RTRL.44: Using a Trauma-informed Approach to Supporting Students (Rosenbaum-Nordoft, 2018)


Rosenbaum-Nordoft, C. (2018). Building teacher capacity for trauma-informed practice in the inclusive elementary school classroom. Early Childhood Education, 45(1), 3-12.

What did the researcher want to know?

How can teachers support students who have experienced trauma?

What did the researcher do?

Rosenbaum-Nordoft conducted a review of research studies and other literature pertaining to childhood trauma. She synthesizes these findings in her article and provides suggestions to equip teachers to more effectively support students in elementary school classrooms.

What did the researcher find?

Rosenbaum-Nordoft first gives an overview of the roots and effects of complex trauma. Trauma is rooted in the body’s fear response, which is “the brain’s natural reaction to perceived or actual threats” (p. 4). When the brain is alerted to possible danger, it suspends logical thought and prepares the body to protect itself through one of three responses: fight, flight, or freeze. “A fight, flight, or freeze response can lead to a rapid reactivity to a perceived threat, including self-protective behaviors such as agression, withdrawal [e.g., running away], or freezing [e.g., becoming non-responsive]” (p. 5). Repeatedly experiencing this fear response over time can lead to chronically elevated levels of stress hormones, hindered brain development, mental health concerns like anxiety or depression, poor impulse control, and impaired ability to concentrate and learn. “Children in a state of fear retrieve information from the world differently than children who feel calm” (Perry, as cited in Rosenbaum-Nordoft, 2018, p. 5). Therefore, it is important for teachers to acknowledge the long-term implications of complex trauma on physical and mental health and  use a “trauma-informed lens” in the classroom.

“A trauma-informed approach to supporting students … expands the lens through which educators view educational success so that it includes both academic achievement and mental health” (p. 6). Teachers should be on the lookout for signs of trauma in students and take this into consideration when responding to student behaviors. For example, rather than seeing a student as “‘bad,’ unmotivated or hostile” (p. 6) and asking “What is wrong with this student?”, a teacher might shift their thinking to instead ask “What is the function of that behavior?” Asking the latter question can help the teacher identify triggers for the behavior, which can then be prevented or mitigated. Rosenbaum-Nordoft provides several examples of how behavior can be analyzed in this way using functional behavioral analysis.

Finally, the author stresses the importance of relationships in supporting students who have experienced trauma. For example, she cites a study in which the researchers “found that having a trusted adult in the school was associated with greater academic gains” and “that teachers who take the time to listen and communicate an attitude of acceptance, accessibility, warmth and knowledge supported the trust in the relationship” (p. 6). Taking the time to get to know students and build a positive relationship will help them feel safer in school, thus enabling them to learn more effectively.

What does this mean for my classroom?

Life has changed drastically over the past five months throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. As a result, it is likely that many of our students are experiencing trauma. In order to help our students through this difficult time, we must first attend to connecting with them and making them feel seen, valued, and safe. Building relationships should be our main priority as we move forward with our students.

The National Child Traumatic Stress Network provides a number of helpful resources, including “Trauma-Informed School Strategies during COVID-19.” Visit their website here.

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