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Create Trauma-Responsive Classrooms Through Equity

Last updated on February 25, 2022

One of the goals of this blog is to help equip you – the reader – with tools that can help you engage students’ social-emotional wellbeing in all situations. Today, I want to make the argument that equity is one of the most powerful tools at your disposal.

The Mindful Classroom

Mindfulness is one of the most powerful tools at your disposal, but not for the reasons you may think. Yes, we need to teach students to be mindful of their own feelings and behaviors. We need to teach them to self-regulate and that requires paying attention to attitudes and moods. As teachers, we also need to be mindful about how we engage with students in every situation.

For instance, when a student is dysregulated, it is easy to jump toward asking, “What’s wrong?” Mindfulness as a practitioner should shift us toward asking, “What do you need right now to be successful?” Dysregulation comes from a need not being met – a student isn’t heard, their space doesn’t feel safe – and being mindful about how we respond to these situations makes our response more equitable.

This is a difficult process, especially in the moment. But it is adult actions which will set the tone of interaction in the classroom and will reinforce those positive behaviors as students interact with one another.


Dr. Shawn Nealy-Oparah and Tovi Scruggs-Hussein of TrUTH Consulting use the South African greeting, sawubona, to help us understand this classroom dynamic.

The literal translation is, “I see you.” Underneath the surface, however, it really means, “I respence and acknowledge you for who you are,” and “You are important to me.” We do not just see one another, we see one another. Sawubona goes much deeper than seeing a person as present. We value that person and recognize their dignity.

The mindful classroom gives dignity by default. We help students feel that dignity in how we interact with them as teachers and how we teach them to interact with peers.

Putting sawubona into Practice

What does this look like in the classroom? Here are some ways you can be more mindful of your interactions, with a particular focus on equity in your interactions.


If you’re a list person, CALM is an acronym that can help you be more mindful.

  • Connect with students
  • Assess signs of distress
  • Lovingly redirect the behavior
  • Monitor and praise

Connectedness is the magic sauce – it’s a superpower we have as teachers. Our connections to students help us navigate difficult interactions and re-focus student energy toward positive results.

Keep in mind that this does not mean you’re required to like every student. But your students should never know that. Dignity is a right that transcends our preferences. We have to connect in some way with all students in some way if we want to have equitable interactions.

Say Their Name

One of the easiest ways to establish dignity with an individual is to say their name. And not just say it, but to say it correctly. We have a diverse student population. Say unfamiliar names slowly and ask if you said it right.

If you don’t say their name correctly, use another superpower: apologize. Recognize the mistake and then give yourself a phonetic pronunciation in your roster so it doesn’t happen again.

Our names carry more than an identifier. Recognizing student dignity starts with addressing them correctly.


Regardless of age, predictability and routine help all classrooms reach positive and equitable relationships. Predictability ranges from routines in the classroom to how you interact with students.

We all have bad days – that’s not the point. The point is that you’re both mindful of your mood and you make it a point to show students respect in spite of your particular mood. Dignity is not contingent on how we’re feeling. Just like we want to be treated with respect in all situations, our students deserve no less.

Communicate Clearly

Dr. Nealy-Oparah and Scruggs-Hussein startled me with this next statement:

“White people tend to speak euphemistically, like trying to be nice. This isn’t very clear and often leads to confusion. People of color are more direct and clear.”

“Direct and clear” does not mean drill-sergeant yelling, but it does mean, “say what you mean.” They gave an example: “Take out your pens now.”

Reflecting on my own practice, it’s easy to say, “Take out something to write with.” In our minds, we’re clear about what we expect but our students may take that a different direction. Some may take out pencils or pens while others might grab highlighters or crayons. You can see how ambiguity in the direction could lead to conflict in the classroom.

Using clear, direct language in instructions does several things:

  • Students have a clear idea of what they need to do.
  • EL students, in particular, are better supported by connecting concrete objects to their home language as well as english.
  • If students do not (or cannot) follow the direction, you have a starting point for discussion.

Clear communication extends to body language. Equity and dignity extend to how we physically interact with students. For instance, giving and instruction and then walking away communicates trust that students will follow that direction. On the other hand, giving an instruction and standing overhead can communicate conflict or force. Establishing student dignity means that trust comes first.

In Practice

The bell to bell experience of students in the classroom is more important that bell to bell instruction. Our students feel the classroom. We want that classroom to be equitable – we recognize everyone’s individual background, their experience, and the value they bring to the community. We do that through giving dignity and seeing who they are.

Featured photo by Matese Fields on Unsplash.

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