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Build Trauma-Informed Practices

By Stephanie Lerner | March 2022

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As we continue through another unusual school year, many of us are deeply concerned about our students traumatized by the pandemic. According to psychology researchers Jude CĂ©nat and Rose Darly Dalexis, “Concerns about the COVID-19 pandemic, anxiety about contracting the virus, public health instructions and measures for confinement/distancing may be traumatic events; more importantly, they are also likely to increase the risk of multiple traumatic experiences and complex trauma among children and adolescents.”

So, how do we support our students, whether their trauma is pandemic-related or otherwise? The answer is trauma-informed school counseling practices, such as school success and healthy relationships. These provide stable, safe and nurturing environments that will benefit all students.

In keeping with the multitiered system of supports (MTSS), classroom instruction is a Tier 1 support provided to all students. Trauma-informed lessons are healthy for all students, whether or not they have experienced trauma.

Trauma-informed classroom instruction should be full of activities that help students feel safe, resolve any behaviors interfering with school success, eat/sleep/relax healthfully, manage overwhelming feelings, connect with others and use their strengths to create solutions for themselves. It’s also important to encourage hope and normalize reactions to stress. These activities address research-based standards from the ASCA Mindsets & Behaviors and can come in many different forms, such as role play, organizational skill mini-lessons, annual student outcome goal creation, art projects, coping skills application, relaxation strategies and more.

One of the trauma-informed practices I love most is bibliocounseling. Here are a few simple steps to embed bibliocounseling into your lessons.

Begin by introducing the book with a few pre-reading questions, such as, “Based on this book cover and title I’m showing you, what do you think this book will be about?” Next, share some discussion questions in advance to focus their story observations as they listen to you read. For example:
  • What is the problem in this story?
  • What is a traumatic experience? (Define this with the class first.)
  • Is the story problem a traumatic experience? Why or why not?
  • What is the solution in the story? How would you solve the story issue if it happened to you or someone you know?
  • What are some healthy coping skills? (Make a student-generated list on the board.) How could they help the character in the story to feel better?
  • What did you learn from the book?
  • How could you use the ideas in the book to help a friend feel better?
After you read the story or passage aloud to the class, foster student reflection and discussion, using either whole class, partner or table-group discussions. For older students, this discussion will often take up the rest of the class period. However, younger students might need a more tactile follow-up activity, such as illustrating a healthy coping skill when faced with a problem from the story.

Beyond classroom instruction, you may have some students who need additional Tier 2 supports. A trauma-informed small group can help – these use education-based techniques to help group members gain information and develop skills for challenging situations. Each session should include trauma-informed group counseling strategies, such as goal work and healthy coping skills. Warmth, neutrality and firmness are especially important when you’re leading a trauma-informed group. Traumatized students often need an extra safe and structured group setting.

One of my favorite group activities is teaching members about breathing backward, where they focus on exhaling first and inhaling second. This breathwork exercise calms students because it takes their attention off negative thoughts; instead they must focus on this unusual breathing pattern. You can guide them to do this by:
  • Having them hold up one finger as they breathe out through pursed lips.
  • Then have them hold up two fingers as they breath in through their nose.
  • Repeat a few more times.
End the activity by asking students to share ideas on how the activity was calming for them, such as by moving their attention from negative thoughts to breathwork concentration.

Virtual Trauma-Informed Practices
Let’s take our trauma-informed practices one step further and focus on supporting traumatized students through virtual school counseling. It can be difficult to connect with students during this time, especially students who aren’t supervised because their parents are working. So, go easy on yourself if you are having trouble reaching students.

Here are some trauma-informed practices for when you do make virtual contact; all of the ideas below can be tweaked to use in individual, group or whole-class settings.
  • Connect your students to each other with games, virtual storytelling hours and music.
  • Lead students through progressive muscle relaxation and grounding activities; make sure to spend time processing how they felt during the activity.
  • Encourage students to talk through their emotional state with others by modeling this in a brief whole-family consulting/advising session via video chat.
  • Teach students body-calming techniques, such as yoga and tai chi, which can help them self-regulate and avoid unhealthy coping choices, such as substance abuse.
  • Create and run a virtual lunch bunch. Begin by designating a time and online platform link. Then, during the designated time, eat your lunch at your computer in a video chat platform, such as Zoom or Google Hangouts. Wait for students to jump on and join you. You could have a topic, story or mindful activity to facilitate with students as well. Consider offering a door prize to the first five or 10 students who come by to say hi at your virtual lunch bunch.
ASCA has a number of virtual school counseling toolkits available, broken out by grade level, with additional ideas.

Now that you have a strong set of trauma-informed practices in your school counseling toolbelt, it’s time for all of us to turn our attention to the next frontier – working to change the social systems and institutions that contribute to child trauma in the first place. Trauma prevention needs to be our mantra as we tackle this hurdle. We must use our voices, our grit and our power as school leaders to champion the charge in eradicating harmful systems and practices that contribute to childhood trauma.

Stephanie Lerner, a former school counselor, is the counselor support program manager for the Texas Education Agency and the author of “Helping in Hard Places: Trauma-Informed School Counseling.” Contact the author for references to this article at