Creating trauma-informed strengths-based classrooms: Dr Tom Brunzell

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When students face adversity in their personal lives it inevitably impacts their learning and development. Dr Tom Brunzell, Director of Education at community-centred Berry Street, explains how teachers are creating trauma-informed strengths-based classrooms. 

Trauma, as Dr Tom Brunzell defines it, is the “enduring belief that the world is no longer good and safe after you’ve experienced an adversity.” 

From pandemics to family and friendship issues, adversity can touch every student causing stress, anxiety and learning difficulties. Students who are facing trauma in their lives are expected to not only identify their stress levels but keep them under control. Some will be able to do this on their own, while others will struggle deeply in and outside of the classroom. 

The good news is, as Dr Tom Brunzell points out, every teacher can take a trauma informed approach to help students in need. Here are 4 lessons from Dr Tom Brunzell’s Unleash Learning TV interview (below) on creating trauma-informed strengths-based classrooms.

Educator takeaways:

  1. Recognising Trauma and Its Impact
  2. Self-Reflection and Regulation
  3. Non-Verbal Communication
  4. Creating ‘Rhythmic’ Classrooms
  5. Unleash Learning interview with Dr Brunzell: Watch Now.

1: Recognising Trauma and Its Impact

Creating a trauma-informed strengths-based classrooms begin with understanding the nature of trauma and its profound impact on students. Trauma is not limited to a single event. It can result from repeated adversities, like the pandemic driven lockdowns. Or be caused by relational trauma, like physical or emotional abuse from someone close. 

As educators, we must recognise that trauma affects students’ ability to manage stress and form relationships. These should be red flags to us. Trauma impacts their capacity to engage in learning effectively. To create a trauma sensitive classrooms, teachers must first acknowledge distraction, from a learning perspective, that trauma creates. 

2: Self-Reflection and Regulation

With recognition of trauma’s impact in the classroom, teacher must raise their own self-awareness of how they respond. Teachers, like students, need to regulate their own emotions and responses when faced with stress. Teachers serve as role models for students, who are all constantly mirroring the adults arounds them. 

This is why recognising and managing personal triggers is critical. Modelling undesirable behaviours, such as raising voices in frustration, can reinforce student’s own behaviour. Creating a calm and supportive atmosphere is key to helping students feel safe, understood and able to manage their own stress responses.

3: Non-Verbal Communication

While students affected by trauma may struggle with cognitive processes, they can be experts at reading the room and those around them. They have an innate sense for those who genuinely care for them and possess the presence of mind to support them effectively.

Teachers need to be authentic and mindful of their non-verbal cues. Building trust often hinges on non-verbal communication. Maintaining a warm, welcoming, and empathetic demeanor can go a long way in helping students feel secure and ready to learn. Watch the video to learn more tips on non-verbal cues from Dr Tom Brunzell.

4: Creating ‘Rhythmic’ Classrooms

Trauma sensitive classrooms can benefit highly from establishing ‘rhythmic’ routines and predictable, consistent activities. Dr Brunzell explains these routines provide a sense of security and stability for students who may feel hightened anxiety and stress when met with unpredictability.

From morning circles to group activities, these routines help students transition smoothly between different learning tasks. It’s essential to teach and reinforce these routines consistently. Even when a substitute teacher steps in, they should be aware of and follow these routines to prevent any disruption for the students.


Watch Dr Tom Brunzell explain trauma-informed strengths-based classrooms below.

Whether you’re a classroom teacher, presenter, or  trainer, this episode of Unleash Learning TV will help you ↓

  • Get an expert definition of trauma faced by students.
  • Understand the needs of learners who’ve experienced trauma.
  • See what COVID lockdowns mean for learners who’ve experienced trauma.
  • Know stuff →  YOU that can support learners with trauma.



[This transcript has been edited for readability and may deviate slightly from the recorded conversation]. 

[Dr. William DeJean] We want you to learn from leaders in the field, stay inspired, and help you make learning stick for everyone. Welcome to Unleash Learning TV. There are a lot of discussions taking place right now about trauma and trauma-informed teaching and learning practices, and that’s why we’ve brought Dr. Tom Brunzell to you today. He’s an experienced teacher, school leader, researcher, and educational advisor, and currently, he’s the director of education at Berry Street. Now, his new co-authored book, “Creating Trauma-Informed Strength-Space Classrooms,” is now available, and I really believe that if you want to make learning stick for everyone, this is not to be missed episode.

[Dr. William DeJean] So Tom, welcome to Unleash Learning TV. Welcome, welcome, welcome.

[Dr Tom Brunzell] Hi, William. Nice. Well, I wish we could be in person, but we’re both in lockdown, and so this is the best of both worlds in the sense of getting to be together. As you know, Unleash Learning, what we do is we help educators learn the system that makes learning stick for everyone. And one of the keys in that system is the key of students for teachers, but also for presenters and staff developers, the key of learners. We spend a lot of time on Unleash Learning TV educating our audience and educating me as well about those important keys. And I think your new book, which is incredible, can really help us think about who our learners are in new ways to get learning to stick for everyone. So I’m really excited that you’re here.

[Dr Tom Brunzell] Thank you.

[Dr. William DeJean] So Tom, now I read the book, but some people might not have read the book yet.  I thought we should start with the definition, because you’re talking about trauma-informed practices, and trauma is getting a lot of attention right now. So could you give us a definition of how you define trauma?

[Dr Tom Brunzell] The definition is an open one, and we started writing this book before the pandemic because at Berry Street, in our research and practice, we work with young people and children and their families who experienced great adversity in their lives. So the definition that we started with, which is trauma, is the enduring belief that the world is no longer good and safe after you’ve experienced an adversity. And that can be a one-time adversity or it can be a repeated adversity, or we call it relational trauma, which is when someone close in your life who is meant to care for you may be the source of the adversity. So your listeners can imagine those scenarios. I’m happy to talk about that in the interview here today. But what we now understand is it’s not the event, because unfortunately, we’re all experiencing adversity now, but it’s our responses to the event. So some of us have a lot of support around us, and some of us don’t have those same supports. And so the enduring impacts on the way we manage stress, the way we form relationships, the ways that we can focus on learning can lead someone to be labeled trauma-affected.

[Dr. William DeJean] It’s an incredible definition because I think people can really understand that and use that. I think it helps us think about who our learners are from that definition. So thank you for the definition. And what I want to jump into now is thinking about our classrooms because I want to know, presenters and staff developers, I think, can still use this information, but I am talking about classrooms right now. And I want to know, what are the classroom needs for students who’ve experienced trauma? What are the kinds of needs they have in our classrooms?

[Dr Tom Brunzell] I’m going to pick you up on something you just said around experienced trauma because it’s not just experiencing the adversity I just discussed, but it’s also acknowledging the impacts of something we call secondary or vicarious traumatic impacts. And that’s when you are listening to or exposed to the details or even mirroring in a physiological way the physical impacts of the person that you’re supporting, students or teachers in classrooms. Those vicarious impacts, I sadly have to now admit, and maybe a moment of grace and compassion for all of us, everyone on planet earth has been exposed to these kinds of details over the last 18 months. And so when we are thinking about the impacts and the application of trauma-informed practice, we now realise it’s for everybody. Now, you mentioned the classroom because at Berry Street, I have the privilege and honour of working with a fleet of clinicians, social workers, therapists, and youth workers. And so trauma-informed practice for those professions is very specific. And then, specific to me and you, people who are teachers, people in educational research, our province is schools. So we are not therapists. So I want to be very clear with my definitions in honor of the professionals that I work with in our care team approaches and stuff. For teachers, we are holding students in a very particular way when it comes to learning. Because I think you’d agree, learning isn’t just smooth sailing. It’s not just like, “Oh, I could do this.” But learning does involve the body’s escalation. Like, “Can I do this? Do I have the capabilities? Do I need the resources? Am I about to expose myself as ignorant in front of my friends?” Like, all of those capacities, I’d like your… I’d like our listeners today to consider that that is managing your stress response in a really healthy way. And the young people that we support are not able to do that yet because of the impacts of trauma, adversity on their physiological growth. So when they’re faced with the challenge and don’t know what to do, they lose their minds quickly. They go into a reaction mind quickly. And so we can see why their bodies are just not ready yet to do the learning that’s challenging and interesting to them.

[Dr. William DeJean] It makes me think. We talk a lot at Unleash Learning. We talk about who learners are matters, but we talk a lot about it’s not just the head, it’s the whole body. And so you’re talking about the whole body of a human being and the conditions we create to support the whole body in the realm. I’ve often said it goes from the heart to the head, learning. And so we’ve got to create safety for the heart to get to the head. And that’s, I’m thinking, that body perspective. So I just want to mention that because I hear that. And you also mentioned something else, which goes to the next question. Here in Sydney, we’re in lockdown, you’re in Melbourne in lockdown, all over the world, COVID is having different kinds of impact. And I want to know, the impact of COVID is for students who’ve experienced trauma, how is this time impacting them, this kind of COVID time? I mean, that’s a general question, but is it impacting them in different kinds of ways if you’ve experienced trauma? And then this goes on. Can you tell us a little bit about that?

[Dr Tom Brunzell] The research from the last 12 months is abundantly clear that vulnerable learners before COVID are definitely made more vulnerable now, everything from impacts of technology to family and community supports being at their most necessary and rationed within the inch of our lives now to keep our communities moving forward. I love that you said heart, because when I’m going to take a wild guess because you and I are about the same age, right? We’re both like 30, 25, yeah, okay, right? Everyone’s 35. When we were becoming teachers, nobody talked to us that our students’ bodies were connected to their brains. You know, I only learned about learning and learning intervention, and this is how reading works, and this is how you help kids solve non-fiction real-world problems. Like, that’s what we learn to do. But in the advances of trauma-informed practice, the word heart is everything we do focuses on the heart’s ability to regulate the body. Because steady-state learners can have a heart rate elevate and say, “I’m not sure I can do this.” It’s okay. I know how to seek preemptive support. The young people we serve, we will often measure their heart rates in terms of numeracy and sciences and self-care and biofeedback. But we are very aware that these students have an elevated baseline for stress tolerance even before they step inside the classroom. So somebody nudges them or the teacher gives them the wrong look or they’re just not prepared. So what we’re noticing in the impacts of our current COVID-impacted world is that stress tolerance is like, went maybe from this to this. We are all on edge. And the plea for all of us is, we’re human beings, we’re in this together, and there’s no clear definitive end in sight because when it comes to resilience, it’s always like, keep your eye focused on what you can achieve and where you can keep moving forward. And now that forward is quite uncertain for all of us. So you can see, yes, we all are managing daily micro-moment stressors, just like the kids are.

[Dr. William DeJean] Well, it really brings me to two pieces I want to talk about in the interview. But what I’m thinking about as we talk a lot about that key of classroom and how to set it up to lower stress levels because of the bodies of the students, which brings me to the next question. Now we talk a lot about rituals and procedures in Unleash Learning, right? And you talked about predictability in the book about predictability, and predictability is kind of connected to rituals and procedures to me because it’s a way of being. And so I’d like you to talk a little bit about, can you talk about predictability and how that supports students who’ve experienced trauma?

[Dr Tom Brunzell] Yes, in our book, our teams have helped us at Berry Street understand unpredictability equals risk. And so when we perceive the world as unpredictable, that unpredictability itself makes us feel like the world is risky. And therefore, we’ll do things to make it feel less risky. Linking this response to our prior conversation just now is the heart is a regulating organ for us, the most important one, let’s say. The classroom has its own community, its own heart, as it will. And teachers, I think, can be therapeutically informed to hold space, to be a container, to hold the community together. So one thing we recommend is, how many routines and predictable, consistent activities can we do to create a rhythmic classroom? You know, for instance, every single routine in the classroom can be formed as a rhythm of inhale, exhale. There’s a time when we’re exhaling. We’re coming into the room. Now we inhale together in a morning circle routine. And at the Berry Street School, we care about circle so much, we don’t just do it in the morning as a seven-minute check-in. We do at least three to four circles a day for the students. Yes, the world can be unpredictable. The world can be unregulated. But you come into our classrooms, and we breathe in together. Now we breathe out together. We breathe in for the mini-lesson, we breathe out for the work period, we are working in groups now, we come together. And you can imagine, nothing simple when we teach these routines and share them throughout the chapters. We know that it’s never as simple as Teacher A doing this right. Or a teacher comes in, and then the science teacher. And now we have a replacement teacher. What we found is, and this is, I’m going to preface it, it’s both harrowing for principals but kind of amazing, that in schools that are really humming with these rhythmic routines, when a replacement teacher comes in who doesn’t know these routines, we see the same cohort of kids go bananas. That’s right. And they come in. But the great news is, the replacement teachers get the support from principals. So you’ve got to learn this stuff.

[Dr. William DeJean] Well, it also speaks to the relationships, and it speaks to then, I mean, for me, I just talk all the time, and unless you’re talking all the time, that key of classroom and why teachers need their own classrooms and why it’s set up in a very specific way and the predictability that’s created. So I can go on about this, but I do want to jump to the, you, I’ve alluded to this as well. Now, we talk a lot about Unleash Learning about who the educator is matters, and we say that seriously. So a lot of our programs, they do a lot of reflective practice from the inside out. And what I loved about your book is you talk about who the educator is matters, especially with trauma-informed practice, and it’s not a bunch of strategies. It’s actually about who you are, how you show up. So can you tell us a little bit about what are the things that educators, we have to know about ourselves that can help support students who’ve experienced trauma?

[Dr Tom Brunzell] A few things to consider for our teachers out there. One, we are constantly modelling adulthood. We are constantly modelling. It’s awesome to get an education, this is who you want to be when you grow up. So we’re mirroring and modelling that the more time you spend learning is worth it. And I wish that I’ve been told this years and years and years ago when I was a teacher in New York City because I was modelling adulthood as in if you don’t get what you want, you raise your voice a little louder, and therefore, I would yell terrible things to kids like, “You need to calm down.” And now I just think, “Oh, what was I modelling just then?” Like, I certainly wasn’t modelling how to find your centre and breathe and be de-escalated. So yes, it’s important about what our educators are saying to kids. I’d also like to put a little more pressure on our shoulders. Perhaps, from our research, it matters more about what you’re doing non-verbally with kids because our kids may struggle with cognition and learning right now. I mean, that’s who we’re there to support, but our kids are experts in reading the room nonverbally. They are experts at knowing who holds unconditional positive regard for them or not. They are experts who know who wants them in the room and they know who has the ability to be an adult with the presence of mind to support them. So I think our kids know, and they will tell you when they feel you’re being pretty inauthentic.

[Dr. William DeJean] I always think Paulo Freire says, “We read the world before the word.” So the students are reading the world. They are very smart. They can read us. And so it just reminds us of who we are. It’s not strategies. It’s actually who are, how well do I know myself, what are my own triggers, how do I regulate myself, how do I show presence? And that part of the book, I just kind of was jumping up and down again. Okay, so let’s jump into the last one if I can. Okay. And I want to ask because I’m sure people are asking, and you talk a lot about the book. If in the classroom we had a trauma-informed strength space approach or practice, could you give us a sense of what it would look like in the classroom? And one of the things I noticed is it’s probably not cookie-cutter. Like, it’s all the same, right? But there are some predictabilities or some kinds of ways of being. So could you give us a sneak peek?

[Dr Tom Brunzell] I’d love to see if we could swing the whole book open and reduce it to three categories. These are the three categories from the area of trauma-informed practices I want teachers to be thinking about. How do I build regulated learners in terms of emotional and physical regulation? There are many things teachers can do to establish a culture of co-regulation, which I’ll define as working with a young person who doesn’t yet have the ability to self-regulate. In such cases, we need to be the regulator, side by side, shoulder to shoulder, employing relational strategies.

The second point is to remember that this student may be pushing you away, and it’s not about you unless you’ve made it about you. Many of our kids push away relationships because they haven’t had a history of strong, trusting relationships for learning with adults. You are that person, but, like me, I made tons of mistakes and pushed many kids away, reinforcing the dominator power values they expected from teachers. This gives more ammunition for kids to say, “You’re not here for me, you don’t deserve to be my co-regulator right now.” It almost proves the world for them.

The third step after building self-regulation and relationships is focusing on kids’ strengths. I know that may sound Pollyanna-ish, but for us, it’s about reframing our perspective when looking at struggling learners. We should think about what is right here, right now. When is this kid on task? Yes, it may look stubborn, but we can quickly flip that to say this kid has perseverance and fairness as strengths. Our behaviour analyst friends at Berry Street have shown us that it’s about creating conditions for success. Remember, every single kid has strengths, and they won’t feel like you’re there for them unless you recognise those strengths.

[Dr. William DeJean] It makes me think about all the interviews we’ve done with teachers, leaders, multilingual students, and people who have said to us, “This is for everyone.” I think of your book in this conversation. This is for everyone, and I know it’s specific to a particular community, but we all could benefit from the kinds of things you’re talking about. From my perspective, we certainly see this as a universal approach. 

[Dr Tom Brunzell] It is for everyone, especially during these times, which have shown us that all of us can grow and flourish with these strategies.

[Dr. William DeJean] I think it’s a perfect way to end. You’ve given us an extra copy, so we’re going to promote that. Someone from the audience will receive one of your books. We’ll make that announcement after the episode. So, Tom, congratulations on the book, and thank you so much for the work you’re doing. I hope this interview helps people think about who their learners are during this challenging time. 

[Dr Tom Brunzell]Thank you, William. 

[Dr. William DeJean] Let’s speak again soon. Thanks, Tom.


This article was updated in September 2023.

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