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Arkansas State University

Trauma-Informed Teaching in Special Education

The concept of a trauma-informed approach to teaching is an important development in the world of special education. With so many students struggling to overcome traumatic experiences, it is essential that teachers understand how to effectively respond to the resulting challenging behaviors.

A Master of Arts in Teaching – Special Education K-12 online program can equip you with the necessary skills to teach students with a variety of different needs.

Why Do We Need a Trauma-Informed Approach to Education?

Almost half of all children, and roughly two-thirds of adults in the United States, have endured at least one Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE) in the form of abuse, neglect or household dysfunction. Being subject to trauma at a young age may have a detrimental effect on relationship and trust building, the ability to control behavior, cognition and many other aspects of childhood development.

The negative side effects associated with trauma exposure frequently manifest in classroom settings as disruptive behavior or poor academic performance. When teachers are not aware of the source of these outcomes or trained in a trauma-informed approach to education, it is virtually impossible for them to help students overcome those challenges.

How Does Trauma Affect Youth?

Exposure to trauma has an overwhelming and negative influence on the development of a child. In essence, it rewires the brain to exist in a prolonged state of survival mode. As one trauma-informed teacher notes, “the primal part of their brain can become stronger because kids who have experienced complex trauma spend more time in fight, flight, or freeze. Their bodies are regularly flooded with cortisol. This isn’t conducive to classroom learning because we want our students to be able to access their frontal cortex.” This can disrupt the normal development of the following skills:

  • Critical thinking
  • Executive function
  • Regulating emotions
  • Language

It is no surprise that the academic achievement and social/emotional health of children exposed to trauma will most likely lag behind their peers. The more traumatic events a child is exposed to, the more severe their challenges will be.

Students who have endured three or more Adverse Childhood Experiences are at particular disadvantages and are:

  • More likely to fail a grade
  • More frequently suspended or expelled
  • Likely to score lower on standardized tests
  • More prone to dropping out of school

Additionally, because their behavior mimics that of students with disabilities, these students are often assigned to special education programs. If teachers lack an understanding of trauma and its effect on children, distinguishing a product of neurodiversity from a response to trauma can be incredibly difficult, let alone determining how to adequately and appropriately support the student. This is precisely why a trauma-informed approach to teaching is so essential.

What Is Trauma-Informed Teaching?

Trauma-informed teaching is more about a shift in the overall mindset of an educator than the implementation of new techniques. According to Matthew Portell, the principal of an internationally recognized trauma-informed school, this practice involves “approaching education with an understanding of the physiological, social, emotional, and academic impacts of trauma and adversity on our students.”

To successfully implement a trauma-informed approach, teachers must acknowledge the impact of past trauma on a student, discern each child’s specific needs and attempt to meet those needs. The key is to support students while attempting to build trusting and nurturing relationships with them. Teachers need to “understand the impact of daily positive interactions and affirmations for our students.” Without recognizing a child’s traumatic past, it is impossible to help them overcome it.

How Can Educators Respond to Trauma-Induced Behavior?

There are simple and effective techniques that teachers and other educational professionals can use when responding to challenging behavior from students with traumatic pasts. Start with first building trusting relationships, and then establishing the learning environment as a safe space.

  • Use visual schedules or daily agendas to create a consistent routine.
  • Be prepared to handle unexpected or volatile responses from students.
  • Find natural situations in which students can succeed and build confidence.
  • Do not exile students for problematic or challenging behavior.
  • Be aware of potential triggers and try to reduce or eliminate their occurrence.
  • Create opportunities where students can help their peers and build relationships.

Taking a trauma-informed approach to education will almost surely make a significant difference for students who have endured Adverse Childhood Experiences.

Arkansas State University’s Master of Arts in Teaching – Special Education K-12 online program offers “a comprehensive foundation of methods for assessing and teaching students on a broad spectrum of exceptional needs.” This accredited, online program prepares teachers to be at the forefront of emerging trends in special education such as trauma-informed teaching. Teachers who want the core knowledge that will help learners with special needs as well as the ability to effectively implement new trends should strongly consider

Learn more about Arkansas State University’s Master of Arts in Teaching – Special Education K-12 online program.


Association for Supervision and Curriculum: Trauma-Informed Teaching Strategies

Edutopia: Understanding Trauma-Informed Education

Pennsylvania Bar Institute: Trauma-Informed Practice and the Intersection with Special Education

The Trauma Informed Teacher: The Impact of Trauma on Disabilities

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