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A Quick-Start Guide to Trauma-Informed Classrooms: Controlling What You Can To Meet Basic Needs

Updated: Oct 13, 2023

Every school I go to, I hear so many comments that educators are not supported in their trauma-informed efforts. Policies are still reflecting punitive practices. Administrators are unaware of the depth of challenges that survival mode can pose in the classroom setting. Or, if school leadership is on board, the parents might not be.

I hear you, and I can absolutely empathize. I started out as a school counselor trying my hardest to not only implement a comprehensive guidance program, but a fully compassionate school model in a high-risk, rural school. My all-staff presentations were often met with blank expressions or the polite nods and smiles on the faces of those I lovingly refer to as "late adopters". Against the odds, and to my administrator's annoyance, I did it. I was able to successfully implement SEL focused on emotions, a school-wide needs-based check-in, and sensory regulation supports for every grade, despite everyone not being fully bought in.

And so can you!

Whether your goals are school-wide or for your classroom space, this guide will provide you with practical steps to take toward compassionate classrooms with or without the support of your administrators.

In this guide you will discover:


1: Creating a Culture of Safety

In a world of never-ending checklists and looming deadlines, it can seem a lofty and unattainable goal to try to create a culture of safety and compassion amidst the daily hustle and bustle. A few small tweaks to your procedures can truly create a classroom where students are free from fear and able to focus. Remembering to see the behavior as a check-engine light pointing to an unmet need, rather than taking them personally is the foundation. Then, focusing on meeting students where they are to identify those needs and meet them in healthy ways is the goal.

Calm is in the details.

Take an inventory of your classroom. Is it decorated in a way that directs the eye to each area in an organized way, or is it full of clutter and loud colors? Atmospheres that promote calm include less visual stimulation. You can Google search the psychology behind color and choose a palette that promotes calm. Harsh fluorescent lights, repetitive or unexpected noises, and schedule changes can all promote sensory overload and increase anxiety in students. Just like unexpected noises can cause dysregulation, so too can unexpected changes in daily routine. By keeping a visual clock or daily schedule visible, including providing verbal reminders of upcoming changes, you can easily head off fight or flight. Lastly, integrating play into your daily routine is another practical way to disarm fear. If you need to justify playing in the classroom, it's been researched to help students learn twelve times faster than without the use of play. That's a WIN-WIN.

2. Meeting Basic Needs

One major obstacle to my kids being able to sit still and learn was that their basic needs for safety were simply not being met. Students came to school hungry, displaced, or worse. As an educator, it may seem daunting to try to provide for one child's every need, much less for the needs of an entire class. Thankfully, there are ways to meet physiological needs that empower students on the most basic level. Providing water breaks, healthy snacks, and sensory supports that are easily accessible and can be administered throughout the day, prioritizing the schedule around high-needs times such as transitions to and from specials or recess. Kids from hard places are significantly more likely to have blood sugar issues which push them into fight or flight when they are hungry. If cost is an issue, I have found that some grocery stores will provide grants to healthy snacks or fruit. I utilized the Aldi Community Cares grants, but you may be able to partner with a local faith-based organization or get funding through your district's title programs. Helping kids prepare to learn begins with helping their bodies get the proper hydration and nutrients.

3. Sensory Diet

Though we hear the word "sensory" being thrown around in education, the reality is most people do not know that it applies to everyone and is not reserved for differently-abled individuals. We all have certain preferences and thresholds for sensory input. For example, I enjoy the quiet, soft textures, and sweet tasting food and drink. Most of my sensory diet is geared toward calming. This means that I often avoid strong smells or flavors, loud noises, or scratchy fabrics, for example. If I encounter those things, I am more likely to become dysregulated, which is a fancy word that means I am unable to focus and am more likely have a lower window of tolerance for stress. Kids have sensory needs, just like adults. An overly hot or cold classroom, a loud fire drill, or an overly obnoxious classmate is likely to push kids from hard places over the edge. Thankfully, awareness is the first step to meeting the sensory needs of your class. Some activities are soothing and calming for everyone and are preventive in nature. Rocking, swinging, rhythmic sounds or movements, low lights, quiet music, and even certain colors can provide sensory support for your students. I provide a calm-down corner for students to utilize when they identify their need to calm or focus. More on that in the next paragraph. Alternative seating, Play-Doh, a bubble timer, and even Go Noodle videos can help your students achieve the calming their nervous systems crave, all without leaving the classroom. Sensory resources paired with compassionate practices are the key to keeping students in your classroom and out of disciplinary action.

4. Give Students a Voice and a Choice

My challenge was identifying whether behaviors were truly disobedience, or based in what I now know to be survival strategies.

I needed a way to identify how my students were feeling and in what areas they were struggling. As a school counselor, I was familiar with programs such as The Zones of Regulation and the Alert Program. That was my bread and butter. By utilizing circle time, morning meetings, bibliotherapy or other narrative materials I was able to empower students with the language they needed to name their feelings and then use their good words to express the need. Identifying which students are hungry, anxious, tired, etc. is the first step to meeting the need behind the behavior. Once students identified their feelings, they utilized a self-report check-in and were given the chance to meet their needs in a healthy way utilizing the sensory tools or calming areas of the classroom. This can be a simple as getting a drink of water when a child is frustrated with an exam, or hitting a few laps on a sensory pathway or doing a few wall push-ups to get out extra wiggles. The idea here is that they CHOOSE their regulatory activity. The simple act of giving a student space to say how he or she feels, giving them a choice in their intervention, and providing a safe space in which to learn are fundamental to compassionate classrooms.

You've got this! Whether your team is bought in or not ;)

Message me @ OvercomingAdversityLLC@Gmail.Com to learn more.

Check out my blog for more information on the benefits of compassionate practices and see a sensory pathway in action!

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