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date: 21 January 2020

Trauma-Informed Practice for Pre-service Teachers

Summary and Keywords

Complex trauma experienced in childhood has detrimental impacts on the brain, learning and socio-moral development, the effects of which can last long into adulthood. A growing body of research emphasizes how all school teachers, regardless of the educational context, should expect to have students in their classroom who are affected by complex trauma. Teachers therefore require an understanding of how trauma affects their students, and a skillset that allows them to support and respond effectively to these students. However, multiple studies have found that teachers feel that they have not received sufficient training, and subsequently feel inadequately equipped to meet the needs of trauma-affected students in their classrooms. Although many Initial Teacher Education programs incorporate some curriculum on child maltreatment, this is typically focused on identifying and reporting child abuse, as opposed to how sustained and severe maltreatment can lead to complex trauma, which affects learning, and social development in students. Increasing understanding of how trauma affects the brain, and the implications this has for young people in school has continued to grow since the 1990s. This has contributed to a growing trend of multidisciplinary teams combining education and wellbeing models in schools to cater to the most vulnerable students in their respective communities.

Students who have experienced trauma may appear to be deliberately misbehaving in the classroom, disengaged or disinterested in learning, and can struggle to develop skills that strengthen positive relationships with school staff and other students. Unsurprisingly, exposure to trauma impacts a young person’s academic performance, attendance, and likelihood of completion. It is clear that schools are important settings where the effects of trauma have a substantial impact on the lives of students, particularly when the effects of trauma are misunderstood. Nevertheless, schools have the potential to be one of the most powerful places for buffering the negative impacts of complex childhood trauma through their capacity to provide opportunities for all students to experience positive, trusting relationships, be cared for, and experience predictability, consistency and safety.

A trauma-informed approach in school settings involves understanding how trauma affects students and provides a framework for responding to students rather than blaming them for their behavior. Trauma-informed practice is not an intervention, and it does not have an end point. It is a process, and a holistic way of working that involves understanding and attending to the specific needs of individuals with trauma-affected childhoods. Central to all trauma-informed approaches is the importance of strong, trusting, consistent and predictable relationships between an adult and a trauma-affected child. It is within this space that opportunities to repair dysregulated stress responses, and disruptive attachment styles can take place.

Keywords: Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACES), child maltreatment, complex trauma, initial teacher education, pre-service teachers, teacher-student relationships, trauma-informed approaches, trauma-informed practice, trauma-informed schooling, trauma-informed teaching


Trauma-informed educators recognize students’ actions are a direct result of their life experiences. When their students act out or disengage, they don’t ask them, “What is wrong with you?” but rather, “What happened to you?”

(Krasnoff, 2015, p. 13).

Students affected by trauma are found in classrooms in mainstream, and alternative and flexible learning settings globally (Brunzell, Stokes, & Waters, 2016a). Ascertaining clear figures on the number of young people who experience complex trauma is fraught with challenges. There are disparities between definitions of complex trauma, and the types of experiences that are counted. For example, a definition of sexual abuse that includes exposure to pornographic material will glean much higher numbers than a measure where only rape or molestation form the definition. Figures are also influenced by the methodologies used to collect the data, the population from which the data is drawn, and the measurement tools used and how these tools are administered. These factors must all be considered when reporting or using child maltreatment data. With this in mind, studies from different parts of the world provide some indication of the prevalence of complex trauma experienced by children. Separated into types of child maltreatment, evidence from Australia suggests that 5-10% of children have experienced physical abuse, 1.6-4% neglect, 9-14% emotional abuse, 4-23% exposure to family violence, and 1.4-12% penetrative sexual abuse (Australian Institute of Family Studies, 2017). Large scale studies from the United Kingdom indicate that between 16 and 23% of young adults have experienced child maltreatment (May-Chahal & Cawson, 2005; Radford, Corral, Bradley, & Fisher, 2013). Looking at the longer term impact, one Canadian study found that 76% of young people who did not finish school had experienced one or more types of childhood trauma (Barker, Kerr, Dong, Wood, & DeBeck, 2017).

Given what is known about the long-term implications of complex trauma, and the challenges that emerge for young people and their learning, it is crucial that teachers are able to understand, support, and respond to the needs of trauma-affected students. Yet, many teachers report feeling underprepared and lacking the knowledge and skills to understand, and effectively support trauma-affected students in their classrooms (McKee & Dillenburger, 2009; Phifer & Hull, 2016; Smith, 2006; Walsh, Laskey, Mcinnes, & Mathews, 2011). Trauma-affected students rarely receive adequate mental health intervention and for most, they are not even known to be traumatized (B. Perry, 2009). However some studies, such as a recent analysis of over 700,000 students in Michigan, USA, suggest that the prevalence of trauma exposure and therefore the negative effects on education, may be the norm rather than the exception in some districts (Ryan et al., 2018). Yet, it is important to note that not all students who disengage or exhibit challenging behavior have experienced trauma, and not all students who have experienced trauma develop ongoing trauma symptoms (Cohen, Mannarino, & Deblinger, 2016).

The growing body of evidence on how childhood trauma impacts the brain has had a substantial influence on how professionals, including teachers, in human service settings work with young people who have experienced trauma (B. Perry & Szalavitz, 2017). Whilst many of the strategies may represent existing approaches used by teachers in classrooms for decades, since the 1990s and particularly in the last decade evidence, language, guidelines and multidisciplinary strategies have been developed that support, have refined, and added to these practices. The relational, student-centred nature of trauma-informed approaches means that all students, not just those who are impacted by trauma, benefit personally and academically from teachers trained in these approaches. This adheres to notions of social justice in education, where the equitable teaching and rights of all young people to access quality education that meets their needs is a necessity (Connell, 1993, 2012; United Nations General Assembly, 1948).

Traumatic events can include psychological maltreatment, physical and sexual abuse, neglect, exposure to domestic and community violence, peer victimisation, household dysfunction, family tragedy and poverty (Felitti et al., 1998; Finkelhor, Shattuck, Turner, & Hamby, 2013; Finkelhor, Turner, Shattuck, Hamby, & Kracke, 2015; Ryan et al., 2018). A traumatic event or an adverse childhood experience (ACE) is considered detrimental when it falls outside the child’s capacity to reconcile the associated stress (Australian Childhood Foundation, 2010; Dinehart, Katz, Manfra, Mary, & Ullery, 2013). When there are multiple traumas or the trauma is sustained over a long period of time it is known as complex trauma: it is the chronicity of the trauma experiences that defines it as complex (Australian Childhood Foundation, 2010; Howard, 2013; Jonson-Reid, Kohl, & Drake, 2012). Separate to one off traumatic events such as a natural disaster, or car accident, this article is focused on the complex trauma experienced by children in the first few years of life, how this affects their educational experiences, and the role teachers can play in the healing process of trauma-affected students in their classrooms.

Complex Trauma and Its Impact on Childhood Development and Learning

Childhood trauma has many and varied negative health outcomes that can manifest in adulthood. In a seminal study on the impact of childhood trauma, Felitti et al. (1998) surveyed more than 9,500 adults from a health examination centre in San Diego, California. They found the presence of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) accounted for a significantly increased risk of a range of adult health problems from alcoholism, to suicide attempts, to high risk behaviors, heart disease, and cancer (Felitti et al., 1998). “The findings suggest that the impact of these adverse childhood experiences on adult health status is strong and cumulative” (Felitti et al., 1998, p. 251). The ACE analysis provided a road map to trace increased risk of premature death, disease and anti-social behavior to the early experience of children. It signified an opportunity to explore opportunities at a critical juncture for vulnerable populations that could have a transformative impact upon the trajectory of childhood trauma and adult disadvantage. Further studies have reinforced how protection against childhood trauma is a critical component of mitigating adult morbidity and mortality (Anda et al., 2006; Barrasso-Catanzaro & Eslinger, 2016; Finkelhor et al., 2013; Gilbert et al., 2015; Jonson-Reid et al., 2012). From an economic perspective, the estimated lifetime effects of childhood trauma in the United States could cost as much as US$210 000 per child, further highlighting the need for intervention (Fang, Brown, Florence, & Mercy, 2012, p. 162). The ACE studies over the last 20 years have therefore led to an increase in research literature surrounding the complex impacts of childhood trauma on the developing brain.

Impact of Trauma and Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) on the Developing Brain

The deleterious effects of ACEs are particularly damaging in early childhood. Brain stem development begins in utero and traumatic experiences and traumatising behaviors of a pregnant mother can have lasting genetic and biological impacts on an unborn child (Bick et al., 2012; B. Perry, 2009; Radtke et al., 2011). This vulnerability continues into the first five years of a child’s life. Young children are not only more likely to experience trauma than older children, the effects are more severe and long-lasting than trauma experienced later in life (Dunn, Nishimi, Powers, & Bradley, 2017; Ryan et al., 2018). Large scale studies in the United States have revealed that repeated or prolonged exposure to ACEs has a dose-related impact, where negative effects are compounded and exacerbated as the frequency or severity of the trauma continues (Anda et al., 2006; Felitti et al., 1998). The implications for early brain development in complex trauma-affected children are therefore profound.

The brain develops in stages from the simplest, lower section (brain stem) upwards to the most complex (limbic and cortical) systems (B. Perry, 2009). The higher or complex systems of the brain are dependent on regulated and developed function of the lower sections (Shonkoff & Garner, 2012). These lower sections send out neuro signals to all parts of the developing brain and establish the patterns and processes of future brain development (Carrion, Weems, Richert, Hoffman, & Reiss, 2010). Therefore, developmental damage in the early stages due to erratic care, prolonged stress and complex trauma can send a “cascade of dysfunction” to all critical parts of the brain (Perry, 2009, p. 242).

When children are exposed to adversity, they rely on a positive and stable caregiver, usually the parent, to help negotiate the increased level of stress (Jackson & Deye, 2015). The young brain does not have the organized neural pathways to negotiate heightened stress on its own and develops its cues of regulation through the consistent, nurturing guide of a caring adult (B. Perry, 2009). Not all stress is developmentally negative. Small, positive stresses can benefit children’s development, particularly when they are supported by a nurturing adult to overcome challenges and succeed (Shonkoff & Garner, 2012). An example of a positive stress could be being asked to give a speech for winning an award, or preparing to run a race you have been training for. These types of stressors are generally short-term, can generate feelings of excitement or motivation, and are within the child’s capacity to cope. A negative stress however, is when a child is exposed to terror or a life-threatening event, such as witnessing extreme violence in the home, or continual failure of caregivers to respond to their basic needs. When the body’s stress response system is activated over prolonged periods during critical developmental stages, it is described as toxic (Dinehart, Katz, Manfra, Mary, & Ullery, 2013; Jackson & Deye, 2015). This definition suggests that children living in households with frequent domestic or family violence, neglect or substance misuse would likely be subjected to the negative effects of toxic stress.

Two systems are involved in the body’s response to stressful events. The Sympathetic-Adrenal-Medullary (SAM) system (part of the sympathetic nervous system) is responsible for the body’s short term response to stress—the fight or flight response. The SAM system releases adrenaline into the body, resulting in increased heart rate, blood pressure, sweat, and decreased digestion, priming the body to respond to the stressor. The second system, the Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal (HPA) axis provides a longer term stress response by releasing cortisol into the body. The HPA axis is also responsible for regulating emotions and the immune system. Although the stress response system is both a natural and necessary component of survival instincts, toxic over-activation of the response leads to dysregulation of the system and a chronic “wear and tear” effect on multiple organs, most notably the brain (Shonkoff & Garner, 2012, p. 235). Early and prolonged childhood trauma causes such stress that it alters the HPA axis and has lasting negative health effects throughout the life course, in both human and animal populations (Bick et al., 2012; Jackson & Deye, 2015). These alterations to how a trauma affected individual responds to stress can be observed long after the trauma has ceased and can remain as permanent effects (Anda et al., 2006).

Impact of the Trauma-Affected Brain on Learning

Disruption to the delicate sequence of early brain development has significant detrimental effects on a child’s learning capacity. Exposure to excessively stressful life circumstances can reduce the volume and activity in the hippocampus, a section of the brain which is critical for memory and learning (Bremner & Narayan, 1998; Carrion et al., 2010). For trauma-affected children, sustained high levels of the stress hormone cortisol can alter the architecture of the brain and lead to lower overall volume of brain tissue in the prefrontal cortex (Carrion et al., 2010; Dinehart et al., 2013). This is particularly important for educators to understand because executive functions of the brain that are managed by the prefrontal cortex are essential for success in classrooms (Barr, 2018). Students confronted by childhood adversity and trauma are more likely to underperform in standardized tests compared to their non-affected counterparts (Fry et al., 2018; Ryan et al., 2018). In the absence of foundational early learning milestones, higher order learning and the ability to succeed in later education is also less likely (McNamara, Harvey, & Andrewartha, 2017; Morton, 2018; Ryan et al., 2018). Fry et al. (2018) conducted a global meta-analysis which revealed relationships between all forms of childhood exposure to violence and negative impacts on school academic performance, attendance, grade retention and school dropout (p. 21). This reinforces current literature that recognizes the relationship between childhood trauma and poor higher educational outcomes (Boynton-Jarrett, Hair, & Zuckerman, 2013; Metzler, Merrick, Klevens, Ports, & Ford, 2017; Ryan et al., 2018). It also demonstrates the pervasive and lasting impact that trauma can have on the academic life course.

Social and Behavioral Implications of Trauma

Childhood trauma not only affects important aspects of academic development, it also negatively impacts the executive functions required for emotional regulation and socio-moral development (Barrasso-Catanzaro & Eslinger, 2016). The hippocampus is responsible for moderating the stress response and dampening the HPA axis to subsequent stress (Jackson & Deye, 2015). Under-development of the hippocampus due to trauma and toxic stress therefore hinders contextual learning, which makes it difficult for young children to identify the difference between safe or dangerous people and behaviors (Shonkoff & Garner, 2012). The result is an augmentation of the fight or flight response, where hyperarousal heightens anxiety and vigilance, often to concerning levels (Jackson & Deye, 2015). Consequently, childhood trauma changes the “baseline” of the stress response so a child’s brain is “reset” to behave as if under constant threat (B. Perry, 2009, p. 244). In an education setting, this hypervigilance may manifest in outbursts of anger, inattention or complete withdrawal; often misinterpreted by the untrained teacher as deliberate misbehavior (Terrasi & de Galarce, 2017).

Children exposed to trauma often exhibit very early signs of hindered social development, but it may be difficult for educators to delineate the source of these issues to trauma (Barr, 2018). Children who grow up in homes with unavailable, unreliable, chaotic or abusive parents, are more likely to develop disorganized and insecure relationships (Dinehart et al., 2013). As a result, trauma-affected students may not trust adults or their authority in mainstream schools (Morgan, Pendergast, Brown, & Heck, 2015) and may also be prone to depression and anxiety with a fragmented sense of self that is revealed in extremes of classroom behavior (Terrasi & de Galarce, 2017).

Increased understanding of the impacts of complex childhood trauma suggests there may be a systemic failure to adjust school practice to the needs of traumatized young people. This is highlighted by higher rates of behavioral difficulties, violent altercations, suspensions, exclusions, truancy and youth incarceration amongst this cohort (Baglivio et al., 2014; Fox, Perez, Cass, Baglivio, & Epps, 2015; Mallett, 2016; Morton, 2015). Current trauma discourse maintains that all teachers, regardless of the teaching context, should expect to confront issues of trauma in their classrooms and would therefore benefit from a detailed understanding of the complex manifestation of ACEs (Barr, 2018; Morgan, 2018; Terrasi & de Galarce, 2017). While there is a growing body of literature and policy informed by the neurobiology of trauma, there are no universal frameworks on how best to lessen its damaging effects in schools. What has emerged however, are some consistent guiding principles that aim to counteract the impact of childhood trauma on school students.

Trauma-Informed Approaches in Schools

Traditionally, trauma-informed work has been situated within health care services. Prior to 2012, “trauma-informed care” dominated trauma related terminology in the health sector. Increasing use of trauma-informed work in education and justice settings since the 1990s prompted a move away from the term “trauma-informed care” to greater use of the term “trauma-informed approach” (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 2014). A continuum of trauma approaches is found across various human service organisations including schools, youth justice services, and health and welfare services). This continuum of approaches starts with being trauma aware, then trauma sensitive, trauma responsive, and trauma-informed at the most comprehensive level (Wall, Higgins, & Hunter, 2016). Trauma aware services make an effort to seek out information about trauma, trauma sensitive settings incorporate trauma concepts into their work practices, and trauma responsive services seek to respond differently and change their behavior when working with trauma-affected individuals (Wall et al., 2016, p. 5). Trauma-informed approaches are not about diagnosing or treating individuals, or delivering trauma specific interventions that address the consequences of trauma, but about being informed and sensitive to issues associated with trauma, and providing a service in ways that meet the specific needs of people affected by trauma from a holistic, whole of organisation standpoint (Butler & Critelli, 2011; Harris & Fallot, 2001; Jennings, 2004).

Whole-school trauma-informed approaches are more than modifying discipline policies and training teachers (Phifer & Hull, 2016). They involve both teacher practice and school wide procedures and policies that pertain to school and classroom structure, providing systemic supports for students across the school, staffing models, communication and connection with families and the community, and overarching philosophical standpoints that understand, respect, and respond to the individual needs of students. Whole of school trauma-informed approaches are often found in flexible learning settings, or alternative schools (Morgan et al., 2015). This represents a recognition that many, if not most of their students will have experienced complex trauma in their lifetime. Compared to flexible/alternative school settings, mainstream schools tend to take a more intervention driven approach (e.g. cognitive behavioral therapy, emergency responses, and crisis management initiatives) to supporting trauma-affected students (Baweja et al., 2016; Costa, 2017; Ko et al., 2008; D. Perry & Daniels, 2016). This means that rather than developing a whole of school approach that is trauma-informed, clinical interventions delivered by health professionals with the support of schools and teachers are more common.

Increasing numbers of schools across the globe are adopting trauma-informed approaches. The work of psychiatrist Dr Bruce Perry (B. Perry, 2006, 2009; B. Perry & Szalavitz, 2017) underpins much of this work. Sustained research with children affected by trauma has revealed that “what determines how children survive trauma, physically, emotionally, or psychologically, is whether the people around them–particularly the adults they should be able to trust and rely upon–stand by them with love, support, and encouragement” (B. Perry & Szalavitz, 2017, p. xxvii). It is from this standpoint that many of the models, guidelines, frameworks and theory that guide trauma-informed approaches, including trauma-informed practice for teachers, are positioned. Within the education field, Morgan et al. (2015) explains that “trauma-informed practice takes into account how experiences of trauma, such as abuse and neglect, can impact on children and young people’s brain development and subsequently on their capacity to learn” (p. 1038). Trauma-informed practice provides a framework for teachers to understand their students and not resort to blaming them for their behaviour (Morgan et al., 2015).

Although school is a place where the challenges faced by young people affected by trauma is especially problematic, it is also one of the most powerful places for lessening the impact of trauma. Schools are ideal settings for embedding trauma-informed approaches because they are the place where most children and young people spend the majority of their time outside of the home (Costa, 2017). Evidence from the United States indicates that only a small number of young people exposed to childhood trauma receive early intervention, making schools an excellent setting for capturing a large portion of young people who may need support (Baweja et al., 2016). Furthermore, a lack of resources in vulnerable and/or trauma-affected communities means that it is possible that the school or teacher provides the only interventions that students will receive (Brunzell, Stokes, & Waters, 2018).

Schools can offer opportunities for students to experience healthy and meaningful relationships, develop trust in adults, build relational skills through interactions with peers and adults, experience success, be cared for, recognized and respected, and experience consistency, safety, and predictability (Brunzell, Stokes, & Waters, 2016b; Costa, 2017; Morgan et al., 2015; D. Perry & Daniels, 2016; Seligman, Ernst, Gillham, Reivich, & Linkins, 2009). Through caring, consistent, and predictable interactions with school staff and peers, the educational and life experiences of students impacted by trauma can be profoundly influenced by trauma-informed approaches embedded in schools (Costa, 2017; Downey, 2007; Kearns & Hart, 2017).

Trauma-Informed Practice for Teachers

Brunzell, Waters, and Stokes (2015) identified two emergent and popular streams of trauma-informed teacher practices: The first is repairing the dysregulated stress response and the second is repairing disrupted attachment styles (pp. 66–67). These two themes represent two of the most pervasive impacts of complex trauma (Bath, 2008; Downey, 2007; Howard, 2013; Krasnoff, 2015), and encompass many of the practical strategies that have been highlighted in related publications (Australian Childhood Foundation, 2010; Bloom, 1995; Brunzell et al., 2016a, 2016b; Downey, 2007; Ministerial Council on Education Employment Training and Youth Affairs, 2008; te Riele, 2012, 2014). These publications highlight principles and trauma-informed teacher practices including classroom management; self-regulation, predictability and consistency; building positive teacher-student relationships; and unconditional positive regard. These strategies, whilst presented separately, are often intertwined and influence each other. Many of the strategies promoted in teacher education and professional learning courses meet with the underlying principles behind what is now known as “trauma-informed” practice. The classroom strategies that align with this approach have been organized under the two main headings highlighted by Brunzell et al. (2016b); Repairing dysregulated stress response and Repairing disruptive attachment styles.

Repairing Dysregulated Stress Response

A student’s dysregulated stress response limits their capacity for learning and regulating their behavior because their body is instead reserving energy that would typically be used for learning and concentration (Brunzell et al., 2016b). Within the classroom, teachers can support students with a dysregulated stress response by adopting trauma-informed classroom management strategies, providing a predictable and consistent learning environment, and working with students to enhance their self-regulatory capacities. Approaches to classroom management that help students with their dysregulated responses to stress include providing environments where stress is minimized and predictable, and overtly teaching students to be aware of and regulate their emotions.

Classroom Management

How teachers respond to disruptive, or undesirable classroom behavior is crucial for repairing the dysregulated stress response of trauma-affected students. Traditional approaches to behavior management emerged from the work of behaviorists such as Skinner who believed that student behavior was a result of external factors—and through the correct regime of rewards and punishments, could be modified to become less disruptive (Edwards & Watts, 2010). The limitation of these approaches for trauma-affected children is that their behavior is rarely motivated by a need to please the teacher (Downey, 2007). Furthermore, “traumatized and attachment-disrupted children have difficulty accepting . . . limits, due to the intense shame evoked by discipline, and the common pattern of the child attempting to replicate familiar interactions through angry and disrespectful behaviors (Downey, 2007, p. 20). Trauma responses therefore follow the limbic system’s flight, fight or freeze reaction and do not involve the rational, complex brain functions (Carrion et al., 2010). In fact, traditional punishment style responses should be avoided because they put students at risk of “sanctuary trauma”—a condition where a trauma-affected individuals seeks sanctuary but does not receive the support they need and this can exacerbate traumatic experiences (Wolpow, Johnson, Hertel, & Kincaid, 2016).

Alternative approaches to dealing with disruptive and problematic behavior have been suggested by theorists since the 1970’s and have been long established in a wide variety of education settings. Key authors in this area include Thomas Gordon (1974), William Glasser (1999), Patrick Connor (cited in Edwards & Watts, 2010) and Rudolf Dreikurs (1993) who all promote a problem-solving approach to behavior. While offering different methods, each of these theorists align with principles underpinning trauma-informed practice by suggesting that the outcome to addressing behavior in the classroom should be a greater awareness of the causes and impacts of the child’s behavior, and a co-constructed strategy for how to respond in a more positive way in a future scenario. Instead of applying disciplinary action, a trauma-informed approach sees these incidents as an opportunity for social-emotional learning (Bloom, 1995). For example, rather than using aggressive or restrictive approaches such as shouting at, humiliating or detaining a student for disruptive behavior, these “student-centered” or “solution-focused” approaches would take the following steps.

  • Use natural consequences that are related directly to the behavior e.g. tidying up a mess that was created in an outburst (Downey, 2007)

  • Ask the student quietly and privately for a conversation about what happened

  • Use well-constructed I-messages (Gordon & Bruch, 1974) that help the student become aware of what his or her actions and what impact it had on his or her learning or others class.

  • Ask the student if they can think of what they were thinking and feeling when they had the problematic behavior, and highlight any physiological sensations they may have experienced such as raised heat rate, fist clenching or tunnel vision (Brunzell, Waters, & Stokes, 2015; Ellis & Tod, 2014).

  • Work with the student to come up with strategies (Gordon & Bruch, 1974) for what to do next time they experience those early signs, which could include breathing exercises, self-relocation (a cool down room), or self talk.

  • Spending more time with students who act out, not less (Downey, 2007)

A trauma-informed approach requires proactive, rather than reactive, responses to young people who need support and encouragement to participate in and take responsibility for their learning (De Jong & Griffiths, 2006). Close relationships between teachers and students (discussed in more detail later) make it possible for teachers to learn, understand, and identify students’ triggers, enabling them to be proactive in reducing and often avoiding incidents in the classroom. These strategies are not only designed to reduce the eventuality of further disruptive behavior for effective classroom management, but help the student develop emotional awareness and self-regulation strategies that may be maladapted due to their trauma.

Very challenging, or aggressive behavior needs to be dealt with differently by the classroom teacher for the safety of the class, and the trauma-affected student. In an explanation of aggressive behavior, Breakwell (1997) suggests that there are five phases during a student’s violent outburst: The trigger phase, escalation phase, crisis phase, recovery phase and finally the post crisis depression phase (p. 43). The trigger for a trauma-affected student may be well known to the student and teacher or may be completely unpredictable. It is in the escalation phase that the student’s body prepares for flight or flight and it is possible that a teacher who is aware may notice the student beginning to pace, drumming on the table or increasing the volume and pace of speaking (Ellis & Tod, 2014). The key to effective de-escalation in a crisis situation is to remove the perceived threat from the student. Ellis and Tod (2014, pp. 168–169) describe practical strategies in an escalated situation with a student including:

  • Lowering volume and pitch of voice. Listen more than talk

  • Palms visible and in a low relaxed position.

  • Avoiding square-on positions, move slowly and predictably.

  • Avoid smiling, give eye contact but do not stare.

When a student has progressed through the crisis stage of their response, that typically lasts for 3-5 minutes, it is essential that the student is cared for and moved to a space that is safe and secure for them. It is important that teachers and support staff recognize that the child has just been through a potentially re-traumatising response and that they may feel physically and emotionally exhausted from the experience (Ellis & Tod, 2014). The mutual problem-solving discussions can follow at an appropriate time into the future.

Self-Regulation, Predictability and Consistency

Difficulty self-regulating is one of the most pervasive challenges faced by trauma-affected students at school, and often manifests as intense emotional expression in response to difficulties in the classroom (Bath, 2008; Krasnoff, 2015). Because the brains of trauma-affected students have developed in ways that enable them to respond quickly to perceived threat, they can become hypervigilant and distressed in the face of change (Howard, 2013). Repetitive, predictable strategies are key to supporting students with self-regulation difficulties (Tobin, 2016). Through teaching self-regulatory strategies, teachers must also provide opportunities to co-regulate with and alongside their students (Brunzell et al., 2016b).

Maintaining a predictable learning environment has been advocated by classroom management theorists for some time (Emmer, Evertson, & Anderson, 1980; Simonsen, Fairbanks, Briesch, Myers, & Sugai, 2008). Being consistent and predictable contributes to a calm and safe classroom climate, minimizes stress for students, enhances students’ sense of belonging, and provides a strong foundation to help students with self-regulation and developing positive relationships with their teachers (Brunzell et al., 2016a; Downey, 2007; Hope, 2012; Howard, 2013). Common classroom routines, warning and supporting students when there are changes to routines (such as when a relief teacher is taking the class), and assisting students with transitions (e.g. between classes or activities) are all useful for trauma-affected students (Downey, 2007; Howard, 2013). Another way that teachers help students to learn to self-regulate is by working with them to identify their triggers, and potential solutions to challenges they face to enhance their self-regulation, whilst maintaining strong and trusting relationships (Fronius, Persson, Guckenburg, Hurley, & Petrosino, 2016). Having a predictable sequence of learning new topics can also be beneficial to trauma-affected students. When teachers use a consistent approach of scaffolding new content or concepts, learning stress is removed, and “effective differentiation” (Tomlinson et al., 2003, p. 131) can occur.

Repairing Disruptive Attachment Styles

The second approach to working with trauma-affected students suggested by Brunzell et al. (2015) is that of repairing disruptive attachment styles. Key to this are practices that involve building positive teacher-student relationships and exhibiting unconditional positive regard for all students. Relational, student-centred approaches have been advocated by educational practitioners and researchers for many years. Elevated understanding of childhood trauma since the 1990s has given a neurobiological underpinning to how and why these strategies are effective when working with trauma-affected students.

Building Positive Teacher-Student Relationships

Feeling unsafe is the defining experience of complex trauma in childhood (Bath, 2008), and this means that attachment and strong relationships are crucial for the healing process. John Bowlby’s attachment theory (Bowlby, 2008) provides a strong foundation for relational work with trauma-affected students. A key aspect of this theory is that when students see their teachers as a secure and safe person in their world, their capacity for developing relationships with others grows (Rimm-Kaufman & Sandilos, 2011; Roorda, Koomen, Spilt, & Oort, 2011). Importantly, these relationships also contribute to a shift in a young persons “internal working model” to a more positive representation of themselves in relation to others (Bowlby, 2008). Building strong, positive relationships between teachers and students demonstrate to trauma-affected students that there are adults that can be trusted, have their best interests at heart, and genuinely care about them.

Educators in trauma-informed programs aim to maintain a balanced perspective between formal education and young person welfare. They place a strong emphasis on positive relationships rather than punitive behavior management, take a strengths based approach, recognize students’ strengths, and encourage and reinforce these strengths (De Jong & Griffiths, 2006; Howard, 2013; te Riele, 2014). Taking a strengths, rather than a deficit approach to supporting trauma-affected students is important for nurturing student wellbeing, as well as repairing damage inflicted by complex trauma (Brunzell et al., 2016b). To do this, teachers need to view their students not as problems, but resilient young people with strengths, and the unique individuals that they are (Cassidy & Bates, 2005).

Positive teacher-student relationships are characterized by genuine and mutual respect, trust, support, understanding, and care (Chou et al., 2015; Mills & McGregor, 2010; te Riele, 2014). Trauma-informed teachers can build these relationships by making efforts to get to know students personally, having informal conversations, having fun and joking around with students, providing unconditional support, treating students like adults, demonstrating care for more than just schoolwork, and treating each student as an individual (Cassidy & Bates, 2005; McGregor & Mills, 2012; te Riele, 2014). For educators, seeing themselves as being and becoming relational in this way of working with young people requires them to be more fully themselves in order to break down hierarchical relationships with young people (Morgan et al., 2015; Nabavi & Lund, 2010). Something as simple as allowing students to call teachers by their first name is an effective strategy for dismantling barriers between teachers and students, leading to stronger, more positive relationships (McGregor & Mills, 2012).

Positive teacher-student relationships contribute to a student’s sense of belonging at school (Bickerstaff, 2010; Cassidy & Bates, 2005; Glassett Farrelly, 2013; Mills & McGregor, 2010; Poyrazli et al., 2008; Saunders & Saunders, 2001; Smyth & McInerney, 2012). This sense of belonging is especially important for trauma-affected students, and can be strengthened by teachers establishing a warm, safe, and positive classroom climate. The literature and text books for Initial Teacher Education are awash with practical strategies for building a positive classroom climate, such as strategies for creating a welcoming space, and the teacher creating a welcoming classroom by greeting students by name each morning or lesson (Howard, 2013; B. Rogers, 2015; Saggers, 2017). This is also achieved by displaying constant reminders of the “membership” of the class such as photos of students, examples of all students’ work on display and highlighting each student’s strengths in the group.

As mentioned previously, punitive approaches to disruptive behavior are not only ineffective as a form of classroom management but can exacerbate negative relationships between trauma-affected students and their teachers. Traditional approaches to disengaged and disruptive behavior in class involve a “stepped” approach that leads to exclusion from school (Skiba & Losen, 2016; Sullivan, Johnson, Owens, & Conway, 2014). Temporary (suspension) and permanent (expulsion) exclusions have been demonstrated to be ineffective in reducing future misbehavior, and in fact may be responsible for increasing problematic behavior (Skiba & Losen, 2016). For the trauma-affected student, being excluded from school confirms that the relationships that have been developed with school staff are untrustworthy and conditional. Any repairing of the disruptive attachment style is undone. Instead, at the heart of any disciplinary response, should be a teachers’ unconditional positive regard for a student (Wolpow et al., 2016).

Unconditional Positive Regard

Students struggling with trauma don’t need another adult to tell them what is wrong with them. What they do need, what helps them thrive, is an adult who treats them with simple sustained kindness, an adult who can empathize with the challenges they face (Wolpow et al., 2016, p. 72)

Central to developing positive relationships with trauma-affected students is the concept of “Unconditional Positive Regard” (C. Rogers, 1957, p. 98). Developed in a clinical context by humanistic psychologist, Carl Rogers, it has been adopted throughout other professions including education. In a school, this approach exemplifies what is needed when working with trauma-affected students—a warm, caring for a child that is not driven by a need for satisfaction by the carer (C. Rogers, 1961). There are no conditions of a teacher’s acceptance of a student, regardless of their disposition, affect, behavior, or presentation (Brunzell et al., 2015).

To avoid the pain of rejection that trauma-affected students have felt many times over their lives, it is common for these students to feel suspicious of teacher’s motivations, and reject the efforts of teachers to build strong relationships and show them unconditional positive regard (Brunzell et al., 2015). Being able to trust teachers to care, respect, and value them, regardless of their performance or actions in school is critical to these students being able to build their relational skills, trust in teachers, and engage in positive relationships with others (Dods, 2013; Tobin, 2016). Learning that the care and support offered by staff is unconditional is crucial for students building trust in teachers (Lanas & Corbett, 2011). A truly trauma-informed approach will genuinely embed the concept of unconditional positive regard for the students, and through this help repair the disturbed attachment.

Pre-Service Teachers’ Exposure to Trauma-Informed Training

Teachers are ideally positioned to provide positive, secure relationships with trauma-affected students (Bloom, 1995; Brunzell et al., 2015; Morgan et al., 2015; Veltman & Browne, 2001). When teachers understand trauma and feel competent in meeting the needs of their students, they are better able to maintain a supportive approach and improve classroom environment (Alisic, 2012; Costa, 2017). In order to do this, teachers need to have effective strategies for responding effectively to trauma-affected students (Brunzell et al., 2018), and they deserve to be adequately prepared to work with students who have experienced abuse and neglect (Mathews, 2011). Pre-service teachers therefore, need training that provides them with understanding of the impact of trauma on young people and their learning, along with a skillset that enables them to support the needs of these students.

Despite a range of Initial Teacher Education (ITE) programs including a focus on trauma, relationship building, attachment, and the relational practice of being a teacher (Kearns & Hart, 2017; Mathews, 2011; Walsh et al., 2011), many studies have revealed that teachers do not feel adequately prepared to meet the needs of trauma-affected students in their classrooms (Baweja et al., 2016; Garrick et al., 2017; Longaretti & Toe, 2017; Morgan et al., 2015; O’Donnell et al., 2010; Phifer & Hull, 2016; Walsh et al., 2011). These, and other studies have revealed that pre-service teachers have not received adequate training, and hold insufficient knowledge to understand the effects of trauma on their students, and their role as teachers in supporting their students who have experienced trauma (Briggs & Potter, 2004; Brown, 2008; Ko et al., 2008; Mathews, 2011; McKee & Dillenburger, 2009; Phifer & Hull, 2016; Smith, 2006; Walsh et al., 2011). One of the most problematic impacts of not understanding trauma is that teachers may overlook the needs of students, misinterpreting their actions as poor behavior, acts of defiance, learning disabilities, or mental health disorders (Baweja et al., 2016; Day et al., 2015). A recent report from the Grattan Institute (Goss & Sonnemenn, 2017) has called for better teacher preparation, emphasising that teacher responses to student behavior may be contributing to disengagement in the classroom. Longaretti and Toe (2017), found that school leaders across 17 low socioeconomic status (SES) schools in Victoria, Australia felt that pre-service teachers needed a better understanding of the impact of trauma on children prior to commencing their placement in schools. In particular, these school leaders felt that understanding how trauma, poverty, and vulnerability impacted students’ learning through various social, emotional, academic, and behavioral factors was the most important learning that pre-service teachers needed (Longaretti & Toe, 2017, p. 9). Teachers in the United States expressed a similar need for more training in identifying students who were affected by trauma, concrete methods for managing trauma related behavior, and improving how they work with traumatized students in the classroom (Baweja et al., 2016).

One of the greatest barriers to covering this material sits with jurisdictional accreditation requirements. With already overflowing curriculum in ITE programs, embedding additional content is a substantial challenge for teacher educators and universities. Legal mandates for reporting child abuse have some influence over the inclusion of this type of material making its way into ITE programs, but this is often very specifically focused on identifying and reporting childhood sexual and physical abuse (Clarke & Healey, 2006; Mathews, 2011; Walsh et al., 2011) as opposed to teaching pre-service teachers about trauma-informed approaches to support students who have experienced various types of complex trauma (Kearns & Hart, 2017). Thus, if the inclusion of trauma-informed curriculum is not part of accreditation requirements, graduate teacher attributes, or linked with legal requirements associated with mandatory reporting, it is less likely to be part of ITE programs.

A small number of studies have provided examples of trauma-informed curriculum being included in ITE programs (Kearns & Hart, 2017; Mathews, 2011; Walsh et al., 2011). These studies indicate that this curriculum is typically delivered as either integrated across a program, or as standalone, discrete content. There are benefits to both approaches. Integrated units provide opportunities for linking concepts and understanding across and throughout related topics, as well as scaffolding material, revisiting content and adding depth to understanding. Discrete units on the other hand provide an opportunity to focus on specific content intensively (Walsh et al., 2011). Across both types of courses, students are given opportunities to explore a range of strategies, tools and resources to support them in responding to complex child maltreatment issues. The curriculum includes topics such as attachment and the relational role of teachers, exploring the links between behavior, attachment, and learning (Kearns & Hart, 2017). Examples of curriculum covered in Australian ITE programs includes:

Trauma and child development, parental separation and divorce, domestic violence, the South Australian child protection system, poverty in families, child maltreatment, child sexual abuse, child abuse prevention, children of parents with a mental illness, children as carers, issues facing single parent families and issues facing Indigenous families (Walsh et al., 2011, p. 40).

As a result of many years of working with educators, Howard (2013) cautions educators and schools against skipping straight to strategies without first taking the time to both engage in a process of self-reflection, and to understand the evidence that underpins trauma-affected students and their needs in the classroom. Engaging in reflective practice activities, role plays, and through popular culture (films and novels) are part of the learning approaches used in ITE courses that achieve deeper learning and making multiple connections through the activities and curriculum (Walsh et al., 2011). Examples of other activities include students building a reflective portfolio and exploring the emotions of themselves, children, parents, extended family, and other professionals, through case studies that focus on complex trauma (Kearns & Hart, 2017). These reflexive activities are considered integral to the learning process for pre-service teachers (Sheridan, Edwards, Marvin, & Knoche, 2009).

Whilst there was little reported about the effectiveness of these programs, the data available indicated that pre-service teachers strongly valued curriculum that maintained a close link with practice (Walsh et al., 2011). Anecdotal evidence from students in these courses indicate that their study assisted them in overcoming fears of dealing with child maltreatment, and enhanced their sense of empowerment and mastery of skills in knowing how to best respond to students who had experienced child maltreatment (Walsh et al., 2011). The growing confidence to respond effectively to child protection issues that arise helps to minimize pre-service teachers’ initial fears and discomfort in the context of the emotionally challenging content. Kearns and Hart (2017) found the pre-service teachers who participated in their program developed greater understanding of the importance of attachment in their role as a teacher, and gained confidence in their capacity to support students to develop positive self-images of themselves, along with a stronger appreciation for self-care.


It is evident through decades of trauma-based research, that schools and teachers have a powerful role to play in making a difference in the lives of trauma-affected students.

Traumatized children do not necessarily require psychiatrists; they require adults who can extend the vital relational skills that good parents provide and a system that provides the safety and security for these relationships to be sustained (Bloom, 1995, p. 19).

Taking a trauma-informed approach in education settings puts relational work, and responding to the needs of individual students, at the centre of teachers’ practice. This is an issue of social justice, from both an equity, and human rights, perspective as well as one that seeks to build and maintain just and caring communities (Walsh et al., 2011). Trauma-informed approaches do not just benefit students who have experienced trauma; there are benefits for all students, teachers, and schools. Working with traumatized students can have positive impacts on staff who are well trained and well supported (Brunzell et al., 2018) and the entire culture of a school can be transformed by day to day routines and approaches that are trauma-informed (Van der Kolk, 2014).

Training teachers to understand and respond effectively to trauma-affected students in their classrooms is necessary for enhancing their sense of preparedness, and expanding their toolkit to better support the needs of all of their students (Alisic, 2012; Alisic, Bus, Dulack, Pennings, & Splinter, 2012; Clark & Newberry, 2018). Studies from multiple countries have revealed new teachers feel unprepared to work with trauma-affected students, and expose an absence of trauma focused curriculum in ITE programs. More needs to be done to support the training of new teachers if they are to understand the impact of trauma on young people and their learning, and apply strategies that support the needs of these students. When armed with this knowledge and skills, teachers play a powerful role in supporting these students to heal, and to learn.


The authors would like to thank Professor Jo Lampert for her support, and thoughtful and expert insights in preparing and revising this paper. This work was supported by a grant from the La Trobe University “Building Healthy Communities” Research Focus Area.

Further Reading

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Australian Childhood Foundation. (2010). Making Space for Learning: Trauma-informed Practice in Schools.Find this resource:

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Brunzell, T., Stokes, H., & Waters, L. (2016). Trauma-informed flexible learning: Classrooms that strengthen regulatory abilities. International Journal of Child Youth & Family Studies, 7(2), 218–239.Find this resource:

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