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Posted: September 16th, 2023

Special Education and Trauma-Informed Learning

Special Education and Trauma-Informed Learning

Trauma is a pervasive and complex phenomenon that affects millions of children and youth around the world. Trauma can result from exposure to adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), such as abuse, neglect, violence, racism, poverty, bullying, or natural disasters. Trauma can also be caused by stigma, discrimination, or isolation associated with having a disability or impairment. Trauma can have profound and lasting impacts on the physical, mental, emotional, and academic well-being of students.

As educators, we have a responsibility to understand how trauma can affect our students and to create safe, supportive, and inclusive learning environments that foster their growth and development. This is especially important for students with disabilities or impairments who may face additional challenges or barriers in accessing education. In this blog post, we will explore what trauma-informed teaching is, why it matters for special education, and how we can implement it in our classrooms.

What is trauma-informed teaching?

Trauma-informed teaching is an approach that recognizes the signs and symptoms of trauma in students and responds by providing appropriate support and interventions. Trauma-informed teaching is not a set of specific practices or strategies, but rather a mindset or lens that guides our interactions with students and shapes our instructional decisions.

According to the National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN), trauma-informed teaching involves four key elements:

– Realizing the prevalence and impact of trauma on students
– Recognizing the signs and symptoms of trauma in students
– Responding to students’ needs in a sensitive and supportive way
– Resisting re-traumatization of students by creating a safe and positive learning environment

Why does trauma-informed teaching matter for special education?

Trauma-informed teaching matters for all students, but especially for those with disabilities or impairments who may have experienced trauma directly or indirectly. Research shows that trauma can affect various aspects of learning and development, such as:

– Memory: Trauma can impair the ability to encode, store, and retrieve information, leading to difficulties with recall, comprehension, and problem-solving.
– Attention: Trauma can interfere with the ability to focus, sustain, and switch attention, leading to distractibility, impulsivity, and hyperactivity.
– Executive function: Trauma can disrupt the ability to plan, organize, prioritize, monitor, and regulate behavior, leading to challenges with self-control, motivation, and goal-setting.
– Social-emotional skills: Trauma can alter the ability to recognize, express, and regulate emotions, leading to difficulties with empathy, communication, cooperation,
and conflict resolution.

These effects of trauma can overlap with or exacerbate the challenges faced by students with disabilities or impairments in academic settings. For example, a student with dyslexia who has experienced trauma may struggle more with reading comprehension or spelling than a student with dyslexia who has not experienced trauma. Similarly, a student with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) who has experienced trauma may have more difficulty with social cues or transitions than a student with ASD who has not experienced trauma.

Therefore, trauma-informed teaching can help special education teachers to better understand their students’ needs and strengths, tailor their instruction accordingly,
and provide appropriate accommodations or modifications. Trauma-informed teaching can also help special education teachers to build trusting and nurturing relationships with their students,
which are essential for creating a positive learning climate and fostering student engagement.

How can we implement trauma-informed teaching in special education?

There is no one-size-fits-all way to implement trauma-informed teaching in special education,
but there are some general principles and practices that can guide us. Here are some examples:

– Establish clear and consistent routines and expectations: Routines and expectations can provide structure and predictability for students who may feel anxious or overwhelmed by uncertainty or change. They can also help students to develop self-regulation skills and cope with stress. For example, we can use visual schedules,
timers, cues, or checklists to help students follow the daily agenda,
complete tasks,
or transition between activities.
– Provide choices and opportunities for autonomy: Choices and opportunities for autonomy can empower students who may feel helpless or hopeless due to trauma. They can also help students to develop self-efficacy skills
and confidence. For example,
we can offer students different options for how they want to learn,
or practice a skill,
such as reading a book,
watching a video,
or playing a game.
– Use positive reinforcement
and feedback: Positive reinforcement
and feedback can motivate
and encourage students who may feel discouraged
or defeated by trauma. They can also help students to develop self-esteem skills
and resilience. For example,
we can praise students for their efforts,
or achievements,
such as completing a worksheet,
improving a score,
or mastering a skill.
– Incorporate students’ interests
and strengths: Interests
and strengths can engage
and inspire students who may feel bored
or detached due to trauma. They can also help students to develop self-awareness skills
and identity. For example,
we can use students’ favorite topics,
or talents to make the curriculum more relevant,
or enjoyable for them,
such as using sports statistics to teach math,
writing stories about animals to teach literacy,
or creating art projects to teach science.
– Teach social-emotional skills explicitly
and implicitly: Social-emotional skills can support
and enhance students’ learning
and well-being. They can also help students to cope with trauma
and its effects. For example,
we can teach students how to recognize,
and regulate their emotions,
such as using a feelings chart,
a calm-down corner,
or a breathing exercise. We can also model
and reinforce social-emotional skills in our interactions with students
and others,
such as using respectful language,
active listening,
or problem-solving strategies.

Works Cited

NCTSN. “Creating Trauma-Informed Systems.” National Child Traumatic Stress Network, Accessed 14 Sep. 2023.

Portell, Matthew. “Trauma-Informed Education: What It Is and Why It Matters.” Edutopia, 9 Oct. 2019,

Rossen, Eric. “Creating Trauma-Informed Individualized Education Programs.” American Psychological Association, 9 Nov. 2018,

“Trauma-Informed Instruction in SPED.” Arkansas State University Online, 27 Jul. 2021, Custom essay writing service.

“What Is Trauma-Informed Teaching?” Understood, Accessed 14 Sep. 2023.

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