What Is Trauma-Informed Education?

A teacher sits in a chair in an elementary school classroom talking to a little boy seated on the floor.

More than 1.5 billion students around the world, and 95 percent of all U.S. students, are physically out of school and learning remotely because of COVID-19. Jo Becker, children’s rights advocacy director at Human Rights Watch, says the global pandemic is causing a crisis for students. In addition to the pandemic disrupting their education, untold numbers of children may suffer severe traumas such as abuse, economic instability, and the death of a parent or parents.

This current global emergency underscores the urgency for educators to practice trauma-informed education, which approaches learning by addressing the psychological, social, emotional, physical, and academic impacts trauma causes.

As of 2019, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned trauma could be the most serious public health crisis facing students and estimated two-thirds of school-age children have experienced trauma in general. Poverty, racism, community violence, bullying, natural disasters, and adverse child experiences (ACEs) have all impeded student learning.

These traumas do not mean our students are broken—they mean the policies that support our students must adapt to the reality that trauma changes what a child needs from school. Recent research authored by Tomás Galguera, professor of education and teacher development at Mills College, suggests standards-obsessed classrooms harm traumatized students.

Teachers can still find the room to help students heal. Nurturing, trauma-sensitive classrooms prepare students who have suffered to become adaptable leaders.

The Benefits of Social-Emotional Learning

Trauma-informed education recognizes that not all students react to trauma in the same way. In Dr. Galguera’s research, after the 2018 Camp Fire in Northern California, one teacher reported that a student whose family had owned pigs that died in the fire began writing pig on every paper she found. At playtime, the student pretended to be a pig.

But other students in the class responded differently to this traumatic event. Several would interrupt lessons to make blunt statements like, “My mom was screaming in the fire,” before returning to their work.

Lauren Dotson, a former school administrator, remembers a student who arrived at her school with a history of violence and defiance. After studying trauma-sensitive classrooms, Dr. Dotson began fostering a culture of safety in her school. The student who once screamed that she hated Dr. Dotson was soon drawing pictures for her.

Social-emotional learning (SEL), or teaching the whole child, takes a psychological and individual approach to education. When school leaders, counselors, social workers, therapists, and teachers work together to create student-care plans that treat students as individuals rather than a mass unit, learning outcomes improve.

In 2012, the Collaborative for Academic Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL) worked with eight school districts to implement SEL policies in their schools. Five years later, districts in major cities around the country were turning to CASEL for help. Under CASEL’s guidance, by 2017, 1 million U.S. schoolchildren were being taught using whole child strategies.

According to The Atlantic, in addition to offering an $11 cost-benefit for every $1 spent, SEL helps all students, regardless of academic setting and standing, across any measure of success. SEL especially, though, offers tools to students coping with trauma.

Strategies for Implementing Trauma-Informed Policies

To learn, a student must feel safe, which is why SEL underpins trauma-informed education.

Dr. Galguera’s recent article, titled “Healing the Phoenix: Trauma-Informed Practice at the Ground Level,” as well as the experience of educational leaders serve to offer guidance on how teachers can implement trauma-informed policies.

Learn to Recognize the Symptoms of Trauma

To create environments where everyone can safely process trauma, teachers need to learn to recognize how trauma manifests. In fact, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration lists safety as the first principle of any trauma-informed approach.

For trauma-informed education to be successful, both students and teachers need to feel physically and psychologically safe. Discussing an abusive past with students is very different from helping them revise an essay or explaining why a test answer is incorrect.

Discussions about trauma are difficult for all involved. It’s critical that teachers recognize the symptoms of trauma so they know when to seek additional support from school leaders and psychologists.

Move Beyond Cultural Stereotypes

SEL requires that teachers approach students as individuals. However, this doesn’t mean educators should forget to address historical and cultural traumas.

Racism is a serious trauma that the American Psychological Association (APA) now warns can cause post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Racism can be experienced as trauma in two ways: a student can be the target of racial violence, and learning about racial violence may also trigger a traumatic response.

The APA points out that many white Americans are socialized to not acknowledge or openly discuss race. In fact, findings from the Southern Poverty Law Center demonstrate that teachers are struggling to adequately teach American history because they do not know how to talk about slavery.

SEL helps teachers facilitate difficult and necessary lessons through acknowledging implicit biases, navigating emotions, and being socially aware. Using these strategies, teachers can learn to hear and validate the experiences of their students of color.

Refugee students are also at increased risk of experiencing PTSD and having to deal with past trauma that interferes with their learning, according to the National Child Traumatic Stress Network. Teachers who are sensitive when bringing up potentially triggering topics, such as war or a country of origin, create a safe environment that encourages students to participate and learn rather than shut down from trauma.

Nurture Relationships with Students

Relationships between teachers and students are critical to student success, but they’re also critical to teacher success. Not only will getting to know students help educators avoid making triggering statements, but research shows students benefit from having mentor relationships with adults outside of their immediate families.

Researchers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Division of Adolescent and School Health found adults who reported high levels of connection with their schools and families as children were 48 to 66 percent less likely to experience violence, risky sexual activity, and struggles with mental health or substance abuse.

Don’t “Fix” Students

Trauma-informed education seeks to reimagine the educational structures that support children. If teachers approach trauma-informed education as a way to “fix” students, this undermines and discredits the work they are already doing to manage their trauma. Instead, educational leaders should focus on fixing policies to better support teachers in supporting their students.

Set Boundaries, Expectations, and Consequences

Punishments focus on taking away privileges rather than correcting student behavior. A suspension, for example, temporarily revokes a student’s access to school. A detention removes a student from after-school activities.

Punishments do little to help students, and often cause negative results. America’s Promise, a nonprofit dedicated to improving children’s lives, found that being suspended just once in ninth grade increases a student’s risk of dropping out.

Rather than punish students, teachers can use predictable consequences for actions that enforce expectations and boundaries to help students learn. For example, if a student repeatedly fails to complete assignments on time, a teacher might ask why. Having to answer for their behavior becomes a predictable consequence of not doing the homework, and it even becomes a helpful way to address an underlying problem.

Students can fail to complete tasks for any number of reasons that indicate they need additional support. A student might be experiencing family troubles, they might not have access to a computer or other necessary learning tools, older students might be working to help support their families—or many students may simply need additional learning resources. Where punishments take away from students, and often harm them, consequences support students.

Stay Calm

One myth that persists around SEL is that SEL tells students how to feel. On the contrary, SEL gives students the tools to manage their feelings, and that can often involve honoring student emotions such as anger. Teachers support students by remaining calm themselves and setting an example, even when they feel frustrated.

Practice Self-Care and Advocacy

Dr. Galguera says healing from trauma extends to both students and teachers, and teachers are impacted by helping their students heal from trauma.

Teacher leader Gary G. Abud Jr., writing in Education Week, echoes this. Abud, too, believes helping his students heal from trauma leads to healing together. As humans, he writes, we seek out meaning, and supporting students gives meaning to a teacher’s work. Advocating for students becomes an act of advocating for the classroom.

As Dr. Galguera explains, students and teachers healing together promotes a common understanding that encourages values of empowerment, voice, and choice.

Learn More About Trauma-Informed Education

One of the best ways teachers can help students succeed in life is to practice trauma-informed education. Trauma, though, is complex and nuanced, and education programs must help prepare educators to handle it by learning deeply about it.

Mills College, where Dr. Galguera teaches and conducts his research, offers an online Master of Educational Leadership that places a strong emphasis on trauma-informed pedagogies. Offering the degree online makes it open to working educators who want to transform their schools and classrooms with trauma-informed policies, SEL, and more. To learn more, visit Mills College’s online Master of Arts in Educational Leadership.

Leadership is about making change—Learn more about our reduced tuition