The Future of Education: Trauma Informed Practices

By Cathleen Beachboard

As schools start making Covid-19 contingency plans for next school year, we must address a secondary crisis that will affect school systems and classrooms everywhere: traumatic stress. Even before this pandemic, almost half the nation’s children had experienced one or more types of serious childhood trauma, according to a survey on Adverse Childhood Experiences by the National Survey of Children’s Health (NSCH). This pandemic, unfortunately, is adding to that trauma with its far-reaching ripple effects from families losing jobs and income, people going hungry, children seeing family members sick and dying, and a looming fear to leave home due to threat of illness. Even the parents or guardians whom students normally turn to for stability may be overwhelmed trying to keep their own mental health stable. A recent poll from the Kaiser Family Foundation found that 56 percent of adults said that this pandemic has affected their mental health, and 19 percent stated that it has had a major impact.

Initially reported by Priya Chidambaram, “The Implications of COVID-19 for Mental Health and Substance Use,” Kaiser Family Foundation, 04/21/2020, retrieved from https://www.kff.org/coronavirus-covid-19/

Addressing the mental health of students is going to be critical in the future of classroom practices. Research on Adverse Childhood Experiences shows that prolonged traumatic stress has the potential to leave students with impaired ability to learn, heightened anxiety and lifelong health problems. The good news is that by using trauma informed practices teachers have the ability to change the weighted impact of trauma and traumatic stress on their students. The more positive mental supports schools provide for students, the quicker students can bounce back and be less affected by outside traumatic stress. School systems that address the trauma taking place will be able to help students not only learn to mentally survive, but thrive.      

So what needs to change in the classroom once schools reopen? Creating a safe space for students is going to be more prudent than ever before as we help students heal from the trauma of this worldwide crisis. Using mental health check-ins at the start of class needs to become common practice. Teachers can create spaces—even remotely—where every student can check in as they start class. This practice allows teachers to gain insight on student safety concerns, feedback, and traumas right away. Teachers can use physical bulletin board or, during distance learning, a digital space for the check-in (such as a Google form) that first asks about a positive aspect of their day, and then inquires specifically about the student’s mental state. Using multiple-choice answers or a number system can help students feel less intimidated by the check-in. Offer choices such as “I’m great,” “I’m OK,” “I’m struggling,” or “I’m having a hard time and would like a check-in.” For younger students, consider using happy/sad faces that show varying degrees of emotion. It can also be helpful to include at least one optional, open-ended question to ask if there are any particular circumstances that need to be addressed. This will allow teachers to check if a student’s brain is ready to learn or if they are overwhelmed and need some help preparing for the school day.

Here’s an example of my Google Form check-in:

Teachers should also have students create self-care plans. A self-care plan validates a student’s unique mental health needs and coping mechanisms. With teachers utilizing self-care plans, students can take stock of all the resources they have available to help them feel better and create contingency plans for what to do when they may need help. Teachers can then utilize the unique coping mechanisms, activities, and resources students list to assist these students when they face problems in the classroom. In a self-care plan, students can start by identifying activities that help them feel better. Some examples might be music, exercise, coloring, art, or meditation. Teachers can support students’ plans by offering suggestions of appropriate cognitive activities based on grade level. Once the calming activity list is complete, students should identify one or two people with whom they have a good relationship and to whom they feel they can turn for help and support. If a student reports they don’t have a strong relationship with anyone, help them recognize the characteristics of someone who shows support. Generate a list of people whom they currently interact with daily in their everyday life and who currently help support their daily needs. Remind them that there are adults in their lives who care.

After completing the support section, ask students to list stressors that might act as speed bumps to their mental well-being. This section serves as a guide for moments when they might use their self-care plan. Thinking through a typical day can help students home in on specific areas of stress, like transitions between times of day, or particular situations such as a parent leaving for work. Teachers can then help them create a plan to address each of the stressors and barriers using tools from the support section. Self-care plans will help our students prepare for bad days and will give teachers a guide to helping students when they struggle.  In addition to this support system, I suggest that teachers seek out more PD on trauma-informed practices and/or get trained in programs like Mental Health First Aid.

A shift towards more trauma-informed discipline will be necessary as students experience more amygdala hijacking due to traumatic stress, which will cause many to lose impulse control and become more reactionary. Schools must attempt to alleviate this traumatic stress to help students return to a state of learning. Schools must look to using practices of restorative justice, creating focus and recovery rooms, and implementing Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports for student mental health. There will also be a need for schools to provide support and programs for teachers experiencing Compassion Fatigue or Vicarious Trauma. Taking care and responding to the mental health needs of students as they are under more stress will ultimately cause more stress for teachers. The mental health of school staff will take precedence for administrators as they attempt to protect their teachers, who are on the front lines of this mental health crisis.

Schools should also attempt to reach out to their communities to provide support to the families of their students. By helping families connect with tools and resources to get help, especially for problems that have arisen due to the pandemic, schools will be safeguarding and strengthening the mental health of their students.

In the end, I am confident that schools will do what they do best: help their students learn by whatever means necessary. In order for this to happen, schools need to implement concrete practices to support their students’ mental health as they recover from the trauma of this pandemic.  The future of education needs to prioritize helping students regain their sense of safety, helping students’ families regain stability, and helping communities come together to rebuild security.


Cathleen Beachboard has served for over a decade as an instructional coach, professional developer, and teacher. Cathleen currently serves as an 8th grade English teacher and department chair for her school in Fauquier County, Va. Her book, 10 Keys to Student Empowerment, features tools to unlock student potential and develop courage in learners to face challenges head on.

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