Trauma-Informed Teaching

By Shelley Stoltenberg

If you attended the Nebraska Developmental Education Consortium Conference this fall, you heard my presentation during lunch. Thank you to all who visited with me after the presentation and expressed your interest in this topic. Let’s keep the conversation going by reviewing some of the highlights here.

Trauma-Informed Teaching is about working from a knowledge base of how trauma affects neural wiring and social-emotional regulation. This may be a new concept for many instructors, but the reality is you have been working with students who have experienced severe acute trauma and/or systemic trauma for as long as you have been teaching. You have most likely had inklings that there is something unusual going on with a student that you can’t quite explain. You notice that their behaviors seem incongruous to the situation. What you might be picking up on is elevated levels of fear and anxiety that can represent in a wide range of behaviors.

Through repeated exposure to trauma (especially in youth), the neural wirings of the brain develop pathways that are advantageous for survival but can be distracting or even harmful in a classroom setting. When an individual comes into a classroom setting with Trauma Brain (viewing the world as a dangerous and threatening place), they are already on alert, suspicious, and distrustful of the classroom setting, their fellow students, and yes, especially the instructor. Just entering the classroom can be a difficult experience for this population and there are potential trigger situations that will elicit strong emotional responses. Triggers can include a specific smell that they have negative associations with, topics of conversation, a look that someone gives them. Having students so on edge in class can make managing the room a challenge, but there are things that you can do to help everyone learn more easily in your class.

Before we get to helpful classroom strategies, it’s good to review the three human reactions to danger. Humans have evolved to survive in the wild and manage danger by either Fighting, Fleeing, or Freezing. If you encounter a wild animal that you believe is going to attack you, your survival brain is going to kick in before your thinking brain and you are going to react in one of three ways. You may try to attack the animal before they can attack you (fight), you may turn around and run like crazy (flight), or you may freeze (completely unable to move). The freeze response is not one we hear about as often as fight or flight, but freezing is more common than you might expect. Freezing is the only reasonable response for a baby because they are too small to fight back and incapable of running. This is also true for women who are being threatened by men who are much larger than them.

Individuals who are repeatedly exposed to threatening situations may try to cope through a variety of methods but typically one response will become their dominant mode of survival. Neural pathways will be strengthened by repeated use and the individual will use this coping mechanism in situations that may surprise those who have not experienced severe or persistent trauma. Their behaviors are often not advantageous to them or their current situation, but their survival mode kicks in quickly and the neural pathways are now strongly wired for them to repeat behaviors that were helpful in the past.

For example, a student who has adapted to fight as their main form of self-defense may act in verbally aggressive and challenging ways during your class. A student who copes by freezing may become non-responsive and appear to be completely disengaged (they are in fact so shut down they are not processing anything you are saying). A student who reacts by flight may actually leave class when they find the situation too stressful. Those examples may seem extreme, but you are likely seeing these reactions on a sliding scale of intensity on a weekly, if not daily, basis in your classroom. The good news is that with time adults can develop new neural pathways. Through consistent positive interactions, they will discover that you and your classroom are safe. Supportive redirection and positive modeling will help students develop healthier modes of interaction.

Here are several helpful strategies for classroom management:
1. Provide clear directions and timelines. Students from trauma typically dislike change and do better under clear guidelines.
2. Be consistent in your behaviors and how you treat all students. They will pick up on attitude shifts in your interactions with students faster than you will even realize you have done it. This leads to distrust and the belief that you like some students more than others. Frequently students from trauma will jump to the conclusion that you don’t like them and you are “out to get them” or treat them worse than the other students.
3. Remain calm when they are getting agitated. If they get loud, you need to speak slow and low.
4. If a student is exhibiting freeze behaviors do not try to force them into engagement, they are not in a state where they can productively engage.
5. Wait until the student has de-escalated to have conversations about their classroom behavior. Do this in a private setting and also ask how you can support them. If you show genuine concern and consideration for them, it will go a long way to opening the door to a productive conversation where they will be more open to hearing constructive criticisms.
6. Be kind – this goes farther than you can imagine. Many students from trauma have had few positive adult relationships. A few kind words, encouragement, and showing that you believe in their ability to succeed will mean so much to them, though they are unlikely to tell you that or show it in any way.

Working in Higher Education is an exciting career that certainly keeps us on our toes and plugged into the latest cultural and social shifts. Trauma-Informed Teaching is yet another change that you can be ahead of the curve on. As you learn how to support, engage, and motivate students from trauma, you will serve as a role model and mentor for your fellow educators.

If you are looking for more information on this topic here are several useful resources:

Understanding Trauma: Survival Brain versus Learning Brain

Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACES) – Impact on Brain, Body and Behavior

The Center for the Study of Social Policy

Trauma-Informed Care Project

Edutopia: How and Why Trauma-Informed Teaching

Shelley Stoltenberg is a Student Success Coach at Southeast Community College and was the NDEC 2019 Conference Speaker. She can be reached via email at