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4 Steps for Managing Trauma-Informed Classrooms

RTI/MTSS

Take a random walk through any school on any day and you may see challenging behaviors like these:

  • Sean walks into class with an “attitude.” He is argumentative with peers and fails to comply with adult requests.
  • When his classroom becomes too loud, Ahmed will suddenly bolt from the room.
  • Alyssa is generally well-behaved, but when asked questions by the teacher in front of the class, will shut down and not respond.

These surface behaviors are easily observed. However, what may remain hidden from the observer (and perhaps from the teachers of Sean, Alyssa and Ahmed, is that each of these students engage in these behaviors as a fight-flight-or-freeze survival response triggered by their unique history of complex trauma[1][2].

Definition of Complex Trauma

Complex trauma can occur when a child is repeatedly exposed to adverse experiences, such as abuse, neglect and dysfunctional family interactions[3]. When incidents of trauma are frequent or ongoing, the child may develop chronically heightened stress levels that can be expressed in various ways, like aggression, inattention, hyperactivity, depression, or anxiety[4]. A danger is that educators might fail to realize that these challenging behaviors are trauma-related and instead punish the student for seemingly willful misconduct.

What is a trauma-informed school?

Many schools across the nation have discovered that substantial numbers of their students have experienced long-term negative effects of trauma and are taking steps to create supportive, non-threatening learning environments and to provide services for these learners[5]. These “trauma-informed schools” usually have these three things in common:

  • Training their educators to recognize signs of trauma
  • Encouraging teachers to structure their classrooms to minimize potential stress triggers
  • Providing additional therapeutic supports such as counseling to students most impacted by complex trauma

Using RTI/MTSS to help students who have experienced trauma

The good news is that schools that adopt a 3-tiered model of RTI/MTSS for behavior have already assembled at least some of the practices necessary to successfully support students with complex trauma, such as:

  • Teaching and reinforcing expected behaviors
  • Employing school-wide behavioral screeners and teacher referrals to identify these students
  • Providing an array of positive behavioral and social-emotional interventions.

By far the most important setting for identifying and supporting those with complex trauma, however, is the general-education classroom (RTI/MTSS Tier 1). When chronically stressed students encounter demanding academic settings, there is an increased probability that these school environments will trigger maladaptive fight-flight-or-freeze behaviors. However, teachers may have only limited knowledge of these students’ background—and not realize that their behaviors are a reaction to the effects of complex trauma.

Trauma-informed practices for managing classrooms

A proactive solution is for instructors to adopt a “universal” foundation of positive routines, instructional practices and communication strategies in their classrooms, one that promotes a positive environment for all learners—while most benefiting students with complex trauma[6].

In the trauma-informed classroom, the teacher:

  1. Promotes positive interactions with all students
  2. Establishes a predictable, non-threatening learning environment
  3. Encourages learners to communicate their needs and exercise autonomy
  4. Ensures that the disciplining of individual students is fair and focused on teaching and reinforcing expected behaviors.

Steps you can take

These strategies are adapted from ideas previously posted on interventioncentral.org.

1. Promote positive interactions

Students with complex trauma often have a history of problematic relationships with adults that results in their adopting a guarded or defensive stance during teacher interactions. Instructors can work to overcome this relationship barrier by employing a range of positive communication strategies to convey student acceptance and to foster interpersonal connections.

Promote Positive Interactions: Teacher Strategies

As students arrive at the start of class, stand at the door and briefly greet each student by name. This modest effort has been shown to substantially increase student attention and focus.

To increase desired behavior, praise the student in clear, specific terms whenever the student engages in that behavior. Praise statements should clearly describe the noteworthy behavior singled out for praise. (NOTE: Teachers who routinely use praise statements tend to be viewed as friendly and caring by their students!)

To keep relationships with a student on a positive footing, set the goal of having at least three positive interactions for each disciplinary interaction. Positive teacher-student interactions can vary in format: for example, greeting, praise, conversation, smile, thumbs-up sign. By maintaining at least a 3:1 ratio between relationship-enhancing vs. disciplinary interactions, you shift the odds in your favor that your target student will view you as fair and caring.

To increase the likelihood that the student will comply with your requests, state them in positive terms (e.g., “John, I can help you just as soon as you are back in your seat.”) rather than in negative terms (e.g., “John, I can’t help you unless you are sitting in your seat.”).

One strategy to increase positive behaviors is to “catch the student being good” with regular doses of “scheduled attention”:

  1. Decide on a fixed-interval schedule to provide attention (e.g., every 8 minutes).
  2. At each interval, observe the student.
  3. If the student is engaged in appropriate behaviors at that moment, provide a brief dose of positive attention (e.g., verbal praise; non-verbal praise such as thumbs-up; brief positive conversation; encouragement). If the student is off-task or not behaving appropriately, briefly redirect the student to task and return immediately to instruction until the next scheduled-attention interval.

Jump-start a more positive pattern of interaction with a student through the “two-by-ten” intervention. With this time-efficient strategy, you commit to having a positive two-minute conversation with the student at least once per day across 10 consecutive school days. The active ingredient in this intervention is regular, positive teacher attention.

 

2. Establish a predictable and safe learning environment

A common behavioral trigger for the complex-trauma student is that he or she is suddenly and unexpectedly faced with an adverse academic task. The teacher’s goal is to minimize unpleasant surprises for students during the academic day, as well as to teach learners appropriate coping responses when the unexpected does occur.

Establish a Safe Learning Environment: Teacher Strategies

Establish clear routines to deal with common classroom activities. These routines might include start-of-class “bell-ringer” activities, assigning and collecting homework and classwork, transitioning students efficiently between activities, etc.

Provide the student with an academic agenda or schedule for the class period or school day, to include instructional activities, independent assignments, and other tasks to be covered during the period, as well as their approximate duration. Preview with the student to prepare for upcoming activities.

A frequent trigger for behavior problems is that the student lacks the skills necessary to do the assigned schoolwork. To verify instructional match, you can:

  1. Inventory the target student’s academic skills.
  2. Adjust assignments or provide additional academic assistance as needed to ensure that the student is appropriately challenged but not overwhelmed by the work.

Assign a peer helper who is willing and able to repeat and explain directions to the student and assist in starting an assignment.

Permit the student additional time to complete in-class activities or assignments. (For longer assignments, you can announce to students at the start the amount of extra time available for those who need it.)

Provide samples of successfully completed academic items (e.g., math computation or word problems) or exemplars (e.g., samples of well-written paragraphs or essays) for the student to refer to when working independently.

Promote student motivation on worksheets and independent assignments by presenting easier items first and more challenging items later.

 

3. Encourage student autonomy

During academic tasks, students with a history of trauma will be less prone to triggered misbehavior when they are encouraged to voice their learning needs and to exercise choice in aspects of their academic tasks.

Encourage Autonomy: Teacher Strategies

Students find it motivating to have opportunities to choose how they structure or carry out their academic tasks. You can allow choice on any of a variety of dimensions of a classroom activity, such as where the activity takes place; whom the student works with; what materials to work with (e.g., choosing a book from several options); when to begin or end the activity; or how long to engage in the activity.

To accommodate the highly active student, negotiate appropriate outlets for movement (e.g., allowing the student to pace at the back of the classroom during a lesson).

Sometimes misbehavior is an attempt by the student to engineer a break from an academic task. You can choose an alternative method for the student to use to communicate that he or she would like a brief break, such as requesting that break verbally or pulling out a color-coded break card. Of course, the student will also require clear guidelines on how long the requested break will last and what activities are acceptable for the student to engage in during that break.

Teach the student steps to follow when stuck during independent work: e.g., “If I don’t understand what I am reading, (1) slow my reading; (2) focus full attention on the reading; (3) underline unfamiliar words and try to figure them out from context.”

 

4. Ensure fair discipline

Learners with complex trauma may have experienced discipline at home or school as capricious, unpredictable, and largely punitive. In contrast, the trauma-informed educator has the goal in any disciplinary conversation of reteaching behavioral expectations; providing these students with whatever tools and supports might be necessary for behavioral success; and ensuring that they perceive any disciplinary consequences as fair and transparent.

Ensure Fair Discipline: Teacher Strategies

Students must be explicitly taught behavioral expectations before they can be held accountable for those behaviors. You can model positive behaviors, provide examples and non-examples of appropriate behaviors to clarify understanding, have your student practice those behaviors with instructor feedback, and consistently acknowledge and praise the student for successfully displaying positive behaviors.

Consider adopting a continuum of ascending positive-behavior responses when problem student behaviors occur — e.g., (1) give a non-verbal reminder; (2) give a verbal reminder; (3) offer assistance or modify the task; (4) provide a safe space for de-escalation.

Soon after any significant in-class incident of student non-compliance, defiance, or confrontation, make a point to meet with the student individually to discuss the behavioral incident, identify the triggers in the classroom environment that may have led to the problem, and brainstorm with the student to create a plan to prevent the reoccurrence of such an incident. Throughout this conference, maintain a supportive, respectful tone.

 

Your efforts have impact!

The lesson that trauma-informed schools can teach us is that teachers can take proactive steps to make their classrooms accepting and supportive havens for children and youth with complex trauma. And research shows[8] that instructors also achieve better academic outcomes across all learners when they interact positively with students, make learning a safe and engaging endeavor, promote student autonomy, and treat discipline as an opportunity to reteach and reinforce expected behaviors.


1 Cavanaugh, B. (2016). Trauma-informed classrooms and schools. Beyond Behavior, 25(2), 41-46.

2 Rosenbaum-Nordoft, C. (2018). Building teacher capacity for trauma-informed practice in the inclusive elementary school classroom. Early Childhood Education, 45(1), 3-12.

3 Cavanaugh, B. (2016). Trauma-informed classrooms and schools. Beyond Behavior, 25(2), 41-46.

4 Cavanaugh, B. (2016). Trauma-informed classrooms and schools. Beyond Behavior, 25(2), 41-46.

5 Howell, P. B., Thomas, S., Sweeney, D., & Vanderhaar, J. (2019). Moving beyond schedules, testing and other duties as deemed necessary by the principal: The school counselor’s role in trauma informed practices. Middle School Journal, 50(4), 26-34.

6 Cavanaugh, B. (2016). Trauma-informed classrooms and schools. Beyond Behavior, 25(2), 41-46.

7 Mendler, A. N. (2000). Motivating students who don’t care. Bloomington, IN: National Educational Service.

8 Chafouleas, S. M., Johnson, A. H., Overstreet, S., & Santos, N. M. (2016). Toward a blueprint for trauma-informed service delivery in schools. School Mental Health, 18, 144-162.

Jim Wright

Jim Wright is a highly-acclaimed national presenter, trainer and author on topics that cover the essentials and beyond of Response to Intervention and Multi-Tiered System of Supports. He has worked for 17 years in public education as a school psychologist and school administrator. Jim has published "The RTI Toolkit: A Practical Guide for Schools" and is the creator of the InterventionCentral.org website.