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.
My colleague Emily recently asked me about how to build more trauma-informed college classrooms. Emily and I both teach at a community college, and trauma-informed classroom environments couldn’t be more essential in this setting. While we certainly don’t ask for or collect any data about our students’ experience of trauma, I can infer that a large percentage of our student population has survived adverse experiences. In a typical semester, my class includes:
Students who came to the United States as refugees
Students who are currently or have in the past served in the military
Students who are in recovery from substance use
Students who don’t have enough money to meet their basic needs
Students who are currently or have in the past been homeless
Using my trauma-informed lens, I know that it’s essential for me to create a safe and supportive environment for these students to thrive. While the adult learner may have gained more coping strategies and self-regulation skills than an elementary school student, adult brains are still impacted by trauma. My adult learners still need relationship and respect to thrive and succeed.
The “how” is not that different from what we know about trauma-informed K-12 environments. I know that a trauma-informed classroom should prioritize connection, empowerment, predictability, and flexibility. I can build all of these things into my syllabus and the way that my classroom runs day to day.
One thing I do want to highlight is the flexibility piece. In a trauma-informed environment, we recognize that context is key, and the same interventions or responses don’t work for every student. In a K-12 setting, this often means looking at school-wide disciplinary policies or behavioral responses. Most experts on trauma-informed education recommend drastically decreasing or eliminating zero-tolerance policies within schools.
Zero tolerance in the syllabus
In a college classroom, I believe that many teachers impose zero-tolerance policies in the name of learning, and we can do better. These policies come up around grading and attendance. They even come up around students’ use of email.
I recently saw a well-known professor share a piece of her syllabus language. It stated (paraphrased): “You must begin your email to me with a salutation, such as ‘Dear Professor.’ Emails that do not include a salutation will be ignored. Seriously, I won’t reply to those emails.'”
This is a zero-tolerance policy: you mess up, and without regard to context, I will not respond to your attempt at communication.
Now, I have no idea if this particular instructor actually enforces this policy, or how she might respond given the context of the email. It’s worrisome if she does: often, the instructor is one of the only points of contact a student has on campus (especially true in community college where students don’t live in dorms). Imagine that I am the only trusted representative of the college for a student, and he reaches out through email, writing: “I am really struggling with some mental health stuff. I won’t be in class tomorrow.” He didn’t write “Dear professor.” Do I really ignore the email?
Let’s give the professor the benefit of the doubt and assume that her humanity trumps her policy. I’m still worried about the presence of the policy itself. When I read the policy, I understand: “How you communicate is more important than what you communicate. My preferences for email are more important than what you need.”
That take-away message might prevent students from building a relationship and reaching out when they need help. It might perpetuate a feeling of a power imbalance. And it might contribute to an overall feeling, especially among community college students: “college isn’t about what I learn; it’s about meeting all of these rules – different ones for each professor! I can’t be successful.”
High expectations with care
So what’s the alternative? Maybe you’re reading this and thinking to yourself, “Okay, I get this, but I still want students to use proper email etiquette.”
Me too! This is where we practice the balance of trauma-informed teaching: holding high expectations and communicating care at every step along the way.
Here’s how I do this around email in my classroom:
The first assignment of the semester is to read a short article about how to write professional emails to college instructors. Just google “how to email a professor” and there are several options to choose from. I used this one last semester.
The second half of this assignment is to send me an email, using the tips from the article. I ask students to introduce themselves to me in this email, tell me something awesome about themselves, and share the last book they read. This serves several purposes: I can assess whether they understood the content of the article, and I also start to build relationship. I reply to each of these emails, making a connection about what they shared, and if necessary, giving feedback if they didn’t follow the email format from the article.
This assignment alone does 99% of the work for me. I’ve found that over the semester, most students follow the format, most of the time. If I get any particularly egregious outliers, I respond to the content of the email first (“Hi Andrew, I’m sorry to hear that you’re sick. Please check Moodle this afternoon for next week’s homework”) followed by any feedback about the form of the email (“One more thing – your email was a little hard to follow. If you scroll back up to our Week 1 assignments in Moodle, you can reread the article about how to write professional emails. Thanks!”).
I also encourage students to email me often. In my experience, reaching out for help is the difference between a student who fails or drops the class and a student who struggles but still passes. I want students to reach out, even if they don’t do it “right.”
Finally, I never ignore an email from a student.
Embracing the “both/and”
Trauma-informed teaching is often about the “both/and.” We can both hold high expectations and communicate care. We can both treat adult learners as adults and recognize that “being an adult” doesn’t mean going it alone.
To build a trauma-informed college classroom, I encourage instructors to critically look at how they might decrease zero-tolerance policies and seek to prioritize relationship. Learning is messy; so is healing from trauma. Embrace the mess and we can all be a little more human together.
Along with my colleague Robert Black at Antioch University, I’m pleased to continue offering this rigorous microcredential in Trauma-Conscious Teaching. The goal of this program is to help teachers build a strong foundation from which to create trauma-informed learning environments. Each experience is designed to deepen your understanding and also give you practical tools for your classroom and your own reflective practice.
We’re pleased to now be offering all of the pieces of this microcredential online! See below for spring/summer dates, and click through for descriptions. Get in touch if you have any questions!
“If a student is not doing their schoolwork/classwork because of the grief / trauma they’re experiencing in the moment, what’s the best way to help them through both?”
I love this question because it gets at the critical intersection between unconditional positive regard and pedagogy. Let’s look at how we can approach this situation with a combination of high expectations and centering humanity:
I’ve often heard the misconception that in trauma-informed education, we should lower our academic standards for students who have been impacted by trauma. In fact, the opposite is true. If we lower expectations, we might reinfornce a student’s negative self-image: “My teacher doesn’t think I can do this – I knew it – I’m not good enough.” The alternative? Hold high expectations – and help students reach them. The idea of “islands of competence” is a helpful one: we can start with student strengths and then create bridges to new content and skills.
So now to our question: you have a student in your class who cannot do their work or engage in class that day. It’s your understanding that this is connected to trauma and/or grief. What’s next?
The key here is flexibility. While maintaining our high academic standards, we should provide students with flexible ways to meet those standards. We also have to just be human and meet students where they are.
If a student comes into class, clearly upset, and can’t seem to focus or get started on her work – be a human. What would you do if you saw a coworker or friend in that situation? You probably wouldn’t repeatedly prompt them to complete their work. Ask your student if they’re OK, encourage them to take a break, give them some space. Acknowledge that their emotions are valid and you care about them. And then – this is the key – follow up.
How might this follow-up look?
“Hey Sarah, I’m so sorry you were feeling so down today. Can we check in about the project? Tell me what you’ve gotten done so far and what your next step is. Then we can figure out if you’re going to need an extension or if you’re on track.”
“Tim, thanks so much for letting me know you needed a break today. While you were out of the room, we went over some new material. I have a couple of options for you on getting that information – I can give you a link to a Khan Academy video on the same topic, or you can read from the textbook chapter and then come check in during lunch to go over questions. Which would work better for you?”
“Hi Lee. How are you feeling now after doing some sketching and those deep breaths we talked about? That’s great that you’re feeling better. I wanted to touch base because we did the first step of a group activity today, and I want to make sure you feel ready to join into your small group tomorrow. Let’s go over the outline I handed out and then we can figure out what else you step into group work tomorrow.”
In all of these examples, we meet our students with empathy, as humans, first. Then, we review the academic expectation, and approach the student with a collaborative attitude. We don’t leave them to figure out how to catch up on their own, which may be an overwhelming task for students who are already overwhelmed.
I also find it helpful to be clear about what I can be flexible about and what I can’t. This requires us to be clear about the “why” behind our activities and assignments. If the student missed skills practice, how else might the student practice the skill? If the student missed a building block of content, how could the student access that instruction? We shouldn’t simply ask students to make up every single thing we did in class just because we did it. It has to matter to their ongoing learning and growth toward competency.
One more thing to think about: if this becomes a pattern for a student, it’s worth scheduling an outside-of-class check-in, with any combination of the student and: family, other teachers, counselor, special educator, other supportive adults. Lead a discussion, centering the student’s thoughts and ideas, about the pattern that’s been coming up, and how the team of support can work together to help the student address both the underlying emotional needs and the ongoing academic work (Ross Greene’s Plan B approach might work really well here).
To sum it up: meet your student with unconditional positive regard. Affirm their emotions and address the immediate emotional need. Maintain high expectations, but with a flexibility of how to arrive at competence. And when patterns develop, work as a team.
Thanks for the question, and if you have a question of your own, send me an email at Alex@UnconditionalLearning.org!
In this class, I’m hoping to push past the “101-level” understanding of trauma-informed education and think critically about questions like these:
How does identity intersect with trauma?
How do we talk about trauma and does it matter? (For example -should we say “trauma-sensitive” or “trauma-informed”? Why?)
Can a school emphasize compliance and also be trauma-informed?
What can we learn from experts in the clinical field who have been doing this work for a long time?
What does trauma-informed school policy look like?
I’m not the end-all expert on trauma and learning, and a lot of these questions don’t have straightforward answers. I’m hoping to cultivate a learning community through this course, developing our understanding together.
We’ll be guided by two excellent (and very different) texts:
Troublemakers by Carla Shalaby will help us explore the connection between trauma, compliance, and freedom.
The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog by Bruce Perry will help us face the grim reality of child abuse and neglect and teach us about the connections between trauma, attachment, mental health, and the brain.
I’ll also be sharing from the collection of articles, research, blog posts, and other resources I collect on various aspects of trauma-informed teaching.
I hope that you’ll consider joining me for this learning experience, or passing this information along to an interested colleague or friend. Feel free to email me with any questions!
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!