About 50 percent of kids in school have experienced some form of trauma, according to ACEs (Adverse Childhood Experiences). As a result, schools across the nation have responded with Trauma-Informed approaches to teaching, which believe that students’ actions are a direct result of their experiences. These approaches and programs focus on Trauma-Informed Care (TIC) by valuing relationships, promoting safety and trustworthiness, engaging in choice and collaboration, and encouraging skill building and competence. Considering the effects of this pandemic on school-aged children, it is now more important than ever to prioritize trauma-informed instruction.

As the art teacher at an elementary school in Brooklyn, New York, I teach about 500 students, many of whom have experienced trauma according to ACEs and all of whom are experiencing the trauma of this pandemic in varying degrees. The way in which I teach art, through a pedagogy called Teaching for Artistic Behavior, values student choice and agency, aligning perfectly with trauma-informed instruction. In considering my students’ needs, I aim to facilitate a learning space that revolves around choice- and interest-based learning, goal-oriented learning, and social-emotional learning. Within this post, I will discuss my strategies for choice- and interest-based learning and how they directly correlate to trauma-informed instruction.

Bridging Students’ Interests with Academic Learning

A key tenet to Trauma Informed Care is connecting through safe, consistent, and trustworthy relationships. In order to build these relationships, the teacher must be genuinely interested and invested in who the students are, not just their academic capabilities. Asking students what games they like to play, what they like to watch on TV, or what they play with their friends, are all ways to elicit information on what students value. It is through these interests that the trauma-informed teacher would connect with the students. I once asked a student who was disengaged in the drawing activity the rest of the class was doing, “I know you love robots, so would you like to build a robot out of cardboard boxes?” The student instantly became bright-eyed and curious to learn more. Letting go of my desire for participation in the task at hand and reframing and redirecting the academic experience to align with the student’s interests led to immediate engagement.

The value of genuine student-teacher relationships is foundational to any learning that takes place. The relationships I build with my students revolve around my deep understanding of their likes and dislikes, the materials they love using, and the content they love creating about. This allows me to facilitate authentic interest-based instruction. Providing students with open-ended prompts that enable them to insert their interests into academic learning is a valuable way to connect to students’ experiences. Encouraging and positively reinforcing students for engaging in learning around their interests enables students to feel safe in what they know and that the teacher values what makes them happy.

Providing a Variety of Entry Points for Choice-Based Learning

Students who experience trauma have a heightened need for choice because of internal dysregulation and external triggers. The trauma-informed teacher would be careful to create a structured and safe space where students can predict choices they can make that align with their needs. For example, providing students with a variety of materials they can choose from for projects and spaces they can go to for security and comfort. The traumatized student might be triggered by trying new things so a learning choice should always be something the student has already achieved or would be able to accomplish.

Providing students with choices in how they want to learn maximizes student-teacher trust. Asking students to imagine a day in the life of their favorite character and create a comic to illustrate their idea may be too limiting for some, even though interest-based learning is at play. To turn this prompt into a broader choice-based experience, the teacher might suggest different ways students can achieve the learning goals of narrative drawing and writing. Creating a sculpture of the character and verbally narrating its movements is one idea. Following a how-to-draw video and typing out the character’s day is another. When the teacher offers students different modalities for learning and allows them to choose what’s best for themselves, students learn that the teacher understands their needs and trusts their choices.

Emphasizing Interest- and Choice-Based Instruction during Remote Learning

Choice-based instruction has been particularly important during remote learning, where it is unpredictable what materials students might have at hand. My virtual art lessons provide students with an open-ended prompt that can be achieved through anything they have at home. By giving students this choice, I am ensuring accessibility and valuing my students’ individual experiences. Finding ways to differentiate digital instruction is just as important. Allowing students to choose whether they want to answer questions over Zoom by writing in the chat, showing a hand signal, or speaking out loud will maximize student participation and account for the varied levels of comfortability students have learning at home. Introducing students to different digital platforms where they can choose how to show their work—such as Padlet, Flipgrid, and Google Classroom—accommodates different learners’ needs.

During this time of isolation and trauma, students need to connect with each other, their teachers, and what makes them happy. For teachers, maximizing virtual engagement when there is little control over students’ varied learning environments is not an easy task. Incorporating student interest into learning prompts is a vital strategy to motivate student participation. This could revolve around a question of the day that asks, “What video game character would you be and why?” It could be a project that involves creating a board game that incorporates math and writing. Or a video that demonstrates what the students’ favorite book characters would do if they lived in their house. There are so many ways to imbue student interest and choice in learning experiences for students and the teacher’s careful consideration—doing so will make all the difference in cultivating valuable student-teacher relationships.