The ringing of the bell signals the beginning of the instructional day. One that is greeted with a student having a meltdown because after the night he has had, he simply does not want to be at school that day, while yet another student becomes enraged because a minor action from one of his peers unknowingly triggered a past trauma and therefore he commences to throwing objects and turning over desks, while still yet another student simply breaks down crying due to the thought of all of the issues at home which makes for a perilous classroom.

An elementary classroom displays decorated walls with print rich anchor charts to appeal to the growing minds of students, a teacher, who spent hours researching best practices to present a certain skill, with a customized lesson plan that took hours to perfect, yet on this day and many others this school year, the students will not get the luxury of engaging in the instructional activities planned due to the chaotic learning environment frequently experienced as a result of a classroom full of multiple students who have been exposed to toxic stress and trauma.

There has been an increase in the number of students exposed to trauma and toxic stress due to the pandemic, yet there is an increased expectation for them to function at high levels in classrooms with teachers who lack the necessary skills to meet their social and emotional needs.  In many schools, the rules, procedures, and academic requirements are difficult for students who have been exposed to trauma and toxic stress.  Knowing this information is critical for educators who are tasked with caring for and developing these students.  The ability to identify a student’s behavior as a response to an experience and not just deeming a child as “bad” is a skill-set that most educators do not have because they are not teaching through a trauma-informed lens.

All students are capable of learning in the appropriate learning environment. No longer can the effects of what happens in the real world be dismissed, because as the pandemic has shown it affects what happens in the classroom environment. Students who have been exposed to high doses of toxic stress and trauma develop a chronic vigilance for and sensitivity to threat. This keeps them in a constant hypervigilant state of “Fight or Flight."  These students lack strategies to self-soothe in moments of anxiety or stress, while the teachers lack training to de-escalate the situation before it turns the learning environment into one that is disorderly and not conducive to learning. The focus of schools must be on the development of trauma-informed and resilience focused staff members and educational leaders to equip teachers on how to effectively teach these types of students as well as their classmates and increase academic performance.

Trauma impacts the thinking brain and the ability for students to reason and gain insight which makes it difficult to teach academic content.  Reading, for example, is a complex process that includes multiple skills such as reasoning, background knowledge, a working memory, and attention all of which are affected by trauma. If teachers are unable to respond to student behavior through a trauma-informed lens and help students work through their traumas, it will be difficult for them to teach them how to read or even reach them academically.  

If you look at many schools' websites or educators' philosophies of education, a large majority have a tagline that states “we strive to educate the whole child."  One may notice how the focus has shifted from educating the “whole” child in action to merely being a slogan that schools use in their mission statement. The whole child consists of the mind, body, emotions, etc.  Without providing opportunities for development in all areas, one is simply not educating the whole child.

Most novice teachers go into the classroom thinking that they signed up for the education of students only, not understanding that there is so much more involved.  Sadly, most teachers did not sign up for this.   Teachers must be trained to recognize when students’ emotional and behavioral responses are a direct result of a traumatic experience or high doses of toxic stress.  Educators must be curious and identify what the student is not saying, then use that information to respond to their needs while simultaneously educating them. Therefore, it is time for educators to be adequately equipped to enter the classroom and be able to balance the social and emotional learning of students exposed to toxic stress and trauma with the academic development piece in order to educate the whole child.  When students are in a heightened state, they lose all cognition and therefore are unable to learn. Trauma, along with the effects of toxic stress, can cause the brain to remain in a state of hypervigilance, suppressing the memory and impulse control trap students in a constant state of strong emotional reactivity. So if educators are worried about development but do not address the one thing that affects the brain and its development, how will they ever bloom when it comes to pedagogy?

Imagine working on a project, attempting to build something but then you get to a critical point and are searching through your toolbox only to find that the tool that you need is just not there? Think of the level of helplessness and frustration that you would feel. That is how teachers feel when they enter a classroom without the necessary tools to teach and balance the emotions of their students.

Behavior in the classroom predicts future academic achievement and life outcomes in education and in future careers.  The influence of trauma on educational outcomes is important for students to thrive in an enriching learning environment, which is why it is critical for students to have access to the right tools, strategies, resources, and adequately trained individuals to support them on their journey towards healing. Students deserve for educators to HEAL FIRST and EDUCATE ALWAYS!


Dr. Salena Smith is the CEO of Inner Ear Trauma-Informed Agency, the host of Teaching Through the Eyes of Trauma Podcast, and has been an educator for over 15 years.  She is an innovator in education that strives to leverage trauma informed practices as a pedagogical tool. One who understands that ACES, trauma, and toxic stress, has a significant impact on student development and outcomes later in life. She strives to educate the whole child, provide a trauma-informed lens to educators, community leaders and families, and provide equitable education for all students to find their own personal level of excellence and be a productive citizen in a global society.

Dr. Smith can be contacted via her website, https://innerearagency.com/, email (s.fenceroy.smith@gmail.com), or social media, including LinkedIn (https://www.linkedin.com/in/dr-salena-fenceroy-smith-mha-ed-d-10a54111) and Twitter (@DrTraumaQueen).  


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