A step-by-step guide for using stress- and trauma-sensitive practices in your classroom

COVID-19 and the deaths of Mr. Arbery, Ms. Taylor, Mr. Floyd, and Mr. Brooks have caused stress and even trauma for many students. As educators, we can all come together to support learning in times as difficult as these. In fact, we must come together—because by supporting learning through stress and trauma, we are also taking action to repair inequitable educational systems and methods.

Formative assessment can be a powerful way to support learners right now. As my colleague Vicki McCoy wrote in her recent blog post, formative assessment is a critical part of building a culture of learning. But for it to be effective—and for a culture of learning to be strong—we must first ensure we’re doing everything we can to build trust with our students. To do that, it helps to begin with a good understanding of where they’re coming from, so I’ll start this post with definitions of different kinds of stress and trauma. Then I’ll discuss four stress- and trauma-sensitive practices that support formative assessment and how you can use our free worksheet to make a plan for your students.

But first, a caveat: Helping children who have experienced high levels of stress and trauma of any kind is a group effort. Educators cannot take on this work alone. Partnering with mental health providers and advocates of diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility is absolutely necessary. We must be able to rely on others—from families and community members to social service agencies and the medical community—to do their part in this important work. The ideas discussed here are merely a part of the complete picture of supporting children in need, and they represent the part most appropriately assigned to teachers: the classroom.

Understanding stress and trauma

As you know, even during less chaotic times, students can experience stress. According to Harvard’s Center on the Developing Child, positive stress is normal and common. A kid might exhibit positive stress on the first day of school, for example, or when they get their annual flu shot. Tolerable stress is less commonplace. It’s caused by things like the loss of a loved one or a natural disaster. It “activates the body’s alert systems” more than positive stress. But “if the activation is time-limited [that is, it doesn’t go on indefinitely] and buffered by relationships with adults who help the child adapt, the brain and other organs recover from what might otherwise be damaging effects.” The body can recover and learning can happen.

Formative assessment can be a powerful way to support learners right now. […] But for it to be effective […] we must first ensure we’re doing everything we can to build trust with our students.

Toxic stress is much more troubling. It “can occur when a child experiences […] physical or emotional abuse, chronic neglect, caregiver substance abuse or mental illness, exposure to violence, and/or the accumulated burdens of family economic hardship—without adequate adult support. [It] can disrupt the development of brain architecture and other organ systems, and increase the risk for stress-related disease and cognitive impairment, well into the adult years.” In her recent post on teaching children living in poverty due to COVID-19, epidemiologist Linda Riddell talks more about the effects of stress on the brain.

Students can also experience trauma. The National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN) explains that trauma can result when a child suffers a serious injury or witnesses someone else being gravely injured or dying, is threatened with serious injury or death, or is physically violated. “Child traumatic stress occurs when children’s exposure to traumatic events overwhelms their ability to cope [and] can cause increased anxiety, depression, symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, difficulty managing relationships, and, most important for educators, difficulty with school and learning.”

NCTSN also explains that historical trauma is “cumulative emotional and psychological wounding, as a result of group traumatic experiences, transmitted across generations within a community,” such as slavery and the Holocaust. “The result of these events is traumatic stress experienced across generations by individual members of targeted communities, their families, and their community. The impact is not only about what has happened in the past, but also about what is still happening in the present.”

Racial trauma is caused by “witnessing or experiencing racism, discrimination, or structural prejudice [and] can have a profound impact on the mental health of individuals exposed to these events. [It] refers to the stressful impact or emotional pain of one’s experience with racism and discrimination.”

The role of formative assessment

Formative assessment is a pedagogical approach that can help you nurture social, emotional, and academic growth for all students, including those suffering from stress or trauma. When we talk about formative assessment, we are not talking about a testing event disconnected from learning. Formative assessment is the iterative and responsive processes of student-involved social, emotional, and cognitive learning.

Stress- and trauma-sensitive practices can inform your formative assessment strategies, which can, in turn, help heal types of trauma, prevent re-traumatization, and repair inequitable instructional methods. I explore the connection between these practices and formative assessment in more detail in my post “6 ways to help heal toxic stress, trauma, and inequity in your virtual or in-person classroom.”

Make a plan for adopting stress- and trauma-sensitive practices

In “Trauma and learning in America’s classrooms,” Salvatore Terrasi and Patricia Crain de Galarce offer four stress- and trauma-sensitive practices that are at the heart of the formative assessment cycle:

  1. Safe and respectful environment
  2. Caring relationships
  3. Supports of emotion and behavior
  4. Supports of cognitive growth and overall well-being

These four practices are stress- and trauma-sensitive because they build learner voice, choice, resilience, self-regulation, and predictability, all of which cue the brain and body to stop tolerable stress from turning into toxic stress. The practices can repair the severity of previous trauma, help avoid re-traumatization—especially trauma resulting from inequity—and strengthen students’ sense of safety and success. I’m guessing these practices are at least somewhat familiar to you. I hope this validates the very hard work you’ve already been doing for a long time.

It is possible for these stress- and trauma-informed practices to get lost, overlooked, or undervalued during busy or challenging times, so we’ve created a worksheet that can help you reflect on and plan for ways to incorporate each practice into your classroom. It walks you through considerations for each practice, like creating predictable patterns to foster a safe and respectful environment, strengthening relationships by setting goals, assessing needs for social-emotional learning, and supporting cognitive growth by exploring unfinished teaching needs.

I encourage you to explore this topic with your colleagues. There’s a lot to consider, and working alongside peers you know and trust can help you deeply explore your practice. Here are some discussion questions to help you get the conversation started:

  • In what ways do you already explicitly build trust with and between your learners? List at least three ways.
  • What methods do you use to cultivate your understanding of where kids are coming from? What additional methods might you use?
  • What kinds of trauma are you trying to heal?
  • What re-traumatization are you trying to prevent?
  • What inequitable instructional practices are you trying to repair?
  • In what ways do your practices support the four stress- and trauma-sensitive practices related to formative assessment?
  • Where might you begin, focus, or re-focus your work based on your contextual needs? What steps will you take?

Learn more

If you’d like to learn more about the impact of stress and trauma on learning, read about the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) study, which brought to light how toxic stress and trauma affect more people than we may have previously realized. Realizing how many people experience stress and trauma can be heavy, but resources that support educators in navigating these difficult waters offer relief and optimism. For example, I often turn to resources from groups such as Trauma Informed Oregon and The National Child Traumatic Stress Network.

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