Thursday, 27 January, 2022

On Trauma-informed Teaching Approach

Saykat Biswas

On Trauma-informed Teaching Approach

Our academic institutions have embarked on their physical operations from September 12. In this recovery phase of formal schooling, our teachers and schools’ administrators will be required to adopt some new strategies in order to meet the situational demands and deliver the best outcomes possible.

Now that schools are open, getting students ‘ready to learn’ would be one of the top priorities for the teachers. This is because not all students would equally be ready to learn because of the stress and unprocessed traumatic experiences that they may have encountered while staying at home during this pandemic. In order to counter this challenge, teachers would need to be adaptive and flexible.

Adaptive and flexible in a sense that they might need to undertake some additional duties (acting as a therapist or providing counselling) along with their main duties (teaching). Understandably, teachers are not supposed to perform the job duties of a mental health therapist, and academic institutions are not there to facilitate the activities of a mental health support center. However, this post-COVID recovery phase is such a situation where teachers need to go beyond their defined job responsibilities.

Phyllis Stein and Joshua Kendall, in Psychological Trauma and the Developing Brain, reviewed that the disturbed attachments and trauma experienced by children at their early ages can hamper the cognitive development and emotional regulations of the children. As a consequence, they are likely to have behavioural issues and poor academic performances. Similarly, many studies, including the ones by Perry and Schore respectively in 2004 and 2001, found that the correlation between trauma and low academic achievements is positive and strong.

With traditional approaches and strategies, schools have taken repeated attempts to address the behavioural and learning dilemmas but those did not yield desired outcomes. The main reason was that those attempts were mainly focused on the symptoms rather than the root cause, which is trauma itself, according to Barbara Oehlberg, a Child Development and Educational Specialist and child trauma consultant. To address this issue, we can adopt a simple three-stage linear process called ‘trauma-informed teaching’ to benefit all the students- be they trauma-impacted or not.

The first stage of this linear process is called the ‘survival state’, which is located in the brain stem. This part of the brain is primarily concerned with our physical safety and can best be understood with the following question- ‘am I physically safe?’ Once our teachers ensure this first stage, then we have to focus on the second stage, which is the ‘emotional state’. The brain part that deals with this stage is called the limbic system. In this stage, students’ emotional safety needs to be ensured. If the brain could talk, in this stage it would ask ‘am I loved?’ Then, the third and last stage of this process is called the ‘executive stage’. The brain part that is concerned with this is the prefrontal lobes. In this stage, the brain looks for what it can learn from the situation.

What our teachers can do is to ensure the physical safety of the pupils by making commitments and putting necessary materials in place. Then, for providing students with a sense of emotional safety and comfort, teachers can practice active listening skills to understand their students from the points of respect and empathy. By making sure these two stages, teachers will, by default, be able to create readiness among the learners to help them learn different curricular and extra-curricular contents.

If teachers understand and implement this trauma-focused teaching to help their students overcome the pandemic-induced stress and get them ready to learn, it is likely to bring considerable benefits including improved academic performance, low absenteeism, enhanced self-regulation, and a healthy learning climate.

After this 18-month long stagnation of formal schooling, although schools are open now, we do not know how our classroom would look like six months down the line. We need to equip our education frontliners with proper skills training so that they can internalize this approach of healing and prepare the young minds for better schooling experiences.

Trauma-focused teaching begins with the understanding of how it can impact students in terms of their behaviours and learning. This might help teachers to understand what their students may be telling them, which can be helpful for teachers to reflect and improvise the way they facilitate teaching-learning activities. Having the understanding of ‘trauma-informed teaching’ can steer the actions of the teachers towards lights where students impacted by trauma will be healed and get a better chance to learn and grow in this post-COVID recovery phase.


The writer is working as a Deputy Manager in the Skills Development Programme of BRAC.