Students Can't Learn If They Don't Feel Safe

Michele Regan
Director at Inspired Instruction, LLC
February 24, 2020

We have all heard the phrase, “Students can’t learn if they don’t feel safe!”  Ok, so it’s likely you agree with this.  But now what?

Trauma-sensitive practices have come to the forefront in the education field, but there is still hesitation by many educators as they are concerned about taking on the role of a mental health professional.  I can understand their doubts and fears; they want to be sure they are “doing it right” and probably, also, are feeling a bit overwhelmed.

In my role as an education professor, I was often faced with students who were showing up for my classes, but they weren’t really there.  It was scary at first trying to figure out how to support these students; should I ask them directly what was going on?  So, I did a little research and found an approach that seemed to work, for everyone involved.


Here are a few “truths” that help guide my work, not just with students who may have experienced trauma, but with all students.  

No, you are not taking on the role of a mental health professional.  

If a district does it right, there should be an array of professionals who support students (and their families). The teacher, however, is the first line of defense, and often is the one making the appropriate referrals for additional support for a student.  They tend to be the gatekeepers for services, and rightly so.  They see the students the most, and have a good understanding of the behaviors that are exhibited daily.  That being said, teachers must be provided with training on the systems that their schools have in place for referrals for services, as well as knowledge of the availability of resources in and out of the schools.  

For me, this was key, as I was concerned about going it alone.  I was sure to keep my supervisor in the loop and got support from her.  Additionally, I learned about the counseling options available and shared these with the class as a whole, not to single students out, as a regular practice. In my conversations with students, I also always let them know I was there for them, and that I cared about what was going on, but that other resources could provide specific types of support that I could not.

No, you don’t need to “know the trauma.”  

Many teachers are concerned about prying into students’ personal lives, and have been falsely taught that supporting students means “getting them to talk about it.”  Not true!  You do not need to know the source or extent of the trauma that a student has experienced in order to support him or her. While you may engage in activities that focus on reflection, such as journaling,make sure that students feel safe knowing that their writing won’t be shared.  An empathetic attitude, calm demeanor, thoughtful planning, and consistent relationship-building is what is required. If you look at each of your interactions with students as an opportunity to reassure them that they are seen, heard and cared for, then you are on the right track!  An easy way to get started showing your students you care is by incorporating this short Feelings Four Corners Activity.

In my courses, reflection was central to our work as I felt it was critical for future teachers to do consistent self-discovery.  That being said, I always made it known that nothing had to be shared unless they wanted to. The outcome was that students began to see that they were not alone; people like them shared similar experiences, some good, some bad. I also assigned a twist on the typical family tree, instead students were invited to share “their story.”  While there was a rubric with requirements, the content shared was unique to each student, highlighting that which they were comfortable sharing.

Yes, relationships really do matter.  

Regarding building relationships, this can be particularly tricky with students who have experienced trauma, as they may frequently be your most “difficult” students.  Likely, they drain the mental and emotional resources of teachers on a daily basis.  How, then, can you provide specific, personalized support? Note that the keys to a healthy relationship are stability and consistency.  The student needs to know that you will be reliable and that your responses will be predictable.  Additionally, you will want to work to foster a sense of belonging for all of your students.  Again, these students may be considered difficult by peers or may isolate themselves, therefore it is our job to make the classroom a “community” where we all have a sense of responsibility for one another.

How do you do this with many students?  I saw a huge change in the level of participation in my courses when I began to greet students by name.  Another way I learned to build trust was through the “2x10 technique.”  The idea is to talk to a student for 2 minutes for 10 days in a row about an outside of- or in-school interest (I modified it for college courses but you get the idea!). You can help build relationships by asking students to share privately their emotions using these Social Emotional Exit Tickets.

Yes, safety comes first.  

I think about the doctor’s Hippocratic Oath: First, Do No Harm!  Many times, students who have had adverse experiences can unintentionally be re-traumatized in school.  How can we prevent this? Start by looking at your classroom as a critical element to the students’ feelings of safety.  Take a good hard look around and ask yourself: Is there something here that might be a trigger for a child?  

Think about the following as possible triggers:

  • Crowded, overstimulating classrooms
  • Unpredictable routines and unexpected changes
  • Certain communication techniques (verbal and non-verbal)   
  • Certain assignments and curriculum materials

Any of these things may cause a “fight, flight, or freeze” reaction in students if they create the feelings associated with prior traumatic experiences.  A student might respond to a challenging assignment or a request to be the “reporter” in their group as an opportunity to fail, or be humiliated.   A loud or intimidating tone or close proximity to an authority figure can be fear producing.  A story about a child being neglected or an assignment about a family tree may instill a feeling of being ‘less than” for these students.   

This one took a lot more thought, as I needed to spend time each week reviewing the materials and activities I planned, putting myself in my students’ shoes.  One semester, I had a student share that she was concerned about a topic we were to discuss, and I was unsure how to support her.  So, I decided to ask.  She thanked me and suggested she sit by the door so that she could quietly step out if needed.  That day was a success for both of us!  

What can we do?  

Here are just a few ideas to consider as you focus on becoming a trauma-sensitive educator.

  • Consider your classroom environment...less is more
  • Create and post predictable routines
  • Provide a “heads-up” before changes in routine
  • Use an even tone of voice and avoid sarcasm
  • Be thoughtful in planning assignments (Will all students be able to participate positively?)
  • Review curriculum materials for any possible negative impacts
  • Incorporate opportunities for breaks and teach strategies to “keep calm” (Mindfulness activities like these can help)
  • Highlight mistakes as paths to learning, and measure small steps and progress
  • Model calm and predictable behavior, and provide consistent consequences

When people ask me the best practices for being “trauma-sensitive,” my first suggestion is to provide as many opportunities as possible for students to feel connected!  It’s important to recognize that we are not here to “fix” kids; instead, we are focused on modeling and supporting resilience, as we all face challenges and need these skills to overcome obstacles in life.  Moreover, expect your work learning about and using trauma-sensitive practices to be a marathon, not a sprint.  You may not see the progress you hope for immediately, but all of your efforts will be worth it.  Your students’ sense of safety will positively impact their ability to learn in your class and those to come!

Interested in learning more? Check out our SEL workshops we offer!

Download Free Worksheet

Download Now

Schedule a call with us for a free consultation

Contact Us Today.

Schedule a call