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Why Teachers Should Be Trauma-informed

by Tom Hanlon / Jul 5, 2022

Catherine Corr, Lynn Burdick, Mia Chudzik

We asked Catherine Corr, associate professor in Special Education in the College of Education, to share her thoughts on why it’s important for teachers to know how to identify and respond to trauma. Two of Corr's graduate students, Lynn Burdick and Mia Chudzik, also participated in this conversation.

Q: What does it mean to be a trauma-informed educator?
Lynn Burdick: It means that as an educator, you are aware of the potential impacts of trauma and you build your relationships with your students and structure your classroom in ways that are supportive of those who may have experienced trauma. Relationships and the strategies that help students who are impacted by trauma benefit all children, but are essential for those who are experiencing the impacts of trauma.

Q: How does trauma impact learner outcomes educationally, socially, and emotionally?
Burdick: Academically, children who have experienced trauma can struggle with the skills required for reading and math. In addition, executive functioning can be impacted, resulting in challenges with self-regulation, organization, planning and problem-solving, working memory, flexibility, and emotional control. Unfortunately, when you consider the impacted learner outcomes, you realize these are exactly the skills required to “do school.”

Mia Chudzik: Additionally, students who have experienced trauma and display these symptoms in the classroom may be diagnosed with a disability instead of getting the support they need.

Q: What does being trauma-informed look like in an educational setting?
Teachers who are trauma-informed are organized with consistent schedules, routines, and procedures. When there are changes, trauma-informed teachers inform students of those changes prior to their occurrence. Teachers who are trauma-informed teach their students strategies for self-regulation and practice the strategies themselves, as a dysregulated adult cannot help a dysregulated child.  Trauma-informed teachers provide a psychologically, physically, and identity-safe learning space where all students are members of the classroom community. Teachers who are trauma-informed get to know their students and build relationships based on their knowledge of individual students and their needs. Finally, trauma-informed teachers use logical, consistent disciplinary practices that teach rather than punish students.

Catherine Corr: I have recently been examining my own practice as a college instructor and advisor and am revamping my approach to be trauma-informed. For instance, I took time the past year to examine and revamp my class attendance policy, late work policy, the ways in which I assess learning, and the ways in which I check in with my students, both formally and informally. Additionally, I have spent time examining what I can do to contribute to students' positive mental health experiences. One strategy is regularly celebrating successes (big and small, personal and professional) and encouraging work/life balance with my students/advisees.

Q: As a researcher, how are you contributing to the field of trauma and its impact on children?
We recently secured PITA (Provost’s Initiative on Teaching Advancement) funding for a project entitled Preparing Trauma-Informed Teachers (PTIT). For this project, we will invite experts in special education, curriculum and instruction, and school social work to establish the critical knowledge necessary for teachers to support students who have experienced trauma. First, we will create a framework for the integration of these trauma concepts into existing teacher preparation courses. Then, our team will develop an assessment to determine the effectiveness of the process and the impact of its implementation.

There is currently no public higher education institution in Illinois with a degree program in trauma-informed education. The PTIT project is the first step toward a teacher preparation program that could be recognized as trauma-informed. Combined with the current efforts to develop master’s level programs, PTIT provides the opportunity to make the University of Illinois an innovator in the development of trauma-informed curricula and credentials.

I am also coauthor of a research study currently under review, entitled Changing Attitudes about Trauma-Informed Care Using an Online Training Module. This study examines the many barriers to getting schools and other settings to adopt the principles of trauma-informed care (TIC). This is an adaptive approach that emphasizes the need for settings to be universally accommodating to children who have experienced trauma. Training providers on TIC is essential for shifting attitudes and instantiating these principles into practice. Given the logistical difficulties of in-person training, a free online training module using SAMHSA’s trauma-informed care model was developed and deployed. Results from the study of this module suggest that the training was effective in significantly shifting participants’ attitudes towards trauma-informed care. Additionally, these gains were seen regardless of workplace experience, and initial racial differences were resolved with similar post-test scores across demographic backgrounds. These findings suggest the viability of digital training as a low-cost option for disseminating trauma-informed care values.

Q: How is the College of Education preparing trauma-informed professionals?
The Department of Curriculum and Instruction began including content on trauma and trauma-informed practice in the professional course sequence for preservice teachers a few years ago. It has become apparent that more than just a week devoted to understanding trauma and its impact is not sufficient to prepare preservice teacher candidates to teach children who have experienced trauma. Through the PITA grant previously mentioned, efforts are being made to integrate trauma-informed content and strategies in multiple methods courses where the knowledge is more practical and relevant in instructional contexts.

Corr: The Department of Special Education has received two Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) training grants (Ostrosky, Corr, and Lindsey, 2018-2021; Hardy, Corr, and Lindsey, 2021-2025) focused on preparing trauma-informed Early Interventionists, Early Childhood Special Educators, and School Social Workers. Most recently, the Department of Special Education introduced a Certificate of Specialization in Trauma-Informed Education. This is a fully online certificate program for degree and non-degree seeking students. This certificate requires a total of 12-14 credit hours of coursework designed to develop students’ understanding of trauma in educational settings. Students completing this certificate program can apply the course credits earned towards a master’s or a doctorate program upon admission to those programs.

We hope this is just the beginning of the many ways the College of Education can support trauma-informed educators!