Understanding Trauma-Informed Dance Education

Present day times show us that traumatic responses to the world around us are prominent. Now more than ever, people are being more open about how the past, and present, external influences affect their internal well being. Through Trauma-Informed  care, people are becoming more aware of how violence, aggression, abuse, and neglect can impact us as humans. More particularly, the impact of these energies on our youth are prominent and create a ripple effect. Through trauma-informed dance education, our organization is placing this issue at the center of our approach to teaching.

In some areas of Chicago, the constant exposure to violence and trauma can cause children and youth to become locked into a permanent state of ‘fight or flight’. This makes these youth react to normal experiences as if they were life and death threats. This is not a rational or cognitive process, but instead is wired into their bodies’ physiological responses.

As a positive, this prominent awareness can create more opportunities for education, advocacy, healing, and change. Through our work at Dancing with Class, we aim to see the student as a whole being, be a consistent source of joy and compassion, and create safe environments for learning. We do this with our presence and engagement with the art of dance, a powerful non-verbal outlet of expression for internal experience.


Dance and Non-Verbal Expression

Dance has been an important part of human life dating back to prehistoric times. Dancers have even been depicted on ancient rock paintings in India. One of the earliest uses of dances may have been expressive performance and the telling of traumatic events such as wars. Before written language, dance was one of the methods of passing these stories down from generation to generation. Another early use of dance was to induce trance states for healing rituals. Dance is still used for this purpose in many cultures around the world.

Trauma Defined

What is trauma? Trauma is an emotional response to a terrible event. Trauma impacts the development of the brain. Immediately after the event, shock and denial are typical. Longer term reactions include unpredictable emotions, flashbacks, strained relationships and even physical symptoms like headaches or nausea. When triggered into a trauma response over and over, there are major multi-systemic impacts of the developing brain. Brain architecture—structure and function—is experience dependent and adapts over time. This is called neuroplasticity.



  •       Acute Trauma: a single time limited event
  •       Chronic Trauma: multiple traumatic exposures and/or events over extended periods of time
  •       Complex Trauma: experiences of multiple traumatic events and the impact of exposure to these events (often occurring within the care-giving system)
  •       Toxic stress: Adverse experiences that lead to strong, frequent, or prolonged activation of the body’s stress response system
  •       Secondary/Vicarious Trauma: exposure to the trauma of others by providers, educators, social-workers, and any other mental health professional




  •       Unpredictability
  •       Sensory overload
  •       Feeling vulnerable or frustrated
  •       Confrontation


Keys to Recognize Traumatic Responses


Children are particularly vulnerable to trauma signs early due to the general lack of ability to verbally communicate how they feel. They are also usually dependent of family members for comfort and are constantly learning self-soothing techniques. Trauma ministry helps outline certain age groups and key signs of traumatic experiences.

Overall keys to becoming trauma-informed include looking for drastic changes in behavior, regressing to a younger developmental age emotionally or behaviorally, easily stressed or fearful responses, and changes in normal routine, relationships to care-takers, or functioning.

Dance-Integrated Classroom


The following key factors can help integrate trauma-informed dance and movement into the classroom. These support the student in their individual experience in context of the class as whole. At the root, dance helps students connect to their bodies  and create a felt sense of safety, in addition to:

  •   Managing and expressing ‘big’ emotions
  •   Relaxing nervous system, anxiety, irritability that interferes with learning
  •   Practicing empathy and compassion with peers
  •   Non-verbally and verbally expressing needs/ concerns
  •   Appreciating impact of behavior on others
  •   Working in groups and connecting to others


How to Move Forward  


When a classroom seeks to become trauma informed, every moving part is guided to ensure a basic understanding of how trauma impacts the life of an individual student within the environment. It seeks to understand how the one can affect the whole and vice-versa. Trauma informed care and practice recognizes and acknowledges trauma and its prevalence, alongside awareness and sensitivity to its dynamics, in all aspects of service and education. A trauma informed approach primarily views the individual as having been deeply harmed. Therefore, all actions are intended to reverse this pattern, only providing care, nurturance, and support.

Some concrete ways to implement this approach:

  •    Get to know your students, holistically!
  •    Be a consistent, grounding presence
  •    Provide a strengths-based framework that is responsive to the impact of trauma, emphasizing physical, psychological, and emotional safety for both teachers and students
  •    Create opportunities for students who survived traumatic experience to rebuild a sense of control and empowerment  
  •    Create organizational cultures that are personal, holistic, creative, open, and therapeutic
  •    Ask questions of professionals and seek mental health support, if needed

Additional Resources:

American Dance Therapy Association (www.Adta.org)

School Health Centers (www.schoolhealthcenters.org)

Be sure to also explore the Dancing with Class program offerings to get started on a dance journey for your students.

-Written by Julie Brannen