Trauma-Informed Teaching: 8 Strategies to Fostering a Feeling of Safety

Students can’t learn unless they feel safe. When it comes to student trauma, there is much that is beyond educators’ power, but there is also a great deal they can do to build a supportive and sensitive environment where students feel safe, comfortable, take risks, learn, and even heal.

– Jessica Minahan

Small changes in classroom interactions can make a big difference for traumatized students.

8 Trauma-Informed Teaching Strategies

1. Expect Unexpected Responses

First, teachers must learn to put students’ reactions into context—and not to take them personally. Students with trauma histories can react and behave in seemingly unexpected ways, such as having a sudden outburst during a favorite activity or crying out of the blue one second after laughing. Teachers may be taken by surprise. 

2. Employ Thoughtful Interactions

Traumatized students often behave in ways that may interfere with teaching and learning, which can be frustrating. Teachers are in a position of power, and these students may be overly defensive, anticipating adult criticism, or defiant, as a way to assert control (Jennings, 2018). Yet for traumatized students, the ability to learn and behave appropriately can be person-dependent. When they are with a safe and supportive adult, their behavior reflects that.

3. Be Specific About Relationship Building

“Build a relationship” is too vague and leaves too much up to the teacher’s instincts. Teachers and school staff need to share specific relationship-building strategies that work for specific students, so that a supportive network of caring adults can be woven for each student.

4. Promote Predictability and Consistency

Not knowing what is coming next can put anyone on high alert, especially traumatized students. Providing predictability through visual schedules of the class agenda or school day can help. A teacher’s behavior can also feel unpredictable to traumatized students. Because predictability is comforting to students with anxiety and trauma histories, they may resort to getting the teacher’s attention through inappropriate means. To counter this imbalance and create an overall feeling of safety, teachers can use predictable positive attention (Minahan, 2014).

5. Teach Strategies to “Change the Channel”

Traumatized students often tend to focus on the negative. Common classroom management strategies often only exasperate this tendency.

When adults can’t sleep, we often read a book or watch TV, which distracts us from uncomfortable thoughts so we can fall back asleep. Teachers can use the same principle for kids with trauma and anxiety: Teach students that their brain is like a remote control that they can use to “switch the channel” to help them calm down (Minahan & Rappaport, 2012). 

6. Give Supportive Feedback to Reduce Negative Thinking

Many traumatized students interpret information through a negativity amplifier. When a teacher says, “Please correct the first problem,” the student might hear, “You are stupid.” Or a student might report that the teacher screamed at her when the teacher was really using a calm tone, as even neutral facial expressions can be misinterpreted. It is helpful to smile and explicitly say when you are happy with the student.

7. Create Islands of Competence

Recognizing areas of strength in students is a powerful way to combat the poor self-concept and negative thinking associated with trauma (Jennings, 2018). To support a more accurate self-concept, teachers can provide what Robert Brooks calls “islands of competence” for students swimming in a sea of inadequacy (2003). When a student thinks negatively, the negative moments during the day tend to weigh more heavily than the positive moments. We need to counter this effect with positive experiences.

8. Limit Exclusionary Practices

Common teacher practices such as ignoring inappropriate behavior, sending students to the office, or sending younger kids to sit alone at a back table or in the hallway can unintentionally trigger students who have experienced abandonment or neglect. We need to remember that when some of our students were young and cried, no one came. Ignoring them can trigger a trauma response and make them feel the teacher doesn’t like them or is even happy that they are upset.

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