March 14, 2016 by

Trauma-Sensitive Classrooms: Building a Safe, Welcoming Nest for All Students

This post is a part of the conversation around the ASCD Forum “Learning for All = Teaching for All.” To learn more about the forum, go to www.ascd.org/ascdforum.

By Kristin Souers and Pete Hall

ASCD Forum: Learning for = Teaching for AllDalton comes to school high almost every day. Rarely submitting homework and performing poorly on assessments, he seems more interested in being the class clown, distracting his peers, and touting the upcoming football game. He has a discipline rap sheet a mile long.

Tonya is an invisible child. Aloof and quiet, she slips into class every day and completes just enough work, participates just enough, and scores just high enough for her teacher to leave her alone. She’s “fine,” especially considering some of the other issues her teachers are facing these days.

Have you met students like Dalton and Tonya? Our classrooms are full of kids just like them—kids who, for one reason or another, don’t seem to be living up to their potential. And we, as educators, find ourselves reacting to the behaviors in front of us—getting caught up in the “what” they show us versus the “why” they are showing us. Disciplinary referrals. Suspensions. Lack of engagement. Dismissiveness. Might we be missing the mark? How might our responses change if we knew the “one reason or another” that was affecting our kids? What if we started shifting our attention to the need they are asking to be met versus how they are asking?

For instance, did you know that Dalton’s best friend passed away a year ago, and he hasn’t found a coping strategy more effective than smoking pot, which allows him to go numbly about his day, shielding himself with bravado and a focus on sports? Or that Tonya’s mother, overbearing and controlling, forces her to compete in dance recitals and compels her to immediately vomit foods that she doesn’t approve, based on her assessment of Tonya’s body shape? Tonya cries herself to sleep every night.

Research on adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) has illustrated that traumatic experiences (single events like Dalton’s or long-term situations like Tonya’s) deeply and profoundly affect the way our students function on a daily basis. How this plays out in classrooms across the country varies from child to child, but one thing is certain: young people’s trauma response is real.

Here’s another reality: our most vulnerable, trauma-affected students need us the most. They need us to be at our best at all times. We, as educators, cannot make the trauma go away; however, we can create an environment in our schools, classrooms, and offices that is inviting, safe, and welcoming. We can create a “nest” for each of our precious students to grow, learn, prepare, and be.

Our work is about kids. Educating kids, inspiring kids, supporting kids, and preparing kids. And kids—whether 5 years old and stepping foot into a classroom for the first time or 18 years old and about to spread their wings and fly out of the nest for the last time—deal with all sorts of unseen experiences that contribute to who they are, their view of the world, and their capacity to manage the stressors of each moment.

In Fostering Resilient Learners: Strategies for Creating a Trauma-Sensitive Classroom Environment, we share research on ACEs and provide over a dozen practical, tried-and-true, positive strategies to support educators in creating that nest for their students. The benefits of these approaches are endless—all students have a better opportunity to grow, develop, and thrive in a supportive, engaging, relationship-focused environment, not just those that are affected by trauma. And, since we rarely truly know the trauma backgrounds of our students, it behooves us to establish that safe place regardless of that knowledge. Every child deserves it.

Want to join the 2016 ASCD Forum discussion? Here’s how:

  • The ASCD Forum group on the ASCD EDge social networking site is the main discussion platform. Educators can contribute blog posts about culturally responsive learning environments, pose questions to one another, or offer insight on message boards.
  • On Twitter, educators can use #ASCDForum to share perspectives and resources.
  • An in-person session of the ASCD Forum will take place at the 2016 ASCD Annual Conference and Exhibit Show on Monday, April 4, from 8:00 to 9:30 a.m.

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Kristin Souers is a licensed mental health counselor who has devoted her whole career to working with kids and families affected by trauma. Pete Hall is a former principal who provides professional development to schools and districts across the country. Hall and Souers are passionate about partnering with caregiving professionals to promote the development and sustainment of trauma-informed environments. They are both accomplished nest builders.