Committee for Children Blog

Don’t Miss These Connections Between SEL and Trauma-Informed Practice

trauma informed, social emotional learning, teacher, educator

Kids who experience trauma can be silent sufferers. That’s partly because trauma is stored in the nonverbal part of the brain so it’s not something easily identified, talked about, or expressed verbally. It may only show up through behaviors. Trauma is also in the perspective of the person experiencing it, so an experience may be traumatic for one person but not for another. Because we cannot typically know which children have experienced trauma, it’s important to use trauma-informed practices with all children and provide universal, trauma-informed supports throughout schools and classrooms. Social-emotional learning (SEL) is key for ensuring this happens, and this blog discusses why and how.

Adult SEL Skills Are Directly Tied to Our Ability to Be Trauma Sensitive

Trauma-informed practices are primarily about providing kids safe spaces and environments. Adults need social-emotional competencies to be able to foster this type of environment so that kids feel supported and can thrive. To be able to recognize when someone is experiencing an emotion or not feeling safe, adults need to have and use good listening skills and understand other perspectives, seeing as best they can through the child’s eyes. Adults also provide safe environments by approaching kids with empathy and understanding, validating feelings and behavior, and building relationships. When we aren’t calm we respond more quickly to triggers and often in negative ways, so it’s important to manage our stress and control our impulses. Trauma-informed practices also means building social-emotional competencies for students to empower all who are affected by adversity and help them cope with the trauma. It would be difficult to teach, model, and foster these skills if we did not have them ourselves.

Supporting Student SEL Is a Trauma-Sensitive Practice

SEL helps children survive and cope in various situations. Trauma affects kids’ social-emotional skills, such as their ability to identify, express, and manage emotions. Children exposed to trauma may internalize their feelings because they don’t have vocabulary to express their experiences, or they may externalize aggression, anger, and fear because they learn to perceive situations as dangerous.

SEL teaches kids to connect their actions to their thoughts and feelings by noticing feelings and physical sensations in their bodies, such as heat (embarrassment, shame), pressure (stress), tingling, muscular tension (anger, nervousness). When kids start understanding the physical sensations of their bodies and connecting them to emotions, only then can they learn how to name and describe their feelings, such as sadness, frustration, or anger. This is how they safely learn to express their feelings in a healthy way, verbally or nonverbally, and learn the coping strategies for managing their feelings as well.

While not all kids will experience trauma, they will all face challenges at some point in their lives, so all can benefit from learning skills for managing adversity. A trauma-sensitive environment that supports kids’ need to feel safe and supported—paired with strong adult social-emotional competencies and SEL supports for students—helps ensure kids will cultivate healthy student behaviors and have opportunities to thrive in the face of difficulties and hardships. So why not get started by making those explicit connections between your trauma-sensitive and SEL practices!

See how our Second Step SEL curriculum helped this Utah school district and its community after experiencing a traumatic series of suicides and deaths in 2015.

Second Step clients can use this alignment chart to help create a trauma-sensitive school.

Read more of Kim’s articles on the Committee for Children blog, and check out this SEL eBook, which is a collection of articles about SEL as it relates to restorative practices, trauma-informed practices, MTSS, and character education.