Making Classrooms and Schools Trauma-Informed and Healing-Centered
Strategies for Teacher Well-Being
Here are some evidence-based strategies for supporting teachers’ resilience and well-being:
- This practice involves observing your thoughts, emotions, and behaviors, as if you were an objective third part or a “fly on the wall.” Studies have found that using self-distancing during a difficult situation can decrease the intensity of the emotional experience, make us less likely to ruminate, and more likely to engage in constructive problem-solving.
After a challenging conversation with a disgruntled parent, a frustrated principal decides to practice distancing himself from the situation so that he can see it more objectively. He tries several different self-distancing methods: 1) he writes about it; 2) he uses third-person pronouns (i.e., he and she) rather than “I” as he describes it, and 3) he asks himself how he might feel about this conversation in a week, a month, or even a year?
- Non-judgmental, present-moment awareness is good for teachers’ mental health and can enhance their relationships with students.·Several mindfulness studies with educators indicate that a few weeks of practice may result in a decrease in burnout and an increase in emotion regulation and resilience. Regular mindfulness practice may also influence the way teachers view and relate to their students. After nine weeks of mindfulness practice, some teachers report that they are more likely to positively evaluate challenging students and that they have a greater tendency to forgive them.
Be kind to yourself.
- Researcher Kristin Neff describes “self-compassion” as “the practice of quieting the inner critic, replacing it with a voice of support, understanding, and care for oneself.” Studies suggest that adults high in self-compassion and well-being experience less burnout, anxiety, depression, and self-criticism, and an increase in coping skills and well-being.
Challenge your thoughts.
- Cognitive reappraisal involves questioning and shifting your interpretation of a situation or event, and many studies show that it can help to lessen both emotional and physical feelings of anxiety and buffer our stress response.
A student yells at his teacher in front of the class “You don’t know how to teach math!” Later that day, the teacher is still flooded with a mix of emotions, including embarrassment, frustration, anger, so he takes a few minutes to ask himself these questions about the situation: “What am I thinking or imagining? What makes me think the thought is true or accurate? Is there another way to look at this? What action can I take right now?”
Learn to identify and name your emotions.
- In a review of multiple studies, researchers found that emotional suppression, avoidance, and denial are related to an increase in mental health challenges. On the other hand, research suggests that actually labeling our emotions can decrease the amygdala response—or the part of the brain associated with emotional responses. In other words, “name it to tame it.”
Get up and get moving.
- Research studies clearly demonstrate that regular physical exercise can bolster your quality of life, but did you also know that simply doing things that you don’t necessarily feel like doing can also lift your spirits? Twenty research studies link behavioral activation—or engaging in activities despite feeling depressed or isolated—with greater happiness and well-being.
After a grueling and emotionally draining week at school, a school psychologist wanted to spend his whole weekend on the couch watching movies. He felt depleted and unable to reach out for support. When a group of colleagues called and invited him for coffee and a walk on Saturday morning, he wanted to say “no,” but he pushed himself to go and meet them anyway. After just a few minutes with his friends, he felt his spirits lift, and he ended up feeling re-energized.
Seek support from friends or colleagues.
- Research tells us that social support can make us more resilient to stress, mitigating the effects of secondary traumatic stress and burnout. We simply cannot do this work alone, and there are lots of opportunities to connect (especially if you feel like you don’t have the time). Join a professional learning community, meet other teachers weekly at a restaurant or bar to grade papers and talk. Run together, practice mindfulness together, or spend five minutes each morning doing yoga stresses before class.
Strategies for Student Well-Being
Trauma-informed and resiliency-informed schools can address the following:
Recognize possible triggers at school.
- Any stimulus that might remind a student of an overwhelming experience in their past can also lead to the same set of behaviors and/or emotions that originally experienced under stress. These include unpredictability, transitions, sudden change, loss of control, feeling vulnerable or rejected, or experiencing loneliness, sensory overload, confrontation, embarrassment or shame, praise, intimacy, and positive attention.
Be aware of signs or symptoms of distress.
- Children, teens, and adults who may feel emotionally dysregulated can demonstrate the following behaviors: a deer-in-headlights look of fear, turning red and clenching fists, breathing more rapidly, bursting into tears or crying, moving the body (in readiness to run or react), keeping very still and/or quiet.
- A student who is triggered needs to regain a sense of control, because trauma can feel disempowering. Offer at least one appealing choice to that student (e.g., get a drink of water, go to our peace corner in the back, listen to music, take a break, work with a friend.).
After a teacher directs his class to prepare for a group project, he notices his student David’s rapid breathing, flushed face, and trembling legs. The room is loud and chaotic as students assemble themselves into groups, so he asks David if he would like to take a quick break: “Would you like to get a quick drink of water or visit our quiet corner for a couple of minutes?” Then, he follows up later to find out whether David would prefer to work more closely with one member of his group for part of the project.
Reframe student behaviors.
- When differences in student behaviors catch us off guard, we can default to negativity out of our own natural desire for self-preservation. However, it’s dangerous to approach students with “deficit thinking”—based on our perceptions of their weaknesses rather than their strengths. Researcher Shawn Ginwright suggests, “Instead of asking ‘What’s wrong with you?’ or even ‘What happened to you?’, we can consider also asking ‘What’s right with you?
Teach to students’ strengths.
- If teachers help students to identify their assets, provide predictable routines that foster student growth, and connect to students’ experiences through their instructional activities, they are more likely to address the needs of students who experience trauma, violence, and chronic stress.
Reexamine school discipline practices.
- Research suggests that exclusionary discipline (e.g., suspensions and expulsions) can be alienating and counterproductive, and restorative practices (strategies that focus on learning from mistakes and repairing relationships rather than punishing students) may offer a more humanizing, equitable, and respectful alternative.
- Insidious trauma in the form of racism, sexism, homophobia, ableism, etc. can be triggered by microaggressions, known as ”everyday slights, insults, indignities, put-downs—whether intentional or unintentional—to people from marginalized groups.” Educators can sensitize students and colleagues to language that makes students from traditionally marginalized groups feel unsafe, devalued, ashamed, isolated, and/or academically inferior. Then, teachers and students can learn to question, paraphrase, and/or use I-statements, while educating themselves about the origins of particular words or phrases.
A group of students in class laugh and yell, “That’s so gay!” while commenting on the way a famous actor dresses, and the teacher pauses and inquires, “What do you mean by that?” or “When you say that, I worry that students in our class will not feel safe or accepted here.” or “Did you mean to say something hurtful when you said that?”
Model and practice self-regulation strategies.
- One way to encourage self-regulation is by strengthening the vagus nerve, a major channel of the parasympathetic (“rest and digest”) nervous system. The vagus nerve is activated by shifting breathing patterns to lengthen the out-breath. When your out-breath extends longer than your in-breath, you calm can calm your body. (e.g., breath in for 3 seconds and out for 6 seconds.)
Pay attention to sensations.
- Researchers now highlight the importance of “interoceptive awareness” in helping to promote physical and emotional regulation. Interoceptive awareness simply means “reading your sensations.” Researchers are exploring how we discern differences between sensations of distress and sensations of well being, which can help regulate the autonomic nervous system—resulting in greater resilience for students (and adults).
A student notices that his stomach begins to ache right before having to take an exam. He is reading his body’s signal of distress. When he notices this, he remembers to automatically take a few deep breaths (or he may try a brief body scan). His muscles begin to relax and his stomach ache begins to ease. He now feels ready to take the test because he feels less distress—and even feels better on the inside, too.
Engage in trauma-sensitive mindfulness practices.
- Students who experience trauma may struggle with some mindfulness practices and experience disassociation (i.e., feeling disconnected from their bodies), so it’s important to be aware of signs that they may not be tolerating a mindfulness practice. For example, students’ muscles may appear slack or rigid; they may sweat or cry excessively, or they may appear fearful or angry. To avoid dissociation and/or distress, David Treleaven recommends ten trauma-sensitive mindfulness modifications here.
When you introduce a mindfulness practice in your classroom, 1) invite students to keep their eyes open or closed—based on their comfort level; 2) encourage them to anchor their attention on a sound or body part (e.g., their hands or feet) rather than focusing on their breath, which can sometimes be triggering; and 3) consider incorporating some form of body movement like walking or simple yoga stretches or poses.