13 Trauma-Informed Teaching Strategies for Educators Today
Trauma-informed teaching considers how experiences of chronic stress and trauma affect students – especially those with ADHD, learning differences, and other conditions. Use these strategies in your classroom to support learners of all ages.
Stress disrupts and delays learning. This fact is inescapable and undeniable in most classrooms, where educators are seeing disturbing youth mental health trends dovetail with stressors and potentially traumatizing events ranging from bullying to gun violence.
Educators are in a unique position to support vulnerable students, especially those with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and other learning differences. Trauma-informed teaching strategies consider how prolonged exposure to stress and traumatic events affect the developing brain, and how that exposure manifests as unique challenges with school behavior and performance.
Here are a few simple yet effective trauma-informed teaching approaches that promote learning, reduce stress, and help all students.
How Teachers Can Help Students Under Stress
Support Working Memory
Stress undermines working memory.1 The effects of stress on working memory might be greater on students with ADHD and/or learning differences, which are also associated with working memory deficits.
Use the following working memory scaffolding strategies to support students:
[Get This Free Download: 5 Academic Challenges Rooted in ADHD Executive Dysfunction]
- Simplify your language. Avoid over-explaining, using parenthetical phrases, or verbally listing multi-step or convoluted instructions.
- Externalize information. Lighten the load on working memory with visual aids. Here are some ideas:
- Write instructions on the board, especially to supplement verbal instruction
- Provide lesson outlines to help students follow along
- Hang posters around the classroom that help with brainstorming and problem-solving (e.g., the long division process, multiplication tables, the parts of an essay, commonly misspelled words)
- Use visual timers (e.g., the Time Timer) to help students “see” the passage of time and prioritize their tasks
- Maintain routines. Predictability and consistency promote calm, while habits save students from having to call on working memory. Avoid varying classroom procedures in the name of novelty, as it may have a counter-productive effect.
Bring Mindfulness and Calm to the Classroom
Mindfulness aims to shrink down the world to the here and now in order to calm the mind and body. Use it to end a state of heightened arousal (such as fear and anxiety) by doing the following:
[Read: 10 Mindfulness Exercises for Stronger School Focus]
- Take a mindful minute. Find a moment during the school day – like before a quiz or after lunch – to do a mindfulness activity with the class. Breathing exercises, like box breathing, are simple but effective. Have students breathe in for a count of three, hold for a count of three, exhale for a count of three, then hold the empty breath for a count of three.
- Designate a “cool-down” spot where students can go if they need to reclaim some calm.
- Encourage students to create a “cool-down” kit. Ask students to bring about three items from home (nothing of high value) that can soothe them in school. It could be a piece of fabric with a soothing texture, a bar of soap with a calming fragrance , a photograph, a fidget, etc. Have them use the kit for a few minutes before a test or another demanding activity.
When teaching a collectively stressed classroom or a single student who has experienced acute stress, alter your expectations accordingly.
- Grant students more time to complete assignments or divide assignments into smaller segments.
- Allow movement breaks.
- Cut down on the quantity of work (but not quality), or plan for shorter work periods.
- Allow students to weave their interests into assignments and projects.
- Use multiple modalities to reinforce learning.
- Design the day’s structure to align with students’ productivity patterns. Avoid giving tests in the morning, for example, if students struggle with focus and attention at that time.
- Make accommodations and interventions universal to avoid singling out a student. For example, check the entire class’s agenda, not just one student’s, for accuracy in copying down the homework off the board.
Trauma-Informed Teaching and Students with ADHD: Next Steps
- Free Download: 6 Ways to Develop Emotional Control at School
- Read: Childhood Trauma Happens More Than You Think It Does. How Do We Treat It?
- Read: How Do You Reassure Your Child When You’re Scared, Too?
The content for this article was derived, in part, from the ADDitude Mental Health Out Loud episode titled, “How Stress and Trauma Affect Brain Development” [Video Replay and Podcast #407] with Cheryl Chase, Ph.D., which was broadcast live on June 23, 2022.
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View Article Sources
1 de Veld, D. M., Riksen-Walraven, J. M., & de Weerth, C. (2014). Acute psychosocial stress and children’s memory. Stress (Amsterdam, Netherlands), 17(4), 305–313. https://doi.org/10.3109/10253890.2014.919446