Trauma-Informed Teaching: The Importance of Getting it Right


A few years ago, I saw Carol Dweck speak at a conference about the ways in which her research on Growth Mindset has been misinterpreted, potentially damaging some of the most vulnerable populations. It seems that to some, her message was boiled down to “As long as someone tries, we should tell them what a great job they are doing.” Unfortunately, in the real world, just trying isn’t enough.

In her book, Mindset, Dweck is not advocating for praise of effort, she is advocating for helping kids (and adults) to understand the effective strategies and effort that are need gain skills. If your strategy isn’t effective, employing it for longer isn’t likely to lead to success. Worker smarter, not harder.

Unfortunately, I am concerned that a similar misinterpretation is beginning to take shape as trauma-informed teaching becomes more prevalent. Similar to growth mindset, trauma-informed teaching is based on good science and great intentions. Trauma has significant effects on the brain, and students who have experienced trauma benefit from teachers who understand those effects and understand how to deal with them. Unfortunately, in practice, I hear from some teachers that “trauma-informed” is translating to “low-expectations, “ which is exactly the opposite of what the brain needs to heal.

The needs of a developing brain can seem conflicted. A sense of safety is developed through both setting limits and encouraging independence. As Kenneth Ginsburg says in the title of his book, resilience is built by giving kids roots and wings. In my parenting seminars, I like to say that rather than establishing a laundry list of rules, the guiding principal is “With privileges come responsibilities; with responsibilities come privileges.”

When adults feel guilt or pity, our brains naturally tend to act in a way that is counter to what is best for the developing brain. When kids have gone through trauma, we want to give them all sorts of excuses and leeway, so we tend to not enforce rules. We want to protect them from danger, so we tend to over-monitor and micromanage. We do not let them struggle. We do not let them “fail.” The response is natural, but it is damaging. It undermines their resilience.

Trauma-informed teaching is a wonderful concept, but it needs to be driven by an understanding of best practice. Without that, we risk doing even more harm.
I would argue that the most important part of that practice would be an understanding of the brain science of resilience and emotional health, but perhaps I am a bit biased.

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