Returning to the classroom: 3 strategies to stay trauma-informed
In only a few short weeks, teachers and students will be returning to the classroom after months of working and learning from home. While there is some excitement in shopping for school supplies, reuniting with friends, and signing up for extracurricular activities, there is also a backdrop of controversy and concern regarding masks for all ages, class sizes, social distancing protocols, and the amount of time students will be granted in-class instruction. To say the least, the usual hype surrounding back-to-school rituals and routines has been dampened. There is also a deep sense of uncertainty for what is to come.
Nonetheless, there is a first for everything, and going back to school after a pandemic requires a new kind of preparation. Without a doubt, re-entry will require trial and error to figure out the best approach to maintain safety and well-being for the entire school community. In saying that, top of mind will be the students. After being away for so many months, they will be returning to the classroom with an abundance of new experiences ranging from positive to negative. Having awareness of these diverse experiences, and the trauma that students may have incurred, is an important first step to reestablishing community and connection.
1. Observe and Support
Whether teachers realize it or not, many are already “trauma-informed” in their approach as caring and compassionate individuals. The very act of teaching naturally involves getting to know students and their families, identifying changes in student behaviour or learning, observing emotional or physical ailments students may be experiencing, and so forth. Therefore, being trauma-informed also means that teachers learn to recognize trauma cues such as irritability, aggression, withdrawal, or hyper-activity, and follow protocols to get the necessary support services for their students.
Another key point about being trauma-informed is understanding that teaching is not just about student academic achievement, but also about the social and emotional development of each individual (Plumb et al., 2016). When we focus on teaching the whole child (mind and body), we are able to help students develop resilience, build healthy relationships, and create trust with themselves and others (Flook, 2019). Ideally, the best practice is to approach this as a whole-school, rather than only in some classrooms.
A school that is trauma-informed is also one that celebrates the diversity of the school community, encourages respectful communication between children and adults, ensures that discipline policies are compassionate and appropriate, and focuses on the strengths of each individual student (Walkley, 2013). This approach is particularly important, as children need to know they are seen and heard, that they are valued for who they are, and that it is safe to confide in a caring adult. In turn, it can help them develop a positive sense of self regardless of their circumstances. A child who feels ignored or invisible, and does not get the help they need, may cope by becoming aggressive or anti-social (Capewell, 1994).
Even though many teachers are already trauma-informed in their approach to teaching, they may question their ability to do so effectively, or feel overwhelmed or unqualified to provide the emotional support required of an individual student. Other concerns that tend to surface are how to address trauma if it is not brought up by the child, how to create a safe environment to discuss feelings openly, and how to create emotional boundaries where the teacher does not become so invested in the life of a child that it impacts their own mental health and well-being.
Being trauma-informed does not equate to having all of the answers to every problem. Therefore, it is important for teachers to remember that they are not licensed mental health professionals, nor is it their responsibility to provide the kind of support expected of a school social worker or psychologist. If a problem feels overwhelming, there are a number of people teachers can reach out to in their education circle including their colleagues and community partners.
2. Ask questions and create clear expectations
There are many ways to start the school year with a trauma-informed approach. For example, inviting students to share their experiences of learning from home is a simple and low risk activity to begin with. Teachers can ask questions such as: How did you feel being away from school for so long? What did you miss the most? What did you enjoy about being at home? What do you look forward to this new school year? What are you most concerned about? These conversations (one-on-one, as a whole class, or as a self-reflection activity) create space for students to think about their experiences and express their feelings and have them validated, while the teacher pays close attention to how individual students respond to the questions. If any questions or concerns surface, they can be addressed privately between the student and teacher.
Other trauma-informed approaches include providing students with clear expectations and guidelines for navigating their new school environment. For example, when must they wear a mask and when can they take it off? How can they effectively maintain social distancing? What are the guidelines about lining up at the door, going to the bathroom, or getting a drink? Providing coping strategies that create a positive mindset such as positive affirmations, mindfulness exercises, time spent outside in nature, or a gratitude circle, also support a trauma-informed school. As well, students need structure that comes from schedules and routines, which provides a level of comfort and safety (Alisic, 2012).
Regardless of the trauma-informed approach a teacher takes, it is important that “balance” is taken into consideration. For example, teachers need to find a balance between the needs of individual children and that of the whole class. A trauma-informed approach may mean that some individuals are getting the attention and support they need, while the whole class benefits. Secondly, there needs to be a balance between focusing on trauma (such as living through a pandemic) and on normal life (being back at school and learning). Additionally, there needs to be a balance between attending to a student in need without making them feel isolated from their peers (Alisic, 2012).
Lastly, a trauma-informed approach starts with the teacher as a role model for managing stress, maintaining positivity, and being emotionally available (Capewell, 1994). For some, this can feel like an enormous responsibility, especially on days when they feel stressed, overwhelmed, or anxious themselves. Teachers might also be returning to school having experienced their own trauma due to the pandemic. Therefore, being trauma-informed is also about practicing self-care. This might include daily meditations, taking a hot bath, getting to bed early, spending time outdoors, or taking up a new hobby (for more ideas access our free resource in the shop: Self-Care “Toolbox” for Teachers). In order for teachers to be fully available for their students, they must first take care of themselves.
3. Create safe and expressive environments through movement
Another way to address trauma is by bringing awareness to the body where the memory and grief of trauma is stored. Movement can be a means to express our emotions, alleviate stress, make meaning of our experiences, and find a path to relief and recovery. Group activities such as mirroring and flocking (access these free resources in our shop) are excellent ways to develop empathy, practice non-verbal communication, build community, and help students better relate to their peers. Another powerful activity includes reading a story or poem that evokes a particular emotion and then encouraging students to use creative movement to express how it makes them feel. An important aspect of being trauma-informed is recognizing that each person expresses trauma in their own way, and that some students may feel more comfortable expressing themselves through movement than conversation. This is why giving the option for movement activities is essential for creating a safe and supportive environment.
Alisic, E. (2012). Teachers’ perspectives on providing support to children after trauma: A qualitative study. School Psychology Quarterly, 27(1), 51-59.
Capewell, E. (1994). Responding to children in trauma: A systems approach for schools. Bereavement Care, 13(1), 2-7. Doi: 10.1080/02682629408657321
Flook, L. (2019). Four ways schools can support the whole child. Greater Good Magazine. Retrieved from https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/four_ways_schools_can_support_the_whole_child
Plumb, J. L., Bush, K. A., & Kersevich, S. E. (2016). Trauma-Sensitive Schools: An Evidence-Based Approach. School Social Work Journal. 40(2).Walkley, M., & Cox, T. L. (2013). Building trauma-informed schools and communities. Children & Schools, 35(2), 123-126.