November is Homeless Youth Awareness Month, a great time for educators to reflect on how trauma-informed practices help meet the needs of all students, including those experiencing homelessness. These essential practices allow us to better meet the needs of our students experiencing homelessness—and in reality they are effective practices for working with all students.
What does it mean to be trauma informed? I’m reminded of an experience when I managed a community school. In our extended day program, my theater teacher demonstrated an acting technique where he abruptly threw his clipboard down on the gymnasium floor and screamed. A student, who had experienced both homelessness and abuse, became very upset, flipping a table and running away from the school because he was so scared by the loud noise.
This teacher had never experienced such a reaction from a student. He expressed frustration with the student’s defiance and expected him to receive consequences for his behavior. He didn’t understand how his own actions had triggered this student or why they might not be appropriate in a classroom setting. This experience demonstrated the need to explicitly train my staff on trauma-informed practices and how we can use them to create a safe and welcoming environment for students, reducing triggers and encouraging authentic learning.
Educators sometimes focus only on students changing their behavior to assimilate into the classroom setting. When using trauma-informed practices, we approach situations differently by meeting students where they are—and often, that is in a place of anxiety, agitation, or trauma.
Understanding the Four Zones of Regulation
Many schools use the zones of regulation framework, and I find this helpful when seeking to understand students’ responses to trauma. The framework divides regulation into four distinct states of mind—blue, yellow, red, and green:
- Blue zone: Students might feel tired, sad, sick, depressed, bored, slow, or sleepy
- Yellow zone: Students might be experiencing anxiety, stress, agitation, worry, excitement, or silliness. They are more activated and possibly less able to focus on learning new information.
- Red zone: Students experience more extreme emotions—feeling mad or angry, or even being mean to others by yelling or hitting. They feel out of control and need time and space to regulate.
- Green zone: Students feel rested, centered, happy, and ready to learn
When students experience trauma, including homelessness, they often begin their day in the yellow or blue zones, and their window of tolerance to deal with triggers and regulate when feeling agitated is much smaller. They need additional supports and strategies to scaffold regulation and help move them into a place where learning can happen. So, as educators, we use trauma-informed practices to help them get back to the green zone.
Six Principles of Trauma-informed Practice
Experts like those at Trauma Informed Oregon have developed six principles for trauma-informed practice in the classroom. Healing happens in relationships. We have an opportunity to center trauma-informed practices in relationship-building and make space for healing.
Educators should create safe, welcoming classrooms where all students feel they belong. Classroom routines should be as predictable as possible, and when they change, educators should inform and support students as they process and accept the changes.
Trustworthiness and transparency
Students who have experienced trauma often distrust adults and struggle with authority figures. Educators must create strong classroom communities centered in relationships where students feel valued. We support building trust through transparency and open communication.
Humans are social creatures, and we crave positive, supportive relationships. In our classrooms we can use peer support as a foundation for inquiry, investigation, and mastery. Students learn best from their peers, and as educators we can leverage peer support to better meet students where they are in their own learning.
Collaboration and mutuality
Students experiencing homelessness have much that is outside their control. In the classroom we can offer partnership with our students and meaningful opportunities to share power and partake in decision-making. When students share leadership roles, they strengthen their self-efficacy and feel empowered to engage in their own learning.
Empowerment, voice, and choice
We empower students experiencing trauma when we validate and support their personal goals by recognizing and building on their strengths, ideas, and aspirations. As educators we offer authentic opportunities for students to choose their own paths and find their voice in a supportive, relationship-focused learning environment.
Awareness of cultural, historical, and gender issues
Cultural responsiveness is another critical part of creating a trauma-informed classroom. Students have different cultural backgrounds, historical experiences, and gender identities. Allowing them to see themselves reflected in the work they’re doing is key to helping them find success and creating a better world for us all.
De-escalation Strategies You Can Use Today
The six principles can help us understand the big picture of a trauma-informed approach to education. Then, concrete strategies allow us to implement these practices. Luckily, there are many online. Here are a few that have worked for me.
Breathe to de-stress
Oxygen is one of the most important factors in de-escalation, because it decreases stress hormones in the body. As teachers, we can model this behavior, and help students practice continually—not just when they’re escalated.
Putting pressure on something, whether it’s a rubber ball or the palms of your own hands, can be a calming mechanism. These activities help us center our senses and feel more regulated.
Take a walk
Walking promotes brain chemicals called endorphins that support relaxation and improve our mood. A two-minute walk can be more effective than sitting out in the hallway for much longer.
5-4-3-2-1 ways to reorient your senses
This is one of my favorite activities to help students calm down. I often sit next to them and model the technique. I name five things I can see, four things I can hear, three things I can touch, two things I can smell, and one thing I can taste. This has a grounding effect, helping us stay present in our bodies.
As humans we imitate others around us without even realizing it. Educators can use this to help students co-regulate. You might say, “I am feeling stressed. I am going to practice my breathing.” Then, lower your voice. Calm your breathing. Model the behavior you want to see and often students will begin to co-regulate.
Finding Our Way Through Trauma to Resilience
Supporting students experiencing trauma is challenging. Remember, healing happens in relationships and together we can address harm and work towards solutions. Using trauma-informed practices helps create a foundation of safety and support. As students work through their own trauma, together we build a community focused on healing, resilience, growth, learning, and success.