Trauma-Sensitive Learning Environments
Mental health experts anticipate that many students will have experienced trauma related to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Students will not be prepared to engage in learning if they do not feel physically and emotionally safe. A trauma-sensitive mindset can be applied to all facets of education: teaching strategies, behavior management, assessment, and policies. Creating a trauma-sensitive learning environment in health and physical education — and throughout the school — will be imperative to help students ease the impacts of trauma on their life.
“Trauma is an exceptional experience in which powerful and dangerous events overwhelm a person’s capacity to cope” (Rice and Groves, 2005). It’s important to note that an event doesn’t have to be life-threatening to be traumatic; it’s the child’s response and interpretation of the event that matters. Trauma impacts the brain and can have lasting effects on child development and a student’s ability to learn.
Strong relationships and connections with students are at the heart of creating trauma-sensitive learning environments. In preparing for reentry into schools, educators should allocate more time to fostering relationships and building community within their classes than they might have done prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The below considerations for creating a trauma-sensitive environment are important for health and physical education teachers to think about when planning for school reentry, whether schools are operating under a model of in-school instruction, distance learning, or hybrid learning:
- Can you provide small group check-ins for your students or peer-support groups (i.e., assign student leaders to
in on other students, provide “office” hours for students to check in or share out)?
- Can you spend time in each class connecting with students (i.e., spending a few minutes each day talking about
anything other than school)?
- Are there opportunities to connect with students individually (e.g., schedule 1:1 video chat session
email students individually weekly/biweekly to check in, follow up with students who seem to be struggling)?
- What routines and sense of normalcy can you create for your students to feel comfortable (e.g., start class with the
same greeting/warm up/instant activity, have students share in the chat box how they feel using an emoji/type how
they are feeling right then, end class with the same routine)?
- How can you prepare students for changes ahead of time (e.g., send a weekly schedule or note home, email students
with changes with as much lead time as possible)?
- What behaviors can you anticipate that might come with a change in schedule?
- What ways can you get students to be involved (e.g., students come up with class norms, have students share ideas
routines or activities)?
- How can students provide feedback (e.g., incorporate student feedback into lesson closures, use reflection sheets,
create a survey to collect feedback every couple of weeks)?
- Do you use a zero-tolerance policy versus implementing restorative practices (i.e., focus on violation of rules versus preventative actions and
- How can you reward or recognize positive behaviors (e.g., praise a student’s work ethic, grit, growth, or attempt,
avoid praising physical characteristics)?
- What positive interventions can be used to correct behavior (i.e., create a list of positive interventions you can
use when disruptive behaviors occur)?
- How could students potentially be feeling right now (e.g., hungry/thirsty, tired, anxious, restless, bored)?
- How can you check in with students in a safe and supportive way?
- How can you help address their potential needs (i.e., if students are anxious start class with a deep breathing
exercise or play calming music, if students are restless start class with a high-energy activity)?
- How can you support students asking for help when needed?
- What resources can you make available for students?
- How are you feeling at the beginning, middle, and end of the day (e.g., hungry, angry, tired, frustrated)?
- How are these emotions potentially affecting your interactions with students? Reflect as often as possible,
especially after times where you feel you may have been challenged by your students. What led up to those events?
What were you feeling prior to that class?
- What are you doing for self-care?