There are so many people, programs, and institutions generating trauma-informed teaching curricula and ideology. I am grateful for the awareness in our society.
But I am also cautious and hesitant to embrace a specific program or philosophy because there is no one-size-fits-all fix, solution, algorithm, or treatment protocol. Defining and sharing what constitutes trauma-informed teaching and trauma-responsive schools requires an understanding of how adversity and trauma impact the developing brains and bodies of children and youth.
The brain is shaped by experiences.
The nervous system and brain are experience-dependent and experience-responsive. During development, trauma and adversity land in our bodies as they also affect the reptilian regions of our lower and mid-brain areas. Implicit memories are fragments of sensory experiences that are not conscious, and they can settle in our bodies. These embodied memories are observed as behavioral impulses, surges of emotions and perceptions encoded with sensory experiences that can be triggered in the present moment. The smell of aftershave; a tone of voice; pieces of clothing; specific sounds like fireworks, a car horn, or a dog’s bark—these are examples of sensory experiences associated with the past, yet in the present moment they are detected as dangerous or unsafe.
Trauma disrupts our capacity to feel safe.
In the first 12 to 18 months of development, we only form implicit memories, which are dominant until the age of four or five. That means we are shaped early on by below-conscious awareness. Buried deep in the brain's limbic and mid-brain areas is an emotional vigilance center called the amygdala, and it is here that our human survival and emotional messages are subconsciously prioritized and learned. We continually scan environments for feelings of connectedness and safety.
Often, children and youth who appear withdrawn, detached, oppositional, defiant, aggressive, or aloof may be exhibiting negative behaviors because they are in pain, as their stress response systems have become sensitized to the “present” flow of sensory information. It can feel overwhelming, and compromise their ability to reason, problem solve, or discern what is safe and what is threatening.
Our autonomic nervous system states drive everything.
Our bodies and brains prioritize survival and are wired to detect threat. When we feel unsafe or sense a potentially threating experience, we are reactive and reflexive. We do not think our way through states of survival. We react. In these moments, our bodies do not have the resources to find a calm nervous system or co-regulate with another.
Attachment to another is the carrier of all development. Our nature is to seek relationship coupled with warm nurturance. Dr. Louis Cozolino, a professor of psychology at Pepperdine University who lectures worldwide on psychotherapy, trauma, and attachment, states, “At the most basic level, we shape one another’s embodied brains from pre-birth to death.” If our developing nervous systems experience chronic unpredictability and isolation—with levels of stress that are prolonged, extreme, and unpredictable—our stress response systems become sensitized and dysfunctional. The result can be behaviors that are misinterpreted and misunderstood.
According to Dr. Bruce Perry, the Principal of the Neurosequential Network and Senior Fellow of The ChildTrauma Academy, “We elicit from the world, what we project into the world, but what you project is what happened to you as a child.” Emotions and feelings become stuck in our bodies and lodged in the survival regions of our lower and mid-brains. These conditions affect our children and youth in worrisome ways as the brain and body are in significant growth. This growth can become emotionally stagnated or compromised.
The gift of neuroplasticity.
Neuroplasticity is the superpower of our autonomic nervous systems and brains that enables us to change with every experience we are exposed to in every moment. A trauma-responsive school deeply addresses the science and the primary need for safety and connection as the bedrock of emotional, social, and cognitive well-being. The bridge to these improved conditions taps into the science of intentional neuroplasticity. The more we think a thought, engage in a new experience or behavior, practice a skill, or create patterned repetitive experiences, the more neural pathways (connections between neurons) our brains produce. With repetition, these pathways can become superhighways where our practiced thoughts, feelings, and behaviors occur with fluidity and automaticity.
A trauma-informed teaching approach incorporates patterned repetitive experiences over a significant amount of time to create sustainable changes in our nervous systems, and therefore our behaviors. In a trauma-informed and trauma-responsive school, social and emotional learning are integrated throughout the day, addressing the culture of safety, equity, and connection. These practices do not just happen in random half-hour sessions.
A trauma-responsive school also prioritizes a feeling of safety. We interact with students and staff using connection and regulatory practices. Trauma-responsive schools and districts see behaviors as meaningful, as we collectively check in with adults’ nervous systems to make sure that our faces and bodies can offer a true presence of safety.
Behavior management and discipline begin with adults.
As adults, we drive how we connect through conflicts. We can share a safe, emotionally available space with a student, or unintentionally escalate a child or adolescent within a growing conflict or power struggle. In essence, our calm presence helps our students to integrate and digest the perceived disruptive experiences. We are not negating consequences; students simply do not process words, rewards, stickers, or logic when their brains and bodies are in survival mode. Our tone of voice, facial expression, gestures, and posture can generate “felt safety.” This is a critical priority within a trauma-responsive school and district.
When we are intentional about sharing the science of our brains and nervous systems with our students, they feel relieved and empowered knowing that they are not “bad kids,” and there is nothing wrong with them. When you understand that your brain and body are always working for you and not against you, this understanding can quiet our stress response systems as we address the variety of experiences, environments, and cultures we carry into our classrooms and schools. We learn to care for one another through our sharing of lived, embodied experiences. Teaching our students about their neuroanatomy occurs through our brain aligned morning meetings, afternoon gatherings, and bell work. These practices are integrated through our procedures and routines at the beginning of the day, during transitions, or at the end of a class period or day.
Below are three trauma-informed teaching practices (source: Revelations In Education) that both educators and students can incorporate as we set the table for sensory regulation grounded in connection. When we are intentional about procedures that are calming, equitable, engaging, and reflective, our discipline protocols are relational, preventive, and brain aligned. Trauma-responsive schools that incorporate trauma-informed teaching know this, and their discipline protocols shift.
Lesson: Hand Models Showing How the Brain Builds Networks and Circuits.
Think of the times this week you were functioning from your prefrontal cortex (feeling safe, calm, and curious). Now think of the times you were functioning from your amygdala (feeling agitated, worried, angry, or scared).
Role of the Prefrontal Cortex: Director of the Band
Role of the Amygdala: Brain’s Smoke Detector/Our Vigilance System
Lesson: Sensations and Feelings.
Sensations are physical feelings we feel in our bodies. They are the language of the body. When we recognize these as “normal” ways that our bodies speak to us, this feels calming and relieving.
Feelings are experienced in both our brains and our bodies. They are created from hormones and neurotransmitters. Feelings guide us through our days. When we are off track, our feelings let us know.
As we come into class, we can choose a sensation out of a jar or pick a word off the wall and draw it. Give the sensation lines, colors, shapes, and more.
Lesson: Brain and Body States/Our Negative Bias
Discuss how our brains and bodies are changing all day long. Sometimes we are feeling calm, irritated, angry, and back and forth. Our brains are wired with a negative bias and therefore it is so common and normal to feel negative emotion. That feeling is there for our survival!
Make brains, stomachs, and hearts. Talk about the sensations we feel in those places. Draw a line on the board and have students place their stomachs and hearts above, on, or below the line. Are you above, on, or below the line?
Dr. Lori Desautels is an assistant professor in the College of Education at Butler University in Indianapolis, Indiana. Lori was also an assistant professor at Marian University in Indianapolis, where she founded the Educational Neuroscience Symposium, now sponsored by Butler University. Lori has created webinars for educators, clinicians, and administrators illustrating how educators and students alike must understand their neuroanatomy to regulate behavior and calm the brain. You can learn more about her work at Revelations In Education.