top of page

Create a Trauma-Sensitive Learning Environment Using Container-Setting

Lindsey Luther, Ascend Learning

Lee Cordell, Institute for Trauma and Psychological Safety

Key Statement: This article describes how educators can employ container-setting, a transdisciplinary strategy for designing better learning experiences for both students and teachers.

Keywords: Trauma-Sensitive, Student Behavior, Learning Design



What Is Container-Setting?


Container-setting is the act of defining a figurative or physical space by its boundaries, purpose, and utility. For instance, a box can be defined by its material, dimensions, and boundaries. A container can also be defined by what “belongs” or “fits” inside (and what does not); though a cardboard box may hold water, water will ultimately destroy the box if it is not specifically manufactured to hold liquid. Furthermore, the capacity of the box to “hold” its load depends on not only the thickness of the cardboard but also the weight and composition of the contents. A cardboard box is a physical space; in much the same way, a learning space may be configured as a figurative container. 


As faculty, we may conceptualize our learning environments as having predefined, clearly marked boundaries, but students may find the classroom structure less intuitive. Explicit container-setting provides direction about where and how students have agency, expected behavior, and what resources/structure will be provided as support (Cheon et al., 2020). As a result, the classroom becomes a more predictable space where students can stay regulated, learn, and connect, certain that their core human needs are being considered.


How Does Container-Setting Support a More Trauma-Sensitive Classroom?


Trauma-sensitive learning design is grounded in the awareness that students enter the learning environment as humans who may have unmet core needs. We adopt a more trauma-sensitive teaching approach when we view student behavior as colored by past painful experiences (i.e., unmet or invalidated needs) rather than attributing all behavior to character, intelligence, or motivation. Although it may not be possible or appropriate to accommodate every need of every student, a trauma-sensitive container considers its impact on student agency and safety. Container-setting with clear expectations increases predictability, promotes learning, fosters relationships, and reinforces to students that their needs do matter.


An intentionally designed learning container can provide a context in which students have their needs met consistently. A student who has little agency at home may learn to think critically and draw conclusions in a classroom that prioritizes the importance of agency. Conversely, learning containers that ignore core human needs may further invalidate students. For example, a student who does not have a safe space to sleep at night may be further harmed by being abruptly and conspicuously awoken by the teacher.


Core Human Needs

Core human needs determine a person’s ability to survive and thrive in their environment (Bowen, 2021). Human needs can be grouped into three broad categories: physical safety, psychological safety, and agency. Physical safety requires adequate resources for basic survival, including physical protection, food, shelter, rest, elimination, movement, and human touch. Psychological safety is a sense of unconditional belonging that creates an ability to take risks, be vulnerable, and still be loved and accepted by one’s community. Agency is the ability to influence one’s thoughts, beliefs, emotions, and physical actions through choice. When core needs are invalidated or unmet, a person may enter into a threat response, engaging automated behavioral pathways and reducing access to rational cognition (McDonald & Vernoa, 2023). The more a person has experienced unmet needs, the likelier they are to believe their needs do not matter or will not be met (Lolordo & Overmier, 2011).



 Next Steps: Putting

Container-Setting Into Practice


Physical Safety


There are several physical safety needs to consider when container-setting, many of which are innately tied to agency and body autonomy. In every classroom, educators should address students’ rest, elimination, and nutritional needs. Students who are sleep-deprived, thirsty, hungry, or in need of a bathroom break will have difficulty participating and learning. Some students become overstimulated or overwhelmed easily; if possible, provide students with an acceptable way to become re-regulated. We can offer sensory accommodations to all students, or at minimum, to those who have documented sensory needs. For instance, we can encourage students who desire to stand/move during lectures to stand in the back or provide earplugs during testing periods.


Humans have a primal need for human touch; however, the appropriateness of touch varies by context, setting, and individual preference (Field, 2010). Regardless of the age of the student, educators should explicitly identify acceptable forms of physical touch within institutional standards (e.g., hugs, handshakes, fist bumps, high-fives, etc.) and allow students to select their preference for physical contact. Student preferences can be communicated with scripted statements or a material symbol (e.g., a chart, wearable button, etc.) that indicates the desired level of physical contact 


Classrooms often have built-in safety features (e.g. exit signs, capacity limits, passcode-controlled online meeting rooms, etc.). Students should be oriented to these features and taught their role in maintaining safety and order in routine and emergency circumstances. An educator supervising an emergency drill can anticipate that students may experience a drill as a real, imminent threat. When possible, proactively discuss what students may feel, provide reassurance and support during the event, and debrief following the event.




As educators, we promote agency by providing clear direction about where students have choices in the classroom. The goal is to eliminate any unnecessary restriction of student autonomy, while still respecting our own boundaries as educators and those required by institutional policy. When restrictions are necessary, provide a rationale to students who are impacted. When possible, allow the group to define or negotiate aspects of the container, as this leads to further empowerment and “buy-in” of students. For example, we may give students the choice between completing a project as a group or as an individual. We can also begin a new class with a “roundtable discussion” on how students would like to communicate as a group (within the school guidelines).


Psychological Safety


The power differential between educators and students increases the risk that students will perceive what we intend as benign communication as a possible threat to psychological safety. The risk is especially high when communication is unexpected or evaluative. To reduce students’ sense of threat, provide context when scheduling time with students. (We all dread hearing “we need to talk.”) Be clear about the urgency and importance of specific conversations or requests. When providing feedback to students, start by setting a new container for the feedback. Explain whether feedback is formative or summative, and its significance on the student’s overall learning trajectory. When discussing academic performance, focus on the student’s learning behaviors and work products or results. Avoid framing feedback in terms of a student’s character or work ethic.


Conclusions for Faculty Use


Container-setting is a holistic strategy that can be adapted easily to any educational setting where educators are responsible for the learning outcomes of others. We have used it effectively in traditional educational settings from early childhood education through graduate-level instruction. We have also used container-setting in nontraditional learning settings, such as professional development, clinical preceptorship, workplace mentorship, and client coaching. Institutions of all types are seeking trauma-sensitive strategies that improve the experiences of both students and teachers while also facilitating diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging. In academic spaces, container-setting can improve student-faculty relationships and promote effective instruction without increasing demands on educators’ already strained time and attention.



 Discussion Questions


  1. Describe a time when you observed a student having an unexpected reaction or response to your classroom container. Why do you believe this reaction occurred? Is it possible that there was an unmet core need?

  2. Explain a potential threat to your students’ three core needs that you have seen at your current or a previous institution. Do you believe the threat was related to a knowledge deficit, institutional policy, difficulty implementing trauma-sensitive techniques, or something else?

  3. Consider what you are already doing with respect to the concept of container-setting. How can you tweak these strategies to improve the quality of your container-setting in your teaching environment?




Bowen, B. (2021). The matrix of needs: Reframing Maslow’s hierarchy. Health, 13(5), 538–563.

Cheon, S. H., Reeve, J., & Vansteenkiste, M. (2020). When teachers learn how to provide classroom structure in an autonomy-supportive way: Benefits to teachers and their students. Teaching and Teacher Education, 90, 103004.

Field, T. (2010). Touch for socioemotional and physical well-being: A review. Developmental Review, 30(4), 367–383.

LoLordo, V. M., & Overmier, J. B. (2011). Trauma, learned helplessness, its neuroscience, and implications for posttraumatic stress disorder. In T. R. Schachtman & S. R. Reilly (Eds.), Associative learning and conditioning theory: Human and non-human application (pp. 121–151). Oxford University Press eBooks.

McDonald, J., & Vernoa, E. (2023). Threat-induced alterations in cognition and associations with dysregulated behavior. Psychophysiology, 60(2), e14168.

About the Authors

418 views0 comments


bottom of page