Here’s the final post in the series! In closing, I thought I would share eleven quick tips for supporting children who have had experiences of trauma. In my coaching work, these eleven tips are the strategies I most commonly recommend to teachers as they work to move towards an inclusive space for children with trauma.
When I was writing this, I realised that I have been using the terms trauma-sensitive and trauma-informed interchangeably since I began discussing this topic. However, as I was typing this post, I realised that there is probably a difference between the two terms which are so commonly used to refer to the same practices. Being trauma-sensitive, to me, is being aware that children may have experienced trauma and are deserving of a compassionate, understanding approach to their learning or behavioural barriers. Being trauma-informed indicates your knowledge of strategies which can help children to move beyond their barriers in order to achieve success at school. I think it is necessary to be both trauma-sensitive and trauma-informed to be successful in our work as teachers.
Here are some strategies to increase our skills as trauma-informed educators. Many of these can be universally designed to benefit the whole class!
- Always give 1 metre of space when talking to a student who is angry or upset. It’s safer for the teacher, and you are less likely to trigger a child to remember previous traumatic situations, such as physical or sexual abuse, violence they witnessed, etc. If it seems natural to comfort the student, you can always ask “would you like a hug?” first.
- Greet students with the same phrase every morning. For example, “Good morning, ____! It’s great to have you at school today.” It’s important that you use exactly the same words, not just the same sentiment. Children who have experienced trauma will often experience anxiety about how you connect with them on a daily basis. If you say “Good to see you!” one morning, and “Hi!” the next, they might wonder how your relationship has changed and become stressed.
- Help students to develop emotional literacy and an awareness of the range of emotions using strategies such as Feeling Thermometers. Often, children who have experienced trauma are desensitised to lower-intensity feelings (for example, being annoyed vs. being furious) and are not able to recognise these in time to be proactive and prevent explosive escalation. The Zones of Regulation is an enormously helpful resource which pairs well with Feeling Thermometers.
- Explicitly discuss safety and how to recognise if a situation is safe. This is a useful discussion for all students to participate in, and could help students identify the ways that teachers keep kids safe at school, what “unsafe” looks like, and what to do when they are feeling unsafe.
- Create separate spaces that children can move into, but still share what is going on in the rest of the class. Corners with rugs, rocking chairs, or beanbags allow students to take time apart from the group when they need physical and emotional space.
- Consider providing the choice for a student to move to a different classroom, with a familiar teacher on days when a substitute will be replacing the regular classroom teacher. Often this type of change is a trigger for significant anxiety, and a substitute may not be aware of or prepared to use the strategies in place for support. If the student wishes to remain in class with their peers, provide this as an option if the student experiences difficulty during the day.
- Provide praise in a neutral tone of voice. A raised voice may cause a student to become anxious and fail to understand the message as positive, which can trigger challenging behaviours.
- Provide fun and playful experiences which are NOT offered as a reward. Children who struggle with trauma experiences need to participate in low-stress, engaging activities regularly. These activities serve to lower their arousal levels, help build social connections with peers, and develop a narrative of inclusion for the student. If their challenging behaviour prevents them from being considered for these opportunities (eg. if you go all week without hitting, you can come to the class party on Friday), they will miss valuable learning.
- Use Social Behaviour Mapping tools to help children draw connections between their thoughts, feelings, behaviour, and the thoughts, feelings, and reactions of those around them. Provide these opportunities to reflect regularly within a private and non-threatening context.
- Understand that students with trauma experiences may struggle to encode and access memories. Use strategies to support memory, such as visual aids, multisensory experiences, retellings, review, and reminders such as sticky notes. Schedules which include visuals are helpful at all grade levels to support routines.
- Follow the following formula for structuring classroom activities: 10 minutes excitement/high interest, 10 minutes calming, 30 minutes concentration. For young children, shorten the time periods (eg. 5, 5, and 15) but follow the same pattern.
Please let me know if you find these suggestions helpful or share your own strategies in the comments!