Tips to Create A Trauma-Sensitive Classroom

Jun 4, 2017

Do your students ever walk into school already angry?  Do any of your students have meltdowns, explosions, or find ways (good or bad) to get attention?  What about power struggles...have you ever found yourself caught up in one with a student?

For me and my colleagues, the answer is yes to these questions and many others that surround students with trauma in their lives.  So we are digging down deep this summer with the book Fostering Resilient Learners: Strategies for Creating a Trauma Sensitive Classroom by Kristin Souers.  Getting honest with ourselves and looking at what we can do to better support the students that we love and teach everyday.

The Why...

Kristin Souers has a great paragraph in her introduction that I want to share because it really illustrates the need for this book, conversation, and changes within my school:

...Instead, they step into our schools toting heavy burdens: the stress of overwhelming
trauma and the scars of neglect and abuse.  The experience of trauma
has dramatically altered the landscape of the schools we work in. (p.1)

The demands on us are high.  Academic demands on students are high.  But a stressed brain cannot learn. I cannot sit back and expect my students to learn from me, if I am not helping them to address some of the emotional burdens that they carry into school with them.

What Is It...

Trauma and "not-OK events" is dealt with differently by each and every person.  Traumatic events can include: incarceration of a family member, suicidal family member, death, domestic violence, divorce, separation, mental illness at home, substance abuse in home, experience of any type of abuse or neglect, criminal behavior in home, deployment, war, homelessness, or bullying.

And because the statistics show that most students have experienced some sort of not-OK event, the author urges us to treat all students as though they have experienced trauma.  Especially because chronic stress like this does not discriminate.  It does not matter the socioeconomic status, religion, or race, studies have found trauma to be prevalent. 

The Brain...

The limbic area of our brain controls emotion and survival responses (flight, fight, or freeze).  This is what we can see in our classrooms when a student's survival mode is triggered.  Defiance, refusing to answer, daydreaming are some of the examples that I have seen this year.
The prefrontal cortex area controls our ability to think and reason.  It is also suppose to help regulate the limbic area; however, each time a brain is triggered to tap into the survival responses, a chemical is released into the body.  Souers explains that large amounts of this chemical can have a negative impact on development (including memory, mood, and some executive functions).  This means that this chemical is directly impacting the academic work we are trying to do with our students.

Something to Think About...

It is mentioned in the book that a teacher's method to dealing with behavior is habitual.  And habits can be hard to admit and even harder to break.  Having these conversations with yourself and with your teammates is hard, imperative, and needed.

Here is one example that is very difficult for me to admit: I know that somewhere along the line, I was taught that students need to kind of  "check their baggage" at the door.  What happened at home is at home and they need to learn at school.  In some ways, I have accepted this thinking because I did not have any other tools to help me help them.  I am admitting this and I am making a change.

A student that is working in survival mode, cannot also work in learning mode. So I am working to create a trauma sensitive class that I can teach in and my students can learn in.

What are your thoughts?  Are these conversations that you need to be having in your school?



  1. Love this very much! The info you share, the difficult thing that you talk about, its all wonderful. I wish you well in your journey. I'm eager to learn more.

  2. I have to remind myself that kids can have bad days too. I admit that I have wanted to kids to be "on" all the day every day. It's not a reasonable expectation. This book sounds great. Thank you for sharing.


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