The Case for Trauma-Informed Teaching

As a child, I was the perfect student. Organized, diligent, engaged, and sharp, I took pride in my work and earned consistently excellent grades. I was also a victim of child sexual abuse through much of elementary school and middle school. When I brought my perpetrator to justice as an adult, former teachers and mentors were stunned. I did not fit the profile as a victim. School was my sanctuary. Overachievement my cover story.

As a teacher and a mental health counselor, I have encountered victims of child sexual abuse and other forms of domestic trauma. Some create a façade of competence and normalcy, compartmentalizing their pain and dissociating from their painful reality. Others struggle to process the horrors they face at home, acting out in class, unable to focus or forge normal friendships and interactions. Some present as bullies, others loners, still others 'the bad kid.'

Since childhood trauma is often hidden by a culture of shame and silence, teachers are often unaware of their students' suffering. Required training on abuse for teachers usually relates to mandated reporting, but trauma can also have an impact on students in the classroom, affecting their interactions with peers, learning style, attention span, and behavior.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder can mirror other problems and is often misdiagnosed as anxiety, depression, ADHD, and even learning disabilities. Students who suffer trauma as the result of abuse--or neighborhood violence, extreme poverty, illness, and other upsetting episodes and situations--can exhibit poor memory, short attention span, disruptions in sleep, dysfunctional social relationships, impulsivity, aggression, self-harm, avoidance of triggers, problems with physical health and hygiene, emotional dysregulation, and, paradoxically, emotional numbness.

Certain students, like me as a child, fly under the radar, appearing to be well-adjusted, competent children. Others attract the attention of teachers, peers, and guidance counselors, but often for negative reasons. Negative attention and labels beget more negative behavior and a diminished sense of self-worth. It is difficult for students, administrators, and teachers to break that cycle.

Overachievers appear self-motivated, less needy of praise and recognition, while poorly behaved students disrupt the learning environment, frustrating both classmates and teachers. It is hard to value unlikable, disruptive students. And, some of the highest achievers do not appear to need as much interaction and support from teachers.

Becoming trauma-informed can help educators shift their mindset and perhaps approach all students more compassionately. When victims of trauma feel safe, they are less likely to become triggered and resort to methods of self-preservation that are either disruptive to the classroom or impair their ability to learn and process information. That same sense of trust and safety can also help students feel more comfortable disclosing their abuse and getting the help they need.

For much of the year, students spend more waking hours at school than they do at home. School can be a nurturing, positive environment where students feel safe. School can also exacerbate the effects of trauma, fortifying victims' destructive messages and beliefs about the world and themselves.

A basic understanding of trauma could help teachers approach students more compassionately and provide a sense of stability and unconditional acceptance that victims of abuse do not experience at home. School could end up being the only place they feel valued, appreciated, seen, and heard. Compassion and understanding are two of the most powerful classroom management tools. After all, teaching is not just about managing a classroom and conveying information. There is a lot more at stake.


Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-656-HOPE for the National Sexual Assault Hotline.