How Can I Engage in Trauma-informed Teaching? ‘When Teachers are Doing a Trauma-informed Approach, They’re Really Building Community and Acknowledging What Might Happen When Difficult Experiences and Stories are Shared,’ Says Associate Professor Angela Wiseman
Classrooms are places where stories are shared, and many times, often at unexpected moments, children may share stories related to traumas they’ve experienced in their lives. For this reason, Angela Wiseman, associate professor of literacy education in the NC State College of Education, says it’s important for educators to have the preparation and understanding necessary to engage in trauma-informed teaching.
Trauma can refer to any event that challenges a person’s sense of physical, emotional, social or moral safety. Trauma can happen at the home and individual levels – such as emotional or physical abuse, family separation due to issues like homelessness or incarceration, or illness – or at the community and worldwide levels – such as natural disasters and poverty or, more recently, issues of racial injustice and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
Wiseman, whose research focuses on a trauma-informed approach to family literacy and the preparation of teachers who can implement trauma-informed practices in the classroom, said that addressing issues of trauma among students begins with normalizing different experiences that happen in the world through their lessons and actions.
“Some of the components that are really important when working with teachers is that they need to create classrooms that are safe, accepting places and that, when stories are shared, it’s important to bear witness. In other words, acknowledge that those stories happened and that child has legitimate experiences,” she said. “When teachers are enacting a trauma-informed approach, they’re really building community and acknowledging what might happen when difficult experiences and stories are shared, and how students can support each other when difficult stories are told.”
Making Classrooms a Safe Space to Share
With mental health issues like anxiety and depression on the rise among children and adolescents as the pandemic enters its second year, Wiseman said she believes a trauma-informed pedagogy is important for all students, especially since teachers don’t know everything students have gone through during the time classes were held online.
Wiseman noted that children have experienced even more stress in the past two years. For instance, many children lost family members or caregivers as a result of the pandemic, and normal classroom activities could serve as triggers for students to share those stories. For example, reading a story about family may cause a child to start thinking about a deceased loved one and talk about their loss.
It’s important that when these situations arise, teachers acknowledge their student’s feelings and assure them that the classroom is a safe place where they can share their emotions.
“A lot of times, when difficult topics come up, it’s natural to want to just quickly divert from that conversation, but that can be really difficult for children. If they’re sharing their feelings and coming to you for that, and you’re not sure how to acknowledge it, it can cause them to re-experience those feelings,” Wiseman said.
Teachers need to be prepared for moments when trauma-related stories pop up, but ideally, Wiseman believes teachers should not have to handle issues of trauma alone.
Teachers interact with their students on a daily basis, and are therefore well-positioned to notice when a students’ behavior changes or when they express something that indicates they have been experiencing trauma. Although teachers are often the first step in acknowledging or detecting a problem, collaboration with social workers and psychologists is key to addressing issues of trauma.
“Teachers have a certain set of knowledge, and they see kids from a classroom standpoint, but my hope is that we work with social workers, counselors and community organizations, so that we can get support for kids that really need it. And right now, there are more and more kids that need resources and need support in different ways,” Wiseman said.
Wilsman’s own research is bringing together teachers and social workers through her ongoing Trauma Informed Practice Support (TIPS) in Schools and Communities project, an interdisciplinary approach to trauma developed in collaboration with Qiana Cryer-Coupet, an associate professor in the NC State College of Humanities and Social Sciences’ School of Social Work. The project has connected research to professional development for pre-service and in-service teachers and social workers to help them provide trauma-informed support to students while accounting for the contexts in which they work.
Using Picture Books to Address Issues of Trauma
Wiseman, whose research also focuses on analyzing children’s picture books, said that for young children, picture books can be a great tool for teachers to use in the classroom to help normalize a variety of diverse experiences.
“Picture books can give understanding of people’s different experiences or validate the experiences that they’ve had. When children see themselves in books, they can see that we know that there are different experiences, you are welcome here, and your life and experiences are represented here in this classroom and in this space,” Wiseman said.
When selecting picture books for their classrooms, Wiseman recommends teachers focus predominantly on recently published selections. She recommends using those published within the past decade as some, but not all, older books can depict outdated or problematic representations of various groups. Additionally, newer books will typically focus on more relevant social issues.
“There are some really good books that are older, but we have to look at our more recent recognitions of different social issues and how they’re represented now,” she said. “It’s a challenge to find quality books, so I think the best thing is to really engage with online resources that highlight the experiences of different communities and different populations.”
To find appropriate and diverse books, Wiseman recommends using the the Brown Bookshelf, which focuses on books from Black authors, highlights diverse children’s literature, publishes book reviews and hosts book talks with authors throughout the year.
The Children’s Literature assembly (CLA), a non-profit association of scholars, critics, professors, students, librarians, teachers and institutions dedicated to the academic study of literature for children, also offers a variety of resources, including a blog that reviews a variety of books with a specific focus on those that highlight diverse experiences and social justice topics.
Milo Imagines the World depicts the story of a young boy going to visit his father in prison, showing what he notices as he takes the subway to get there.
“It’s something you could read in the classroom because it depicts an everyday kid that’s very relatable, but it shows the diversity of his family situation,” Wiseman said.
Drawn Together is the story of a young boy who is dropped off at the home of his grandfather. The duo struggle to relate to one another because of a language barrier and cultural differences, but ultimately bond over a shared love of drawing. Although the book does not explicitly deal with trauma, Wiseman uses it in her family literacy program to help fathers who have been separated from their children understand how to experience feelings of separation and come together with kids in different ways.
“I actually like open-ended books that are not directly about trauma, but that people can think about how they engage with it in their own ways,” she said.
Other Resources for Trauma-Informed Teaching
Beyond picture books, Wiseman recommends teachers who want to use a trauma-informed approach visit the Learning for Justice website, The online resource, which was started by the Southern Poverty Law Center, features lesson plans, articles and resources that can help educators understand how to build community and acknowledge different ways of thinking and being within the classroom.
To help pre-service and in-service teachers develop a foundational understanding of the long-lasting impact of trauma on children, Wiseman also recommends educators watch Nadine Burke Harris’ TED Talk entitled “How Childhood Trauma Affects Health Across a Lifetime.”
“Once you’ve experienced trauma, the repercussions can exist for so long, so I think it’s important to acknowledge that a lot of times when something happens to children, it has a ripple effect across the lifespan,” Wiseman said.