By: Erin Parkes, PhD

Taking a Trauma-Informed Approach to Music Education

An awareness of the impact of trauma on learning and behaviour is gaining more and more traction in education, and it’s about time! Research in psychology has clearly demonstrated the link between trauma or toxic stress and challenges in learning environments. And yet, so far there is little awareness of trauma-informed teaching in music education, despite the fact that approximately two thirds of children will experience at least one traumatic event. It’s time to change that!

The Impact of Trauma

To start, it’s important to understand what we mean by trauma and discuss a few key terms. Imagine your house is on fire, and you’re being asked to perform a piece on your instrument with nuance and artistry. It would be impossible! From a physiological perspective, your body and brain would be screaming at you to RUN, and that would override the parts of your brain that you would need to access in order to attend to musical performance. This is the experience of students impacted by trauma.

There are different levels of trauma that lead to different impacts on the mind and body. This can be partially understood by looking at Adverse Childhood Experiences, or ACEs. Generally speaking, the more ACEs, the greater the trauma. And the greater the trauma, the more it will impact learning. Astoundingly, children with four or more ACEs were found to be 32.6 times more likely to be diagnosed with learning and behaviour problems than those with fewer or no ACEs. Children with severe trauma may be diagnosed with complex post-traumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD) or understood to have developmental trauma. For these children, their nervous systems have been rewired to be on high alert for danger at all times, and so they go into “fight or flight” mode very quickly. Structural changes in the brain can occur, leading to many potential learning difficulties. Here are some of the impacts of trauma on learning:

  • Poor memory and retention
  • Difficulty with verbal language
  • Difficulty with problem-solving
  • Poor emotional regulation
  • Challenges with focus and attention

Children with fewer ACEs can also demonstrate the impacts of trauma, particularly shortly after or during the traumatic event. This can include the death of a loved one, a car accident or changes in the family structure. While these experiences will not have the same deep and long-lasting physiological and emotional impacts as complex trauma, they can still result in the student requiring extra support in the learning process. 

What is trauma-informed teaching?

While many of these characteristics may mimic those seen in diagnoses like ADHD or learning disabilities, taking a trauma-informed approach means recognizing that the challenges come from prolonged stress responses altering the nervous system. This means that typical approaches, particularly to behavioural challenges, won’t help—in fact, they may exacerbate the issue by making the student feel threatened. The central tenet of trauma-informed teaching is that it considers the role of trauma in learning. This means recognizing that the challenges the student is facing are due to their brain attending to what it perceives as danger, and making it impossible for it to attend to the higher-level thinking that is generally required in music lessons. Beyond the “fight or flight” response, for those who have experienced complex trauma or chronic stress, their brains may be structurally altered in ways that make learning more challenging. 

Incorporating Trauma-Informed Practice into Music Teaching

The therapeutic benefits of music making are well known—if you’ve decided to dedicate your life to teaching music, you’ve probably experienced it yourself! For this reason, being able to offer a safe space to access music for students impacted by trauma is so important. Music can contribute to calming the nervous system, provide a creative outlet, and create a safe way to express emotions. In order to provide this opportunity to our students, we need to know HOW to make music learning feel safe for them. Here are some key points:

  • Support difficulties with sustained attention by not spending too long on each activity, and by prompting as much as needed.
  • Support memory by providing notes on the score, marking accidentals rather than relying on the key signature, etc.
  • Reduce practice expectations if your student is struggling to keep up. Allow your student to progress at their own pace.
  • Keep the lessons as light and relaxed as possible. Do everything you can to support continued learning while keeping stress at a minimum.
  • Try to create a calming sensory environment and provide aids like stress balls as needed.
  • Do not take a punitive approach to behavioural issues or impulsivity. 
  • Understand that your student may be emotionally reactive at times and try not to take it personally. Be prepared to help your student to calm down by encouraging them to take deep breaths, or take a break to do a less challenging or preferred activity.

You won’t always know about traumatic events in your student’s life. If you do see signs of trauma as listed above, taking a trauma-informed approach definitely won’t hurt, and may really help. By creating a safe space for your student, you could be providing them with a much-needed bridge to self-expression. 

Happy teaching!