Magazine Feature

Toolkit for ‘The Opioid Crisis’ and Trauma-Sensitive Practices

Students who experience trauma often exhibit behaviors we associate with defiance, indifference or attention-deficit disorders. This toolkit and additional resources can help us overcome those assumptions and respond to such behaviors in trauma-sensitive ways.


Becoming a trauma-sensitive educator, like those profiled in “The Opioid Crisis,” begins with self-assessment. Much of what we believe about student behavior may be rooted in assumptions, but we have the power to transcend those assumptions and get to the root of what may be causing students to act out, withdraw or disengage from their studies. 

This toolkit provides a few self-assessment activities to help you get started. 


Essential Questions 

  1. What assumptions do I make about students based on student behavior?
  2. How do assumptions I make about my students impact my classroom management?
  3. How can trauma manifest in student behavior?
  4. How can I recognize if my student is experiencing trauma related to opioid use, or for other reasons?
  5. How can I manage my classroom in a way that is trauma-sensitive, but still effective?



Step One: Consider your assumptions about student behaviors.

Begin with this list. 

  • Excessive anger
  • Fidgeting
  • Extreme fatigue
  • Physical or verbal aggression
  • Regular tardiness or absence from class
  • Perfectionist, controlling or anxious behavior
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Frequent headaches or stomachaches
  • Low self-confidence
  • Irritability
  • Clinginess
  • Trouble making friends
  • Extreme self-reliance
  • Running away
  • Defiance
  • Alienation from peers

Consider, in the past, what assumptions you might have made about a student exhibiting these behaviors—and fill out the chart provided. For example, some teachers assume a fidgety, non-attentive child may need to be prescribed medication. Teachers may assume a child with frequent headaches is faking sick to avoid schoolwork, etc. Then, consider what actions you have taken based on those assumptions or behaviors. Have you moved a defiant child down on a behavior chart? Have you distanced yourself from clingy students? Be honest with yourself. Most educators have made assumptions and reacted accordingly. Becoming more aware of our students’ needs means first being aware of our own biases and preconceived notions. 

Download the Assumptions About Student Behavior worksheet and use the prompts to reflect on your practice.


Step Two: Learn to look at these behaviors through a trauma lens. 

Trying to determine whether student behavior stems from trauma can be confusing, but engaging with families and local communities (through home visits, service projects, etc.) can help educators recognize or understand what sources of trauma students may face. Building relationships with and between students and giving them a safe space to write, speak, express emotions and share stories can also open a window into their experiences. 

Identifying trauma also requires understanding possible sources of trauma. These can include, but are not limited to:

  • Medical crises
  • Accidents or injuries (like a house fire or car collision that threatens the student’s safety)
  • Bullying or harassment
  • Family separation (due to incarceration, deployment, divorce, foster placement or death)
  • Natural disaster
  • Abuse (emotional, physical or sexual)
  • Neglect
  • Observation of domestic, community or school violence
  • Substance abuse, whether personal or proximate
  • Mental illness
  • Terrorism and war
  • Instability due to being unhoused
  • Poverty
  • Overt discrimination or constant microaggressions 
  • Refugee or undocumented status

Knowing that these factors are present in a student’s life should inform a trauma-sensitive approach to addressing any resulting behaviors. But even if you’re not sure about the source of the trauma, proactively applying trauma-informed classroom and discipline strategies benefits all students; their identities are affirmed, they feel understood and they develop empathy for others. 


Step Three: Consider strategies to create a more trauma-sensitive classroom and school.

These steps from our PD Café “Responding to Trauma in Your Classroom” can help educators act to best serve students experiencing trauma.

First, establish social and emotional safety in your classroom. 

Research shows that students need to feel both physically and emotionally safe in order to learn. Students experiencing trauma, including bias, bullying and social isolation, are more likely to feel unsafe.


  • Classroom contracts
  • Explicit anti-bullying or community-building curricula
  • Timely interventions when conflicts or hurtful exchanges occur
  • Teaching and modeling of empathy and active listening

Second, create a behavior-management plan that focuses on positive reinforcement. 

Discipline and behavior management are central to classroom culture and often present unique challenges for students responding to traumatic events or experiences. Foster compassion for and among your students. Focus on praising students for appropriate classroom behavior, not on punishment.


  • Implement student-generated agreements and contracts
  • Adopt “zero indifference” (not zero-tolerance) policies
  • Seek out training in restorative justice techniques 
  • Explore stress-management strategies to diffuse tense situations and help students process feelings in the moment
  • Give students opportunities to demonstrate their strengths


Step Four: Finally, consider how you might change the way you react to student behaviors and assumptions. 

Revisit the behaviors listed at the beginning of this exercise. Now, having considered trauma-sensitive approaches, brainstorm how you might change the ways you react to those behaviors. Jot thoughts and notes in the chart provided


Additional Resources

These resources can help educators ensure that their school or classroom is trauma-sensitive, or consider approaches that can be taken by counselors and students. 


Trauma-Sensitive School Checklist 

This checklist is organized by five components involved in creating a trauma-sensitive school, and it allows for a multi-layered self-evaluation. 


Reframing Classroom Management

This Teaching Tolerance publication offers educators a variety of tools to help demystify common behaviors and reinforce what works. Based input from over 1,200 educators, the handouts help users foster empathy, avoid common mistakes, improve their teacher-student relationships and find alternatives to classroom removal.


Seeking Safety

This book serves as a guide for implementing Seeking Safety, an evidence-based model for counseling those experiencing trauma, developed by Lisa M. Najavits. 
Najavits, Lisa. Seeking Safety: a Treatment Manual for PTSD and Substance Abuse. New York: Guilford Press, 2002.



Developed at the University of California, San Francisco, the HEARTS program offers guidance for schools looking for both prevention and intervention in supporting students experiencing trauma.


What is Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavior Therapy?

This introduction to TF-CBT—a trauma-sensitive program developed by, among others, Dr. Anthony Mannarino—lays out the methods and results of the therapy, and points to where and why school psychologists could become certified in this practice. 


Intervention for Youth Impacted by Opioids 

This publication from Ideas That Work offers interventions that can help young people affected by proximity to opioid use. These include practices for teachers, school psychologists and even guardians. 


How Childhood Trauma Affects Health Across a Lifetime

This TED Talk from Dr. Nadine Burke Harris explores the ways substance abuse by guardians can impact the development of a child’s brain. 


Smart Moves, Smart Choices

This website features videos and activities related to drug education and prevention. These include activities that kids can do themselves, as well as tools for educators. 


Childhood Trauma: Expert Answers to Tough Questions from Real Teachers

This article from We Are Teachers offers specific guidance in response to specific questions from teachers about children experiencing trauma. 


How the Opioid Epidemic has Hit YOUR Community 

These analyses, from the New York Times and the Brookings Institution, can help educators view the geographic diversity of the epidemic, and better understand how it has hit their own towns and cities.