Creating a Space that Prioritizes Trauma Sensitivity

When you feel overwhelmed by the burdens of the world, or when you think you can’t handle another step without falling apart, don’t you just want to escape from it all?

Imagine the feelings that children have been experiencing over the past few years. The uncertainty and fear in the world have a profound impact on them, invading their sleep and amplifying their worries and pain. They are afraid, uncertain, and begin to wither. This is a traumatic experience for them.

For children, it’s much more challenging to escape from everything because they have little control over their own lives, especially during the school day. When they’re struggling, it can make them feel even more helpless.

The Reality of the weight: Fight, flight, freeze, appease

According to the 2021 Youth Risk Behavior report from the CDC, over 40 percent of students (42 percent) consistently feel sad or hopeless, and almost one-third (29 percent) experience poor mental health. Additionally, more than 20 percent (22 percent) of students seriously considered attempting suicide, and 10 percent attempted suicide.

On any given school day, a child may be grappling with various challenges, such as trauma, performance anxiety, depression, language barriers, bullying, identity struggles, concerns about the world, family loss, or simply having a difficult day filled with overwhelming emotions. During these moments, keep the following in mind:

  • It’s crucial to recognize that what children are experiencing becomes the center of their world.
  • Validate their emotions and stories.
  • Build trusting and empathetic relationships with students to let them know you are there for them.
  • Provide children with the opportunity to take a break, have some personal space, and process their feelings.

A trauma-responsive solution

Offering trauma-sensitive spaces to K–12 students is one of the most mindful and compassionate gifts that school leaders can provide. Supported by psychological and educational research, a trauma-sensitive space is simply an area within the school environment—an office, a classroom, or a designated room or corner—that supports students experiencing dysregulation, trauma, or emotional crises, or who simply need a quiet space to decompress.

The space is most effective when it is designed in collaboration with students, giving them a voice in shaping its appearance and setting expectations for its appropriate use.

Depending on the students’ age and grade level, the space can take different forms. For example, an 11th-grade space where cell phone use is allowed may include a partitioned area with subdued lighting, phone chargers, and headphones/earbuds. This allows students to sit back, relax, and listen to music to block out the noise around them.

In a first-grade classroom, a mini-tent with a themed graphic, filled with pillows, soft plush animals, and a beanbag chair, can provide a cozy place for students to check in with themselves, look at books, and practice breathing exercises using a breath activity poster.

The benefit of a trauma-sensitive space is that it teaches students how to understand their emotions and advocate for their needs before their emotions escalate. It gives them a dedicated place to clear their minds, hearts, or bodies of clutter. Having this space available benefits all students and serves as an emotional touchpoint from which they can seek support from trusted adults within the school.

When designing a safe space, consider the following:

  • Involve all stakeholders in the location and design process.
  • Establish ground rules for using the space.
  • Treat the space as sacred and invest the necessary time to maintain its sanctity.
  • Use subdued lighting to stabilize mood and reduce tension, avoiding fluorescent lighting that can be triggering or overstimulating.
  • Choose calming colors (pastel hues) and avoid visually stimulating colors (neons).
  • Prioritize student safety and provide items for self-regulation, such as headphones, weighted blankets, stuffed animals, journals, and crayons.

I explore additional trauma-responsive approaches in my upcoming book Heartleader: A Trauma-Responsive Approach to Teaching, Leading, and Building Communities.

Becoming responsive

Before implementing trauma-sensitive spaces, it’s important to assess the readiness of the school administration, staff, and community. Conduct a self-audit to determine the level of trauma responsiveness and sensitivity needed to incorporate this work in the school and create supportive spaces.

The Leading Trauma-Sensitive Schools Action Guide suggests that if there is low motivation, school leaders should educate staff about trauma and its impact, facilitate discussions about its relevance to their work, and address general capacity issues within the school culture.

Children bring all their experiences to school, and it is our duty to support and educate them. Recognizing their needs and taking preventive and responsive actions, with love and compassion, is one of the most human aspects of our work. You don’t need to know the details of a child’s trauma to show them love, but you should be prepared to create a physical space that feels safe when everything else may seem overwhelming.

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