Understanding student needs and creating a safe, inclusive space that supports student learning and social-emotional development are fundamental to special education (SPED) practices. Evolving trauma-informed teaching methods similarly concern addressing students’ unique needs to create safe and supportive environments. Clearly, SPED and trauma-informed teaching methodologies can overlap significantly.

But parsing out the roots of student behavior, social-emotional development and even physiological development can be complex. Analytical assessment of numerous factors informs individualized plans, modifications, interventions and other adaptations SPED teachers use. Adaptive practices can vary substantially regarding diagnosed impairments or disabilities versus the impacts of trauma.

The Eastern Michigan University (EMU) online Master of Arts in Teaching (M.A.T.) in Special Education helps educators differentiate and address student needs. As SPED teachers, graduates can implement individualized teaching practices and create safe spaces for the inclusive, trauma-informed classroom.

The Effects of Adverse Childhood Experiences

Concepts surrounding trauma and education have long been associated with adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), being the subject of the influential CDC-Kaiser Permanente ACE study. According to the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), the ACE study “uncovered how ACEs are strongly related to the development of risk factors for disease, and well-being throughout the life course.”

This study focused on ACEs related to childhood abuse, neglect and household challenges. It found that 26% of adults studied had at least one ACE. Plus, educators are currently expanding the concept of adverse experiences to include trauma related to children’s experiences with bullying, racism, peer victimization, poverty and other factors.

Taken together, the rate of trauma of various kinds is likely very high in the student population. This is further compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic causing incalculable trauma worldwide.

SPED teachers must also consider the trauma-induced impact of stigma on students with disabilities, impairments and exceptionalities. There might also be a causal relationship between some trauma and certain disabilities and impairments (physical, cognitive or otherwise).

What Is Trauma-Informed Teaching?

In an Edutopia article about trauma-informed education, author Matthew Portell writes: “Approaching education with an understanding of the physiological, social, emotional, and academic impacts of trauma and adversity on our students is driving changes in our systems.”

This analysis illustrates how trauma-informed education, also referred to as trauma-sensitive education, is not a precise collection of teaching practices. Instead, it is a systemic shift in educators’ conceptions of and actions surrounding trauma, the student experience and the teacher-student relationship.

As part of this shift, trauma-informed teaching is a broad approach to engaging students and meeting their needs based on awareness and sensitivity to trauma. This awareness informs how a teacher interprets student behavior or performance. It also guides how teachers address issues rooted in trauma with appropriate, constructive and targeted responses and interventions.

How Does SPED Intersect With Trauma-Informed Teaching?

According to an article from the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD):

“Students with disabilities are both more likely to experience traumatizing events … and to have greater difficulty with self-regulation after a traumatic event has occurred.”

ASCD also notes, “Children’s basic neurodevelopmental capacities develop differently under adverse or traumatic circumstances.” It should then come as no surprise that trauma can compound the challenges faced by students who receive SPED services.

Further, differentiating between the effects of trauma and other neurodevelopmental disorders can be challenging. For instance, trauma-induced behavioral or academic issues can present similarly to those associated with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), autism spectrum disorder and learning disabilities. While behavioral and academic issues may seem similar, a singular approach to addressing them may fail if it does not target an issue’s root cause.

A student who has experienced trauma may act out or struggle academically because they feel unsafe in the classroom environment. This vulnerability can trigger stress responses that inhibit cognitive function and emotional regulation. To best support the student, teachers can create a safe space by reducing triggering stimuli, prioritizing social-emotional learning and connecting students and families with appropriate mental health resources.

Similar behavioral or academic struggles exhibited by students with learning disabilities may be rooted more in frustration and difficulty with factors like content delivery mode, instructional methods, and pace. SPED teachers could best address such issues using content differentiation, pace modification and technology-enriched educational tools. Assistive technologies can also provide students with physical disabilities an equal opportunity to learn and achieve.

With expertise gained from one of EMU’s five SPED concentrations — Autism Spectrum Disorder; Cognitive Impairment; Emotional Impairment; Learning Disabilities; and Physical and Other Health Impairment — educators can differentiate the impacts of trauma versus disabilities and impairments. This process requires the accurate assessment of issues underlying student learning and behavior. Such review informs the application of evidence-based teaching methods and interventions to address problems effectively. In EMU’s SPED programs, teachers also learn about collaboration with related service providers, such as mental health professionals. By incorporating trauma-informed teaching into SPED practices, special education teachers can help create inclusive, safe classrooms that will benefit all students.

Learn more about Eastern Michigan University’s Master of Arts in Teaching in Special Education online program.