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The topic of trauma — specifically, trauma-informed teaching — has become a focus in education. Almost 50 percent of students in the U.S. have experienced some form of trauma, so it’s critical that educators be equipped to support every student.

Trauma is often linked to adverse childhood experiences, including abuse, neglect and other events that happen to people under the age of 18. All have been proven to have a negative impact on academic performance and overall student health.

As the visual arts teacher at an elementary school in Brooklyn, N.Y., I teach about 500 students, many of whom have experienced trauma. I teach art via a program called Teaching for Artistic Behavior, which values student choice and agency and aligns perfectly with trauma-informed instruction.

I aim to create a learning space that revolves around choice — and instruction that is interest-based, goal-oriented or social and emotional.  

Some schools across the nation are now embracing trauma-informed approaches to teaching, which recognize that students’ actions are a direct result of their experiences. The pandemic makes this an even more critical time to prioritize trauma-informed instruction. 

Different approaches and programs may focus on valuing relationships; promoting safety and trustworthiness along with choice; collaboration; and encouraging skill building and competence.

A core element is connecting through safe, consistent and trustworthy relationships. In order to build these relationships, we must be genuinely interested and invested in who students are as people, not just their academic capabilities.

That means asking students what games they like to play, what shows they watch on TV and what they do with their friends. Showing interest by getting to know their likes and dislikes can help a trauma-informed teacher truly connect with each and every learner.

Asking questions is also key to building critical thinking skills. The 9 Traits of Critical Thinking and trauma-informed instruction go hand in hand.

For example, I once noticed a student was not paying attention to a drawing activity.

“I know you love robots, so would you like to build a robot out of cardboard boxes?” I asked.

The student instantly became curious. By reframing the academic experience to align with the student’s interests, I could drive learning forward.

Genuine, strong student-teacher relationships are foundational to learning. The relationships I build with my students revolve around my deep understanding of their likes and dislikes, the materials they love using, and work they are passionate about creating. This allows me to facilitate authentic, interest-based instruction.

During this time of increased stress, isolation and trauma, students need opportunities to connect with one another, their teachers and what makes them happy.

Providing students with open-ended prompts that enable them to insert their interests into academic learning is a valuable way to connect with their unique experiences. Encouraging and positively reinforcing students for engaging in learning around their interests helps students feel safe in what they know, and tells them the teacher values what makes them happy. 

Students with trauma also require choices that align with their needs.

I offer activity options for lessons that students can choose from, or a selection of different materials or tools they can use. I also try, as much as possible, to let them decide where and when they’ll complete their work. Providing choices and flexibility maximizes student-teacher trust.

For example, asking students to imagine a day in the life of their favorite character and create a comic to illustrate their idea may be too limiting for some. By turning this prompt into a broader choice-based experience, teachers might suggest different ways students can achieve the learning goals of narrative drawing and writing. Creating a sculpture of the character and verbally narrating its movements is one idea. Following a how-to-draw video and typing out the character’s day is another.

Related: What happens when a regular high school decides no student is a lost cause?

Choice-based instruction is particularly important during remote learning, when it is hard to predict what materials students might have at hand. My virtual art lessons provide students with open-ended prompts that can be achieved using any materials they have at home.

Finding ways to differentiate instruction is just as important. For example, allowing students to choose whether they want to answer questions over Zoom by writing in the chat, showing a hand signal or speaking out loud will maximize student participation. It will also account for the varied levels of comfort students have learning at home, in front of a computer.

Introducing students to different digital platforms where they can choose how to show their work, such as Padlet, Flipgrid and Google Classroom, is another way to accommodate their needs.

During this time of increased stress, isolation and trauma, students need opportunities to connect with one another, their teachers and what makes them happy.

Teachers have little control over their students’ learning environments, which is one reason why generating student interest in learning prompts is a vital strategy to motivate participation.

This could revolve around a question of the day that asks, “What video game character would you be and why?” It could be a project that involves creating a board game that incorporates math and writing, or a video that demonstrates what favorite book characters would do.

There are so many ways to imbue learning experiences with student interest and choice; careful consideration will make all the difference in cultivating valuable student-teacher relationships. 

Ava Cotlowitz is the visual arts teacher at P.S. 32 in Brooklyn, N.Y.

This story about trauma-informed teaching was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

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