In early childhood education, creating a safe and nurturing environment is crucial for supporting young children's holistic development. However, many children may have experienced trauma or adverse life events that can impact their well-being and ability to learn. As educators, it is essential to understand the effects of trauma and implement strategies to create trauma-informed classrooms.
A trauma-informed care approach prevents further trauma and creates a safe and supportive environment for children who have experienced trauma. It improves educational outcomes and fosters social-emotional development when implemented effectively. When integrated into your classroom management strategy, this approach also promotes resilience in children by helping them develop skills to cope with and overcome adversity.
However, many early childhood education providers are unfamiliar with trauma-informed care or how to implement it effectively. This leads to missed opportunities to support children who have experienced trauma and help them thrive.
This article looks closely at trauma-informed care and how to apply it in early childhood education. It provides tips and strategies for creating a trauma-informed classroom that meets the needs of young children.
What is a trauma-informed classroom?
A trauma-informed classroom is a safe and supportive environment for children who have been through serious events in their life. It’s designed to meet the unique needs of children and promote their social-emotional development and healing.
What is trauma-informed care?
Trauma-informed care is a strengths-based approach that considers the unique needs of children who have experienced trauma. It focuses on creating a safe and supportive environment and building resilience.
Trauma-informed caretaking practices take into account the child's individual experience of trauma and its effects on their development. Caretakers must be attuned to the child's needs and responsive to their behaviors.
However, not all children who have experienced trauma will exhibit the same behaviors or need the same level of support. Therefore, it's essential for caretakers to be familiar with the signs and symptoms of trauma and thus adapt their approach to meet the child's individual needs.
Here are the components of trauma-informed care:
- Safety: A trauma-informed environment is physically and emotionally safe for children. It's free from any violence or threat of violence.
- Support: It's supportive and nurturing. Children feel cared for and respected.
- Resiliency: It helps children develop skills to cope with and overcome adverse childhood experiences.
Principles of trauma-informed care
Trauma-informed care is based on principles designed to meet the unique needs of children who have experienced trauma. When integrated into early childhood education, they have the potential to improve educational outcomes and foster social-emotional development.
Below we review the guiding principles to a trauma-informed approach:
Physical and emotional safety is paramount to a trauma-informed approach. Achieving safety requires understanding the effects of trauma on children and families and implementing policies and practices that address safety concerns.
For children to feel safe, they need to be in an effective and positive learning environment. As an educator, you can implement specific behavior management strategies like developing clear behavior guidelines and following a consistent daily routine that will create a structured setting for your children to focus on learning. Also, things like managing transitions carefully will help to minimize stress and anxiety in your classroom.
Trustworthiness and transparency
Children who have experienced trauma need to feel that they can trust the adults in their lives, requiring adults to be transparent in their actions and intentions.
Building trust begins with developing relationships with children and families based on mutual respect. Then, keep your word, follow through on promises, and avoid surprises. Also, be open to feedback and willing to adjust your plans based on what you learn.
Peer support, or the inclusion of others who have similar lived experiences and understanding of trauma, are key in promoting healing and recovery. For example, family members of children that have experienced traumatic events can offer valuable support.
Collaboration and mutuality
Educators must work collaboratively with children, families, and other professionals when appropriate. This requires good communication and a shared understanding of the child's needs.
Empowerment, voice and choice
Educators must strive to empower children and families by providing them with the knowledge and resources they need to make decisions about their lives. Give children choices, such as what toy to play with or what snack to have, whenever possible and respect their preferences.
Encourage children and families to advocate for themselves. Help them identify their strengths and build on them. Also, connect them with community resources that help them meet their needs.
Cultural, historical, and gender issues
It’s essential to understand the unique experiences of different groups of people and be aware of their historical trauma. This includes respecting children and families' cultural and spiritual beliefs and working to actively move past stereotypes and biases.
When working with children and families from diverse backgrounds, be aware of potential language barriers and have access to interpreters when needed. Also, be familiar with the unique customs and traditions of different cultures.
Some families may want to incorporate their religious beliefs into their care, and others may not want to discuss religion. Respect the wishes of families and avoid imposing your own beliefs on them.
Help your staff build stronger relationships with families using brightwheel's communication app. Staff can easily message families directly, send reminders, and share their children's progress. 95% of administrators and staff report brightwheel improves family communication.
Why is trauma-informed care important?
Children who have faced trauma often have difficulty in school and may struggle to keep up with their peers. Trauma-informed care helps these children with the support they need to succeed. When implemented correctly, it leads to several benefits.
First, trauma-informed care fosters social-emotional development. It provides a safe and supportive environment where children can feel free to express themselves. A comfortable and secure child is more likely to develop positive relationships with others.
Second, trauma-informed care promotes resilience in children by helping them develop skills to cope with and overcome adversity. Children who have gone through traumatic experiences often feel helpless and hopeless, and some even develop mental health problems such as anxiety and depression. But with proper support, they can learn to deal with their experiences in a healthy way and develop the strength to overcome them.
It can also deter future trauma. Children who have been through traumatic experiences are more likely to experience them again in adulthood. Trauma-informed care works to break this cycle as it's a preventative approach. By giving children the tools and resources they need to deal with adversity, they're more likely to avoid future trauma—or at least be better equipped to deal with it.
Lastly, it improves educational outcomes. Children who have experienced trauma may have difficulty concentrating and may fall behind in their studies. Such children need extra support in the classroom to be successful. Trauma-informed care provides all children with the necessary emotional and social support to succeed academically.
How to practice trauma-informed care
A trauma-informed classroom focuses on the whole child and considers their unique identity along with their physical, social, emotional, and cognitive needs.
A trauma-informed classroom must also utilize developmentally appropriate practices that consider each child’s individual needs and their social and cultural contexts to create an engaging learning experience.
Follow these tips to create a trauma-informed classroom:
Use positive reinforcement
Trauma may cause children to feel unworthy or incapable of being good. Positive reinforcement encourages desired behaviors by providing positive affirmations, praise, or rewards after the behavior is displayed. Help children feel good about themselves and their accomplishments by providing plenty of positive reinforcement, such as verbal praise, stickers, or small toys.
Avoid using punishments
Punishments can trigger feelings of shame, fear, powerlessness, and bad memories in children who have experienced trauma. Instead, use logical and natural consequences related to the child's behavior. For example, if a child hits another child, the child might have to take a break from playing with other children for a few minutes. While logical and natural consequences aren’t always easy to come up with, they’re more effective in the long run than punishment.
Create a safe and supportive environment
Children need to feel safe to learn. A safe learning environment is one where there is no physical or emotional harm. To create a safe environment:
- Avoid yelling or using offensive language
- Be aware of your body language and tone of voice
- Be consistent with rules and expectations
Building trusting relationships with children and helping them to develop positive relationships with their peers is essential for creating a trauma-informed classroom. Promote trust and relationships by:
- Showing genuine interest in each child
- Listening to children without judgment
- Respecting each child's confidentiality
- Being available to talk when a child wants to talk
Enhance coping skills
To deal with difficult emotions and experiences, childcare providers can support the development of children's coping skills. For example, provide opportunities for self-expression through art, music, dance, or play. Teach children how to identify and label their emotions, helping them understand that it’s normal to feel a range of emotions, and showing them healthy ways to cope with and express their feelings.
Help children regulate their emotions
When children feel overwhelmed by emotions, they may act out negatively. For example, a child with difficulty regulating emotions might yell, have tantrums, hit or bite others, or disrupt the class.
Here’s what to do to help a child regulate their emotions:
- Teach breathing exercises or other relaxation techniques
- Use calming words and phrases such as, "It's okay," "Take a deep breath," or "Count to 10"
- Offer physical comforts such as a hug, back rub, or hand to hold
Incorporate physical activity and healthy eating
Promote healthy communication
Help children learn how to express themselves in a healthy way. For example, teach them to use words to describe their feelings, demonstrate assertive communication skills, and model respectful communication.
Encourage a sense of belonging
Trauma may cause children to feel disconnected from others. Group work, cooperative games, and circle time help children feel more connected to their classmates and teachers. Promote a sense of belonging by making each child feel valued and respected. Also, show warmth, empathy, and understanding to let children know you care about them.
Be aware of your triggers
As a childcare provider, be aware of your triggers. A trigger sets off an adverse reaction in you, such as sights, smells, sounds, or memories. When you’re aware of your triggers, you can take steps to avoid them or manage them in a way that doesn't negatively affect the children in your care.
Seek out professional help
If you’re feeling overwhelmed or having difficulty implementing trauma-informed practices, seek professional help. Many resources are available to childcare providers, including books, websites, and training programs. Find a resource that is right for you and your particular needs.
Trauma-informed care training
The training for early childhood educators is designed to help you understand what trauma is, how it impacts children and families, and what you can do to create a trauma-informed environment in your early childhood program. Consider an accredited program that offers the flexibility to complete the training at your own pace and schedule.
Here is a list of some recommended programs:
- Safe Spaces: Foundations of Trauma-Informed Practice for Educational and Care Settings is a free, online training from the Office of the California Surgeon General designed to help early care providers, TK-12 educators, and other school personnel to recognize and respond to trauma and stress in children.
- Trauma Informed Care Training from Child Care Resource Center (CCRC) is a 16-hour training series comprised of seven two-hour modules. Childcare providers in various settings can understand how trauma impacts development and learn trauma informed strategies that effectively help address problem behaviors.
- California State University, San Bernardino (CSUSB) Early Childhood Trauma Informed Care Certificate offers a 5-month online program that equips educators with knowledge and skills to work with children who have experienced trauma.
- WestEd Developmentally-Informed Trauma Practices in Early Childhood (DITP) training teaches early childhood educators the strategies necessary to create a trauma-informed environment. In addition, the partnership with the community ensures that educators receive the latest information on trauma and its effects on children.
- Zero to Three focuses on skills that help childcare providers care for children under three years old. They also partner with public and private agencies to provide technical assistance and support for implementing trauma-informed practices.
A trauma-informed classroom increases safety and security, improves academic outcomes, and creates a more positive school climate for all children. When implemented correctly, a trauma-informed approach mitigates trauma's effects and builds resilience in children.
As a childcare provider, you can make a positive difference in the lives of the children in your care by creating a trauma-informed classroom. With proper knowledge and support, you’ll help children heal from their experiences and build the skills they need to thrive.
Remember that every child is different and will respond to a trauma-informed classroom in their own way. Be patient, flexible, and prepared to adjust your approach as needed. With time, patience, and care, you can create a safe and supportive environment that meets the needs of all the children in your care.
Brightwheel is the complete solution for early education providers, enabling you to streamline your center’s operations and build a stand-out reputation. Brightwheel connects the most critical aspects of running your center—including sign in and out, parent communications, tuition billing, and licensing and compliance—in one easy-to-use tool, along with providing best-in-class customer support and coaching. Brightwheel is trusted by thousands of early education centers and millions of parents. Learn more at mybrightwheel.com.