Make Your Classroom Safe + Productive for Trauma-Impacted Learners


Last week I wrote about the impact of trauma on the adult learner's brain. Because childhood responses to safety threats (fight, flight or freeze) change the brain permanently (Perry, 2006), they follow the traumatized child into adulthood, even into the relatively non-threatening classroom or training room. A mind absorbed with scanning the environment for threats and preparing the body to react, is a mind unavailable for learning (Perry, 2006).

Because one-third of adult learners are trauma-impacted (Perry, 2006), designers of learning, teachers of social service consumers, and college faculty must be equipped with strategies to help these learners relax their vigilance and free up psychological energy for learning. One place to start is by creating safety, predictability, and consistency through classroom structures and processes. 

Establish expectations and a rationale for group processes.

Safety, predictability and consistency in classroom processes set up a structure that creates space for the traumatized learner to begin to relax (Cozolino & Sprokay, 2006). The processes I've used to do this in curricula I've designed or training I've delivered I would describe as classroom trauma-informed universal precautions. They put traumatized and non-traumatized adult learners at ease because they are structures that help things run smoothly. They make explicit the processes participants can access to get their learning needs met. For audiences who struggle with social skills, impulse control, stress management or social cognitive processing skills, these classroom, trauma-informed universal precautions create a shared understanding around how we will do things in our classroom. I always take time up front to co-create these with learners and establish the norms for their use. I typically include the following.


Use their words and ask what it might look like.

This is a living and dynamic agreement that details what learners need from themselves, their co-learners and their teacher and also what their instructor needs from them. We take 5-10 minutes to create this together. I have my non-negotiables for creating safety and if someone doesn’t suggest them, I add them in at the end. I ask for a thumbs up/thumbs down from the group after contributions have slowed, inviting further discussion of individual items that may need clarification or additional word-smithing for folks to feel comfortable agreeing to abide by them. I always use the words of the contributor to list agreements but will also ask, “What does (respect, openness to new ideas, participation) look or sound like?” I ask, “What would someone do to show you respect or to demonstrate openness to new ideas?” This unearths the specifics. Most people have something very specific in mind and often those specifics resonate with others. I capture their exact words next to their original contribution.

Model more adaptive responses.

Specific behaviors listed in the Community Agreement also serve to help others who are building their social, stress management, impulse or social cognitive processing skills. I design for and teach learners who are incarcerated, recently released, or who have involuntary involvement with one or more social service organizations. These folks are building skills in the above areas and they also often experience a high rate of trauma-impact. Taking 5-10 minutes at the start of a session or series to say what desirable, safe behaviors look and sound like gives these learners ideas for more adaptive responses in a way that doesn’t call them out or embarrass them.

Support agency and initiative.

Once we have a thumbs up from everyone I invite learners to be co-keepers of the agreement and to offer kind and gentle reminders to me or others if we should need it, drawing our individual or collective attention back to our agreements. I give an example of a kind and gentle reminder using myself as the one who needs reminding. I might say, “So if you notice that I’m interrupting someone, you can say, ‘Hey Tracy, remember we agreed that we would avoid interrupting each other,' and I’ll be good with that.” In this way, learners are provided with safe and structured pathways for exercising agency and initiative.

Make speaking up safe.

The more diverse your learners, the more important it is to invite them to speak up and let you know when they feel misunderstood or uncomfortable. It is also critical to add that you recognize that you all have different backgrounds and experiences and those differences could reasonably cause participants to feel as if others don't understand what it is like to be them, with their experiences. Especially in cases where particular groups have been subjected to institutionalized discrimination and historical racism, an important step towards classroom safety is to invite them to speak up and let you know when they feel misunderstood or uncomfortable. You can add this to the Community Agreement. You might phrase this as: Each person is encouraged to speak up and ask for what s/he needs when group discussions or individual comments cause them to feel misunderstood or uncomfortable.

Assume flexibility and adaptability.

This agreement is a living agreement so I also invite folks to direct our attention back to it if it needs adjusting. I might say, “So if we get to the middle of the day (in an all-day training) or if we get into the course a few weeks and something is really bugging you, get our attention and share what you’d like to add to the agreement and we will stop, take a minute and work out a way to address that.” This way, learners know there is a process for maintaining safety, predictability and consistency in our group while exercising flexibility and adaptability, thereby building more adaptive responses to stressful situations than fight, flight or freeze.

Expect to remain the group's leader.

Finally, while this agreement is co-created, as the teacher or trainer I’m still the positional leader of the learning event and it is my responsibility to take action when interaction strays from our agreements. If kind and gentle reminders don’t work, there are other approaches I use that demonstrate my commitment to safety while working respectfully and effectively with trauma-impacted Community Agreement strugglers.


Parking Lots are where we place important but off track questions and concerns. I invite participants to put things on the Parking Lot as they think of them or I say, “If you raise a question or concern that is off topic, I will ask for your permission to ‘park it’ with the promise that we will address it at the end of session." It is critical for consistency, predictability and trust that you save time and actually return to the Parking Lot items at the end of a session. For multi-day sessions, I clear the Parking Lot at the end of each day. For issues I, or others in the room can’t answer I do additional research. I start the next session with the results of my research, even if it is to refer them to someone else who may be able to help them. If I'm researching the remaining issues post-training I email participants with a response or I email the client and request that the response be sent to those who attended the learning event.


Metacognitive strategies are processes for thinking about and upgrading our thinking so we can support our ability to learn. One set of metacognitive strategies involves helping learners with pacing and progress monitoring (Cozolino & Sprokay, 2006).

Frequently the audiences for whom I design and deliver instruction (whether incarcerated or starting graduate school after 20 years away from formal education), present with a visible and high degree of education-related anxiety. Starting a course or training with a roadmap and tools to support pacing and progress monitoring can help allay performance anxiety and keep people in the game. To support this, I like to introduce the following tools:

Use a course graphic organizer.

A course graphic organizer can be as simple as a course agenda or as elaborate as a visual metaphor, like the journey metaphor for the Parenting Inside Out curriculum I created. This graphic organizer lived on the wall of the classroom for the twelve weeks we were in session and each piece of the metaphor stood for some portion of the learning we would undertake together.

Graphic organizers serve much like those mall you are here maps. It shows learners where we are at any given point in time in relation to the entire course or training and how the pieces fit together. Knowing where you are, being reminded of where you’ve been, and being alerted to where you are going gives context for pacing.

Develop an assignment checklist.

The assignment checklist includes due dates for making sure you pace yourself appropriately and accomplish what you need to accomplish by the end of our time together. It often also provides an opportunity to reflect and self-assess your efforts, which is another way to build and reinforce metacognitive skills.

Provide success checklists.

It is at this time, when we are reviewing the assignments for the course, that I also tell participants that for every assignment they are asked to complete, they will also receive a success checklist when they receive the assignment so they know what excellence looks like before they begin. This gives learners a sense of calm and hope that they will have what they need to meet their goals in the course or training.

Implement early alerts.

For those groups with fewer educational successes in their history, I also typically offer early alerts – queries when work is past due, and mid-point individualized check ins to compare my checklist and quality assessment of what they've done with their checklist and self-assessment of what they've completed. While I meet individually with learners to conduct these check-ins, others can work on catching up. Telling participants up front about these built-in safety nets provides enough security and predictability to help them get started.

Use trauma-informed teaching and training strategies.

One value of reading the literature is finding new strategies to do better work. Another value comes in the ability to name and understand why the good practices you are already using are successful. The above practices are strategies I have written in to curricula for clients, use as a teacher , and train other educators to use. These strategies work with learners who have identified themselves as trauma-impacted and they work with learners whose anxiety gets in the way of their learning, even if they have not yet shared or are not aware of the trauma-impact that drives it. If you would kindly join the conversation and add your strategies for creating a safe learning environment for adults in the comments section below, we can all benefit from what is working in your classroom or training room.


Cozolino, L., & Sprokay, S. (2006). Neuroscience and adult learning. In S. Johnson, & K. Taylor (Eds.), New directions for adult and continuing education: The neuroscience of adult learning (Summer ed., Vol. 110, pp. 11-19). San Francisco: Wiley Periodicals, Inc.

MDC, (2010). What we know: Reflections from the developmental education initiative presidents.

Perry, B. D. (2006). Fear and learning: Trauma-related factors in the adult education process. In S. Johnson & K. Taylor (Eds.), New directions for adult and continuing education: The neuroscience of adult learning (Summer ed., Vol. 110, pp. 21-27). San Francisco: Wiley Periodicals, Inc.