Traumatic incidents for school-going students, known as Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), include a variety of situations involving violence and victimization.
A CDC study features a survey measuring ACE scores for 10 types of childhood trauma. Approximately 17,000 adults took the survey, and more than half reported having experienced at least one of these forms of ACE:
- Physical abuse
- Verbal abuse
- Sexual abuse
- Physical neglect
- Emotional neglect
- An alcoholic parent
- A mother who is a victim of domestic violence
- A family member in jail
- A family member diagnosed with a mental illness
- The disappearance of a parent through divorce, death or abandonment
How Have Educational Systems Responded to ACE?
Trauma-Informed Educational Practice is a system-wide approach to understanding the effect of violence, victimization and other forms of trauma on individuals and communities. According to the Education Law Center, “Childhood trauma can have a direct, immediate, and potentially overwhelming impact on the ability of a child to learn.”
A school that implements trauma-informed practices understands the importance of preventing re-traumatization and maximizing educational success. While this applies to all levels of an institution, including administrators, faculty, counselors and boards of directors, trauma-informed teaching specifically focuses on in-classroom practices.
ACE scores, although helpful in understanding the prevalence and impacts of childhood trauma, are meant to be guides rather than prescriptions.
The definition of trauma in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders includes not only reactions to violence and victimizing events, but also to the impacts of continuous, common experiences of microaggressions and intergenerational traumas associated with systemic issues such as homelessness, poverty, racism and immigration. Therefore, while ACEs can aid us in understanding the need for trauma-informed teaching, it is important to remember that we cannot always identify students’ traumas so easily.
Trauma of all kinds affects students’ executive functioning and self-regulation skills. Trauma-informed teaching is not just for students with identifiable traumatic stressors; it is for everybody.
Trauma-Informed Teaching in the Classroom
Students suffering the effects of trauma may have a harder time planning, remembering or focusing on what they need to learn. Neurobiological studies have shown that students also have trouble learning when they don’t feel safe and cared for in the classroom. The goal of trauma-informed teaching is to mitigate the effects of these barriers.
Small changes to disciplinary practices, relationship building and communication strategies have the potential to foster a sense of safety, trust and empowerment in students. For instance, behavior analyst and special educator Jessica Minahan suggests that by simply changing the way they give directions or respond to students, teachers can reduce problematic behavior. When issuing a directive, the teacher might use words that emphasize the reasoning for the directive or offer choices when giving instructions.
Changes in communication strategies can also help foster relationships with students and promote predictability and consistency in the classroom. These are important aspects of trauma-informed teaching, as students need to feel they can rely on the adults around them. By purposefully interacting with students, communicating policies and procedures, and remaining consistent, teachers can maintain relationships built on mutual respect and trust to create a supportive environment where traumatized students feel comfortable taking risks and learning.
There are several resources available for trauma-informed teaching, for both in-person and remote learning. For example, the National Child Traumatic Stress Network has put together a Child Trauma Toolkit for Educators, and Kognito provides resources for Online Trauma-Informed Training for Educators. Most resources also stress teacher self-care, as educators often experience burnout, secondary trauma and other forms of stress. It is important that educators who engage in trauma-informed teaching remain sensitive to their own stressors and needs.
Learn more about Arkansas State University’s Master of Arts in Teaching – Special Education K-12 online program.