Trauma-Informed Teaching and Healing-Centered Practices

Learn more about trauma, how to recognize it in the classroom, and how to incorporate Trauma-Informed, Healing-Centered teaching techniques into your work.

Trauma-Informed Teaching and Healing-Centered Practices
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Trauma-Informed Teaching and Healing-Centered Practices


According to the National Center for PTSD, approximately 15% to 43% of girls and 14% to 43% of boys will experience at least one trauma. The percentages vary depending on the types of trauma these young people experienced.


Just as there’s no one form of trauma, there’s no single way that trauma manifests in the classroom or elsewhere in life. Given that, it makes sense that there’s no singular way to recognize signs of trauma, but common reactions you may see in students are Fight, Flight, Freeze, Fawn, and Flop. There’s more on those below.


Incorporating social and emotional literacy (SEL) into your curriculum can help validate the emotions of students experiencing trauma and help students recognize and react to a wide variety of emotions.


To avoid creating or upholding traumatizing systems, it is important to also engage in self-reflection concerning your own positions of power, privilege, values, history, beliefs, and experiences of trauma. Explore more in GIVE Resource: Creating Stigma-Free Classrooms.

Type of ReactionBehaviors Exhibited
FIGHT Crying, tantrums, reactivity, explosive temper, kicking, throwing, irritability, disruptions, clenched jaw, resisting authority, glaring, yelling, nausea
FLIGHT Restlessness, fidgeting, isolating themselves from peers, clinging to adults or caregivers, avoiding activities, leaving the classroom, eyes darting around the room, often ends friendships, feeling of entrapment
FREEZE Lack of eye contact, lack of response, refusal to speak, holding breath, putting head down, one-word answers, numb, exhausted, disconnected, hides physically (hair or hoodie over face) or emotionally, gives up easily, escapes into videos or social media
FAWNAppeases dominant or authority figures, peace-keeper, eager to please, aligns with other people’s choices and values, spaces out, has a hard time saying no, avoids potential conflict, yields, very polite, passive
FLOPDisengagement, numbness, lack of emotional range, limpness, submissive

The way people respond to trauma is not a choice—it is connected to brain development and psychology. These responses can sometimes be perceived by educators as misbehavior or disrespect. However, it’s important to recognize these behaviors as responses to trauma and stress and try not to make assumptions or take them personally.

The Window of Tolerance

“Say yes to the feelings, even as you say no to the behavior.” 

― Daniel J. Siegel, No-Drama Discipline: The Whole-Brain Way to Calm the Chaos and Nurture Your Child’s Developing Mind

Dan Siegel came up with the term window of tolerance, which is a physical and emotional comfort zone. This is the space where students can relax, think, and learn. 

Traumatized children can live 24/7 in or near that window. They can easily become hyper-aroused (overly aroused), which means they’ve overshot their window of tolerance, and have too much inner stimulation to regulate. In the classroom, that can look like fidgeting, aggression, or tension. Inside, it might feel like twitchiness, a racing heart, or breathing that stays shallow and fast. 

In the other direction, they can be hypo-aroused (under-aroused). That’s when they start staring at nothing, slumping onto their desks, or avoiding participation. Inside, it might feel like weakness, a slow heartbeat, or exhaustion. 

Often in schools, students are called out or punished for behaviors triggered by being outside their windows of tolerance. Students reacting to trauma can’t change their situations, and they may not have safe outlets or support. By incorporating trauma-informed practices into our sessions, we can get to know our students as human beings and help them find spaces where they can be comfortable and creative.

Acknowledge Student Emotions

  • If a student is having a strong emotional reaction or behaving in an unexpected way, ask them how they are feeling and acknowledge that their emotions are valid by saying, “I see you are feeling ________. I am sorry you are feeling that way.”
  • Ask the student what you can do to help.
    • You may want to give them choices such as taking a break, doing a specific role in a task, taking deep breaths, or mindfully moving to another part of the room. These choices should not feel forced or punitive.
  • Incorporate emotional literacy into your arts curriculum.
    • Have students show and name different emotions using gestures or facial expressions.
    • Create artistic work based on feelings or emotions students have experienced.
    • Include a way to share “How are you feeling?” in your warm-up or daily routine.
  • Do not yell or react with anger. Challenge yourself to lower your voice, stay calm, and take deep breaths.

  • Incorporate emotional literacy into your arts curriculum.
    • Have students show and name different emotions using gestures or facial expressions.
    • Create artistic work based on feelings or emotions students have experienced.
    • Include a way to share “How are you feeling?” in your warm-up or daily routine.
    • We know proprioception or kinesthesia; the sense of where our bodies are in space. Interoception goes the other way. It’s about being aware of what’s going on inside us: our organs, our bodies, and our emotions. As human beings, we feel our emotions in our bodies (the clenched fists and tight jaw of anger; the slumped shoulders and caved-in chest of shame; the rapid stuck breath and burning eyes of edge-of-tears misery…). Engage your students in discovering where emotions manifest in their bodies and enable them to identify how they’re feeling—physically and emotionally. You can turn this into a curiosity-driven game attached to almost any art form. For example: “Writing: If your character’s terrified, how does their body feel? That’s a great way to show readers what’s happening inside your character, instead of telling them what’s going on.” “Dance: How does someone move who’s feeling delighted? Shy? Exhausted? Knowing where you feel emotions is terrific SEL (Social Emotional Learning).” Developing interoception is especially helpful for students with sensory processing issues, who may have trouble connecting with their bodies, or interpreting and sorting sensory information, even when it comes from inside. 

Be Authentic and Transparent With Your Students

  • If you are having a bad day or you had a stressful subway ride, let the students know (appropriately).
    • Students experiencing trauma can often assume that any negative or stressful energy is directed at them.
    • It’s also beneficial for students to see you as a model for healthy ways to cope with stress.
  • Find ways to share your artistry, interests, likes, and dislikes with your students. Sharing your authentic self leads to authentic relationship-building and trust.
  • Model being authentic, honest, maintaining boundaries, and being comfortable with who you are. Having teachers who are at ease with their own genders, abilities and disabilities, race, background, and so on gives children space and implicit permission to be okay with who they are.  
  • Don’t develop a “Teaching Artist” identity for when you enter classrooms. Resist any urge to put on a kid-friendly mask. Trust yourself and be yourself: genuine, present, and real. Just like the art you’re inviting your students to create, your true presence is one of the greatest gifts you have to offer.
    • Don’t change your natural speaking voice or alter your language to be simpler than the children need it to be.
    • Address kids in a simple and straightforward way, using terminology and language they can—or that you can teach them to—understand. 
    • You don’t have to act sweet, coy, cool, or tough if that’s not your natural way of being. Trying to fit in can come off as artificial. Be your natural, caring, creative self, and know what you want your kids to know about themselves: You are enough. 
    • From all sides, an adult using students’ slang can feel awkward, artificial, or disrespectful. This is especially true when the adult is an outsider, visiting the students’ community or living outside their culture. Let your art, your integrity, your comfort with your culture, and your good intentions build bridges, and skip adopting language that isn’t yours. (That said, if you’re with your students for a year, and some of their terminology slips into your vocabulary, don’t struggle to resist it—and don’t be offended if they laugh or grin.) 
    • Don’t use slang or pop-culture references that aren’t yours. Instead, model being open to learning. Letting students teach you what inspires them will open conversations, instill confidence, and build a more egalitarian community. 

  • Let students know how you are doing, where you are working from, how you are making space in your home for class, include your pet or family members, or let students know they might hear background noise. (Lots of the things they are dealing with, you are too!)
  • Share your Artistry: Especially if you’re teaching remotely, consider sharing your own art and artistry by linking to your website/blog/daily Instagram post, etc. Remember to only share content appropriate for your students and their grade level.

Incorporate Moments of Mindfulness, Movement, and Breath

  • Focus on breath: When we are stressed or anxious, we often take shallow breaths into our chest. By breathing deeply into our belly, we can use our breath to calm both our body and mind. ​That said, breath isn’t a safe space for everybody. For people including survivors of sexual abuse, students with chronic or recurrent illnesses, and people with something as simple as a flu or allergies, breathing may not be a healthy option. Always offer alternatives such as sound or feeling the weight of your body on the chair. Presenting these as equal to breathing prevents them from being a signal of ability or disability: “If that isn’t available to you….” Wording such as, “Take a breath, be aware of the sounds coming into your ears, or feel where your body is touching the chair” puts everything on an equal plane. Invitations to explore what their bodies need in a given moment gives students permission to be curious about their experiences, and control over their bodies and choices. For students with trauma, that kind of power can be rare. 
  • Have students come up with their own ways of leading breathing, relaxation, or focusing exercises. Maybe they breathe in like flowers blossoming, and out like flowers closing into buds, or relax by moving their fingers from high to low like gentle rain. Use their imaginations to engage them, give them leadership opportunities, and get creatively invested in developing mindfulness skills. 
  • Multi-Sensory: Sense of touch, sound, smell, or sight experiences can help students focus and relax. These could be real or imaginary sensory experiences. ​
  • Involve Movement: Humans are born to move—incorporating movement can help students be more present and focused. Sometimes we can express things physically that we don’t yet have words for.
  • Connect to Redirect: Simply by naming an emotion, a spiraling child can start to calm down. 
  • Learn more about mindfulness in this GIVE resource: Using Mindfulness to Support Classroom Management

Students—and their caregivers—may be overwhelmed or stressed out by remote learning, so it’s important to take some time to incorporate moments of breath and mindfulness as part of your remote lesson.

Consider starting each class with movement/stretching and mental health check-ins or rituals.

Example Check-ins:

  • Using your thumbs, show how you’re feeling today: “Thumbs up, down, middle, two thumbs up, etc.”
  • Use a poll to check in with the students.
  • Have students type in the chat—words, emojis, colors to describe how they’re feeling.
  • Have students share a sound and movement that expresses how they’re feeling. You can also give them an option: sound, movement, or both. Giving children choice means giving them power in the form of control over their minds and bodies. To build on the exercise, have the rest of the group reflect the sound and/or movement. Mirroring helps children to recognize other people’s feelings, which helps them to develop empathy, compassion, and understanding. This can be done online or in person. 
  • Five-finger check-ins: five means “best day ever,” one means “awful day,” three is somewhere in between, two is “bad, but could be worse,” and four is “good, but could be better.” Have everyone look around to see how others are doing. You can incorporate community-building by suggesting that folks who are at four or five can help those at one or two have an easier day, and thanking the students with lower numbers for letting you know that they need to take it a little easy on themselves today. If caregivers can participate, all the better. That gives you space to teach students that they can take care of adults, too. If a student keeps showing one finger, that can be a signal that something is off in their inner or outer worlds. 
  • The 5-4-3-2-1 Grounding Technique can help to stop spiraling and fretting by bringing students into the here and now. It’s five things you can see, four you can feel, three you can hear, two you can smell, and one you can taste. 
  • Create moments for students and caregivers to experience mindfulness together. You can create guided mindfulness meditations that both parent and child can listen to live or prerecorded.

Take Care of Yourself

Secondhand trauma is common enough that it has an acronym: STS, which stands for secondary traumatic stress—and it affects educators, especially those who work in areas with high rates of poverty, crime, and historical trauma. This article advocates finding support, incorporating coping strategies into your workday routine, and creating “coming home” rituals. Self-care isn’t selfish. Think of it as putting on your oxygen mask first, so you are able to help the people around you. Finding it a challenge to prioritize self-care? Until you know you’re worth it, remind yourself that your students deserve the healthiest possible you.   

Healing-Centered Practices

To learn more about Healing-Centered work, check out this resource, which is a beautifully written piece on shifting our perspective from Trauma-Informed to Healing-Centered Teaching: “The Future of Healing: Shifting From Trauma-Informed Care to Healing Centered Engagement.”

External Resources