Trauma-Informed Educational Leadership: Tips for Improving Social-Emotional Learning in Your School

A family of three has a video chat with a teacher.

Neglect, cultural and intergenerational trauma, witnessing violence, homelessness—all of these adverse experiences affect students and what they need from school. Trauma-informed educational leadership can give children tools to overcome their challenges and thrive.

The Prevalence of Trauma in Students’ Lives

Numerous studies have shown that children often experience trauma or adverse childhood experiences (ACEs). The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that more than 60% of children experience at least one ACE, and nearly a quarter experience three or more ACEs based on an updated study published in JAMA Pediatrics.

Those identifying as Black, Hispanic, multiracial, gay, lesbian, and bisexual reported considerably more exposure to trauma than other study participants.

Types of Trauma

ACEs often involve sexual, physical, and emotional abuse. However, traumas can also include: Having a member of the household incarcerated Exposure to mental illness Witnessing and/or experiencing domestic or community violence Having a member of the household abusing alcohol or drugs Having a member of the household attempt suicide Family instability due to divorce, separation, dysfunction, or financial problems The diagnosis of a serious disease Physical and emotional neglect

The Effects of Trauma

Trauma can damage students’ ability to identify, manage, and express their emotions. That’s because ACEs often impair emotional and cognitive development, as well as brain function.

Trauma Creates Ongoing Anxiety

Children who experience trauma sometimes remain in a constant state of alert. As a protective response, their brains become especially sensitive to anything interpreted as a potential danger. This sometimes leads to emotional reactions others find confusing or exaggerated. These children, who often exist in an ongoing “fight or flight” mode, can have difficulty staying focused on schoolwork, exploring new places, and forming bonds with teachers or classmates.

Trauma Makes Students Vulnerable to Triggers

Students who experience trauma may also struggle to distinguish safety from danger. Anything that reminds them of a previous ACE can trigger paralyzing fear and anxiety. They can perceive harmless situations as threatening. For example, children who experienced sexual abuse may feel anxiety about changing into their gym clothes in front of others because it reminds them of their previous trauma.

Trauma Harms Students’ Self-Image

Many children internalize trauma and develop a negative self-image that makes them feel unworthy or incapable of academic success. On the other hand, they may feel everyone has it out for them, interpreting simple instructions from teachers, such as “return to your seat,” as attacks.

Trauma Makes It Difficult for Students to Regulate Their Behavior

The painful feelings and disturbing memories trauma often leaves behind make it a struggle for students to regulate their behavior in school. This can result in disciplinary actions and strained relationships between students and teachers. It can also lead students to withdraw. Both responses result in lost learning opportunities.

The Importance of SEL for Students with Histories of Trauma

The process of SEL teaches students the skills, attitudes, and knowledge needed to: Build a healthy self-image Regulate feelings Feel empathy Develop healthy relationships Make caring and thoughtful decisions Each of these competencies plays a vital role in a student’s ability to thrive personally and academically. In a recent study from the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL), students in schools with strong SEL programs reported experiencing better learning environments than those attending schools lacking SEL. Students taught SEL also reported getting along better with peers, and feeling safer, more respected, and more able to give back to their communities. Additionally, SEL can reduce behavior problems, improve academic achievement, and offer longer-term benefits, such as better mental and physical health in adulthood.

SEL Benefits for Students Who Have Experienced Trauma

While SEL advantages all students, it especially benefits those who have experienced trauma. Students with traumatic histories often lack self-confidence and may think of themselves as bad and undeserving of happiness or success. Building a healthy self-image gives students confidence and can motivate them to engage in their studies, explore their talents, and persevere despite academic setbacks such as a low score on an exam or trouble understanding a concept. Students’ relationships and the way they process emotions influence how they learn. The better they can manage their emotions and cultivate relationships with their teachers and peers, the more chances they have of succeeding in school. Learning to identify their thoughts and feelings, and what causes them, allows students with traumatic histories to develop greater self-awareness. This helps them express themselves thoughtfully and respectfully. It also helps them make responsible decisions, focus their attention on schoolwork, and find effective solutions to problems they encounter.

Tips for Supporting Trauma-Informed Education

To promote SEL and trauma-informed leadership in schools, educators should consider the following tips.

Implement SEL Practices

Implementing SEL practices helps students heal. Activities such as meditation and breathing exercises give students an opportunity to find a sense of stillness and calm. They also allow students to step back, examine their emotions, and reflect. By doing so, students learn ways to cope with their anxiety, improve their concentration, and reduce negative emotions.

Help Students Feel Welcomed and Safe

Students with histories of trauma easily feel unsafe and unsettled in their environment. Educators can address these feelings by establishing their classrooms as safe spaces. This involves setting a respectful tone by modeling kindness, patience, calm, and vulnerability.

For example, when engaging students in a conversation about bullying, teachers can describe a personal experience, sharing their own feelings about the incident. Further, when dealing with misbehavior, teachers can speak in a neutral tone, ask questions, and uncover reasons behind misbehavior—perhaps a student has refused to join their assigned group because another student in that group makes fun of them.

Establishing Rituals That Set a Welcoming Tone

Thoughtful rituals establish classrooms as safe, welcoming, and positive environments. For example, with younger students, teachers might greet everyone at the door individually and let them signal if they want a hug or a high-five. For older students, teachers can offer personal greetings with a smile. To end class, teachers might engage students in positive reflections about what they learned, who helped them, and whom they were kind to. Teachers should also work to build a sense of goodwill and community within their classrooms, encouraging students to support one another and responding quickly to teasing, name-calling, or other inappropriate behavior.

Create Consistent and Structured Learning Environments

Trauma often leaves children feeling out of control. Teachers help restore a sense of order in their students’ lives by creating consistent and structured learning environments. Establishing predictable routines and following well-communicated schedules helps anchor students. Knowing what to expect and when to expect it allows students to feel safe as well as prepared. For example, teachers can give students an agenda for each day’s lesson, allowing them to mentally prepare for the activities to come. This relieves some of the anxiety students experience in transitioning between topics. Additionally, to give students a sense of ownership of their structured environments, teachers might include them in developing class rules, creating rubrics, establishing timelines, and setting expectations.

Implement Restorative Practices

Many students with traumatic histories have broken relationships with authority. Punitive discipline often reinforces students’ negative perceptions about authority figures. Nonetheless, trauma makes children in need of adults who set clear boundaries.

Restorative practices help children trust their teachers and see them as fair people who believe in them and their ability to be their best selves. Restorative practices also de-escalate situations and uncover the root causes of a student’s behaviors and feelings. This helps students heal.

Restorative Circles

Instead of doling out punishments for difficult behavior, teachers can use restorative circles that engage students in dialogues about their actions. In restorative circles, participants talk about how to make things right and strengthen class unity.

Educators invite students into a circle for reflection and introduce a “talking piece,” a special stick or designated object that indicates whose turn it is to share and encourages respectful listening. A “circle keeper” introduces discussion prompts or gives instructions and offers support to participants as they address their concerns.

Explore Ways to Promote Trauma-Informed Leadership

Trauma-informed leadership in education empowers students with traumatic histories to heal. By addressing the needs of students as whole individuals, educators enable all children to thrive regardless of the trauma they’ve experienced. To learn more about the healing potential of trauma-informed leadership, visit Mills College’s online Master of Arts in Educational Leadership.

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