I was a guest on Angela Watson’s fabulous Truth for Teachers podcast. She put together a great episode on the core concepts of trauma-informed teaching, and it’s well worth a listen as a refresher or new information. You can listen to it and read the transcript on her site or just click play below!
Trauma-informed teachers need trauma-informed school leaders.
Teachers need support in order to support their students.
A trauma-informed school isn’t a collection of individual classrooms implementing a series of unconnected strategies. Trauma-informed work is about relationships, and relationships thrive in a healthy community where everyone has a sense of belonging and worth.
Administrators are key in setting the tone for this culture, and there are concrete ways you can do this. Here are some areas for school leaders to consider as they work toward a trauma-informed school environment.
Recognize that your teachers have experienced trauma, too
77% of teachers are women. 1 out of 3 women experience some form of sexual violence in their lifetime. Sexual violence is only one of many types of possibly traumatic experiences, but looking at those numbers alone should make you pause to consider the experiences that your teachers carry with them.
When you facilitate or provide professional development for your teachers, remember that these same teachers may be at any point in the process of managing the impacts of their own trauma: they may experience no adverse impacts, or every day they may be struggling with mental health and emotional wellness. Administrators must be mindful that teachers are carrying these experiences with them every day at the same time that they are being asked to support struggling students.
Administrators should use the same best practices that they ask teachers to use with students: provide flexibility, choice, and voice. Approach challenges with curiosity and empathy. Place a priority on autonomy and self-direction. Create opportunities for teachers to take a break during an overwhelming day, or take a day off to rest without being judged.
In addition, administrators should be sure that teachers are aware of the internal and external supports available to them. Is there counseling provided through employee assistance? What resources are available through the school or union for teachers who need extra help? Do teachers know about community organizations that serve adults? Make this information available to all staff, and play your part in destigmatizing mental health support.
Acknowledge that trauma occurs at school
Vicarious trauma, or the so-called “cost of caring,” has been written about in depth and administrators should educate themselves on how teachers may be struggling with it. Vicarious trauma is indirect – it’s the consequence of bearing witness to someone’s struggle.
But teachers may also be directly experiencing trauma in your school. One definition of trauma is when dangerous events overwhelm our capacity to cope. A teacher who has witnessed or been a target of violence within the school may experience this as traumatic. They also may not – it depends a lot on the specific situation, the coping skills of the person involved, and the preventative or risk factors both inside and outside of school.
Pay special attention to special educators, teachers who help intervene in crises, or teachers working with children who get physically or verbally aggressive. When there’s a critical incident involving a student, make it a part of the follow-up protocol to touch base with the teacher to see how that teacher is doing and what he needs.
We can expect teachers to be professionals about the difficult parts of their jobs, but we need to also expect them to be human. Use your leadership to make it okay to respond like a human to a tough day, and provide empathy and care on those tough days.
Put your time where your values are.
It’s heartening to hear administrators talk about the value of self-care. But if we tell teachers “practice self-care!” without actually providing the supports to do so, we’re just victim-blaming (“Burned out? Guess you didn’t self-care enough”).
A trauma-informed school leader recognizes that teachers are whole humans, trying to show up in full humanity for their students, and this can be draining and exhausting. Instead of presenting a PowerPoint about self-care, a trauma-informed school leader makes time within the school schedule for breaks. They create time for processing and making meaning in small groups. They offer flexibility and encouragement for teachers to actually use personal days, take vacations, and go home on time.
Trauma-informed school leaders create a culture where care is communal, not just a responsibility of the individual on her own time.
Know your role
Again, the work here is parallel to what teachers should be doing in the classroom. Our job is not to be a “trauma detective,” but rather to provide universal supports to all.
For administrators: don’t be a trauma detective with your staff. Especially because you have a professional relationship, provide opportunities for social-emotional support for all your employees but don’t expect any of them to reveal personal information.
Provide opportunities for your employees to connect with you as a person, but let them choose the level of vulnerability. If you’re worried about the wellness of an employee, ask “Are you okay?” but provide multiple paths for the teacher to get their needs met. Maybe talking to you is appropriate, but going back to my previous point, this is where it will be helpful to be able to provide other resources.
Use your leverage
As an administrator, you are uniquely positioned to make a big impact on inequitable systems, unsustainable working conditions, and allocation of resources. Do your research about the systems-level changes that make a difference for students who experience trauma, and then use your position to advocate for those changes.
Ask your teachers what they and their students need. Let them know you will fight for them, and then do it. Instilling hope is an essential part of a trauma-informed environment – you can do this through your pursuit of justice. Now get to work!
Today’s question comes from Irene on Twitter:
“Hi! I’m a high school student teacher, just starting to build relationships with my kids. Over the weekend, a student’s father passed away. Her best friend is in my class, and was visibly upset yesterday. Tips on not wanting to pry, but show support?”
Sometimes the simplest things go a long way. It can be enough to say, “Hey, you seem sad. You don’t need to talk about it with me or anything, but I just wanted to say that we’re here for you if you need to talk, or if you need to take a break, or if you want to see a really cute video of my cat playing fetch. Just let me know.” I mean, that’s what I would say (it’s very cute when my cat plays fetch), but customize to how you authentically interact and go for it.
Here are a couple of key points for approaching a student who has something going on, especially when you may or may not know what that “something” is:
- If a student does want to talk about what’s going on, practice listening and validating their emotions rather than giving advice or solutions. “That must be really difficult,” “It sounds like you feel sad,” “I can see how much that upsets you.” Don’t rush to action or try to fix their problems – just listen.
- If the conversation feels too complex or heavy for your role (especially as a student teacher), gently let the student know that you may need to bring in others in order to best support them. (Example: “Marielle, thank you so much for sharing this. I’m always here to listen. I was thinking, though, that some of this sounds pretty intense for you and I’m wondering if we could go walk down to the counseling office together. I think it might be really helpful for you to chat with someone who knows a lot about helping kids through this stuff”).
- Don’t hold onto a student’s trauma by yourself- it’s not good for you or for the student. Talk about what’s going on with your mentor teacher, and others in the school as needed/appropriate. It can be really hard to carry students’ stories, but you don’t have to do it alone.
The biggest tip I can offer for supporting a student who seems like they’re going through a hard time: approach these situations with no expectation that the student lets you know what’s going on. You don’t need to know the details to be supportive. Picture it like this: you’re at an airport by yourself, feeling extremely upset. The people around you don’t know what’s going on but can see that you’ve been crying. Without knowing your story, someone offers you a seat, or hands you an extra snack packet, or helps you with your bag. If you’ve ever been in a situation like this and experienced the kindness of strangers, you know how moving it can be to be offered little gestures of support without needing to pour out your heart in return.
Even though you know your student, and it can feel tempting to try to get the inside scoop of exactly what’s going on, extend them the trusting kindness you might extend to a stranger. Ask them to help you carry something to the office so they can get a quick break from class, pass them a sticky note with a funny doodle on it, let them use your fancy pens for the period. Sometimes in schools I hear of teachers asking students to provide “proof” before excusing an off day, whether it’s a doctor’s note, confirmation that the grandmother really died, or invasive questioning. Being trauma-informed means extending kindness and grace even (especially) in absence of any “evidence” that it’s needed, just because it’s the right thing to do.
I hope your student finds the support they need, and thank you for being a caring teacher and asking this question!
If you want to ask a question about trauma-informed teaching and responding to challenging behavior in class, email Alex@UnconditionalLearning.org or get in touch on Twitter at @AlexSVenet!
I’m trying out a new type of blog post! In these posts I’ll briefly answer a question from a reader, friend, or colleague on trauma-informed teaching and challenging student behavior. If you want to submit your own question, email me at Alex@UnconditionalLearning.org or tweet me at @AlexSVenet. I’ll be posting three or four of these over the next week – comment below with any feedback and if you’d like to see more of these!
Today’s question/wondering comes from Susan Koch on Twitter:
“Unpredictability of anger outbursts still mystifies me… although The new “reset spot” in our room seems to be comforting and helpful to the students and to me at these times..”
Just like the unpredictability of the traumatic experience itself, the impacts of trauma can be unpredictable. Add to this the fact that many of our students are still developing the tools to process big and difficult events – and you have a situation where students may feel just as confused by their emotional outbursts as you are! Here are two things you can do in tandem proactively (and they both will fit right in with your “reset spot”):
- Help students develop their emotional vocabulary. Many kids struggle to name emotions beyond “happy,” “sad,” “mad.” Use a tool like an emotion wheel to help students expand their awareness of the full range of emotions (and validate that it’s OK to feel any of them!). You can also use books or videos as opportunities to practice naming emotions in others. “How does Harry Potter feel at the end of this chapter?” + the emotion wheel as a handout = opportunity to develop empathy and other-awareness. If a student has better language to communicate how they’re feeling, they may be more willing to communicate those feelings to others.
- Help students develop their emotional self-awareness. In schools we often focus so much on academics that we inadvertently cause kids to detach from their emotional and physical experiences during the day. Use check-in and check-out systems that invite students to name (privately or with a vulnerability-level-by-choice aspect) how they’re feeling. Provide moments to pause throughout class/during the day and invite students to think about how their bodies and minds are feeling. Pause in the middle of a suspenseful read-aloud to ask, “Does anyone else have their shoulders up by their ears? Mine always do that when I get tense!” Model self-awareness and find ways to encourage it.
The more students get in the habit of noticing how they are feeling, and gain the ability to describe those feelings, the more likely they are to then be able to self-intervene when emotions feel intense. If you have a particular student who doesn’t seem to be benefiting from this whole-class level of intervention, definitely connect with others in the student’s support network (could be a caregiver, social worker, counselor, special educator, or other supportive person) to discuss more in-depth interventions. The outbursts may never feel fully predictable, but we can work together to help students develop their awareness of how to manage strong emotions.
Let’s take some time this fall to dig into trauma-informed education. I would love for you to join me in these workshops and classes – click on the titles below for more information and registrations. Please reach out with any questions!
Supporting Challenging Students: Trauma-Informed and Strengths-Based Strategies (3-credit graduate course)
This is a hybrid online/in-person class (two on-the-ground meetings in Castleton, VT). The course is organized around your own self-reflection as well as an in-depth case study of one of your challenging students. This is an in-depth opportunity to experience a mindset shift and learn alongside a supportive cohort of classmates. Texts include Lost at School and Fostering Resilient Learners. Please note the dates of this course have changed. They are accurate at the link.
Teacher’s Trauma Toolbox (September 29, 1-day workshop)
In this workshop, you’ll get a crash course on how trauma impacts children in school and what we can do about it. Equal parts theory and practice, our day will include discussion, reflection, and information that you can use to jumpstart your trauma-informed work in schools.
Book Study: Fostering Resilient Learners (three week online group in October)
Kristin Souers and Pete Hall’s book Fostering Resilient Learners is an accessible, engaging read that will help spark new ideas for trauma-informed implementation. Our book group takes place asynchronously for three weeks with a “live” group video call at the end so we can discuss, problem-solve, and share ideas.
Preventing and Addressing Vicarious Trauma (October 17, webinar)
Working with trauma-affected youth can take its toll on educators. Participants will learn about the differences between trauma, vicarious trauma, and burnout, and about the individual and systemic changes we can make to stay healthy and well in our work with students.
Trauma-Conscious Pedagogy & Reflective Practice (four week online mini-course, 11/26-12/21)
This four-week online mini-course provides you with the opportunity to reflect on how you might align your learning design with trauma-informed practices. This course takes place toward the end of your winter semester; this is a great opportunity to reflect and make changes as you head into the second half of the year.
Personalized professional development, consulting or coaching
Didn’t see something that would meet your needs? Get in touch to schedule customized professional development for your school or organization!
I was lucky enough to start my career at a school that was trauma-informed from the ground up. Mental health counseling is part of the school’s mission, so every decision was made with that in mind. Because it was my first post-college job, this became normal. I only started to realize how not-normal this orientation was when I started grad school, and soon after, began attending education conferences.
When I first got out of my therapeutic-school-bubble, it seemed like I was the only person talking about mental health and trauma in schools. I wasn’t, of course; there are plenty of organizations, schools and individuals who have been doing this work for a long time. Yet it seemed at the time that we existed in small pockets; it was hard to find each other; we didn’t have a hashtag.
Fast forward to 2018, and trauma-informed education has attained educational buzzword status. Even Oprah is talking about becoming trauma-informed. It seems like every day there is a new book, TED talk, or blog post about trauma’s impact on children in schools.
Part of me says – YES! Finally, we are talking about this. Yet, as with any complex topic that becomes a buzzword, we run the risk of losing meaning and nuance. As more people latch onto the surface-level teachings of trauma-informed work, it’s important to bring them in with intention and thought.
With that, I’d like to offer some suggestions to the growing field of trauma-informed education.
- Trauma-informed means anti-racist and against all forms of oppression. We can’t be trauma-informed without addressing the trauma of racism, sexism, transphobia, religious discrimination, and all forms of societal oppression. Trauma-informed educators must critically look at their own participation in these systems as well as whether they perpetuate inequitable school structures, and work actively to dismantle them.
- Trauma-informed education should be one aspect of a holistic approach to mental health. Trauma is one factor in the wider picture of a student’s mental health needs. Trauma-informed teachers should implement universal mental health supports, advocate for funding and access to mental health services, and seek to connect students to resources whenever possible.
- We need to move beyond ACEs as a shorthand for trauma. I write at length about this issue here; the short version is: ACEs “scores” can be harmful to students when administered by schools and we can do our work in more nuanced ways.
- “Mainstream” schools have lessons to learn from those who have been working with trauma for a long time. Public schools can and should partner with educators and mental health professionals who have been working in trauma-informed settings for years. Shelter educators, alternative school teachers, those who work with youth in the juvenile justice system – they all have insight and wisdom to offer. We don’t need to reinvent the wheel.
- Trauma-informed education and punitive discipline cannot coexist. Zero-tolerance policies, suspensions, shame, and unnatural consequences do not work for students who have been impacted by trauma. These procedures and policies only perpetuate harm and damage the relationships that could otherwise be powerful sources of healing. The same goes for rules that require strict adherence to authority. We need to rethink the structures and environment in our schools, not just our individual classroom practices.
- Trauma-informed education isn’t a set of strategies. Addressing the impacts of trauma on children is ultimately an exercise in empathy, patience, and flexibility. Although strategies are a good entry point to the work, we must constantly turn our focus to developing the capacity for the mess and challenge that is sustaining relationships with kids, no matter what.
I hope that the momentum around trauma-informed education continues to grow, and that we can carry these truths forward with us. One of the biggest things I learned from my work in a trauma-informed school was to embrace the gray areas and the struggle. That’s what I hope for us all in this movement.
A trauma-informed teacher should encourage non-compliance from her students.
Say what? Let’s talk a little about power dynamics, rules, and trauma.
When I say that trauma-informed education is a mindset shift, I mean it. We can’t just change the way we teach, or interact with students, or set up our physical spaces. We need to do all of that, and also critically look at and then disrupt the structures of power and control in our schools.
I was surprised recently during my reading about a school that’s been getting some media attention for its shift to trauma-informed practices. One of the articles about this school highlighted their use of consistent rules/expectations across the whole school. Great, I thought, consistency and common language is key. But on reading their rules, I was disappointed to see that one of them read (paraphrased a little): “Accept your teacher’s decisions and don’t question them.”
Hm. Okay. Let’s come back to that in a second. Just this week I picked up a book that purports itself to be “brain-based” and on the topic of support challenging students. Again, I found myself surprised when a few pages in, this book recommended that teachers use a rule that goes (again, paraphrased a bit): “Do whatever the teacher asks you to do at all times.”
Let’s think about this a bit. Child trauma, using the Rice & Groves definition, is the result of overwhelming, negative circumstances that exceed a child’s capacity to cope. Some potentially traumatic experiences are no one person’s fault – for example, a child’s family being displaced because of natural disaster. But many traumas experienced in childhood are directly caused by untrustworthy adults. The majority of perpetrators of child sexual abuse are people within the child’s social circles. Teachers, daycare providers, and other supposedly trustworthy adults are among these perpetrators.
What kind of message does it send when we tell students, “Accept your teacher’s decisions and don’t question them”? What message does it send when a child says “no” and we disrespect that “no” because we are in a position of power to tell them they need to say “yes”?
In the realm of curriculum choices, we also know that teachers sometimes don’t act with the needs of all their students in mind. Think of recent examples where teachers perpetuated dehumanization by asking students to create “runaway slave” posters. What should the student do in a classroom where one of the rules is “Do whatever the teacher asks you to do at all times”? This student now faces a choice: speak up against injustice and be punished for my noncompliance, or participate in something I know is wrong.
Being trauma-informed is about more than helping students after they have already been exposed to trauma. Being trauma-informed means working to make our society a place where fewer people are abused and harmed.
When we teach children to blindly follow the rules of adults, to accept whatever is said and done to them, we are teaching them to accept a position of powerlessness. If we say that adults are always right, children who have experienced trauma internalize the shame that they must have done something wrong. We are putting them in harm’s way when we don’t teach them to trust their own thoughts and feelings. We are ignoring and denying the very real fact that not all adults, and not all teachers, should be trusted.
So what should we do instead of demanding compliance?
- Explain the “why” behind any requests of students – both proactively, and when they ask. Make it normal to talk about the reasons behind rules and requirements, and to critically evaluate those reasons.
- Create a clear process for students to express their concerns. Maybe this means carving out class time each week for a community circle, or inviting students to request a check-in with you and another adult and/or student to talk through concerns.
- Teach students critical thinking skills and how they can effectively communicate critique to those in positions of power. Use real-world examples of how oppressed or marginalized people have used their voices to make change.
- Model consent and healthy boundaries in your interactions with students and other teachers. “Can I give you a high five?” “Would it be okay if I sat next to you so we can talk about your book project?” Respect when students say “no.” Honor that “no” is a complete sentence.
- Find ways to share power in the classroom. Create curriculum together. Say you don’t know. Be transparent when you mess up. Hold each member of the community (including you) accountable to the community, not to the rules.
There are many more ways to promote independence, critical thinking, and sense of self in the classroom and beyond. I encourage you to dig into that work. Our children need us to do better than preach compliance.