How Do Educators Implement Trauma-Sensitive Practices in Their Classrooms?

By Dr. Sarah Brown, Senior Director of MTSS Solutions at Renaissance

In schools and districts nationwide, students have experienced significant trauma, adversity, and chronic stress in a short time span during a global pandemic. Students have lost loved ones to COVID-19 and have witnessed social injustices that directly affected their local communities.

A new analysis of research from JAMA Pediatrics notes that 18% to as much as 60% of children and adolescents have strong “distress,” especially symptoms of anxiety and depression, which affect more than 1 in 4 adolescents in some countries.

These challenges aren’t new. Even prior to the pandemic, schools and districts across the nation experienced an uptick in students struggling with their mental health and well-being. Compounding effects of trauma from the past two years resulted in the national recognition of an urgent mental health crisis among youth. As we work to recover from stressors brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, the Department of Health and Human Services calls for a swift and coordinated response.

Social-emotional behavior (SEB) functioning and mental well-being both play a critical role in students’ academic success. With the right mix of tools and supports in place, educators can help students build the skills they need to succeed in the classroom and beyond.

Schools and districts have a responsibility—and opportunity—to address and reduce the effects of trauma and stress on students. Trauma-sensitive practices are designed to recognize and mitigate the impacts of adversity and chronic stress.

But how do educators implement trauma-sensitive practices in their classrooms?

Use an MTSS framework to provide structure & support

A multi-tiered system of support (MTSS) is a framework with a tiered infrastructure that uses data to help match academic, social-emotional and behavioral assessment, and instructional resources to each and every student’s needs. A strong MTSS framework provides the structure for schools and districts to organize and integrate supports for students and implement trauma-sensitive practices.

Districts can develop a comprehensive plan for integrating and enhancing services and supports by analyzing data related to the current cultural, economic, social-emotional, and mental health needs of their students. In addition, districts can support students’ needs, while leveraging their identified strengths, through creating attainable and measurable goals.

Provide trauma-sensitive supports at the “universal tier”

The universal tier is an essential place to begin because it includes every member of the school community. Trauma-sensitive practices should integrate and align with other Tier 1 approaches for the shared goals within an MTSS, including:

  • Equity-focused social-emotional learning
  • Restorative justice practices
  • Positive behavior interventions and supports (PBIS) strategies to create a warm and welcoming learning environment

Within the universal tier, educators can integrate strategies and skills that promote wellness and positive life skills, which can prevent or reduce mental health issues from developing. A safe learning environment mitigates the impacts of trauma and chronic stress, allowing students to shift from a potential state of threat or alert into one that enables students to engage with learning.

Create a safe & welcoming environment

The first step toward creating a supportive environment is to help educators understand the characteristics of chronic stress and trauma and invite others to reflect on and share their own experiences and needs.

Using the core Tier 1 practices for social-emotional behavior (SEB) supports, schools and districts can promote predictable, positive, safe, and consistent environments by developing systems that prioritize:

  • Creating and sustaining caring connections
  • Establishing and teaching shared expectations
  • Building a meaningful acknowledgment system
  • Developing transparent, equitable responses for behavioral issues

One example of trauma-sensitive Tier 1 universal support is the implementation of a reset space and routine in every classroom. These spaces provide a dedicated area where students can refocus and relax when they become stressed or anxious.

Classroom greetings that address students by name are another effective tool to use at the Tier 1 level. Research indicates that positive greetings at the classroom door increase students’ academic engagement by 20% and decreased disruptive classroom behaviors by 9%.

A strong, positive relationship with students reinforces that educators care about how their students are doing—academic and non-academic. When educators take the time to learn their students’ names, learn more about their interests, and become invested in their students’ lives, students’ SEB skills grow, and those skills transition to academic success.

Establish individualized supports

It’s important to remember that an MTSS framework provides for a higher dosage of instruction when needed and individualized support for students most in need.

Get started

As districts plan for the 2022–2023 school year, now is the time to rethink how we’re addressing barriers to learning and supporting students’ mental health and well-being.

While the MTSS framework offers simple tools to support the system and students at every level, supporting students’ mental health and well-being isn’t a quick fix. We’ve gone through so much since March 2020—students, educators, families—all of us. Implementing trauma-sensitive practices is a school-wide and district-wide effort that requires buy-in from everyone. It begins with a strong foundation of universal support for a MTSS framework to flourish.

Access Renaissance’s playbook to begin planning your school district’s system-wide strategies to help students develop SEB skills through trauma-sensitive practices.

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