How Educators Can Embed Social-Emotional Learning and Trauma-Sensitive Practices Across Students’ Educational Experience

Stressed student in classroom

(Repost of a May 2023, post on the REL Appalachia Blog. REL AP serves educators in Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia to support use of data and evidence to improve academic outcomes for students.)

December 13, 2023 | By Laura Kassner

Many students today have experienced waves of trauma—from the pandemic, opioid crisis, racial injustice, poverty, inequality, violence, and more. Many, if not all, students and families are affected, and schools play a central role in providing critical supports. Trauma-sensitive practices are part of the continuum of social-emotional learning (SEL) practices—and a trauma-sensitive school provides an educational environment in which all aspects of the environment are grounded in an understanding of trauma and its impact on students and their learning. Trauma-sensitive practices take intentional steps to promote resilience for all, which might include a shared understanding of trauma among staff, ensuring safety and healthy relationships, efforts to shift mindsets, a focusing on wellbeing, and cultural responsiveness.1

In this blog post, we explain how two triangle frameworks inform trauma-sensitive practices across students’ educational experiences. We then share how educators, in partnership with REL Appalachia, are embedding social-emotional learning and trauma-sensitive practices in their work and provide resources for those interested in learning more. And it all begins with triangles.

Graphic: Maslow's hierarchy of needs

Note: PS is postsecondary.
Source: Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, by S. Mcleod, 2023, SimplyPsychology (

Graphic: Bloom's taxonomy

Note: PS is postsecondary.
Source: Bloom’s Taxonomy, by Center for Teaching, Vanderbilt University, 2016

You have to Maslow before you can Bloom

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is a model for understanding the motivations for human behavior. It maps different motivations onto a pyramid, with each level representing a different human need. These include physiological needs, safety, love and belonging, esteem, and self-actualization.

In teacher preparation programs, educators typically learn about two frameworks, both represented by a layered triangle: Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and Bloom’s taxonomy.

Maslow’s triangle illustrates the theory that human needs are hierarchical. People must fulfill basic needs like food, shelter, and health before they can move up the layers toward self-actualization. In terms of school experiences, Maslow’s hierarchy suggests that in order to learn and grow to their fullest potential, students should be free from worry about more basic, underlying needs. These include stable housing, nutritious meals, good sleep habits, a sense of safety in the classroom, having friends, and experiencing positive feeling about themselves.

This diagram of Bloom’s Taxonomy shows a horizontally divided triangle with ‘apply’ at the bottom, then ‘analyze,’ ‘evaluate,’ and lastly ‘create’ on the very top. Higher level thinking occurs the closer you move to the top of the triangle model.

Bloom’s taxonomy particularizes increasingly complex levels of learning and thinking. These range from the simple “remember” and “understand” levels at the base of the pyramid to the more sophisticated levels of “evaluate” and create,” as students move toward the top. The goal of educators is to lead students from memorizing information to deeper understanding so they can apply their learning to solve problems, articulate persuasive arguments, create new knowledge and more, in school and beyond.

When we consider these two triangles together, here is the takeaway: Before students can learn, their basic needs must first be met, they must feel safe. In essence, you have to Maslow before you can Bloom.

How the lessons of the triangles apply to our work

REL Appalachia and our partners look for opportunities to interweave trauma-sensitive practices into our work with students of ALL ages – from preK through college. We hope these examples help spark ideas and encourage you to consider your local challenges through the lens of the lessons of the triangles. By implementing trauma-sensitive practices universally for all students, educators can help students feel safe and connected (Maslow) so they can maximize the potential of every learner and facilitate higher-level thinking (Bloom).

  • Equipping community college staff to support students and reduce the negative effects of trauma. REL Appalachia is working in partnership with the Virginia Community College System to equip staff with strategies for building student resilience. Check out this fact sheet, which summarizes the impact of trauma, related symptoms or signs, and practices and policies to implement in postsecondary settings.
  • Promoting positive mathematics attitudes and supporting the development of mathematical habits of mind. REL Appalachia is working with middle school educators and afterschool providers in Logan County, West Virginia, to challenge the “I’m just not a math person” notion among students, staff, and families. Challenging negative beliefs and building students’ sense of self-efficacy helps them achieve success in math. Check out this infographic for resources educators can use and share with families on this topic.
  • Supporting regional and district leaders in western Kentucky to embed trauma sensitivity in classrooms. REL Appalachia staff are developing and implementing a training series for K–12 school mental health counselors who lead trauma teams in schools across their school district. These trainings will meet the annual training requirements of Kentucky’s School Safety and Resiliency Act and provide teachers with more concrete trauma-sensitive practices they can implement in their classrooms. To learn more, visit the partnership page and check out the first training in the series.
  • Integrating social-emotional skills into core academic content. In partnership with the Kentucky Department of Education, REL Appalachia staff developed a two-day training for Kentucky educators on ways to embed the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) competencies into K–12 math instruction. Embedding social-emotional learning into academic development (SEAD) translates into improved academic outcomes as well as less emotional distress and fewer behavior problems.2 Check out this infographic for examples of how this integration might look in math; read a blog post about this work; explore related materials (which we shared at the annual Virginia ASCD conference) that could work in ANY state.
  • Supporting students transitioning to formal early elementary school environments. For students starting preK or kindergarten – or even transitioning into grade 1 or 2 after homeschooling or virtual schooling — the routines of a formal school environment can bring challenges. A recent REL Appalachia blog post offers suggestions and provides resources for educators and families to make young ones feel safe and secure as they learn new school routines and expectations.
  • Developing a math professional development and progress-monitoring toolkit for teachers of children ages 3 to 6, based on the What Works Clearinghouse practice guide Teaching Math to Young Children. This toolkit will embed math concepts into instruction and routines (because predictable routines are an important way to make students feel secure and safe).3 Contact us if you are interested in learning more about an upcoming opportunity in Virginia to test the efficacy of the toolkit in preK classrooms in 2024/25.

1 REL Southeast. (July 2021). Integrating trauma sensitive approaches and social and emotional learning. [Video].
2 Durlak, J. A., Weissberg, R. P., Dymnicki, A. B., Taylor, R. D., & Schellinger, K. B. (2011). The impact of enhancing students’ social and emotional learning: A meta-analysis of school-based universal interventions. Child Development, 82(1), 405–432.
3 Minahan, J. (2019). Trauma-informed teaching strategies. Educational Leadership, 77(2), 30–35.

Topics: Rural Social emotional learning