Creating Trauma-Sensitive Classrooms in Early Childhood

By Molly Breen

Creating Trauma-Sensitive Classrooms in Early ChildhoodKeeping up with current research and trending topics in early care and education can feel overwhelming, particularly in this “information age,” when we are inundated with access to articles, research studies, and even (ahem) thoughtful blog posts about every topic under the sun. Certainly I have been guilty of thinking, “That article doesn’t really apply to me/my center,” when browsing my favorite credible sites for new, evidence-based ideas or even when selecting sessions to attend at a conference.

But over the years in my practice, I have discovered that it all applies.

Now, this doesn’t mean that we have to do a deep dive into every facet of best practice, child development, and other avenues of professional exploration. But it does mean that the most current child development research has an application in the work we do with the children and families we serve—whether that application is concrete or abstract.

Top on the list of current and important research in child development is the trauma-sensitive classroom, or trauma-informed teaching. And, truly, this is more than a hot topic. This is serious and important research-grounded practice that can have major positive impacts on a child’s development.

But if you are like me, you may read the phrase trauma-sensitive classrooms and think, “That doesn’t really apply to me/my center.” And while you may not work with children for whom trauma with a capital T is a developmental consideration, trauma sensitivity in the classroom will only enhance our understanding of child development and support the very best outcomes for all our students.

Dr. Bruce Perry is doing an excellent job of connecting trauma-informed teaching to early learning and development. According to Perry and others, traumatic experiences inhibit learning on a neurobiological level, but teachers and other adults of importance can have a tremendous healing effect.

When teachers create a safe environment and model a trust-filled and consistent relationship with their students, they can help heal the effects of trauma and build a better foundation for future learning. Young children are not exempt from the effects of trauma, but, as in so many other areas of development, early positive interventions can counter the negative impact.

How do we go about integrating trauma-sensitive practices into our current environments and routines? First, we need to become familiar with the effects of trauma on the brain. Resources like the Child Trauma Academy and the National Center on Safe Supportive Learning Environments provide a baseline understanding.

Trauma is not limited to extreme violence, abuse, or neglect. Learning about the nuances of trauma and how it can show up in behavior is an amazing resource for the educator’s toolkit. According to the experts, building honest, stable, caring, and trusting relationships with kids in the school environment is a prime antidote to the effects of trauma on the brain. Although the educator-child relationship is vastly different from a familial relationship, it can serve a similar purpose in the rebuilding of neural networks.

Next, we can look at our environments to discover whether we are leveraging our physical space as a teaching partner. Trauma-sensitive learning environments should have several key elements that promote safety and the potential for healing:

  1. Calming color schemes for walls and decor help set the mind at ease.
  2. Uncluttered and organized classrooms create a sense of calm, well-being, and predictability.
  3. Posted visual cues for routines that are well-established and known to students provide reminders for what comes next.
  4. Advance warning for transitions helps students mentally and emotionally prepare for the next thing.
  5. Designated safe spaces provide students a place for self-regulation. In our preschool, we use the term “peace island,” but others use “Zen den” or “calm corner,” for example.
  6. Having students repeat back verbal instructions helps build the capacity for active listening.

Whether your school has a trauma-informed teaching philosophy or you are independently pursuing more inclusive and thoughtful practices for your class, these first steps will undoubtedly benefit all the children you work with. And, with consistent repetition in the context of a nurturing relationship built on trust, children who have been exposed to some degree of trauma will begin to heal in your setting. Trauma sensitivity very much does apply to me, and to you, because we hold dear the innate and unbroken potential of all children.

Molly BreenMolly Breen, M.A., ECE, has worked with kids and families for nearly two decades as an educator. A believer in lifelong learning, her heart is in early childhood, where the seeds of curiosity, character, and community are planted. Through her work with children as a practitioner in the classroom, Molly has developed broad expertise in curriculum development and instruction, behavior guidance, and social and emotional learning. In her role as a program director, she has created innovative approaches to professional and program development, family engagement, and community outreach. She lives in St. Paul, Minnesota, with her husband and three kids.

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