Why trauma-informed teaching can help kids now more than ever

Find out what trauma-informed teaching can do for your students in this Q&A.


Research shows that more than half of children in the US have been exposed to childhood trauma, which interferes with learning and exacerbates the opportunity gap for our most vulnerable young people.

But there is hope. Callie Lackey is the founder and Executive Director of Hope Street, Inc., an organization that brings trauma-informed teaching practices to schools in Duval County and beyond.

JPEF is proud to partner with Hope Street through our Teacher Leadership Initiative. This summer, Callie will virtually instruct about 20 Teachers of the Year on Trust-Based Relational Intervention, coach them throughout the year, and support them to create model classrooms for their whole schools.

We spoke with Callie to learn more about trauma-informed teaching in the interview below.

Editor’s Note: In response to the pandemic, Callie shared a great free resource for principals and teachers who want to learn these practices – an online training from the Karyn Purvis Institute of Child Development. Download a flyer about how Hope Street can support your school in conjunction with this training.

JPEF: What is trauma-informed teaching/care?

Hope Street: Trauma-informed care is about adjusting your paradigm about student behavior. The essential question shifts. Instead of, “What’s wrong with you?” we ask “What happened to you?”

We ask that question as a curious detective, and we start seeing the need behind the behavior. Behavior is the language of unmet needs. When we align ourselves as allies with children, we figure out how we can meet the need so that it diminishes the survival behavior we’re seeing. It unites the educator with child against the child’s history, not against the child.

We often talk about the invisible backpack in trauma-informed care. What’s in the child’s backpack that’s not letting them learn? Oftentimes, our children are carrying a lot of heavy things with them to school: trauma, abuse, neglect, as well as systems issues like poverty, racism, bullying, and also physiological needs like dehydration and low blood sugar.

As educators, we might not have asked for the role of healer, but it is the role that has been given to us. So, our choice is to accept the role and learn how to create trauma-sensitive classrooms that foster felt-safety, connection, and teach emotional regulation. This is the heart of Trauma-Informed Classrooms.

How is the pandemic layering on?

What we know about trauma is it lives in our bodies – our brains, biology, behaviors and belief systems. Belief systems inform the view of yourself and others around you, whether they are safe or unsafe. You put the COVID-19 epidemic on top of existing trauma, and it reinforces the belief that the world is not safe.

And then there’s the reality that the world is not safe for many children right now. The Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, which operates the National Sexual Assault Hotline, has said they’ve seen an increase in calls from minors because domestic violence, abuse, incest are on the rise with families in lockdown. A lot of these kids don’t have the advantage of feeling safe or being safe in their own homes.

Trauma and stress trigger a fight, flight, or freeze response, and that’s going to be further engaged and empowered when we go back to school in the fall. We’re going to see a lot of kids living in that hyper-vigilance, where the nervous system is going to be more engaged. That’s going to show up in the classroom as behaviors and gaps in learning and make it a challenge for teachers to manage their classrooms even more so than before.

How can educators respond to these needs from a distance? 

We work a lot with Trust-Based Relational Intervention – looking within to understand where you are on your journey. Teachers need to feel safe so they can be a grounding force when interacting with the kiddos. If teachers are feeling stressed, that energy exchanges to the classroom and to the children whether online or brick and mortar.

We’ve gone through this pandemic, too, it’s not just the kiddos. Things are not business as usual, not for teachers or for the kids they love on. Their job is really going to be creating felt safety and being attuned to reading the nonverbal cues and gauging when to slow down or put on the brakes with learning to meet emotional and physiological needs. Does the kiddo look distracted? Is their jaw tense? Are their shoulders up to their ears? If the child is in a hyper-aroused or hypo-aroused state triggered by decreased felt-safety, the child is locked in the primitive lower brain and does not have access to the upper learning brain. 

So what can educators do once they’ve observed their students are feeling stressed? 

Duval County Public Schools just launched a 30-day brain break, offering tools to use when you’re attuned to your class and not pushing past the signs to get to the content.

Teachers need to know that the only way to move from the stress-triggered primitive brain to the reasoning mid-brain is to meet them at their primitive brain first, through grounding strategies like breathing and mindfulness, as well as creating connection and felt-safety.

Scheduling that time into your classroom in a regular, structured way is important so that kids can come to expect those breaks. A lot of the kids struggle with the unknown and the uncertainty.

For example, we teach educators to use sign-on and sign-off rituals around routines that make kids feel seen, heard and have a sense of belonging. You may have seen the video that went around of the teacher doing a different handshake for each kiddo in the class.

I know we’re in virtual education now, but classrooms still need to feel like a family, so teachers can invite their students to create a morning ritual. It could be a fist pump around the room or it could be a class charter, a mantra we say every time we come on in the morning. It could be a specific check-in question with the “magic feather” – something the teacher holds and pretends to pass through the screen, calling on a student, who then holds the magic feather and answers the same question. It could be as simple as, “What’s your favorite food?” “What’s the hardest thing that’s happened to you this week?” That last question is great to follow-up with a symbolic Band-Aid – an acknowledgement of the hurt.

A sign-off ritual that I like is a closing with a wish – the teacher can offer a wish to the student, and a student to each other. Things like, “My wish for you today is that you find friendship.” 

What role do principals play? 

The schools that are most successful have principals who are the biggest advocates for trauma-informed care. They must buy in to providing teachers what they need to meet the needs when they arise: resources, time, and flexibility in scheduling. 

Teachers say, “I would love to do what you’re saying, but if I’m not on the target comment when they walk in, I get hit on my evaluation.” Principals need to examine their policies and procedures from a trauma-sensitive paradigm. Modifications will be required to allow teachers to meet the needs of students and be healers, because kids simply cannot learn when their trauma response is engaged.

For example, I worked with a local school, Daniel Academy, that provided students with water and protein-based snacks every two hours and created a sensory-rich environment and saw a 40 percent reduction in aggressive referrals in two months. It has to show up in the budget, which is something principals decide.

What do you hope to achieve through your work and your partnership with JPEF? 

My goal is that everybody in Jacksonville who touches the heart of a child will have this trauma-informed paradigm. What I’ve heard in my time working with teachers through JPEF is that TBRI offers actionable tools that teachers are eager to learn. There are a lot of teachers with the heart to know, who just haven’t been matched with the proper resources.

I think this is the pivotal time. How we move forward? Will we accept the belief that trauma exists within the school setting, and educators are first-line responders? The answer to that question is going to tell us a lot about our society. If we know that to be true and we don’t fully equip teachers, then we’re doing a disservice to them and the students they serve. 

The good of COVID-19 is that people are starting to listen that trauma is real. It’s not just a buzzword. And it impacts learning greatly.

Editor’s Note: In response to the pandemic, Callie shared a great free resource for principals and teachers who want to learn these practices – an online training from the Karyn Purvis Institute of Child Development. Download a flyer about how Hope Street can support your school in conjunction with this training. Contact Hope Street at 904-373-8029 or info@hopestreetinc.com.





of public schools in Duval County earned an "A," "B," or "C" in 2021-2022.