In the past few years, there has been an explosion of schools starting to implement trauma-informed educational practices. Public schools across the country are learning about how trauma impacts kids and their learning, and adjusting their classroom practices and school policy to be responsive.
But what does it look like to sustain this work over the years? How does a school go beyond “trauma-informed 101” and build the core concepts into the fabric of their community?
Over the past year I’ve gotten to know Mathew Portell, principal of Fall-Hamilton Elementary School in Nashville. Mathew is the real deal: fully committed to transforming his school so that all kids can succeed. At the Trauma Informed Educators Network conference this summer, Mathew shared the video from the Edutopia profile of his school, filmed over two years ago. He made a passing comment about how some of the things in the video aren’t quite accurate anymore, because trauma-informed education is a journey, not a checklist.
Having been a leader of a trauma-informed school myself, that rang true. The journey includes a constant revisiting of our core values, aligning our practice with those values, and always asking: is this working? Is this helping? If not, how can we as the adults change and grow?
If you are also part of a school that is moving past “getting started with trauma-informed” and into “sustaining our trauma-informed work,” I would love to hear from you! Leave a comment or send me an email at Alex@UnconditionalLearning.org
I love teaching this class. It’s designed around a reflective practice, case-study model. Teachers choose one student and work on building relationship with and better understanding that student, asking: “What can this student teach me about my teaching?”
We also dig in to two of my favorite texts: Fostering Resilient Learners and Lost at School. I pair these readings with other texts and concepts to help participants think about their practice in new ways.
This class is hybrid online and face-to-face. The two in-person meetings are in Montpelier, VT (exact location coming as soon as I confirm it). I hope you can join us!
I keep seeing this image, or versions of it, pop up on Twitter and Facebook, especially in trauma-informed education circles. “Students who are loved come to school to learn, and students who aren’t, come to school to be loved.”
I know it’s “just a quote.” I know it’s well-intentioned. But I have some questions:
Don’t all students want to learn? Aren’t all kids naturally curious?
Don’t all kids (and people, really) want to be loved?
Does this quote suggest that a teacher’s love and a parent’s love are the same thing?
Do kids have a choice about why (or whether) they come to school?
Are there really a whole lot of parents who don’t love their kids?
What effect does it have on my teaching practice if I believe my students’ parents don’t love them?
How does one tell the difference between a parent who doesn’t love their kids and a parent who loves their kid, but is overwhelmed or under-resourced and struggles to effectively parent?
How does one tell the difference between a kid who is loved at home and who isn’t?
Do loved kids always want to learn?
Should I lower my academic expectations for “unloved” kids because they’re just here to be loved?
Does trauma only happen to kids in “unloving” households?
Does being loved at home affect motivation for learning?
What am I, a teacher, supposed to do with this frame of understanding? How does it impact my practice?
What would my students’ parents think if they saw me tweet or post this quote?
Does this quote foster empathy or pity?
I hope you have some questions, too.
It’s “just a quote” but when we see enough of these quotes, they shape our worldview. Just like we teach our students: be critical. Ask questions. Don’t fall for pleasing sentence construction and confuse it with truth.
As teachers, we are told not to push our politics on students, and not to use our classrooms to further our own agendas. Be neutral. We are told to be role models, to stay positive. Don’t focus on the negative.
We are told: Spread love, but don’t talk too much about hate. Embrace diversity, but don’t talk too much about racism. Be resilient, but don’t talk too much about trauma.
In reading Dr. Judith Herman’s classic text, Trauma and Recovery, I reflected on the parallels between therapists and teachers in taking a neutral stance. Dr. Herman writes:
“‘Neutral’ means that the therapist does not take sides in the patient’s inner conflicts or try to direct the patient’s life decisions. Constantly reminding herself that the patient is in charge of her own life, the therapist refrains from advancing a personal agenda.”
I’m sure this approach resonates with many teachers: we want to provide students all of the relevant information and skills to think critically, and not simply impose our own opinions. We support students’ autonomy and power when we remain “neutral” in this sense.
But there are areas where we cannot, and should not, be neutral. Herman continues:
“The technical neutrality of the therapist is not the same as moral neutrality. Working with victimized people requires a committed moral stance. The therapist is called upon to bear witness to a crime. She must affirm a position of solidarity with the victim.”
For which crimes do your students call you to bear witness, through their words or their actions?
Do you bear witness to the crimes of racism, homophobia, transphobia, religious discrimination? Do you bear witness to the injust systems that create generational poverty? Do you bear witness to the pain of sexual and gender-based violence, to child abuse?
Do you bear witness to the crimes committed through inequity in your own school, in your own classroom? By your colleagues? By yourself?
When you bear witness, do you affirm your solidarity? Clearly, unequivocally, firmly positioning yourself alongside your students, together with them in their pain, always in their corner?
Or do you remain “morally neutral?” Do you say, “there are two sides to every story?” Do you ask, “well, what did you do to bring this on yourself?” Do you wonder, “did that really happen?”
Herman further explains:
“This does not mean a simplistic notion that the victim can do no wrong; rather, it involves an understanding of the fundamental injustice of the traumatic experience and the need for a resolution that restores some sense of justice.This affirmation expresses itself in the therapists’ daily practice, in her language, and above all in her moral commitment to truth-telling without evasion or disguise.”
Educators cannot say we are trauma-informed and also remain silent on the injust systems and conditions that cause trauma. We need to be truth-tellers, “without evasion or disguise,” when it comes to addressing injustice.
Teaching is political. As Shana White puts it, “Our words, curriculum decisions, who we advocate for and why, disciplining, opportunities we provide, and our pedagogy [are political]. Working with and facilitating learning for other human beings will always be political.” Jose Vilson says, “we are agents of the state, so in fact, we are political even if we’re not partisan.”
Whether we like it or not, teachers are the face of institutions, and with that institutional position comes great power. We can use our power to position ourselves in solidarity with our students, or we can hide our fear and indifference behind a mask of “neutrality.” In remaining morally neutral, we abandon our students at the time they most need us, and we ensure that trauma will continue to perpetuate through generations.
But if we choose to bear witness, to act in solidarity, we empower ourselves and our students. We say, “It is so wrong that this happened to you.” We say, “I believe you.” We say, “I’m here for you, and I will fight for you.” And we go beyond saying these things and put our power into action: teaching the truth about injustices in history and in our time, challenging unjust policies, advocating against unjust laws, working to dismantle the systems that harm our students and our community. We can take the first step toward creating a more just world.
Here are a few opportunities to learn with me this summer:
Graduate course in Vermont: Taking Care
I am co-teaching this course with a colleague who is an art therapist, and we’re focusing on wellness. It’s not just bubble baths and deep breaths; wellness is a commitment to caring for our full selves. This graduate course will explore both the theory and practice of wellness for educators. We’ll look at how you can maintain your own wellness, especially when facing challenges at work, but also how you can foster wellness in your students within your academic content area. We’ll have a two-day retreat-style face-to-face meeting in Winooski, VT in July, then online weeks, and a final wrap up day in August.
These pieces were formerly part of the Trauma-Conscious Teaching microcredential through Antioch. This the last time they’ll be offered through Antioch, as we’re phasing out the microcredential this fall. If you’re interested in taking any of these pieces but can’t join this summer, be in touch- they may be scheduled again later on as one-time workshops.
Late summer and fall professional development and consulting
I’m booking from August onward for professional development and consulting. See my services page and be in touch!
Paul Gorski has a new article out called Avoiding Racial Equity Detours. If you are interested in trauma-informed education or consider yourself a trauma-informed teacher, this is a must-read. Trauma is not the focus of the article as a whole, but he touches on trauma-informed education in his discussion of the “Deficit Ideology Detour.” Shawn Ginwright’s piece on Healing-Centered Engagement is an excellent paired text to Gorski’s work. I highly recommend reading both pieces and considering what they mean for your work, and how we might all work together to ensure a trauma-informed lens isn’t just another deficit-based buzzword.
This is my occasional feature called Ask Alex, in which I answer questions on trauma-informed teaching, SEL or anything else! Send me a question at email@example.com or on Twitter!
Our question for today comes from Lorraine, who writes:
I’m coaching ultimate for the 7th year this spring at a local public high school. Ultimate is a sport known as being inclusive to many abilities, and many traditionally non-athletes find a home in the sport. I’ve coached teams that have had a fun mix of jocks, theater types, band geeks (aka me!), and someone always brings a tagalong friend that sticks around the whole season. Since I coach JV, it’s easy to get everyone play time. I like to think that I help foster an environment where kids can respect each others’ differences, and share the common goals of improving their skills, having fun, and winning games. (The teacher in me wants it to be more than just winning, but…they’re teenage boys, and that seems to always be their goal.)
This year, I want to challenge myself to facilitate more player-led feedback. On my tight, safe, college team, we had appreciation circles at the end of every tournament, offering the person to our left a piece of positive and a piece of constructive feedback. I think this may be possible for my kids, but how can I scaffold it? Any tips or other ideas?
This is a great question that on first glance, might not have anything to do with trauma-informed teaching. But if I could shout anything from the rooftops, it would be: trauma-informed practices benefit all students! This situation reminds me about the importance of intentionality: she could just blast right in, ask the students to give feedback to one another, and let the chips fall where they may. Instead, she’s seeking to approach this with intention: how can I best support this group of students to expand their focus beyond winning, and develop a community of players who give and receive feedback? So thanks, Lorraine, for this question and your dedication to your team!
Creating the Environment for Feedback
The trauma-informed connection here is about vulnerability and safety. Trauma disrupts both a sense of safety in general and a sense of safety in relationship. Often, traumatic experiences are tied up in ruptured relationships, either as a cause or effect of the trauma. Trauma-affected kids struggle with relationships for a plethora of reasons: developmental gaps, broken trust with adults and peers, negative self-concept, and more.
With all of these relational challenges, feedback can be dicey from both sides. On the receiving end, if we don’t trust our relationship with the feedback-giver, we might feel like critical feedback is a dismissal of our worth as people. And if we don’t truly believe that we are worthy to begin with, positive feedback is just noise and we can write it off.
On the giving end, if we don’t believe that our views have value, it can feel paralyzing to come up with feedback. Who am I to tell anyone else what to do, when I’m struggling with my own stuff?
All of this means that safety and trust are pre-requisites to feedback – as Lorraine knew from her “safe, tight” college team. It’s probably not news to many, but we might remind ourselves that just because our team (or class) trusts one another to complete a task – like winning a game – it doesn’t automatically extend to emotional trust and vulnerability.
Perhaps because of our question-asker, I’m thinking of a metaphor here connected to the Vermont outdoors: the swimming hole. For those of you not familiar, the swimming hole is often a calm spot in a river, lined with slippery rocks. The current can be dangerous or calm depending on recent rainfall, and it can be hard to predict the depth of the water.
Building vulnerability is like picking our way across the slippery rocks. Am I going to fall? What is that squishy thing my foot just touched? Where is it deep enough to jump?Why is the water so cold? Is this safe? Is this safe? Is this safe?
If you’ve been to this river a hundred times, you might leap right in, knowing that the rocks give way to a sandy expanse beneath you. You trust that the initial cold shock of the water will wear off and feel refreshing. You can accurately assess whether the currents feel faster than normal, and pull yourself out if need be.
Your JV team might be at a state where they’re exploring the terrain of vulnerability for the first time. You might start there: ask about the type of feedback they are expected to give in school, and what their previous experience with it has been. Get a sense of whether they are expert swimmers or newbies.
Then, work from there:
Start with building the habit of sitting in a circle and talking. Whether you do this in a formal restorative-circle way or an informal sports-team-huddle way, get the players comfortable with this time spent as a group
Build group trust by making sure each player is seen and heard. Again, the tools of restorative practices are helpful here but you can also do something as simple as a rose and thorn. (You could do a variation where players give their rose and thorn of the game- this practices reflection on the game and vulnerability of one’s own areas for improvement, without the added emotional risk of directing this reflection at others)
Begin with whole-team feedback and then zoom in on smaller groups. Start by asking players to come up with something the whole group did well and that the whole group could work on next time (you probably already do something like this). When this feels comfortable, put players into smaller groups (maybe by position) and ask each group to give another group feedback. When this has become routine, they may be ready to move to individual level.
Don’t forget to explicitly teach the skill. Have a discussion about what makes feedback helpful and what makes it hurtful. Create sentence stems that players can use (“You helped our team by ____,” “Next time I wonder if you could try ________.”)
Reflect, reflect, reflect. Give students time to think about how feedback feels. Build the self-awareness at the same time as the skill practice.
Give it time. Just like picking our way across the slippery rocks, sometimes it just takes multiple visits, practice, and the confidence that the last 10 times we did this, it worked out OK. Building trust is slow – don’t worry too much if you don’t get there this season. There’s always next time.
The Big Picture
“Resilience” is the new buzzword connected to trauma-informed education, and I can understand why: it feels like the antidote to trauma, the protective factor that will help kids bounce back.
I sometimes feel that the focus on resilience feels too intangible. What does it actually look like? How do we help kids build it, rather than just insisting that they need it?
Lorraine’s scenario is a great example of how and when we might help build resilience. As she moves through this process with intention, her students are going to practice building trust, maintaining relationships, and handling critical feedback with grace. Those are essential social-emotional skills that foster resilience.
Thanks for this question, and I’d love to hear in the comments about other ideas to develop a safe and supportive culture of feedback!
P.S. If you’re interested in the connections between coaching and educational equity, especially connected to Ultimate, I highly recommend following Chris Lehmann!
Last week, Educational Considerations published a new issue of their journal with the theme “Dear Teacher: Children and Trauma.” I have an article in this issue discussing boundaries and role-clarity for teachers in trauma-informed schools. Head over to Educational Considerations to check out my article and the rest of the excellent pieces in this issue.
When you look out over your classroom of students, what do you see? Students talking, students writing, students texting, students wiggling, students with their heads down, students staring at nothing.
Which of them are ready to learn? And which of them are just trying to survive?
There’s no way we can get inside a student’s brain, but we can look at students through our trauma-informed lenses. One key concept in our trauma-informed work is the understanding of the stress-response system. Our bodies and brains react to danger in order to keep us safe. But childhood trauma can make this system less effective, causing our stress-response system to activate whether or not real danger is present. And real danger is often present for students, whether that danger comes from an abusive adult, the impacts of racism, or the stressors of poverty.
Much of the information about survival brain can get technical, exploring the neurological systems behind the stress response system. That’s important to understand, but it’s also essential to consider the lived experience of our students.
These are two stand-out resources on survival brain that help to develop an empathetic understanding of what it feels like to exist in survival brain:
Learning Brain vs. Survival Brain: in this video, Jacob Ham illustrates the differences between a calm state for learning and a brain attuned to survival. This is a wonderful visual for introducing this concept.
What Survival Looks like: these incredible handouts detail what it might look like and feel like for students to go into the various modes of survival: fight, flight, freeze, or submit. Reading through these will help develop your empathy for students who enter into survival mode at school.
How might you take this knowledge and make some changes so that your classroom fosters learning brain? What might you do to help your students develop a sense of safety and belonging? Check out these resources, and then let me know what you think!
This is the story of why I won’t recommend that you do yoga.
I’ve spoken before about how trauma-informed teaching is not a list of strategies. One reason I go back to that idea, often, is that we need to remind ourselves that this work is slow, and sticky, and no strategy is going to “work” every time. A dimension of this is self-determination.
Healing from trauma can be a life-long endeavor, and it’s not straightforward: experience trauma, then heal from it. Wouldn’t that be simple? It’s not the reality: trauma is often ongoing. It compounds. It comes in waves. It adds all kinds of secondary adversities.
So healing is messy. Especially when we’re talking about students, who are still kids. They might not even have “healing” as a concept. They might just be in survival mode.
Given all of this, it’s important that we honor self-determination. This means that we respect that other people are going through a process. We can help, we can guide, but it’s their process and theirs alone.
Teachers, in particular, can’t enter into our work thinking “I’m going to heal my students.” We can only create the conditions within which students might begin or continue that journey. “Creating the conditions” looks like developing an environment where relationships are prioritized and safety is paramount. It also means offering strategies and opportunities for fostering wellness and self-regulation, but recognizing that students can and should determine for themselves whether, when, and how to use those strategies.
Giving up on yoga
I’ve struggled with anxiety for a long time. I cannot count the number of times that people have suggested yoga. Seriously, I grew to kind of hate the idea of yoga because people seemed to think it was some kind of magical cure-all. I tried a couple of yoga classes and felt pretty “meh” about it. Most importantly, it wasn’t the right thing to address my anxiety at the time.
The strategy didn’t work because it wasn’t the right fit for me. How often does this happen when we teach? All the time. We blame the strategy because it didn’t “work.” And we dig into our same two or three strategies because we just feel like they should work, despite our students showing us or telling us they aren’t. I hear this frustration from teachers after trying a variety of new things, like restorative circles or mindfulness.
What happens when the strategies don’t “work?” We often abandon them. I certainly did that with yoga. And for me, personally, abandoning yoga was the right choice at the time. In our classrooms, abandoning new strategies isn’t always the right thing to do. Implementing restorative circles, for example, can take a ton of time and practice to get right. New routines take time to build. But often, in the pursuit of building and implementing, we lose sight of self-determination. Do we make it okay for students to say, “you know what, this approach really just doesn’t work for me right now”?
The right suggestion at the right time
This month, I finally started doing yoga. Why now? My friend suggested a particular at-home video series I could try, and the conditions were right. There was a free way to try the strategy. I have a schedule that allows me to do this each morning with no time crunch. And more importantly, I just kinda was in the right space to do it.
Part of the reason it “stuck” this time was that the suggestion from my friend was not “try yoga, it will change your life,” but “if you feel like trying yoga, here’s a video series I liked.” The way she recommended it respected my self-determination. So the conditions and timing were right, and I finally tried yoga. To my surprise, yoga has really worked for me in managing my anxiety. I spent so long feeling resentful of how people pushed yoga at me that I genuinely wasn’t expecting it to “work.”
I hope it’s clear by now that I’m not recommending yoga to others as a way to manage anxiety. It might work for you, or it might not! Instead, I’m recommending something else: find balance in your teaching practice so that it’s okay for students to hate yoga.
As teachers, can we accept that our favorite social-emotional and wellness strategies might not be the right ones for our students, right now? How could we create an environment in which students feel free to try things out, but also feel free to say “this isn’t for me.” I only knew that I hated yoga because I tried it a couple of times. As an adult, I had the agency to just stop going to yoga. What does “hating yoga” look like in your classroom, and how might you encourage both the exploration of new things and the ability to say “I don’t like that new thing” and leave it on a shelf for now?
I’ll spare you the yoga metaphors, but balance really is essential. Flexibility balances with predictability. Our guidance and support as teachers balances with self-determination of our students as people.
What does this look like? If you offer mindfulness, brain breaks, self-regulation strategies, etc, provide opt-out alternatives. Explain the benefits of your strategies but don’t make blanket statements about how effective/ineffective they might be. Use your reflective practice to consider the complex dynamics at play between your own leadership and your students’ autonomy.
Exposing students to social-emotional tools is really important work. Equally important is the work of helping them reflect on whether, how, and why those tools might be helpful or not helpful in their own journey.
Most importantly, remember your role: you’re walking alongside your students in their healing process, not leading the way. You can create the conditions for growth, but don’t put yourself in the role of a savior. We can set the table, but we can’t make others eat. You can send me listings for my yoga studio, but you can’t make take the class. But maybe, one day when the time is right, I’ll give it a try – and be thankful that I had the freedom to make that choice on my own.