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9 Ways to Support Trauma-Sensitive Classrooms

Trauma-informed care is one of the most discussed topics in early childhood education, and for good reason: You’re sure to have children in your classroom or program right now who have experienced trauma.

As defined by author Jen Alexander in the new book Building Trauma-Sensitive Schools, trauma is “a distressing experience or set of experiences that threatens a person’s actual safety or perceived sense of felt safety to such a degree that it exceeds an individual’s capacity to cope in healthy ways.” According to the National Child Traumatic Stress Network Schools Committee, at least one in four students have suffered trauma severe enough to affect their performance in school. When a young child experiences trauma—whether due to neglect, abuse, witnessing violence, or other factors—they may:

  • Become anxious and hyper-vigilant, exhibiting severe reactions to mild stressors

  • Have sensory, motor, executive function, communication, and language difficulties
  • Struggle with healthy emotional regulation, social skills, boundaries, and empathy-building

Because the overwhelming stress caused by trauma inflicts the most damage on the developing brains and bodies of the youngest children, trauma sensitivity is an especially critical area of focus for early childhood professionals. Read on to learn about the signs of trauma in young children—and nine things you can do to help.

What are the potential signs a child has experienced trauma?

Trauma-sensitive educators learn to decode signals sent by children who have experienced (or may still be experiencing) trauma or chronic stress. Adapted from the Trauma-Informed Care and the Pyramid Model emodule developed by the Pyramid Model Consortium, these potential signs and symptoms of trauma are something to be conscious of in the children under your care:

Infants & Toddlers

  • Overly clingy or irritable
  • Eating and sleeping disturbances
  • Startles easily
  • Developmental regression
  • Language delays
  • Difficulty giving consistent, accurate cues to caregivers
  • Trouble engaging in social interactions (smiling, cooing)
  • Persistent self-soothing behaviors (i.e. head banging)


  • Avoidant, anxious, clingy
  • General fearfulness
  • Inattention, difficulty problem-solving
  • Restless, impulsive
  • Loss of developmental milestones
  • Poor peer relationships (controlling or overly permissive)
  • Talking about traumatic event or reacting to trauma triggers
  • Aggressive and/or sexualized behavior

What can you do to help?

The effects of trauma can harm the academic and social-emotional development of young children, but the good news is, you can help. These nine practical steps, adapted from Building Trauma-Sensitive Schools, will help you establish a trauma-responsive classroom where children feel safer, more connected to their peers, better equipped to deal with their emotions, and ready to learn.

Be aware of potential trauma triggers
A typical early childhood learning environment is composed of a symphony of sensory stimuli that is benign for most children, but may trigger fight, flight, or freeze responses in a child who has experienced trauma. Be aware of children who exhibit these responses to stimuli such as loud or sudden sounds, bright colors, a crying classmate, or certain activities—and be sensitive to more subtle trauma triggers, too (for instance, dimming the lights during rest time might remind a child of past sexual abuse). To comfort a child after a triggering event, here are a few examples (from the Trauma-Informed Care and the Pyramid Model emodule) of things you might say:

  • “I’m here to help you. I’m not angry with you and you’re not in trouble.”
  • “That really scared you, didn’t it?”
  • “I can see how hard this is for you.”
  • “I see that you’re really upset. I’ll stay here with you to keep you safe.”
  • “I want to understand better. If I know how you feel, I’ll be able to help you better. Use your voice and words to tell me.”

Clearly communicate safety expectations
Building a trauma-sensitive learning environment starts with establishing rules, expectations, and predictable routines that help children feel safe to explore and connect with their peers. For preschool and kindergarten students, communicate safety expectations using highly specific, positive language that stresses what you want them to do instead of what you don’t want them to do. Try replacing “No running in the halls” with “Walk, please.” Instead of saying, “Don’t talk to him that way,” to a student putting down a fellow classmate, try saying, “Tell us how you feel so everyone can feel safe.” Rule posters, step-by-step procedural charts, and videos of older kids modeling positive behavior are all effective ways to reinforce behavioral and safety expectations.

Establish healthy boundaries
To develop healthy peer relationships, young children require an understanding of healthy boundaries. As long as they don’t feel shamed, children will eventually understand that the limits you set are reasonable and in place to help everyone feel safe. Here are a few things a trauma-sensitive educator might say to frame respectful boundaries and limitations in a positive way:

  • “In our school, we don’t ____ because that bothers others.”
  • “I bet it would upset you if someone did that to you. I’m not going to let you do that to others. Can I help you find another way?”
  • “I know it’s hard to accept me saying no about that. I’m here to help you through it.”
  • “This time didn’t work out so well. Think about how you could try again later.”

Coach children on relationship skills
With a little bit of planning, you can weave instruction that reinforces healthy interpersonal skills into daily activities like storytime. Swimmy, Stick and Stone, and Chopsticks are three examples of engaging picture books that help support the development of self-awareness, empathy, and relationship-building skills. Whenever possible, encourage young children to imagine themselves in the shoes of different characters so they develop an appreciation for other perspectives.

Embed mindfulness practices
Embedding mindfulness and self-regulation strategies into daily routines is a good way to help young children gain agency over their stress response systems. Daily meditation or yoga (look for books like You Are a Lion! that teach simple animal poses for children) can help calm children and get them ready to learn. (Bear in mind that some students who have experienced trauma may need permission to keep their eyes open during mindfulness activities.) You can also show your class this Sesame Street video, a cute introduction to the mindfulness practice of belly breathing. Another calming activity is to urge children to make horse sounds with their lips as they breathe out, which often leads to fits of giggles. Laughter is contagious, and a natural antidote to stress and anxiety!

Teach them to identify and express emotions
Most young children don’t possess the natural ability to identify and appropriately express their emotions; these are learned skills that form a key link in the chain of successful self-regulation. Teach young children the differences between passive, aggressive, and assertive communication, and explain why being assertive is the most reliable way to get their needs met without alienating others. Suggest assertive statements for them to use like “I feel ____; I need ___.” It’s also important to work with children on how to listen and respond respectfully when their peers are communicating their emotions and needs.

Foster belonging
Trauma-sensitive learning environments highlight the importance of belonging while encouraging children to respect and value the differences between themselves and others. You might explain that while each one of them is a special and unique individual, people accomplish more when they come together and combine their diverse strengths, talents, and perspectives. In the picture book Everybody Needs a Rock, kids are tasked with finding their very own perfect rock, which involves looking in a variety of different locations. Read your young students the book, and then encourage children to bring in their own special rocks to share with the class.

Are you looking for more inclusive, diversity-focused resources and materials? Check out this list of 14 places you can find resources and materials to help you reflect diversity within your classroom!

Provide executive function instruction and support
Executive function skills are among the best indicators of future success, but traumatized children may struggle with them—particularly in areas such as impulse control, decision-making, and sustained attention. Try incorporating popular games for young children that incorporate skills related to executive function and self-regulation. Freeze Tag, Duck Duck Goose, Simon Says, memory games, handclapping games and songs, and storytelling activities where each child adds a detail to a story, are just some of the activities that strengthen the interlocking network of mental processes associated with executive function.

Collaborate to meet each family’s needs
A child’s feeling of safety begins at home. Think of your classroom or program as not just a place where young children begin to learn the skills they’ll need to achieve future success, but as a community hub where families can get assistance to meet their needs and establish a safe and nurturing home. Be proactive in providing on-site health services or referrals to health and social services resources. Partner with local agencies to offer after-school and summer programs. Consider organizing food, clothing, and toy drives, and coordinate with local food banks so students can take home meals when they need them.

Trauma and chronic stress can have a major impact on a young child’s life, both in and outside the classroom. But with your help, students can feel safe, supported, and ready to succeed both socially and academically.

If you found the strategies outlined in this article helpful, check out Jen Alexander’s Building Trauma-Sensitive Schools for comprehensive guidance on supporting students who experience trauma.