• Rebekah Magin

Trauma science lesson of the day: Universal precautions = Act as if. Do no harm.

In trauma-informed care, we often use parallels to healthcare when teaching folks about the theory and science of trauma and stress, while also teaching folks the most effective and efficient treatments and interventions for trauma and stress.

I tell the story of Louis Pasteur and germ theory and how crazy it seemed at the time to believe that it was invisible things and stuff (microscopic germs) that was making us sick, that you cannot always tell who is sick by looking at them, and that proactive measures are the best way to prevent illness.

This was madness!

And here you can start to see the parallels to trauma theory and science. We are understanding more and more that it is, in fact, the invisible stuff (i.e., our traumatic and chronically stressful experiences, thoughts, and feelings) that are making us sick, that you cannot always tell who has trauma by looking at them, and that proactive measures are the best way to prevent (and heal) trauma.

We talk about universal precautions in trauma-informed care too; practices like emotional management, recognizing the losses that come with every change and challenge, giving opportunities for learning and questioning, and focusing on goals and future.

We do these things no matter what. Whether I have trauma or not, whether you have trauma or not, whether we know anyone's trauma history or not. Because, like germs, we know that trauma and stress are universal. So we ACT AS IF AND DO NO HARM.

And today, we have come full circle. Germ theory has come back around to our urgent awareness. And yet the truth is still that proactive measures are the best way to prevent illness.

In healthcare, and generally agreed upon good hygiene, we practice universal precautions. Any kindergartner can tell you what these consist of (and Kindergarten teachers can recite them in their sleep!): cover your cough and sneeze, wash your hands before eating and after using the potty, and wear gloves when you treat someone's boo-boo. We do these things whether we are sick or not, or whether the other person is sick or not. We ACT AS IF AND DO NO HARM. No one is offended. No one is inconvenienced by the extra few seconds it takes.

And today, we are being asked to ACT AS IF AND DO NO HARM! Social distancing is now a universal precaution. Staying home whenever possible is a universal precaution.

You don't know if you have COVID-19 (or maybe you do in which case you better be at home taking good care of yourself!). You don't know if I, or anyone else you see, has COVID-19. The idea here is you don't have to know. ACT AS IF AND DO NO HARM. Proactive measures are still the best way to prevent (and heal) illness.

Trauma science lesson of the day: We did not go from 0 to 100 in a matter of days.

I often hear the phrase "He/she seems to go from 0 to 100 in a matter of seconds for no reason." My first response is always "He/she was not at 0. This person probably hasn't seen 0 in years, if ever, not even when asleep". Truth is, they were probably revving, surviving at about a 90.

This applies to groups of people too. In fact, trauma science tells us that whatever symptoms, behaviors, thoughts, and feelings we associate with an individual in trauma can and should be applied to groups of individuals in trauma as well. That includes us as a state, a nation, and a global community.

We were not at zero before COVID-19. Not even close. But we are so accustomed to our chronic state of hyper-arousal, hyper-stimulation, judgment, fear, busy-ness, and survival mode that it felt normal, like zero, our baseline.

But we were probably closer to about 60-90, depending on your individual circumstances and constitution. Revving way up high but just below the threshold to blend in, survive, execute your day without drawing attention.

And then a global pandemic entered the scene. A GLOBAL PANDEMIC!

For individuals, or a large group of individuals, say 330M (approx US population), revving at a baseline between 60-90, it's easy to see how we very quickly got to 100+. And our hyper-arousal, hyper-stimulation, judgment, fear and busy-ness runneth over.

This will pass. Nature will see to it. We will either help or hinder. But afterwards, it will take time to get back to baseline.

And perhaps, we will learn to rev a little lower, not zero per se, but maybe 30-40. Eat slower. Take a walk. Express gratitude. Be slower to judge each other and ourselves. BREATHE. So that when the next crisis comes (and we know it will), we will weather it better, smarter, calmer, safer.

This is learning. This is growth. And it is the antidote to trauma.

Teachers are not new to the idea that students’ life experiences have great influence on their school engagement, presentation and achievement. Recent advances in trauma theory and accompanying neuroscience have allowed us to literally see the impact of adverse experiences on the developing brain and body.

We are, therefore, also starting to understand how to heal and correct adverse childhood experiences in very concrete ways through our own choices, behavior, and relationships with students. Below are nine (yes, 9, not 10, you can handle this!) ways you can concretely and creatively begin to create a trauma-informed classroom community during the first days and weeks of the school year.

  1. Routine and Ritual: From the first moments and days, introducing routines and rituals with you students creates a sense of order, structure and belonging. It sends the message that even though they are unsure and maybe nervous, you, the grown-up, has this under control.

  2. Flexibility: But within routines and rituals, consider what’s negotiable and non-negotiable--and then consider again. Your students will also have really good ideas about what works and what doesn’t, what’s fun and what’s not. Don’t get attached to your perfect day or week or ‘pinterested’ bulletin board or team building activity. Stay connected to the feeling and energy of your new classroom community.

  3. Acceptance: We talk a lot about acceptance and inclusivity in our classrooms these days, but consider how your value of acceptance is communicated over the first few days of school. Some students will love and maybe even appreciate your beautiful classroom design and awesome “getting-to-know-you” activities, but some may not. Some students won’t be ready to engage at the level required by the activities or don’t like the team mascot you’ve chosen for your new classroom community. Be sure to be accepting of these students, and their thoughts and feelings, as well.

  4. Movement: So your students have probably had one of two versions of summer break: 1) Running, playing, yelling, riding bikes, staying up late with friends or family, and relative chaos (this would be my kids’ version) OR 2) Days spent inside watching television, playing games, using social media and following grown-ups around while they have work, errands to run, appointments, etc. In either case, students will need to be re-acclimated to school-centered movement. Give them time, and maybe even instruction on how to move and be still within the classroom and school building. And make sure they get lots of time to move their bodies BIG. Running, lifting, climbing, swinging-- there are a lot of adrenaline and other body chemicals to metabolize those first few days and weeks.

  5. Aesthetics: Let’s face it, one of the reasons teachers become teachers is to have some sense of control over their own little piece of the world (I know it was part of my teacher daydreams!). Think about the impact and messaging you wish to have with your classroom and aesthetics. And know that for students who are overstimulated already or hyper aware of their surroundings, what’s just right for you may be too much for them. Leave space in your classroom for sensory “breath of fresh air.” In other words, leave some blank space. This will also provide the opportunity for student contribution to the physical environment.

  6. Fun: Build in time for fun, for the sake of fun. Fun, play and joy are human needs (yes, all humans). Students know if you’re trying to put one over on them by disguising a review of multiplication facts with a game of catch. There will be time for review and assessment. Allow time for student- and teacher-led fun because you know, as a master teacher, groups of people bind more quickly through play (and maybe a little competition).

  7. Form, Storm and Norm: One cool thing about trauma theory (you didn’t know it was cool?!), is that it continued to disseminate just how alike, and therefore predictable, all humans are. This goes for groups of humans as well. When groups come together for any significant length of time, the group tends to experience three stages: Forming (getting to know you), Storming (who goes where and with whom) and Norming (sigh of relief). As a master trauma-informed teacher, you can plan for and be informed by these very normal and healthy stages of classroom community development. This is even more important to keep in mind as students continue to join your classroom community throughout the year.

  8. Parents and Families: If possible, send communication (email, letter, blog entry, video) home introducing yourself and some of the things you are excited about for the upcoming school year. Some of your students won’t have a consistent mailing address on file, but most families are on social media today. We, as teachers, can take advantage of this. Whether you can get to them before the first day or not, be sure to spend time during the first days and weeks of school getting to know your students’ “home people”, who they are living with and changes they may have had or expect to have in their household, and giving families information about you, to whatever extent you are comfortable with. Always be conscious of language like “families”, “parents”, “house”, etc. These terms do not apply to some students. Words like “people at home”, “your grown-ups”, “home” are safer and more inclusive until you get to know the specifics of each child’s at-home community.

  9. Yourself: So, last but not least. In fact, last and most important. YOU! While those little (or big) creatures you call your students have a huge impact on your classroom community and on whether you remember this year as a GREAT year or the year you considered becoming an alpaca farmer, YOU have the greatest influence on your classroom and the experience you have together this school year (no pressure!). One of the best ways to manage this awesome power and responsibility is to practice mindfulness. Even before the first day with your students, write down your intentions, expectations, and worries surrounding the first days and weeks of the school year. Maybe create an intention or motto or mantra to act as a tether throughout the school year that is connected to your purpose as a teacher. Take good care of yourself, in little and big ways, throughout the weeks of the school year. Eat. Go to the bathroom. Drink LOTS of water. Turn off your teacher brain at the end of the day and at the end of the week. Read stuff that has nothing to do with teaching. You get the idea.

Teachers are the caretakers of our future. In every way. I salute you and wish you and your students a school year full of connection, learning, fun, and growth.

For information about yoga and mindfulness curriculum for teachers, administrators, support staff, and other school community stakeholders, visit

Supporting the creation of holistic, trauma-ready schools, programs and communities through professional education and the wisdom tradition of Yoga
  • White Facebook Icon
  • White Twitter Icon

© 2019 by Prana Mani

Troy, New York