The Transformative Power of Trauma-Informed Teaching
In my last year as a school administrator, a new student arrived. She had issues with defiance and a history of violence against herself and school officials. These behaviors bubbled to the surface as soon as she enrolled, and she became a "frequent flyer" in my office—constantly in and out for difficult behavior. Our school resource officer jokingly referred to me as the "head jailer," to which I responded with a laugh. But inwardly, I cringed. Wasn't my job to help counsel and support students to make better choices so that they didn't become repeat offenders? I didn't want to just dole out punishment.
Our pre-K-8 school had more than 900 students from all walks of life, and our fastest-growing demographic—after an increase of government housing in our area—was students from low-income households. A majority of those students had a history of traumatic experiences in their homes, leading to chronic stress and anxiety that affected their ability to function well in school. I was clearly missing something important in counseling the new student and others, and I also needed to better support teachers with their classroom management.
At just the right moment, Kristin Souers' and Pete Hall's Fostering Resilient Learners: Strategies for Creating a Trauma-Sensitive Classroom came across my desk. The authors discussed the importance of creating trauma-sensitive classrooms and helping students become resilient learners. Whereas many schools follow a discipline plan in lockstep fashion regardless of extenuating circumstances, a trauma-informed care approach can dramatically reduce the recurrence of difficult behaviors while creating meaningful relationships with students.
Trauma doesn’t discriminate. It can happen to children of all ethnicities, backgrounds, and socioeconomic levels. At the heart of trauma-informed care is sensitivity to students' past and current adverse experiences and a deeper understanding of why they may be acting out. Instead of negatively reinforcing students' external behavior through punishment, educators can support students through providing methods of self-regulation, emotional coping skills, and asking questions like "How can I help you?" rather than "What's wrong with you?"
Thus began my journey to shift from being a reactive disciplinarian to becoming a proactive student advocate and viewing student behavior through a trauma-informed lens. The lessons I learned may be useful for teachers as they tweak their own classroom management strategies to be more responsive to students’ needs.
Understanding 'Frequent Flyers'
My most common "clients" in the office, including my new student, all had repeated physical or emotional outbursts. One student had observed his father setting his mother on fire; another student saw his father selling his belongings to purchase drugs and was subsequently removed from his home; a third student lived in fear of her mother being deported to her native country. These students understandably lived in a state of constant hypervigilance and fear, leaving school at the bottom of a very long list of more important things to worry about.
As a school, we began looking for better ways to support these students, rather than indiscriminately following inflexible board policies for discipline referrals. We collaborated with community agencies to provide more mental-health services. School leaders, social workers, school counselors, and therapists worked together to prepare individualized student care plans. We formed a trauma committee of teacher leaders who could mentor those learning to implement trauma-informed strategies.
I encouraged teachers to use school administration as a support system to give students a break from the classroom when the inevitable meltdown occurred, which allowed them to continue instruction with the rest of their students. Teachers were also educated about when it was appropriate to refer students for behaviors and when it was appropriate to keep them in the classroom: Offering students an alternative, like taking a break in a "calm corner" or meeting with a school counselor, would often help them calm down.
On a personal level, I began walking with students to talk about their behaviors and asked how I could help them make their daily lives at school better. I offered students grace when it was evident they’d had a rough morning at home, and they were struggling to get it together. Most importantly, I began treating each situation on a case-by-case basis rather than doling out consequences in a prescriptive manner.
A Culture of Safety
We often only see the tip of the iceberg when it comes to our students’ lives. The problem often lies hidden beneath the surface or away from school grounds; in many cases, it will never be fully revealed. When I began implementing trauma-informed strategies with my new student, she threw furniture, pulled at her hair, and screamed in my face that she hated me and didn’t care what I said to her.
Rather than relegating her to the in-school suspension room one day after an outburst, I asked her to draw me a picture. She responded with sudden enthusiasm; her anger and energy suddenly had a new direction. I expected a dark, graphic image, but instead she drew me a beautiful picture of a horse, full of vibrant colors and intricate details. I asked her why she chose to draw that, and she shrugged nonchalantly and said, "I know you like horses." Hadn’t she said she hated me?
I suddenly realized that I had become a safe person for her, someone to whom she could vent her frustrations and who wouldn’t return the same treatment—someone who listened and genuinely cared. From that point forward, we began building a positive relationship. My office became a "calm down spot" for her instead of a punitive location. When the stresses of her home life became such that she had a nervous breakdown, she asked to come to my office because she felt safe there, and I let her stay as long as she needed, offering comfort and reassurance.
The journey of trauma-informed care is one that requires trial and error; it often tests the boundaries of one’s own comfort zone. That child tested my resolve in more ways than I can explain, but I saw firsthand the transformative potential of responding to student behaviors with love, empathy, and patience, and I had the same results with others. Over time, discipline referrals decreased, and we began to see more smiles from our struggling students—even my new student, who sang a solo at our schoolwide talent show.
All educators have a responsibility to shape the lives of their students by looking beneath the surface for the root causes of their behaviors. It’s not always an easy path, but it’s one we must travel to do what’s best for them.