of Cambridge but lives most of the year in California writing books for educators like First Aid for Teacher Burnout and Sharing Your Education Expertise with the World. She has a Ph.D. in education and served as an award-winning teacher, school administrator, district administrator, and chief education & research officer. Dr. Rankin has been honored by the White House for her contributions to education:

Trauma-informed teaching involves (1) understanding how adverse experiences impact a person and (2) using this understanding to inform how a teacher works with students to help them learn and prosper. Following are three examples of how such teaching can look in your classroom. Each reflects my research but was also drawn from my own experience teaching (all student names have been changed).

Really Know Your Kids

More than 50 percent of students have experienced trauma, yet kids “wear” their experiences in different ways. While Mary might “act up” to release an abundance of anger, Juan might be highly obedient and quiet in an effort to avoid notice entirely. Persist in your efforts to know about each child’s life and to discover what each kid needs most from you.

Help Your Kids Calm Down

When a child is in a “fight, flight, or freeze” state of mind—something that can persist throughout the school day—his or her education is severely hampered as the areas of the brain essential to learning are essentially cut off. These children are more likely to be defiant, aggressive, unfocused, forgetful, and underperforming academically. Cho’s teachers might think, “Cho is trying to disrespect us!” but really Cho’s brain is telling her “you aren’t safe, and nothing else matters!”

In my classroom, when Cho’s tone escalated, it was especially important for my voice to remain calm and my words to remain cordial as I reminded her of our arrangement: Cho could excuse herself to sit at my desk and write in a journal when she felt triggered. She might write a letter to me about her feelings or merely articulate what was happening for her own benefit. This setup helped Cho learn to regulate her own behavior, return to instruction more quickly, and be reminded that our classroom was a safe space for her.

Uncover the Real Problem

When Damon shouted “F--- you” across the classroom at another student and threw down his book on his chair, some teachers might have chosen to confront Damon in front of the class or send him out of the room. But a confrontation would halt all students’ learning and turn them into an audience, and sending Damon from the room would communicate rejection and abandonment to Damon, while also signaling to the rest of the class that I couldn’t handle my job. Instead, I gave the class a quick direction (to keep their learning activity moving) and directed Damon to meet me near my desk (so we could speak in relative privacy). Instead, Damon stepped outside and waited for me just outside the door, and through the window I could see him pacing.

Despite our rapport and history, when I squeezed half my body outside I saw Damon was red-faced and scowling as if ready for me to scream at him. Instead I said, “You are such a wonderful young man, Damon, and so I’m superconfused by what just happened in there, because shouting like that doesn’t match up with this great guy I know and I know you know that’s not the way to act in class. So I need you to help me understand what is going on with you today.” The obvious love—when Damon expected the opposite—disarmed the young teen immediately. Damon broke down in tears, telling me his mom’s boyfriend had beaten her in front of him that morning before class. Only then could I really understand how to best help Damon.

You Matter, Too

While trauma-informed teaching commonly addresses ordeals a student has weathered, it should also encapsulate trauma experienced by the student’s teacher. An American Federation of Teachers survey revealed that within a single school year 18 percent of teachers were threatened with physical violence at school, and 9 percent were physically assaulted. Regular exposure to campus violence, among other stressors, can leave teachers with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or similar concerns that interfere with their ability to thrive and feel comfortable in the classroom. Teachers must be supported in navigating workplace trauma for the sake of students and teachers alike. We all matter and we all deserve to benefit from a trauma-informed classroom.

Thanks to Rita for guest-hosting, and to Christy, Jason, Chris, and Jenny for their contributions!

Please feel free to leave a comment with your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org. When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

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