Trauma and violence informed teaching – why it is critically important, and how we can do it

Dr. Bruce Perry is an international expert in child trauma, and in his book The Boy who was Raised as a Dog reminds us that teachers have a key role to play with children who have experienced trauma, pointing out that "Just as a traumatic experience can alter a life in an instant, so too can a therapeutic encounter." These therapeutic encounters include so many small moments, from welcoming smiles to slowing down and taking a moment to ask how a child is doing, from engaging all students in activities in nature to allowing each one the opportunity to help another.

As educators, you are probably familiar with the concept of trauma-informed teaching, which draws our attention to trauma and classroom practices that are intended to support and help the child who has experienced trauma. Trauma, broadly defined, is an experience that overwhelms an individual’s ability to cope.

In Canada,  the Childhood Incidence Study helps us understand how many of our children have experienced maltreatment: based on investigated cases, nearly half of all confirmed cases of child maltreatment involve exposure to domestic violence, followed by neglect, emotional maltreatment, physical and sexual abuse (

It is critically important to acknowledge, however, that interpersonal violence is not the only source of trauma. Trauma can be experienced as a result of structural violence, or experiences that happen to children because of who they are, how they live, and lack of opportunities. Racism, discrimination in all forms, poverty, unstable/inadequate housing, historical violence, and denial of education, employment, and hope for the attainment of basic wellness are all identified as possible sources of trauma. We know that both types of violence - interpersonal and structural - can affect many elements of learning  including attendance, physical illness, concentration, memory, self-confidence and perseverance.

A recent study called the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) study ( has raised awareness  about how  experiences such as abuse, neglect, and household challenges (such as having a parent who is incarcerated, or being homeless) can affect a child’s ability to attend, engage, and learn at school. A trauma-informed approach to teaching is critical to understand how to respond to and support individual children who have ACEs.

But a trauma-and-violence informed approach also takes into account not just interpersonal violence- that is, child maltreatment - but also structural violence. Instead of asking a student “What is wrong with you?”, we ask, “What has happened, what may still be happening, to you?”. It shifts the focus from what is happening in the child’s head, to what is happening in their life.

From colleagues who are investigating and developing new evidence-based practices in trauma-and-violence informed care (TVIC) in health care settings (, we are fortunate to have guidance for bringing these principles to the classroom and school. Here are 4 ways to work in a trauma-and-violence-informed way:

  1. Build trauma awareness and understanding of the high prevalence of trauma and violence, the impact of trauma on a child’s development, and the range of strategies that children and families use to cope.
  2. Build safety and trust by creating a welcoming environment, pairing expectations (for learning, for example) with support, developing positive relationships with children and families, and thinking about safety.
  3. Foster opportunities for choice, collaboration and connection by listening, noticing, and responding with care and a shared vision for identifying services, supports, and care.
  4. Use a strengths-based and capacity-building approach to support students.

Want to learn more?

Dr. Nadine Burke Harris, the newly appointed Surgeon General for the State of California did a TEd Talk on the topic of Adverse Childhood Experiences, which can be viewed here:

How childhood trauma affects health across a lifetime

She has also authored a great book, The Deepest Well: Healing the Long-Term Effects of Childhood Adversity (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Co: New York, NY).

These resources, and online resources such as those found at the Harvard Center on the Developing Child (, can help us all learn more.

These moments matter, and your connection with students are so important. Within the Teach Resiliency site there are numerous resources that will be useful in understanding the experience of trauma, traumatic stress, and behavioural problems - we invite you to check them out, and keep the conversation going.

Susan Rodger, PhD., C. Psych.

Psychologist and Associate Professor,
Counselling Psychology Program, Faculty of Education,
Western University