Trauma Informed Behavior Management Strategies

Trauma Informed Behavior Management Strategies
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We’ve met that one kid back in this post. This is the kid who can’t sit still. That one kid is the child who won’t stop talking or can’t seem to get along with anyone in your class. Jumpiness, an inability to cope with big feelings, and an all-around refusal to connect with you or anything you try to teach them can all fall on the spectrum of behaviors you may see from that one kid. The real question is why do the that one kids of our classes do the things they do? Why are they disruptive? What causes this stubbornness? Why are they so…naughty? The reasons are endless. One of the most serious and terrifying for a child is trauma. In this post, we’ll dive into trauma informed behavior management strategies that can make your whole class feel safe and secure.


Trauma and attachment problems in early childhood can lead to challenging behaviors throughout a kid’s school career. In Greek, trauma means “injury.” Trauma can be a single event such an unexpected violence or a natural disaster. A kid with a solid family support system will generally recover from the trauma with less “injury” than one without the right help.

Children can also experience complex trauma, an on-going series of painful events such as physical, sexual, or emotional abuse. Regardless of the size of the “t” in the trauma, adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), such as the ones described above, alter brain chemistry. Neuroplasticity allows us to make some changes in wiring to counteract the damage, though. Whole courses are taught on this subject, and your school counselor is probably already working with students struggling with trauma.

That said, I am NOT a qualified counselor, and I have only had a handful of school wide professional development sessions in helping children overcome trauma. I have, however, read books and listened to a variety of podcasts from qualified professionals to help me better understand these kids. One book in particular that impacted me was The Body Keeps the Score. It has helped me understand the biology of trauma in children and adults. It’s pretty technical, and it has a lot of complex information. I got the audio version because I’m a member of Audible and I had credits. If I had to really internalize the information, my visual brain would have to read and reread to get it. I did learn so much about how trauma affects the nervous system, and this is helping me understand my struggling students better. The most important lesson and self-reflection for me is that this behavior is not personal. It has nothing to do with me and everything to do with circumstances beyond our control.

Trauma Informed Behavior Management Strategies Help

After many tough situations and lots of self-reflection, I’ve come to realize that student behavior isn’t something to correct or “solve”. “Solved” doesn’t look the same to everyone. When we shift our thinking from fixing children to helping them have a series of small successes over the long haul, we don’t set our children or ourselves up for failure. Changing neurology takes a great deal of time, patience, and lots of loving people.

Some children with Trauma require a village to help them overcome the hand they’ve been dealt. When you have a child acting out due to adverse childhood experiences, ask your school personnel and administration for assistance. Chances are that your friend is already on the radar. Counselors, classroom paraprofessionals, and principals can support your child by providing a daily check-in, sensory breaks, or behavior intervention. Do not be afraid to ask for help with severe behaviors. Your other students are there to learn as well, and disruptions from triggered students have an adverse effect on that.


Kids dealing with trauma triggers benefit from boundaries set in a calm, but firm, manner. Boundaries are important because they give clear direction, they make expectations predictable, and they make students feel safe from their own big feelings. Work with admin, counselors, and caregivers to set clear boundaries. Figure out what the child likes and offer privileges for success and clear consequences when disruptions happen. Discover what motivates misbehavior and help the student work around what is triggering it.

Cafeteria trouble? Some children benefit from eating alone in the office. Success in a resource class? A special mentor pays a visit and takes the child for quick sensory break to celebrate. If A happens, then B follows. Additionally, the adults in this child’s village show kindness and positive attention just because. This helps a child wary of adults realize that not all adults are bad, and that love is not a commodity to be earned.

Predictability and Patience

Slowly, if consequences and rewards are administered in a predictable manner, children learn that school is safe and that following expectations makes life better for everyone involved. Our friends can relax that hypervigilance and enjoy being a kid for a few hours per day.

Helping the that one kids of our classes modify their behaviors may not be pretty and so much patience is required. Fridays and Mondays can be tough—Fridays because the kids know they are going back into a challenging home life, and Mondays because they have had to resort to their “survival behaviors” all weekend. Patient reteaching and calm boundaries help. These are two powerful trauma informed behavior management strategies.

What Does Success Look Like?

Story #1

One of my former students who challenged every one of us through this process is having so much success in school now. As her village, we created a behavior contract with clear limits. She had people that she knew loved her and were rooting for her. Once she knew we weren’t kidding, she was able to pull it together over time. Staying the course with our trauma informed behavior management strategies was so worth it.

Story #2

In another instance, I had a friend with attachment trauma. In order to keep the other students safe, I did not seat this friend with groups. I sat this child next to me. I had a very cut-and-dried relationship with this kid. The boundaries between us were clear, as were my expectations. To be honest, I didn’t try to mother or coddle this student. I separated him from the other students and explained that I felt it would help him focus better. I didn’t isolate him, however; I butted his desk right up with mine.

Our communication was business-like, but constant. The proximity was the connection, and it never went away. Additionally, our village came daily for book bag checks, sensory breaks, and mentoring. This child’s work and behavior were not terrific, but the child was able to stay in school. Other children could learn safely without disruption. To me, that was a win. This child’s emotional turmoil was not “fixed,” but expectations made it clear what would and would not be tolerated in class.  The kid accepted our trauma informed behavior management strategies for the most part.

Final Thoughts

Let me be clear. Severe behavior troubles such as running away, violence, or destructive tantrums that cause severe disruptions are not for a classroom teacher to handle alone. Expecting one person to take the full responsibility for managing a child in this much distress is not only detrimental to the teacher, but also to the class and the child him- or herself. That said, when admin, counselors, and other team members take part in nurturing children who cannot self-regulate, positive change can slowly happen. Success looks differently to everyone. Set your boundaries, teach and reteach expectations, heap praise on the positive, and celebrate every small impact you and your team make. You are making a difference in this child’s life, even though it may not seem so at first. Stick with it.

Before You Go…

Are you ready to take these strategies to the next level and explore some mindfulness with your students?

You may be interested in my Mindful Moment Writing Prompts.

Using these strategies may keep your classroom from resembling at category 5 hurricane, but late summer and early fall are prime times for a hurricane to head up the coast. Need to teach a weather unit? Need to prepare your students for some crazy weather? Here are a few products centering around my favorite twin characters, Tasha and Tio, that might help!

If you’re still in back to school mode, check out this category for more Tasha and Tio products and all sorts of freebies for your first weeks in the classroom!

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