Managing Challenging Classroom Behaviours Through a Trauma Informed Lens

by Shawna Walter


Shawna Walter has taught all grades, Kindergarten to Grade 12, over the past 24 years and worked for four different school boards as both a French as a second language teacher and homeroom teacher. She moved into administration four years ago and is currently a Vice Principal in Sturgeon School Division.


Literature review of trauma and classroom behaviour

Each year in the United States, approximately five million children experience some form of traumatic experience (Perry & Szalavitz, 2006). “Experiencing loss, trauma, intense fear, or terror erodes a child’s sense of safety and creates a physiologic effect on a child’s brain function” (Oehlberg, 2006, p. 5). Traumatic experiences can devastate children, altering their physical, emotional, cognitive, and social development. Trauma may impact a child’s interpersonal communication skills, ability to form relationships, and academic achievement (Bennett, 2007; Jaycox, 2006). Children who experience trauma may have difficulty with emotional regulation, struggle to sit still, struggle to handle disappointment, and struggle to follow directions (Le & Wolfe, 2013).

Currently, few systems designed to care for, protect, educate, evaluate, or heal our children have solved the multiple problems posed by maltreatment or trauma. Perry and Szalavitz (2006) developed the Neurosequential Model in Education (NME), a spin off of their Neurosequential Model of Therapeutics (NMT), to help educators act on key principles of development and brain functioning to create an optimal learning environment. The goals of NME are to educate staff and students in basic concepts of brain development and then teach them how to apply this knowledge to the teaching and learning process. The NME is a program that developed after more than 30 years of experiences at The ChildTrauma Academy (Hiebert, Platt, Schpok, & Whitesel, 2013). The ChildTrauma Academy developed a set of NME training courses for counsellors, administrators, teachers, and support staff. I believe that if teachers and schools have an increased awareness of the key principles of child development, brain function, and how the brain changes due to maltreatment, we could better understand the effects and develop strategies for effective intervention (Perry, 2006; Perry, 2009; Perry & Hambrick, 2008).


Today’s Classroom 

“Disruptive behaviour is becoming more frequent in the classroom and is specifically associated with behaviours that hinder and obstruct the teaching-learning process” (Martino, Hernandez, Paneda, Campo Mon, & Gonalez de Mesa, 2016, p. 174). The behaviours observed in a typical Alberta classroom today differ from those seen 25 years ago. Twenty-five years ago a misbehaviour in a class consisted of a child blurting out-of-turn, a child with a squirmy seat, or a sarcastic or inappropriate comment. Today, it is biting, spitting, kicking, hitting, swearing, throwing furniture, defiance and bullying – just to name a few. Behaviours have become increasingly disruptive, hostile, and complex (Martino et al., 2016).



My research attempted to answer the questions: Can the implementation of the Neurosequential Model improve emotional and behavioural functioning of both at-risk and typical children in the regular classroom? Through improved emotional and behavioural regulation, could the overall learning environment improve?

   The purpose of this research was to explore the experiences of implementing the NME through one-on-one, semi-structured teacher interviews and student behaviour tracking. Findings of this small study indicated that the NME helped teachers change how they looked at behaviour, helped develop a greater understanding of the impact trauma has on the brain, and helped teachers gain a greater understanding of how to help students self-regulate. Behaviour tracking revealed a decrease in the number of disruptive classroom behaviours.



The school in which the research was conducted had a large number of students who repetitively display explosive, aggressive, or defiant behaviours. These behaviours posed a challenge for teachers and disrupted the learning environment. The students who displayed these behaviours required a great deal of time and energy.

The school division has had a behaviour supports program and lead cohort in place for several years. The early program was based on Positive Behaviour Supports (Alberta, 2008) and then “Collaborative Problem Solving” based on the work of Ross W. Greene. When a division psychologist attended a workshop while at a “Response to Intervention” conference, she was introduced to the work of Dr. Bruce Perry and the Neurosequential Model in Education (NME) in her search for support with extreme behaviour issues. The program seemed like a good fit, so she brought it back to the school division. A lead team was formed and trained over the 2013-2015 school years and began full-scale professional development training with staffs in August 2015.


Where we began

Year One

All staff read the book and participated in a book study of The boy who was raised as a dog: And other stories from a child psychiatrist's notebook (Perry & Szalavitz, 2006). Participating in the book study helped teachers delve deeper into specific child case studies of traumatic experiences, examine the effects of trauma and the treatment processes, and draw correlations to current students in their classrooms.

Teachers adopted the teacher learning outcomes and student learning outcomes developed by the lead Division NME team to create a safe and relational learning environment. They learned the six core strengths of healthy childhood development (ChildTrauma Academy) and how to foster these in their classrooms. Teachers planned and implemented regulatory opportunities for all students and targeted regulatory opportunities for students who required more intensive support.


Year Two

By the end of year two, teachers were to be able to use the NME mini-map tool in collaboration with their school-based behaviour support team to determine baseline brain functioning for students with intensive needs, create and implement targeted interventions for those students, and then use the NME mini-map tool as a follow-up to identify growth and determine next steps.

Student Outcomes were also developed. Students learned about the brain, brain development, and functioning. They learned about their heart rate, areas of the brain, the states of arousal (which was paired with the Zones of Regulation) (Kuypers, 2011), and the six core strengths for healthy child development. They also created their own toolbox of strategies for self-regulation.



Participants noted that the NME had become an umbrella under which good behaviour management strategies fell. It wasn’t new, but helped them understand why certain strategies worked. It led to a change in how participants looked at classroom behaviours. The NME was an effective tool for classroom management to make participants realize that regulation rather than punishment could be a more useful approach to unwanted behaviours.

The Wordle above was created with the words staff used to describe the NME.


Behaviour Tracking

Administration tracked the behaviour of seven students from September 2016 to May 2017. A tally mark was given every time the student was sent to the office for unwanted classroom behaviours. These were behaviours the classroom teacher felt were serious enough to warrant the involvement of administration.

These seven students are reviewed below:

  • Student A – attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), depression, anxiety, attachment disorder - Teacher on medical leave November and December.
  • Student B – No diagnoses. Struggled with self-regulation and aggression towards others. Teacher on medical leave November and December.
  • Student C – Came in October that is why September to October behaviours are lower than expected. Fetal alcohol spectrum disorder (FASD), conduct disorder, oppositional defiant disorder (ODD)
  • Student D – ADHD, depression with features of anxiety
  • Student E – No diagnoses. Over reacts, aggression, anger - Teacher on medical leave November and December
  • Student F – Struggled with transitions, high anxiety, disassociates, flees
  • Student G – ADHD, FASD, ODD, brain injury, disruptive behavior


Studying the behaviours for September to October, teachers and administration wondered if the reason the numbers were lower was because of the “Honeymoon” period where students were getting used to the classroom and did not show their “regular” behaviours. We saw great success for Student F who had zero office referrals by May and Student C and G with very few. Both student B and E continued to struggle with their behaviours. Administration and staff felt that both have outside school factors influencing their behaviours. These two students were part of the two classrooms piloting mindfulness for the last two months of the year.


The Role of Relationships

Students A, B, and E all had the same teacher for over half the school day. That teacher went on medical leave for November and December resulting in an increase in office visits. The substitute teacher had neither background nor training in the NME and lacked relationships with the students.

“Teachers spend many hours a day with their students and are among the most important people in students’ lives” (Fecser, 2015, p. 24). It is crucial for teachers to understand students’ home environments and extend attitudes of love and care toward students to build strong rapport (Schlein, Taft, & Tucker-Blackwell, 2013). Developing strong, positive relationships with students can minimize disturbances in teaching and learning. When children feel comfortable, safe, and have a close relationship with their teachers, they are better able to engage cognitively (Fecser 2015; Perry & Szalavitz, 2006; Sori & Schnur, 2014).

Teacher interactions with children with emotional/behavioural disorders (EBD) tend to be discipline focused; interactions that involve praise are scarce (Fecser, 2015). Teachers must recognize the tendency to have negative interactions with these children and learn to focus on building positive relationships. If teachers are cognizant of the traumatized child’s worldview or past negative experiences and work to understand a student’s motivations, they will be better able to build a safe and predictable environment where behaviour can be managed.

  • NVCI – Non-Violent Crisis Intervention
  • Student A – different student from Student A in previous graph. Diagnosed with Tourettes, severe anxiety, ADHD, and OCS.

  • Student B - different student from Student B in previous graph. Brain Injury. FASD, ADHD, ODD, disruptive behaviour disorder. Changed program planning in January and changed classroom setting.


Both Student A and Student B in the above two graphs have shown great improvement. Both students were assessed using the NME mini-map metrics at the beginning of tracking and had a follow-up assessment. Using the NME metrics “provided a quick and visual picture of the global brain-mediated functioning of the child in relation to same-grade peers” (Perry, 2006). The NME mini-map and related Executive Functioning Score (EFS) can help educators quickly identify children who may need additional educational, social, or mental health supports. The metric shows the child’s EFS, which serves as a predictor of the student’s ability to self-regulate and function within a traditional classroom (ChildTrauma Academy).

Student B had an assessment done in February 2017 and then a follow-up in April 2017. The first mini-map showed the student having serious challenges in the classroom and needing significant improvement. In the follow-up assessment, the overall assessment had improved to moderate challenges. For Student A, the first mini-map was done December 2016 and follow-up was done April 2017. Student A’s overall assessment result improved from serious challenges in the classroom to moderate challenges.


Next steps


The school currently has two Grade 5 classrooms piloting Mindfulness practices. In these three to ten minute exercises, students practice calming the mind through guided grounding activities, visual exercises, and deep breathing. Depending on the results of the data collected from this short pilot, the school may implement school-wide mindfulness exercises for the 2017-2018 school year.

The school also started pet therapy this year. An adult dog came in on Fridays to hang out in the regulation space and spend time with students. The school is currently training a puppy who will be in the school everyday. Data will be collected on the impact for students on interacting with the puppy looking at heart rate, empathy development, focus and attention, test performance, work completion, and overall wellbeing.



Challenging behaviours often serve as a message from the children who resort to them - they require attention for others to take care of their needs, to help them learn, to alleviate their anxiety, to make them feel safe or better, to take notice of them, or to guide them in regulating themselves (Bayat, 2015, p. 167).

Further research is needed in the area of trauma and the brain and the behaviours displayed in today’s classroom. All participants felt that staff understood the impact of trauma on the brain and brain development and the importance of seeing behaviour as a form of communication, but some still struggled putting the model into practice. One participant stated, “most of us talk the talk, but we need to walk the walk”.

Participants noted that some staff struggle with their own self-regulation when dealing with students. Staff must be aware of their body language, tone, and words avoid power struggles with students who display challenging behaviours. “Separating behaviour from the person is difficult when a child’s behaviour is lazy, rude, arrogant, mean-spirited, selfish, hostile and aggressive” (Rogers, 2004, p. 17).



Bayat, M. (2015). Addressing Challenging Behaviors and Mental Health Issues in Early Childhood. New York: Routledge.


Bennett, B. (2007). Creating a school community for learning and healing. New Educator, 3(4), 323-334.


ChildTrauma Academy. Retrieved from http://childtrauma.org/


Fecser, M. E. (2015). Classroom strategies for traumatized, oppositional students. Reclaiming Children & Youth, 24(1), 20-24.

Greene, R. W, & Ablon, J. Stuart. (2006). Treating explosive kids: the collaborative problem-solving approach. New York: Guilford Press.


Hiebert, M., Platt, J., Schpok, K., & Whitesel, J. (2013). Doodles, Dances and Ditties: A Somatosensory Handbook. Denver, Colorado: Mount Saint Vincent Home.


Jaycox, L. H. (2006). How schools can help students recover from traumatic experiences: A tool-kit for supporting long-term recovery. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation.

Kuypers, L. M, & Winner, M. Garcia. (2011). The zones of regulation: a curriculum designed to foster self-regulation and emotional control. San Jose, Calif.: Think Social.

Le, C., & Wolfe, R. E. (2013). How can schools boost students' self-regulation? Phi Delta Kappa International.

Martino, E. Á., Hernández, M. Á., Pañeda, P. C., Campo Mon, M. Á., & González de Mesa, C. G. (2016). Teachers' perception of disruptive behaviour in the classrooms. Psicothema28(2), 174-180. doi:10.7334/psicothema2015.215

Oehlberg, B. (2006). Reaching and teaching stressed and anxious learners in grades 4-8: Strategies for relieving distress and trauma in schools and classrooms Thousand Oaks: Corwin Press.


Perry, B. D. (2006) The Neurosequential Model of Therapeutics: Applying principles of neuroscience to clinical work with traumatized and maltreated children In: Working with Traumatized Youth in Child Welfare (Ed. Nancy Boyd Webb), The Guilford Press, New York, NY, pp. 27-52


Perry, B. D. (2009). Examining child maltreatment through a neurodevelopmental lens: Clinical applications of the neurosequential model of therapeutics. Journal of Loss & Trauma, 14(4), 240-255.


Perry, B.D. & Hambrick, E. (2008). The Neurosequential Model of Therapeutics. Reclaiming Children and Youth, 17(3), 38-43


Perry, B. D., & Szalavitz, M. (2006). The boy who was raised as a dog: And other stories from a child psychiatrist's notebook. New York: Basic Books.


Rogers, B. (2004). How to Manage Children's Challenging Behaviour. London: SAGE Publications Ltd.

Schlein, C., Taft, R., & Tucker-Blackwell, V. (2013). Teachers' experiences with classroom management and children diagnosed with emotional behavioral disorder. Curriculum & Teaching Dialogue, 15(1), 133-146.


Sori, C. F., & Schnur, S. (2014). Integrating a neurosequential approach in the treatment of traumatized children: An interview with eliana gil, part II. Family Journal, 22(2), 251-257. doi:10.1177/1066480713514945


Supporting positive behaviour in Alberta schools: a school-wide approach. (2008). Edmonton, AB: Alberta Education.


Sutherland, K., S., McLeod, B., D., Conroy, M. A., & Cox, J. R. (2013). Measuring implementation of evidence-based programs targeting young children at risk for Emotional/Behavioral disorders: Conceptual issues and recommendations. Journal of Early Intervention, 35(2), 129-149. doi:10.1177/1053815113515025