Coping Together: Helping Students Cope with Trauma

Teaching is hard. Ask any teacher. And it’s certainly not made any easier by the fact that our students are not blank slates. Teaching would be so much easier if students came into the classroom without previous experiences. But the reality is they are. More than that though, students are coming to our classrooms with trauma. Teaching traumatized learners takes skill, practice, and patience. Today, we’re going to unpack how we can help our students become resilient learners.

You First

I’m sure everyone has heard that you can’t pour from an empty class. But it’s true. You cannot give to your students if you have nothing to give.

Before even entering the classroom you need to begin to unpack and cope with your own trauma first. But once in the classroom, you have to take time to care for yourself. Here are some recommendations from Fostering Resilient Learners that you can use to practice self-care as a teacher!

  • In the words of Kristin Souers, you have to “[give] ourselves a cookie” (Souers pg 189). Acknowledge the hard work you are putting in and be proud of it
  • Get moving! For 3 days out of the week get up and move for 40 minutes. One of my favorite ways to get moving when I’m down is to put my favorite songs on and dance. It’s not pretty, it definitely involves a lot of flailing and singing along, but I’m up, I’m moving, and I’m having fun.
  • Express gratitude. Spend 1 week writing down all the things you are thankful for as the week goes on. These don’t have to be big things, in fact, pay attention to the little things you are thankful for. Just like when small things build up until we’re upset, little things we’re grateful for the build-up too. And the more we notice them, the more joy we allow into our lives.

And when it comes to traditional self-care, check out this list from the counseling teacher specifically about teacher self-care!

50 self-care ideas for teachers

Preventative Measures

It’s inevitable that at some point a student with trauma is going to walk into our classroom, so why not take steps in advance to build a classroom and a community that is ready to cope with trauma and trauma responses?

This article by Kenton Levings talks all about how to build a trauma-informed classroom!

Do's and Don'ts of a Trauma-Informed Compassionate Classroom | PACEs in  Education | PACEsConnection

Moving Upstairs

One of the focuses of Fostering Resilient Learners is helping students shift from the downstairs brain to the upstairs brain.

Upstairs and Downstairs Brain | Whole brain child, Child therapy, Brain  based learning

Confused about what those are? Don’t worry, this article by Karen Pace helps breaks it down and provided additional solutions to help students move from the downstairs brain to the upstairs brain.

While the downstairs brain with its strong emotions and impulses is fully built and functioning in young children, the upstairs brain is unfinished and is still under construction well into a person’s twenties

Karen Pace – Understanding the “upstairs” and “downstairs” brain

Because the upstairs brain is still “under construction” many kids will respond to stressful situations with their downstairs brain. This rate is impacted ten-fold in students whose traumatic experiences have impacted the development of their brain.

It is important to stress to students that there is nothing wrong with their reaction happening through their downstairs brain. Often time that knee-jerk reaction is uncontrollable and a result of their experiences. Instead, we need to shift to how we help students calm their downstairs brains down and start climbing the stairs to our upstairs brains. “We have to stay in our upstairs brain and help the other person [student] come back upstairs and join us” (Souers, pg 59).

But how do we help students move to their upstairs brains? Here’s some quick suggestions!

  • Help students learn coping strategies! Like deep breathing or using their hand to communicate what headspace or brain level they’re at!
  • Provide a safe space for students to go. This can be as simple as a quiet corner with a few fidget toys and posters that students can follow to self regulate
  • Do it with them! Practice self-regulating strategies together!
  • Check out Karen Pace’s article for more strategies!
The Brain in the Palm of your Hand: Dan Siegel's Hand Model — The Behavior  Hub

Provide Students with Healthy Communication

This one may seem like a no-brainer, but many people struggle with what healthy communication actually is. Follow the six steps below to help students feel seen, heard, affirmed, and valued!

  1. Listen
  2. Reassure
  3. Validate
  4. Respond
  5. Repair
  6. Resolve

Kristin Souers points out that generally, “we are ex[erts at steps 1, 4, and 6. Unfortunately we often skip steps 2, 3, and 5, which are essential to effective regulation and long-term relationship” (Souers, pg 79).

This article by Dr. Chris Moore breaks each step down to help you understand how to communicate effectively!


Trauma is a complicated subject, and it makes teaching all the more complicated. But it needs to be acknowledged. And most importantly we need to help students cope with it by taking preventative measures, helping students move from their downstairs brain to their upstairs brain, taking care of ourselves, and providing students with healthy communication.

What is one step you want to take to help prepare yourself to help students cope with trauma?

That’s all for this week! Take care of yourself and give yourself a cookie.

Signed, Ms. Brennan


  1. Hi Grace!

    I think when it comes to referring to shifting from the upstairs brain to the downstairs brain in the classroom, one of the main things I would do is work with individual students who need that extra support to communicate where they are at with me in a way that feels comfortable to them. This might look like using the hand signals or a daily check-in. Another way that I would work on teaching students, is by creating a safe space in the classroom that has posters and fidgets for students to use to work through self-regulatory strategies. If students need a little extra help developing those strategies that are always something that I am willing to help work on top of. And in cases where the whole class needs a mental break to “travel upstairs,” we’ll work on stretching, breathing, or getting moving in a way that helps students direct their energy in a positive way!

  2. Hi Ellie!
    I really enjoyed your post, and points you made were also my biggest takeaways from reading the book as well. I especially like how you mentioned that we need to practice self-regulating strategies with students- not only can we teach them through modeling them, but they also help us as teachers to quickly move to our upstairs brain so that we do not flip our lids! In reference to the upstairs and downstairs brain, do you have any specific ways you would teach that to students, or how you would practically refer to that in your classroom?

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.