The promotion of trauma-sensitive and trauma-informed schools has grown tremendously in education. Broadly speaking, trauma-informed schools maintain a framework whereby the entire school staff maintains awareness of the impacts of toxic stress and trauma, and strive to ensure that all students feel safe, supported, and connected. Such awareness and motivation among educators and caregivers to promote such a framework presents multiple opportunities to change the lives of students and help them thrive.
Nevertheless, beyond recognizing trauma-informed schools defined in this broad sense, how it looks in practice will likely not remain consistent from school to school. Some context-dependent inconsistency is not a bad thing; each school should identify what works best within its community given available needs and resources. Further, trauma-informed schools represent those that provide a full range of preventive and responsive services to students that acknowledge the impact of toxic stress, adversity, and trauma. The benefit of broad, flexible frameworks for service delivery lies in the ability to tailor approaches as needed. Conversely, the drawback is sometimes having difficulty taking a high-altitude concept and making it tangible and implementable on the ground. Therefore, we should not overlook the significant impact of simple and sometimes inconspicuous gestures. Here are 9 small gestures that any educator can take to help promote a trauma-informed learning environment for children and youth:
- Show unconditional positive regard. Unconditional positive regard is the idea that you always give value and respect to everyone, regardless of whether you like them or their choices. A school psychologist once told me a story of a boy that had regularly received serious disciplinary referrals including suspension. During a recent suspension, the teacher and other students in the class put together a card on his desk when he returned that said, “Welcome back, we missed you.” Such a note does not convey approval of the behavior, though does reinforce that, no matter what, that student belongs in that classroom and school community.
- Eliminate stress triggers. Triggers can include sudden movements, loud voices or tone of voice, or even startling, loud, and abrupt sounds. Knowing a student’s triggers and avoiding them will reduce a fear response that can make that student unreceptive to learning. Consider swapping bells to end teaching periods with chimes or music. As part of a school-wide positive behavior support framework, students can help pick the music each week (within limits). Consider looking at this new resource from the National Center on Safe Supportive Learning Environments on mapping triggers.
- Take an interest. Many tales of students recalling a teacher that changed their lives often start with the student feeling like someone cared. This often takes very little, and can simply come from asking questions about a student’s interests, weekends, hobbies, aspirations, or family. Show students you view them as more than a student in your classroom; they are important people in your life.
- Listen more, and talk less. Adults have a tendency to engage in reciprocal dialogue – building off of another’s stories and comments (e.g., “I had the most amazing steak dinner last night.” “Oh, I haven’t had steak in several months; the last time I ate steak was at my mother-in-law’s house.”). Similarly, it’s often an instinct to respond to concerns from others with unsolicited advice, input, opinions, or perspective. Sometimes, the best way to help kids in distress is to listen, empathize, and ask if there are additional ways you can help. They usually are not interested in hearing your perspective, opinion, or the time you dealt with something similar; if they are, they will probably ask for it.
- Don’t take things personally. Insults, aggressive behavior, or even disrespectful behavior can easily be taken personally. Quite often, the nature of that behavior can even be directed at a single adult. Try to remember this mantra: “It affects me, but it’s not about me.” Often, children and youth lack any of the skills to communicate effectively or manage stress, which can often come across as calculated and willful disobedience. It’s never pleasant to have things thrown at you, or be disrespected; nevertheless, recognizing that those behaviors have little or nothing to do with you personally may free you up to be a support to that student, and apply unconditional positive regard (see #1).
- Focus on the positive. Try to identify one positive thing a student has done, and communicate that to the child or youth as well as to their family. Come up with a schedule based on what is reasonable for you. Perhaps its 1 kid per week, and writing little notes every Friday; maybe its 10 per month. It can be something as simple as acknowledging how a student came to class on time each day of the week.
- Support caregivers. One of the most significant predictors of student outcomes is parent/caregiver mental health and well-being. Maintain contact and communication with the caregivers; establish clear lines of communication; and create a partnership to benefit the student.
- Follow your instincts. Most educators already do a great number of things by instinct: asking about a child’s weekend, praising desirable behavior, smiling when welcoming students after a long weekend, and sharing joy in successes. Those gestures go a long way, and should not be undervalued. Continue following those instincts, remembering that children need this predictability and safety to learn; even if those students pretend not to care.
- Take care of yourself. An often stated request that is just as often ignored. If possible, allow yourself the opportunity to take a day off, and relieve yourself of any responsibilities. That day off is not an opportunity to run errands, fold laundry, or finally write those overdue thank-you notes; take a day and do something just for you – nothing else. Self-care also includes ensuring financial health, physical health, emotional health, and maintaining a social network. Our youth need you, and need you at your best; and you deserve at least one day just for you.
Eric Rossen, PhD, NCSP, is editor of Supporting and Educating Traumatized Students: A Guide for School-Based Educators from Oxford University Press.