Trauma-Informed Education

Childhood trauma is ubiquitous in our world today. Therefore, our pedagogy and instruction must acknowledge this, because when students are in the fight-flight-freeze-fawn mode, they are not able to learn – or even pay attention to the teacher. We often measure the traumatization with the ACEs score (Adverse Childhood Experiences) and too many children have experienced two or more ACEs, which has a serious influence on development. With developmental problems learning may become harder, especially the “traditional learning” which often means listening to a lecture and then completing the given tasks and assessments. (You can see or take the ACE score test here.)

The prevalence of trauma means that as teachers on any level of the education system, we need to be aware of the situation and to modify our instructional practices to accommodate the needs of our students. The easiest way for me has been to detach the behavior from the person, so that I can support my students by responding appropriately – instead of reacting to the behavior or the situation. I needed to learn how different stress responses appear in our behavior to be able to help my students. Because behavior IS communication.

Obviously, I cannot know whether a student is feeling helpless, unless I ask them. But offering help is always a good idea that aligns perfectly with Learner-Centered practices. Ensuring that we use practices that communicate respect, transparency, support, collaboration, empowerment, safety and resilience will strengthen the positive messages in our teaching.

Student-centered and emotionally safe pedagogy is an attitude.  It is not a handbook of tips and tricks, to help us survive our days.  It is being physically and emotionally present when the student needs us. It is also thinking more about the process than the product. And in these classrooms the focus is in creating, not copying, no matter what the task is – this applies to art as well as note taking!

Truly learner-centered experiences are designed with students, acknowledging their previous knowledge, and providing different learning modalities and assessments to choose from. Here is more about learner-centered design, which obviously makes learning engagement much more meaningful for participants.

Here is the TIP sheet I created to have a one-page document reminder of both SEL and TIP (Social-Emotional Learning and Trauma-Informed Practices), so that I can have it open on my desktop while working with my students:

Here are some additional resources:

Here is the link to the PDF TIP for Teaching

Trauma-Sensitive Schools and SEL integration

Policy and Practice for Trauma-Informed Schools


Báez, J.C., Marquart, M., Garay, K., & Chung, R.Y. (2020). Trauma-Informed Teaching and Learning Online: Principles & Practices During a Global Health Crisis;

Carello, J. (2019). Examples of Trauma-Informed Teaching and Learning in College Classrooms;

Carello, J. (2022). A3 Self-Assessment Tools for Creating Trauma-Informed Learning and Work Environments.

Images: and

Learner-centered instruction

Using learner-centered practices in Learning Experience Design is needed for creating learning-centered educational cultures.

Nina’s Notes is dedicated to helping faculty and teachers to use learner-centered practices in their instruction.  I learned to teach with learner-centerd approach as a part of  my Learning Sciences and teacher education in University of Jyväskylä, Finland, and have been promoting it ever since in all levels of education.  Today, learner-centerdness is more important than ever before!

Learning and being taught are two very different experiences. In learner-centered education students are seen as subjects of their own learning instead of being the objects of instruction, thus emphasizing the voice and choice of students – which makes learner-centered approach the IDEAL one for deeper, permanent learning to happen.

IDEAL mini

Learner-centered ideology is not a new invention, it has been around for a long time.   Already in 1945 McKeachie wrote about education that empowers students to learn more, stating that a “further dimension upon which student-centered and instructor-centered classes differ is in the degree to which the student feels he can influence his own fate” (p. 145). Respecting learners’ autonomy is a good point to start learner-centered instruction.

Intrinsic interest in learning is the beginning.  We must support sudents’ engagment in their own learning processes because intrinsic motivation to learn (learning because we are interested in doing it) is much stronger predictor for future educational success than extrinsic motivation, which is associated with surface and strategic learning approaches. Learning engagement is generally more enjoyable experience than just being taught something. (There is a LOT of research published also why professional learning is so much better than professional development, but let’s not get too deep into that! Suffices to say that teacher agency is crucially important for learner agency. Here is a good link: REL Pacific)

Dispositions of teachers and faculty is the next building block because dispositions determine how we instruct and support students (Thornton, 2006,p. 63).  Believing that everyone can learn is one of the fundamental dispositions in contemporary education. This belief doesn’t always seem to fit perfectly with standardized testing, or labeling schools (and sometimes even students) as “failing”, based on a quantitative snapshot evaluation that tells very little if anything about the learning process (the learning quality). Learner-centered dispositions also focus on SEL: social-emotional learning. It is important for us to know and understand how to support our students as whole human beings. I tweet about SEL with my own images like the one below.


Learning environment is the next part. Acknowledging the individual and sociocultural factors in education is foundational for learner-centered learning environments. Learning doesn’t happen in a vacuum, but is situated in the culture and environment, and based on the interactions between the student, instructor and materials, contextualized either in traditional or online learning environments. Decidecly build a learning environment that supports metacognition – the awareness and perceptions we have about our own learning. Explicitly teaching metacognitive knowledge and skills is an important part of supporting deep learning. We educators should have extensive knowledge and skill to embed metacognitive learning strategies into our learning experience design. Engaging in Professional Learning with colleagues to practice Self-Regulated Learning is a great idea!

Agency is the capacity for self-transformation, situated in the social structure (classroom, online learning environment).  Distinguishing engagement in learning experiences from the educational experience of being taught is essential for understanding learner agency. Individual judgment, self-determination, and problem solving skills are in high demand – and these can be fostered with learner agency by providing choices for students to support interest, agency and deep learning. Self-determination (Nemiec & Ryan, 2009) is a basic human need, so while designing learning experiences, please remember to include design elements that help students want to engage:

    • Autonomy – have choices and be an agent of one’s own life and learning
    • Competence – reach goals and move towards meaningful growth
    • Relatedness – connect and interact with others

We can empower students to learn by emphasizing ACRs. Alas, it is harder for students to learn to use their self- determination in compliance-driven learning environments.

Compliance demands also harm students’ Lifelong Learning interests. Bringing the individual learning experience to the forefront of discussions will help to make the shift in teaching and learning. An important question to ask is: how does this learning experience relate to students’ lives outside of the education system?  If students can’t find a clear connection between their lives and what they are learning at school, something is terribly wrong, and we are not helping them to become life-long learners, or preparing them for life in future societies.

It is important to note that a learner-centered approach is neither a curriculum nor an instructional design model.  It is a framework compatible with all kinds of curricula. American Psychological Association (APA) has conducted and gathered extensive research about educational psychology and learner-centered practices (APA, 1990, 1997), and created principles to guide educational decision making, both for faculty and the stakeholders. These principles are not a modern fad, but “consistent with more than a century of research on teaching and learning” ( APA, 1997, p. 2).

The collection of 14 psychological principles was created with research data gathered from over 20,000 students and teachers (McCombs, 2001).  We should use the data that has been gathered in classrooms and let it guide both education policies and instructional design. I have blogged about this in Notes From Nina, where the 14 principles are discussed more thoroughly.  In 2015, APA  updated their guidelines using  research about latest educational psychology and supporting deep learning in classrooms. This was published as the Top 20 principles for PreK-12.  It is a good read for anyone who aspires to teach, whether instucting in classroom or university settings, or training employees in business, because deep learning in all levels of education happens in similar ways. Here is a concise table I made of the 20 principles. Everyone who works in higher education should read the APA guide to College Teaching. It has excellent insight into how students learn and how we can support that learning.

Using learner-centered practices is needed for creating learning-centered educational cultures. Understanding that learning is an internal (cognitive) process leads to very different instructional choices than viewing learning as a defined product or (behavioral) outcome as proof that knowledge transfer and acquisition have occurred.

American Psychological Association, Coalition for Psychology in Schools and Education. (2015). Top 20 principles from psychology for pre K–12 teaching and learning. Retrieved from http://

American Psychological Association, Work Group of the Board of Educational Affairs (1997, November). Learner-centered psychological principles: A framework for school reform and redesign. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association. Retrieved from:

Illeris, K. (2003). Towards a contemporary and comprehensive theory of learning. International journal of lifelong education22(4), 396-406.

McCombs, B. L. (2001). What do we know about learners and learning? The learner-centered framework: Bringing the educational system into balance. Educational Horizons, 182-193.

McKeachie, W. J. (1954). Student-centered versus instructor-centered instruction. Journal of Educational Psychology45(3), 143.

Niemiec, C. P., & Ryan, R. M. (2009). Autonomy, competence, and relatedness in the classroom: Applying self-determination theory to educational practice. School Field7(2), 133-144.

Smith, N.C. (2017). Students’ perceptions of learner agency: A phenomenographic inquiry into the lived learning experiences of high school students. (Doctoral Dissertation).  Northeastern Repository

Thornton, H. (2006). Dispositions in action: Do dispositions make a difference in practice?. Teacher Education Quarterly33(2), 53-68.

Dialogues and Deeper Learning

Faculty interactions that support deeper learning are often dialogues about epistemologies, instead of transactions focusing on information delivery.

As faculty we have frequent interactions with students. It is important to remember that interactions are a crucial part of students’ learning experience (Vygotsky, 1978; Hattie, 2008; Almajed, Skinner, Peterson, & Winning, 2016). Learner-centered practices that support deeper learning approaches are built on transformational interactions, emphasizing personal experiences, knowledge construction and students’ choices for engagement (APA, 1997, 2015).

Alas, too often faculty interactions remain on transactional level, seeking opportunities to shape students’ behaviors and responses, missing the chance to understand students’ viewpoints. This type of educational interaction is not authentic for supporting deeper learning, due to the focus on repeating expectations, societal/institutional norms and obligations (Berne, 1961, 2016). Knowledge construction for transactional interactions remains on the level of external sources and assertions being considered to be facts and transmitting them to students (Kuhn, Cheney, & Weinstock, 2000, p. 311). There is no focus on sense-making and interpretation to challenge one’s own epistemologies. Transactional interactions reflect the mechanist worldview and positivist view of knowledge, therefore not supporting deeper learning approaches.

Engaging in a dialogue supports students’ knowledge construction, thus being essential for deeper, transformational learning. Transformative learning refers to processes that result in significant and irreversible changes in the way a person experiences, conceptualizes, and interacts with the world. (Hoggan, 2016. p.71) For deeper learning experiences our interactions with students must advance beyond simple transactions. These interactions tend to take more time, due to the dialogic approach. Engaging students in dialogues about their learning process and how the construction of new knowledge relates to their lives often increases students’ satisfaction due to added meaningfulness of their learning. Hoggan (2016) suggested that as a result of transformational learning experience students “may embark on a process of introspection and change” (p.61). Isn’t that exactly what we would like to happen? Helping students to become life-long learners.

Without engaging in dialogue there might not be a shared understanding, just assumptions. The interactions that support the transformation are very different from the ones used to reinforce compliance and accountability. The authors of Authentic Conversations state very strongly:

The notion that you can hold other people accountable is a myth, a dangerous illusion that denies a fundamental reality of human existence. People always have a choice about their beliefs and actions. You choose to be accountable—it can’t be forced upon you.

Showkeir & Showkeir, 2008, p. 35.

Faculty interactions that support deeper learning must focus on students’ individual knowledge construction process, instead of simple information delivery or emphasizing norms, expectations and obligations. Berne (1961/2016) discusses this as engaging in adult-adult interactions. Assuming the role of a parent makes it hard (or impossible) to engage in a dialogue, especially if the role is the one for the Critical Parent. Starting a discussion as a Nurturing Parent may build a way for a dialogue about epistemologies and knowledge construction to begin. Within a dialogue it becomes easy for me to describe learning strategies that have helped my other students, or recommend an approach for understanding a complex topic. Engaging in a dialogue does not undermine my professional authority building on knowledge and expertise.

As a faculty member in teacher education, I have learned that I frequently need to remind myself about the best practices for interacting with students. The easiest way for me to engage in dialogues comes from practicing positive regard, reminding myself of the difference between being kind vs. being nice, and acknowledging that my truth cannot be better than your truth.


American Psychological Association, Coalition for Psychology in Schools and Education. (2015). Top 20 principles from psychology for pre K–12 teaching and learning. Retrieved from http://

American Psychological Association, Work Group of the Board of Educational Affairs (1997, November). Learner-centered psychological principles: A framework for school reform and redesign. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association. Retrieved from:

Berne, E. (2016). Transactional analysis in psychotherapy: A systematic individual and social psychiatry. Pickle Partners Publishing. Origially published in 1961.

Hattie, 2008; Almajed, A., Skinner, V., Peterson, R., & Winning, T. (2016). Collaborative learning: Students’ perspectives on how learning happens. Interdisciplinary Journal of Problem-Based Learning10(2), 9

Hoggan, C. D. (2016). Transformative learning as a metatheory: Definition, criteria, and typology. Adult education quarterly66(1), 57-75.

Kuhn, D., Cheney, R., & Weinstock, M. (2000). The development of epistemological understanding. Cognitive development15(3), 309-328.

Showkeir, J., & Showkeir, M. (2008). Authentic Conversations : Moving From Manipulation to Truth and Commitment: Vol. 1st ed. Berrett-Koehler Publishers.