When Your Students Act Out, Ask These Questions Instead of “Why Did You Do That?”

Frequent outbursts are often a symptom of bigger issues.

Sponsored By Starr Commonwealth
Trauma-Informed Classroom: Student misbehaving with a pencil in classroom

When kids repeatedly act out in class, it’s disruptive and frustrating. When we look beneath the surface, however, we often find that frequent outbursts are a symptom of bigger issues, especially for children who have experienced trauma.

Usually, it’s a response to unmet needs or coping mechanisms children have developed to protect themselves. Kids living in chaos, neglect, or abuse are often stressed to the max. And if there’s one thing that’s certain, it’s that stressed brains have difficulty learning.

The good news is that teachers can have a positive impact by choosing our responses when disruptions happen. Here are seven resilience-focused, trauma-informed classroom strategies to help you handle classroom disruptions. They’ll work with all of your students—not only the children who have experienced trauma.

Here’s a video with helpful ideas.

Instead of saying “This kid is trouble,” ask yourself, “What’s going on with this child?”

Obviously, this isn’t something most teachers would say out loud, but it may be part of an inner dialogue that needs to be challenged. All behavior serves a purpose, even when it doesn’t make sense to us. And once we understand that, and are able to see the child as separate from their behavior, we can experience a huge shift in perspective.

Instead of assuming a child’s behavior is intentional or labeling their behavior, get curious. What is happening in this child’s life? How does that impact the way they behave? How can we provide opportunities that support and nurture their growth?

According to Dr. Caelan Soma, chief clinical officer with Starr Commonwealth, an organization that provides training and resources to professionals who work with traumatized children, ‘badness’ is not a normal condition for children. It is the result of misdirected energy and unmet needs. “Every child will be good,” Soma says, “if given an opportunity in an environment of love and activity.”

Instead of saying “You’re disrupting my lesson!” ask, “Is everything OK?”

Resilience is nurtured and restored best in the context of caring, supportive relationships in a trauma-informed classroom. Students who feel seen and heard, and most importantly valued, feel a greater sense of belonging and are more likely to respond to guidance from a teacher. So when a child is being disruptive, let them know that you care about them and want to help them find a solution. Gently ask them what’s really going on. Listen with empathy and help them sort out what it might take to get back on task.

Instead of saying “Why aren’t you following directions?” ask, “How can I help you?”

Sometimes disruptions occur in the classroom when a student feels stuck and needs a different way to proceed, but doesn’t know how to ask for help. Be open to adapting lessons and circumstances to meet students’ needs. If a child is acting up because they’re having trouble with a classroom assignment, perhaps they need clarification on a key concept. Maybe they need the work to be broken down into smaller, more manageable pieces. Or maybe they need to work with a partner or small group. One of the most important elements of a trauma-informed classroom is to provide opportunities for students to feel successful. Success strengthens the desire to achieve. 

Instead of saying“What do you think you’re doing?” ask, “What do you need right now?”

While it is important to provide a supportive environment, one thing to avoid is being overly involved in solving students’ problems for them. Trauma-informed teaching is designed to foster independence, build respect, and teach inner discipline. So our role as teachers is to give students choices and options, then let them decide what works best, without coercion. For example, if a child causes a disruption that impacts others, we need to encourage them to show personal responsibility for making things right, whether that’s a note of apology or fixing something that is broken.

Instead of saying “You’re interfering with others’ learning,” ask, “Can you take a body scan?”

Emotional awareness is a learned skill. Children, especially children of trauma, often have trouble regulating their emotions (and therefore their bodies) because they haven’t yet learned to identify the sensations they feel inside. Teach students to pay attention to the messages their bodies are sending them. (How do I feel this very moment? Am I tense? Do I feel hot? Does my belly hurt?) Help them name the emotion that matches these messages. As they learn to differentiate between emotions, they can learn strategies to deal with them constructively. Teaching students emotional awareness and giving them the chance to practice regulation helps them make better choices.

Instead of saying “Focus and get to work,” ask, “Would a movement break help?”

Stressful emotions live in the body. Sometimes, when students engage in disruptive behavior, they need physical activity to help them cope with overwhelming feelings. This is especially true for students who have experienced trauma. Oftentimes their bodies remember things they do not consciously recall. Mind-body skills, such as deep breathing and yoga, and frequent movement breaks help students release pent up energy and get back on track.

Instead of saying “One more outburst and you’re out of here,” say, “Would you like to take a break in the calm corner?”

When a student gets worked up to the point of throwing your whole class off track, they need a safe space to calm down and reset their behavior. Designate an area of your classroom as a calm corner, peace place, or reset space and stock it with comforting amenities such as stuffed animals, cozy pillows, headphones, fidget toys, drawing materials, or other calming activities.

Teach all of your students how to use this reset space before they need it. When a student becomes overloaded, ask them if some time in the reset space would help. Always present it as a choice, never a demand. This space is not intended as a punishment, rather it should be a strategy to help students hit the reset button.

Create a trauma-informed classroom.

It’s a sad fact that sometimes our students come to us carrying a heavy burden. While there’s not much we can do about what happens outside of school, we have unlimited power to create a trauma-informed classroom that’s safe and supportive. Building solid relationships, concentrating on children’s strengths, and using strategies that preserve students’ dignity are the key to restoring hope and helping kids succeed. Starr Commonwealth’s Certified Trauma and Resilience Specialist in Education program offers strategies for helping kids cope with stress while building their resilience.

Learn More About Trauma and Resilience Specialist Certification