Improving Teacher-Student Relationships - Trauma

Improving Teacher-Student Relationships - Trauma

Research has shown that the relationship between a student and their teacher can have an immense effect on the success of that student. Research on Teacher-Student relationships determines that the value a teacher places on what each student brings to the classroom can determine the effectiveness of the lesson and ultimately the students outcomes. For further information of the research on Teacher-Student relationships, download The Exceptional Teacher in iBooks.

As a teacher myself, I know that effective relationships are often difficult to build with all students as each person entering my classroom has experienced life in many different ways. Students today often come my way with a rich tapestry of diagnosis that can change their perceptions of what I am teaching. The saddest and most difficult classroom situation for me is teaching students with trauma in their background.

What is trauma?

A traumatic experience is a distressing or terrifying event. Traumatic experiences are subjective. The way that one person is able to emotionally process a situation can differ from the next person. According to a teacher's guide produced for the Queensland government 1 in 4 students in this country have suffered a traumatic event; that is 25% of our classroom population.

The types of trauma suffered by our students can vary from divorce to natural disasters, the death of a family member or parent to migrant families fleeing from persecution in their home countries, some students experience neglect or have been subjected to sexual assault. Sometimes we can relate to these events, however given that traumatic events are subjective, most times we won't be able to relate to another person's experience.

What are the signs of trauma?

Children who have suffered traumatic events can display a variety of symptoms, some or all of the following;

  • Fear of being separated from a parent
  • Losing previously acquired skills
  • Sleep problems and nightmares
  • Somber, compulsive play in which aspects of trauma are repeated
  • New phobias and anxieties that seem unrelated to the trauma
  • Acting out the trauma through play, stories or drawings
  • Aches and pains with no apparent cause
  • Irritability and aggression

These behaviours can, of course, present in children at any time whether they have experienced a traumatic event or not. It is also important to note that, we as teachers are not here to diagnose, we are here to teach. But we cannot ignore the fact that events outside of our classrooms can have an enormous effect within our classrooms. For these occasions, for our own wellbeing, it is important to equip ourselves as best we can.

Practical ways to build relationships with students who have experienced trauma

The best way to support a student who has experienced a traumatic event is to get to know them and let them take the lead in the relationship. Research suggests that there are five essential teacher qualities that are required when building teacher-student relationships. It seems that when we consider students with trauma and how we might support them in our classrooms, we could approach the situation while using these five qualities as a framework.

Facilitation of student directed learning

Student directed learning is an important skill to develop in the classroom; if students can develop the ability to understand and take responsibility for their learning, they can generalise those skills to others areas of their lives. It's important to arm students who have suffered trauma, with the ability to build strength and resilience. Encourage their confidence to grow both in the classroom and in other contexts. Teach them to question and to evaluate their experiences in the same way that they do their learning. Teach them to keep themselves safe by enabling them to stay informed and make good decisions.


To empathise with a student who has suffered a traumatic experience is imperative. It is not good enough to sympathise; the last thing our struggling students need is to feel pitied. It is important to truly concern yourself with how the student is feeling, in order to predict how they will react to situations that they encounter - that you as the teacher will create. Really try to understand why that student may not have done their homework, washed, eaten lunch, say mean words to another student or cower in a corner when the expectation is too great. Figure out ways to adapt your expectations so that they can experience success in your classroom - a successful day at school will be invaluable.


Showing warmth is a tricky trait for some teachers. What is warmth? How can it be defined? What is a student's perception of warmth? It could be argued that warmth is difficult because you don't always ‘warm’ to every student in your class. This is also true in life you don't get along with everybody you meet. It is the same for teachers, we don't always get along with every student that passes through our classroom. All i will say is show kindness! A teacher should always be kind. For me, kindness is the most important trait a teacher can present to their students.

Encouragement of higher order thinking

Explicitly explain to students what higher order thinking is and why it is important. Encourage students who have suffered a traumatic experience to ask themselves and others critical questions to develop understanding of their difficulties, but also their strengths. Developing an understanding of life experiences through questioning will aid their ability to build coping strategies into their everyday challenges.

Teach students to express their thoughts and reasoning in detail. Helping them to verbalise their learning can encourage them to verbalise their trauma. Those who share, analyse and develop the ability to self sooth through discussion, can be aided to heal the pain of trauma.

Whilst it is important to encourage higher order thinking and for students who have suffered trauma to talk, it is imperative that they are allowed to do so in their own time and with people whom they trust. Often that is their teacher, but sometimes it can be the yard duty teacher, the specialist teacher or their best friend. Show them how to develop a circle of trust, a group of people to lean on when challenges can become overwhelming.   

Learning and adapting to differences

The most important adaptations a teacher can make for a student who has suffered trauma is to get to know them. Find out what makes them tick, what motivates them and most importantly, what makes them feel safe. Research shows that getting to know your students, adapting to their needs and wants and not judging them negatively, can have a positive effect on outcomes and importantly your students wellbeing. When students like their teachers, they want to come to school. For students who have experienced traumatic experiences, it is important for them to feel liked, valued by their teachers. Sadly, with students who have experienced trauma, there can be a residual feeling of shame. By being non-judgemental, teachers can help to alleviate such feelings.

Getting to know a student's background can bring understanding of their circumstances. Get to know about the country your refugee students come from and why they had to flee - sitting at a desk and writing about their weekend news may not be a priority for them. Find out if there are external services involved with a student, read their file - they may not be going on the excursion because the family can't afford it.

When a student experiences a traumatic event, it can be an emotional experience for those around them. Look out for your own wellbeing and ensure implement mindfulness into your routine.

If you are interested in finding out more about evidence-based practice in education take a look at our free publication available on iBooks.


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