Trauma Informed Hierarchy of Skills

Updated: Sep 23, 2020

We’ve all seen Maslow's hierarchy of needs. It’s an integral part of any teacher prep program, and for good reason. It’s true! We know our students’ basic needs must be met before we can ask them to perform academically. Children must be given food, water, and sleep before being able to devote thought power to a multi-step word problem. This isn’t new information.


For kids with trauma backgrounds, though, a unique set of skills must be taught and tended to prior to even thinking about presenting that math problem. So, here’s my take on this hierarchy as it pertains to trauma informed strategies for teachers. If you work in a trauma informed school or not, the following information can support your day-to-day practice in behavior management. It’s a helpful mindset shift in prioritization. Providing clarity in a practice that can often become emotionally charged and extremely challenging.


In this visual, you’ll find the four aspects of a trauma informed care approach to supporting students; safety, emotional intelligence, social skills, and task completion. The hierarchy of these skills provide a clear top-down approach for students to maximize learning while focusing on broadening their capacity to regulate and engage meaningfully in social environments.


First Thing’s First

Safety. We must frame our thinking to respond to safety as the primary concern. Our students must maintain safety in the school environment. Yet, we also need to provide a school environment in which they feel safe. Of course, this links back to Maslow. A deep feeling of safety means your basic needs are met. Unfortunately, teachers don’t have the ability to make sure children are fed at home, or to tuck them in to sleep at a reasonable hour. But, we can control what happens when students are at school. Making sure they are fed and even providing them a place to nap, if needed. This is extremely important to increasing a child’s sense of safety at school.

We also want to remind students who is in charge of their safety at school. Students with trauma histories often feel the need to be in control of every situation. This stems from past experiences of feeling wildly out of control and unsafe. While we need to honor these very real emotional responses, it’s important to reframe this control for students. Stating gently that teachers and adults in the classroom are in control and keeping them safe, opens up new lanes for relationship building and reframing trust. Students must be able to trust that adults will keep them safe, it is an imperative foundation that must be reiterated and proven to students with trauma again and again.


Build that Muscle

Emotional intelligence is the next tier for skill building. This step requires embedded action from the moment a student sets foot on school grounds, to the moment they go home. Students with trauma are often stunted in emotional growth. They frequently revert to younger coping mechanisms and tantruming behavior. These reactions are often difficult to process for teachers as the chronological age of the student can be much older than their emotional age. That’s why teaching self-advocacy skills, reflection, and direct emotional understanding for themselves and others is so important.

Our goal is always to teach students how to name and access feelings. We do this by modeling, highlighting positive emotional reactions, and providing scaffolded support for instability. Above all, students with trauma backgrounds need acknowledgment. The emotional reaction may not make sense to us, but to students, feelings of betrayal, pain, and anger are quite real and must be acknowledged. By genuinely connecting with students in this way, we can reframe this lack of emotional understanding into greater connectedness with themselves and those around them. It is important to note that many times, students will not be able, or chose not to respond verbally when in a heightened emotional state. Non-verbal communicative measures and materials should always be prepared to provide a voice and means of communication.



Playing Games

One thing that gets tossed around in education constantly is the importance of play. Don’t get me wrong, play is a wonderful tool for building imagination and practicing academic skills. However, playing a game and losing, can feel like a personal attack to students that have a history of being wronged. That’s where social skills comes in as the 3rd tier of the hierarchy of skills for a trauma-informed practice. Students should always be given opportunities to practice verbally and non-verbally communicating to peers and teachers. They should also be provided instruction in problem solving and tolerance. These skills must be taught explicitly and systematically. For students with trauma, positive social interactions don’t always come with ease. Fostering relationships and respectful communication among peers takes work and consistent effort. These skills should also be translated to speaking and interacting with adults. Not only teachers the student is familiar with, but others within the school, as well. As students work on this tier, they have the opportunity to practice appropriate boundaries, respectful language, and learn to play meaningful.


Get it Done

The last tier on the hierarchy of trauma informed skills is last for a reason. It is the least important. Does this mean students shouldn’t be given assignments or that we should just let them refuse to do it? Heck no! But it shouldn’t be our focus as teachers of this population. These students’ needs are fragile and complex. The more pressure we put on completing an assignment and less on interacting with peers, the greater harm we are doing to these children. Within academic tasks, build in as many of the previous skills as possible. There’s no work for the sake of work in a trauma supportive environment. Everything is meaningful. You many only get a small window a day of engagement from that student a day, and it has to be important for their emotional well-being, as well as moving them forward academically.


Remember to always remind students they are worth learning and doing hard things. It is our job to build our students up and to give them a positive story to tell themselves. We must choose materials, scaffold skills, and provide targeted and meaningful support for the WHOLE student. So, when they tell themselves that story, it’s that they can do it and they know they’re safe enough to ask for help and take risks. I hope this 4-tiered hierarchy for trauma supportive practice is helpful in reframing some of the moments of tension in your classroom and allow you to realign your teaching to supporting all students purposefully. I’d love to hear your feedback and how you could use this framework in your practice!


I have the hierarchy visual printed and laminated on my lanyard at school to remind me to get back to basics when I need to. My staff also wear them as a reminder of what our true purpose is for our kids. If this resonates with you, and you’d like to grab them, you can download them in my store for free! Click here.


Want even more strategies for supporting students with trauma? Grab my free E-Book: Top 3 Deescalations Strategies by clicking the picture below!


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