Creating a Trauma-Informed Learning Environment

By Amanda C. Symmes, LICSW

Creating a Trauma-Informed Learning EnvironmentWe live in a time when trauma seems to be everywhere. Divorce is not uncommon. There have been numerous shootings in schools. Drugs and suicide continue to steal people every day. Poverty and abuse overwhelm, and cycles of dysfunction in families spin out generational patterns of suffering. Life can be so very hard for children.

Yes, I am fully aware that this is a very bleak way to begin a blog post. But before you leave this page depressed and disappointed, I want you to know that there is hope. And that hope is you. So please consider staying with this, because I believe in the power of creating a trauma-informed learning environment for all of us.

For me, there is not a day that passes when I do not engage with a student who has experienced trauma. Given the statistics, if you are working in education in any capacity, the same is likely true for you.

What Does Trauma-Informed Mean?
As schools maintain their critical focus on education and achievement, they must also acknowledge that mental health and wellness are innately connected to students’ success in the classroom and to a thriving school environment. The National Child Traumatic Stress Network is an excellent resource for support, and their website describes in more detail what it means to be trauma-informed. Check out their website and follow the other resources to find out more.

But What Does This Mean for Me?
As a school adjustment counselor, I am on the front line of support for students navigating trauma. Yet beyond this, I am consistently consulting with teachers and staff who are wondering if they are providing the “right” support. If you are a teacher who is wondering this, let me just say: Almost anything you do to help a child feel safe is trauma informed. If you want to know more about how to ensure this idea truly is a reality in your daily practice, remember these four C-words:

  • Care (About the Invisible Backpack). Caring about a child’s “invisible backpack” can be a transformative trauma-informed practice. This means that you actually tell students that you can see their invisible backpacks. Tell them that this invisible bag carries all their unique challenges and hard life experiences. Share that you understand that it may feel like carrying a backpack full of big rocks and that this is stressful and unfair for a child. But then invite students to take off their backpacks, explaining that your job as an educator is to help them carry this weight. Pick a spot in your classroom and point to where other kids have put down their invisible backpacks. Give students permission not to think about those things while they are in school and instead focus on being a kid. Encourage them to talk, write, or draw about one of those “rocks” as a way to make their pack a bit lighter. Tell them you know that some days it will be hard to carry their backpack and hard to take it off, but you see that and you care.
  • Create (a Safe Space). Creating a trauma-informed learning environment looks a certain way in the physical sense as well. Having a welcoming and open space is important. Create an area of the classroom where kids can sit and take a break away from their desks and use some self-calming tools, such as a weighted soft stuffed animal, therapeutic putty, a fidget, or a journal. Consider posting steps for a deep-breathing technique, and provide a timer they can set for no more than five minutes to re-center before returning to their seat. If you are aware of specific students with trauma histories, consider that they may wish to sit near the door, or perhaps near a window, and ask them to let you know where they are most comfortable. If you can turn off some of the brighter lights in your room and use lower lighting and natural light, this can be helpful too. Remember that students with trauma may not be able to sit for long periods of time, and regular movement breaks (every 30 minutes) are effective. Create a system you are comfortable with for taking breaks outside of the classroom as well. Perhaps allow students to take a “break card” and teach them the parameters around leaving and returning.
  • Consistently (Name What Is Happening). Understand that students with trauma need consistent expectations and they need to clearly understand those expectations. Provide a daily schedule and routine. Give clear directions, repeat things in smaller chunks, use visual prompts, ask for students to repeat directions back to you, and give supportive reminders and warnings before transitions. Attempt to notify students of any changes in advance (changes to schedule, if a substitute will be in, and so forth). Resist yelling, because children with trauma can be particularly sensitive to this. It is important to note that just because students have experienced trauma, it does not mean they should be given free reign to do whatever they want. In fact, quite the opposite is true. Kids are looking to see that you are going to keep them safe and contain them in a supportive way. Set clear and fair expectations right away about what will not be tolerated. Stay consistent with this so that if a student is struggling, you can validate that they are having a tough time and offer strategies (calm-down corner, breaks, etc.) to manage their feelings. You can be trauma sensitive and still have limits. If children require behavioral support outside the classroom, offer a warm statement that they will get through their tough time and you will look forward to them returning to your space.
  • Connect. Know your students. Give each child a voice. Having a daily meeting with a question or prompt to give each child a chance to share can be very powerful for students. Give students jobs to build their self-concept and self-worth as well as grow their connection to the classroom experience. Try to build an individual “thing” with each child in whatever way you can. Students with trauma may be harder to connect with, but don’t stop trying. It may appear that students are not responding to your efforts to connect, but they are listening and sometimes waiting to make sure that you won’t give up on them. Don’t give up on them and tell them that you will not.

Resilience Is an Experience, Not a Trait
The literature on trauma reveals that resilience is not a characteristic that you either have or don’t. Rather, it’s a process that can be facilitated, and the single most important factor in that process is the presence of at least one supportive adult. You can be that important adult in a student’s life.

Amanda SymmesAmanda C. Symmes, LICSW, is a social worker currently serving as a school adjustment counselor in Haverhill, Massachusetts. She adores her work with children and is continually amazed by the talented and caring staff she is surrounded by each day. Aside from her work family, Amanda lives with her supportive husband and three kids (ages 16, 13, and 6) and enjoys spending time with them taking in all the beauty and joy in the world. She enjoys writing, knitting, laughing, walking, and using mindfulness. Connect with Amanda on Twitter @LicswAmanda and on her blog www.amandasymmes.com.


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2 Responses to Creating a Trauma-Informed Learning Environment

  1. Christine says:

    You are amazing… This is so helpful, Im looking forward to using the invisible back pack in my classroom.

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