Trauma-Informed Practice and Creating Safe Spaces

 In Classroom Practice

On September 30th, students across Canada will mark Orange Shirt Day. They will be encouraged to learn about Phyllis’ Story and to wear orange shirts in support of raising awareness about the Indian Residential School System. As a teacher, you may have done the research and learned the facts about residential schools. You may think about addressing this topic through different books. You may contact a Survivor, Elder, or community member willing to visit your class to talk about the experiences they have had. You may be ready to address this important topic with your students.

But are your students ready?

As we visit schools and talk to educators, some have explained to us that talking about residential school with their students is hard. They find their students become re-traumatized while learning about what happened to their parents and grandparents. These teachers know that teaching about residential school is important, but are left asking themselves: How do you talk about this extremely affecting topic without re-traumatizing your students? How can you teach them about the system and the horrors that Survivors experienced while shielding them from being deeply impacted by the hopelessness, anger, and shock that can accompany learning about these stories?

Trauma-Informed Practice in the Classroom

Trauma-informed practice may be a new term for you. Essentially, in this way of relating to students, you are mindful that your students have likely experienced some form of trauma. You are also aware that this trauma impacts their behaviour, thought processes, and the ability to feel safe and learn. In a trauma-informed practice, you ask yourself ‘What has happened or is still happening to this child?’ and ‘How can I support this child?’

This may sound like a small shift in thinking and approach, but can be more complicated than it seems. It can also have wide-ranging impacts through your class and school.

Trauma-informed practice helps students learn about themselves and their emotions, as well as learning the academic content you need to teach them. It can create spaces where students feel safe to begin coping with their trauma and to start learning and talking about difficult topics like residential school. These spaces are necessary for both the students who have and haven’t been affected by the Indian Residential School System. In these spaces, students can feel free to express the emotions that come up while learning and they can feel safe to pose questions without judgment. 

To get started fostering this culture in your classroom you can focus on these four areas identified by Physical and Health Education Canada:

  1. Learn and teach about trauma and strategies that can be used to cope with trauma. 
  2. Create a welcoming environment and form personal relationships with your students.
  3. Allow your students choice and opportunities for collaboration, especially when identifying necessary supports.
  4. Use strength-based and capacity-building approaches. 

The resources listed below can help you as you work on building each of these four areas within your classroom.  

Learn and teach about trauma and strategies that can be used to cope with trauma

The National Child Traumatic Stress Network provides a wealth of information about childhood trauma. In addition to a Psychological First Aid for Schools Manual, they also offer sections on their website about how trauma intersects with various aspects of a child’s identity, including culture, history, and language. 

Create a welcoming environment and form personal relationships with your students

The research paper ““Ask me about trauma and I will show you how we are trauma-informed”: A Study on the Shift Toward Trauma-Informed Practices in Schools” prepared with the Ontario Federation of Indigenous Friendship Centres gives you an idea of what is needed to make sure you are creating a welcoming environment for the Indigenous youth in your classes.  

Allow your students choice and opportunities for collaboration

Carl and Daniel, two teachers from Illinois, offer their students more choice and more power over their own learning. In an article in Education Week Teacher, they discuss how doing this shows that they care for and trust their students. They also give concrete examples of how to put this in action in the classroom. While these teachers aren’t discussing trauma-informed practice, allowing your students choice is all about helping students see that they can have control over what they do, at least in school. These teachers have embraced that feeling to empower their students and help them take control of their own learning. 

Use strength-based and capacity-building approaches

Philosophy for Children (P4C) strategies and activities can help create a climate of questioning and discussion within your classroom that supports students learning about reasoning and emotional awareness. 


Above all, it is important to remember that implementing a trauma-informed practice and creating safe spaces takes time. It will take time for you to get to know your students. It will take time for your students to get to know you enough that they feel safe enough to start trusting you, especially if there is already trauma in their background. Trying to force your students to have discussions about difficult topics like residential schools before the groundwork has been laid and before enough time has gone by will likely result in having to start back at zero. So remember, be patient and be loving. 

This year when you start to discuss residential schools with your students, remember to start slow, observe your students, and only give them the information they are ready to hear. Later in the year, once you have created a safe, trauma-informed space for your students to learn, process their emotions, and ask the tough questions, you can be more thorough and detailed in your instruction. Addressing residential schools is important, but making sure your students are ready and feel safe enough to learn about them is also important.

Have you or your school already begun the process of implementing trauma-informed practices? What resources have you used for your own learning or with your students? What differences have you seen in your classes since implementing trauma-informed practices? Email us to share your experiences, your challenges, and your successes.

Dene Tha' First Nation fall moose camp