a path on a mountain

The trauma-informed toolbox (and mixed metaphors)

I’m looking forward to teaching a workshop this October on the teacher’s trauma toolbox. The goal is to help teachers get started with trauma-informed teaching and learning. I hope teachers will walk away having developed their understanding of child trauma as well as jumpstarted their thinking on trauma-informed strategies for their classrooms.

Trauma-informed teaching isn’t something you can master after a one-day workshop, or a semester class, or even many years of intense study and practice. It’s an ongoing process to support students who have experienced trauma, because every child is different and every response to trauma is different. Moreover, being in relationship with people with traumatic experience can be difficult, and requires regular checking in with ourselves and recalibrating so we can sustain the work.

The trauma toolbox

We can best prepare to serve students with traumatic backgrounds by developing our own toolbox. Not every tool will work for a given job, but if we maintain a diverse set we are more likely to have what we need when we need it. Some tools will work for many situations, while we save others for a very specific project. When using trauma-informed strategies, the range of tools is essential because one student’s response to trauma will never be exactly the same as another’s. This is especially true when “challenging” behavior comes up; I may need to try a dozen different tools before I find the one that works.

As most handy folks and homeowners also know, sometimes our own toolbox isn’t enough, and it’s essential to know when to call the plumber or the electrician. An essential aspect of our trauma-informed toolbox is knowing when to call on others – whether they be school counselors, psychologists, or social workers, or your local mental-health or child welfare agency. There’s also something to be said for the home-improvement show, youtube video or internet forum where we can get a refresher on how to use the tools we already have, or get unstuck when we’re frustrated.

Where the metaphor falls apart

a path on a mountain

While your home toolbox may be used to fix broken stuff, we aren’t “fixing” students and they certainly aren’t broken. Here I’ll use a different metaphor for our role in supporting students who’ve experienced trauma – the hike.

Ever been hiking with someone who hasn’t really been hiking much before? You’re both walking on the same path, but maybe it’s slightly easier for you, because you have more practice. You don’t need to tell your hiking partner how to walk, because they already know how to do that, but you might make some suggestions if there’s a tricky uphill scramble.

As you walk, you’re paying attention to the other hiker, and guiding the way, but the two of you are also connecting, together, and noticing, together, what’s going on in the woods around you. While the less experienced person might need your help at times, you might also need them and rely on their expertise as you cross obstacles together.

You might need to prompt your hiking partner when to stop and take a break and drink some water, but it’s also essential that you pay attention to your own needs, as well. Supporting our students through trauma is something we do together, walking side by side, while ultimately respecting the autonomy of the journey.

The path through healing from trauma can be difficult and complicated, and we do best when we walk it together, whatever the metaphor.

I hope you’ll join me on October 7 in Keene, NH for the Teacher’s Trauma Toolbox workshop. Can’t attend? Check out resources for getting started with trauma-informed teaching or get in touch to schedule a workshop at your site.

Social-emotional learning can be simple, part 2

In follow-up to this post, I wanted to share a quick strategy that is deceptively simple yet sets the stage for social-emotional learning:

Edutopia recently shared this video about Peace Corners:

 

It’s simple, right? Set up a comfy corner, invite students to use it to take a break, add in a little reflection sheet. Yet, there are so many layers to how this can help students:

  • Honors and respects students’ autonomy by choosing when to take a break
  • Gives students a safe and non-shaming “out” (since it’s open to everyone in the class)
  • Encourages reflection and development of self-knowledge through reflection sheets
  • Creates space within the classroom community rather than asking to students to leave the classroom community completely
  • Provides sensory tools for self-regulation
  • Helps students internalize self-management skills that are transferable across settings
  • Communicates care and a whole-school commitment to social/emotional support

Peace corners – or any other name you choose to call this self-regulation space – are a simple, visible way to incorporate social/emotional support. It’s a trauma-informed strategy that benefits all students. I’m trying one this year with a mixed-elementary age extracurricular class – I’ll update on how it goes!

The Stories I’ll Never Tell

In a little less than two weeks, I’ll walk out of my school for the last time. After eight years, I’m moving on from the therapeutic school where I’ve worked as a teacher and leader. I’m happy with my decision and excited about the projects and adventures ahead of me – but I’m also deeply sad to leave the community that’s been my home for the better part of a decade.

It’s a funny thing to try to write about my experiences from this school. Because it’s a therapeutic school that provides counseling as well as education, we’re covered not only by educational privacy law and ethics, but also by health care law and ethics. Even if I weren’t bound by law, I’d still want to respect that the depth of counseling we do requires the trust of a confidential space. So while I can and do write a lot about the strategies, tools and stances of our teachers, I write very little about specific students. When I do, it’s only in the broadest of terms. But the true depth of my work has been in getting to know these complicated, amazing humans and maintaining solid connections through all the ups and downs. This means that the most impactful work I’ve experienced is work I can’t really write about, at least not in a meaningful way. Without the context and specifics of each student, the stories are just sketches. 

There are so many stories I’ll never tell: stories about children who have experienced more than most adults do in a lifetime, stories about teens who have everything in the world working against them. The deck is stacked against them when we meet and then something comes along and shreds every last one of the cards and throws it in their faces. The stories of these teens are always about resilience. They are about the depth of human suffering and the unimaginable strength it takes to change. They are stories about sharing the lowest moments and the most fantastic victories.

My stories are about building deep relationship with kids who really had no reason to trust me at all, and stories about how hard we both worked to build and sustain that relationship. There are a lot of tears in my stories. There’s a lot of swearing. There’s a lot of late nights not sleeping and wondering if my students hated me, if I could serve my students, if my students were going to be okay, if my students were at home sleeping or if they were missing or if they were alive.

Mostly the stories I’ll never tell are about hope. They’re about how sparkly and wonderful and brilliant and driven every single one of my students has been – even (especially) the ones who came to our school after another adult at another school said some version of “this kid can’t/won’t/doesn’t want to learn.” The stories are filled with parents who do the impossible every day for their kids even when they’re barely hanging on themselves.And my stories are filled with the giant beating hearts of teachers who dig deep within their souls and find the bravery to be the people our students need.

I won’t ever tell the full stories, the real stories about the past eight years. But I’ll keep writing about what I can in the way I can, and finding ways to talk about the themes and the lessons and the common experiences that transcend the specific and confidential details. And I am so comforted to know that long after I step away from that community, these beautiful stories will continue to unfold: in shouts across the parking lot basketball court; in songs sung along to the radio in cars on the way to internships; in whispers sitting on the floor in the hallway; between tears on the hardest day; between full-belly laughs on the best days.

In my next steps professionally, I’m going to be focusing on helping other teachers work through the challenges with challenging students. I’m doing this because I know that when you persist through the layers of frustration, when you can make it past all the roadblocks and the assumptions and the baggage, you can get to the other side and see into the shining heart of a kid, and see your own humanity reflected back to you. I want every teacher to carry around that story they can never fully explain, because the experience is too complicated for words. It can only be told to ourselves, over and over as we reflect back on what it means to work with complex and whole people. It can only be felt in the bones of a teacher.

So I have stories I’ll never tell – and I hope you do too.

Social-emotional learning can be simple

While the buzzword factor may loom large, it doesn’t have to be complicated to get started with social-emotional learning in the classroom. SEL “programs” or curricula may certainly be helpful in providing a common language or structure for educators across a school, but you don’t need to buy anything to provide social/emotional learning opportunities. It can be as simple as acknowledging emotions, making space to understand them, and reflecting on the intersection of academic and social/emotional learning.

I teach a community college first semester seminar. The goals of the course are around reading, writing, and research for college, and there’s an overarching mission that the course will help students start their college careers successfully. We learn good habits of college work and identify resources. I also incorporate social/emotional learning because I value emotional self-awareness as a key tool of college (and life) success.

Social skill-building in 5 minutes or less

In an ongoing way, we do a quick rose-and-thorn check-in at the start of each class. Rose- something good that’s going on for you. Thorn – something not so good. It brings everyone’s voice into the room (even if just to say “pass”) and it acknowledges that we’re all bringing things to the classroom that evening with us. It helps set the stage for our interactions with one another – if you shared about your really bad day, I can offer you some extra kindness. If you shared that you’re feeling good this evening, I can borrow some of your enthusiasm. It also provides a platform for creating social connections. I’ve watched students connect with one another over shared interests that they might not have known about if not for check-in. You have a two-year-old too? You also play soccer? You drive a motorcycle? Healthy social interactions are easier when you have a place to start, and this structure provides a platform for students to share something authentic with their community. It’s a really simple structure that takes less than five minutes, but the benefits are huge.

Incorporating emotional awareness into content

For a more focused social/emotional learning experience, I’ve been slowly transforming the section of the course that explores the concept of systemic oppression and privilege to incorporate emotional self-awareness as a key concept. We begin by reading Margaret Wheatley’s essay “Willing to be Disturbed.” We discuss the emotional barriers that can get in the way of hearing one another’s stories. Then, students read and dig in to the concept of privilege and write a reflection – not just on the content, but on their emotional experience with the content. They answer the question, “why is it so hard to talk about privilege?”

When students arrive in class to discuss privilege with one another, we start with a self check-in: what emotions am I feeling right now, and how is that going to impact my ability to listen? I use a chart with a list of common emotions arranged by intensity, and students reflect on how intensity of feeling might help or hinder your listening skills. I’m transparent when we do this activity: I know this may feel childish or unrelated to academics, but at the heart of academic discussion lies empathy. Our healthy emotional management supports our capacity for empathy, and our social skills support our capacity to build empathetic relationships. Students take this reflection seriously and bring the self-awareness into their conversations.

With all of these proactive steps, I’ve experienced an improvement in the depth of conversation, the risks students are willing to take when trying on a new perspective, and their ongoing growth as learners.

SEL is just like any other teaching strategy

None of these social/emotional learning strategies are complicated or groundbreaking. They don’t take a lot of prep work. They cost nothing. Social-emotional learning is an investment of time – but it doesn’t have to be that much time. It’s an investment of energy – but as with all new classroom strategies, after the first go-around it gets easier. It doesn’t need to take time away from content, but rather can enhance students’ ability to dive into content and skill.

So I see social-emotional learning more as holding a central value about how I see my students. We do this already in the classroom. If I understand my students to be emerging critical readers, I’ll make room for skill-building. If I understand my students to need practice with the writing process, I’ll build in opportunities to learn. When I understand my students as whole and emotional humans, practicing their self-regulation and social skills, of course I’m going to make time to attend to their needs. It can be that simple.

On going to heaven

A few times a year, I’ll find myself in a conversation with someone who doesn’t already know what I do for work, often a stranger or an acquaintance, and I’ll explain about my school, my student population, and my role. I’ll give a couple of examples of the challenges facing my students and the structures we use to serve them well.

Every so often, the response will be: ” “you’re an angel,” or “you’re going to heaven,” or “amazing! I could never do that.”

I don’t fault people’s intent behind these comments. I understand and appreciate the compliment, but (even putting aside the religious undertones) there’s something about these comments that rubs me the wrong way. The implication (and sometimes plainly stated message) is that “I could never do that.” There’s a sense that to work with challenging or high-needs students, there must be something holy about you. You need to operate at a higher level, be driven by a spiritual mission, or expect an otherworldly reward. There’s a connotation of sacrifice and goodness, of purity. Sometimes when I hear these “compliments,” what I really hear is, “thank goodness you’re doing that work so the rest of us don’t have to.”

In reality, working with challenging students, working with high-needs students, working with all students is a job for everyone. It doesn’t require holiness. It doesn’t require spiritual belief. It requires hard work, perspective, and empathy. It isn’t angelic; it’s messy, full of mistakes, and profoundly human.

We need boundaries, not martyrdom. We need a support system, not a pedestal. We don’t need to hear “I could never do that,” we need to hear “I want to do better for my students too, how can we work together?”

If you feel driven by spirituality and mission, that’s wonderful – many people draw on their beliefs to feel connected to their work. However, projecting these values on others may have the opposite effect of your intent. If you make an assumption about me – that I hold certain beliefs about God, heaven, and spiritual mission, or find meaning in a compliment related to those beliefs – it makes me wonder what beliefs you’re projecting onto my students.

If we’re not meeting in a context related to our shared spirituality, I’d prefer a compliment about my perseverance, creativity, or resourcefulness. I’d prefer you asking questions to better understand my experience. Instead of telling me, “I could never do that,” let’s talk about how you actually could – and help you get there.

Students with behavioral challenges, disabilities, high needs – whatever the label, they’re all children. They’re people. I’m not an angel – I’m a human, working with humans. Let’s see each other as people, as equals working together toward a common goal. Let’s talk about heaven another day – today, I’m doing the work here on earth.

Embracing Students’ Own Goals, or what a VW Bus Taught Me About Decision-Making

What happens when students have dreams for themselves that don’t involve being “college and career ready?”

Personalized learning plans are picking up steam in Vermont and throughout the country. Although they look a little different in different settings, the general idea is to help students identify a goal and ensure that school is helping them work toward that goal. The Vermont Agency of Education website put it like this:

A personalized learning plan is a formal document created by students, parents, and teachers and available in digital and other formats both in and out of school, that, at a minimum: establishes individual student goals based on academic and career objectives and personal interests; sequences content and skill development to achieve those goals and ensure that a student can graduate college and career-ready; and is updated based on information about student performance in a variety of learning experiences – including assessments – that indicate progress towards goals.” 

My school has been using the personalized learning plan concept for a long time. One core piece of the philosophy that the school embraces is to “differentiate between the young person’s own goals and others’ hopes and expectations” (Mitch Barron in Centerpoint’s Core Strategies). When I think about this in relationship to personalized learning in mainstream schools, I wonder about how schools are embracing students’ actual goals, and not only offering a narrow view of what it means to be “college and career ready.”

While many of my students have had goals centered around going to college and getting a good job, some students have other goals that challenge us to walk our talk.

Honoring students’ own goals

I once had a student whose goal was to live in a VW bus in a field and make art.

What would you do if, in the PLP development process, your student stated that as a goal? Respond, “OK, that’s great, but what about college?” Say, “well, that’s not realistic, what are you going to do for money?” Would you shut down this student because her goal doesn’t fit neatly into college or career?

What would happen if you simply said, “Cool! Tell me more about that, and let’s figure out how to get you there?”

We often rush to make statements or offer solutions before we fully understand young people, out of our own need to “do something” or to be heard or to make sure we’re saying the “right” thing. Remember that what is needed in these moments is about the young person, not about the adult. Whether or not I think that making art in a VW bus is a realistic goal, if through our conversation I come to understand that it really matters to this young person, it’s my job as a supportive adult to help her get there. It doesn’t mean I need to throw all of my hopes and goals for her out the window, but I also can’t strip her of her autonomy by imposing my own will over hers. 

Ask more questions

Challenge yourself to ask three more questions before you offer any kind of statement. Listen a little more before you have anything to say, even if every part of you wants to just Say The Thing You Should Say. Do this especially when what the student is saying shakes your sense of what’s expected or “good” for the them – because we don’t know what we don’t know, and the only way to find out is to ask. 

So when my student told me about wanting to live in a VW bus to make art, I asked her about what kind of art, what she loved about being artistic, what color the bus would be, what type of field. What would be wonderful about her dream? What would be hard? Instead of shutting her down, we had the conversation, and we became partners in the process instead of adversaries.

Considering the pros and cons – all the pros and cons

Decisional balancing is a frame that can be very helpful to help you through what may feel like counter-intuitive questions. It’s simply considering the pros and cons of two choices, but often with teens we skip consideration of the pros of the choice we (the adults) would rather the kid not choose.

Example: a student says, “I want to drop out of school.” As the adult, we might say, “But think about the pros of staying in school, and the cons of being a high school drop-out.” What if instead we asked: “What would be good about staying in school – and what would suck about staying in school?” What if we asked: “What wouldn’t be so great about dropping out – but what would really work for you about dropping out?”

decisional balancing
A basic decisional balancing chart

The scary part about this approach is that, given full consideration and thought, the student might actually determine that dropping out is better for them. As adults, we actually have to be okay with that in order to fully be there for teens. Teens know immediately when adults don’t trust them. Giving full consideration to all choices, even the ones we don’t want them to choose, is a way to lean into trusting relationship with our teens.

The big picture

Encouraging young people to ask for help only works if we are truly open to listening when they do. When we slow down on our impulse to fix and instead keep ourselves open to listening, we create an opening for teens to really tell us what’s going on. We model how to think through all available options, not just the ones we think others want us to choose. We put aside our own agenda and become partners in collaboration, strengthening our role and our opportunity to make change.

If the process leads to students who are “college and career ready,” that’s great. But if the process leads to a happy young woman, living in a VW bus in a field full of flowers and making art? Well, that’s perfection.

 

VW photo by Marcus Spiering, CC license

Wellness: A Guide for Teachers

 

To sustain our work as teachers, we need to take care of ourselves. Wellness as a whole is important, but it’s also essential to look at specific elements of wellness that are all equally necessary to sustaining when the going gets tough.

Coping strategies

These are the tools and skills we need to make it, on a basic level, through a tough day. Coping strategies can be big or small, but we need to have a variety in our toolbox so we can access them as needed. These might be things you do in the middle of a stressful class, during a small break in your day, or right when you get home and need to transition from one part of your day to the next. Many of us have fall-back coping strategies and might benefit from expanding on them – sometimes it takes a little practice.

Examples:

  • Focusing on breathing
  • Drinking a cup of tea
  • Stretching, yoga, other physical movement
  • Texting a supportive friend
  • Looking at a funny comic or silly cat picture online

These are just a few tiny examples, but coping strategies are essentially anything that can help you manage a strong emotion and get yourself regulated. It’s important to remember that not all coping strategies are healthy ones, and it depends on the person and situation (example: eating a snack might be a good coping strategy for someone, but might be problematic for another person). The essential thing is to develop your own list of strategies that are right for you.

Coping strategies are also great to model for students who are having a hard time. If I normalize stopping class for a minute to take a few deep breaths, my students can begin to internalize some healthy coping strategies of their own.

Self-care

Rather than disparate strategies, self-care to me is a more general frame that I am doing things that help me stay well and sustain me as a person. Self-care helps me fill my cup and stay connected to who I am as a person, not just as a helper. Self-care looks different for everyone, but here are some common areas of self-care: 

  • A physical activity practice (running, yoga, cycling, team sports)
  • Spending time with animals or living things (gardening, taking care of fish, snuggling your dog)
  • Spending meaningful time with friends and family
  • Reading, watching TV or movies you enjoy, doing puzzles
  • Making and creating – music, crafts, projects

Self-care requires ongoing attention to balance, and committing to spending time that fills up the well rather than draws from it. Self-care isn’t selfish; instead, it’s what allows us to be of use to others. You can’t give others energy you don’t have, and self-care is what allows us to generate that energy.

Making meaning

This is one area of wellness that often gets missed in our narrative about taking care of ourselves. In addition to coping in the moment and self-care in an ongoing way, making meaning is required when we’re faced with challenging work. When something intense happens, whether it be a challenging class period, a student blow-up, a conflict with a coworker, or at tragedy in the school community, we need to not only cope with our emotions, but to make sense of what happened. Making meaning is the act of grappling with how challenging experiences fit into our sense of self and our worldview, and how they change us and change our work.

As an example, if a student explodes at me in class and ends up hitting me – I will need to cope in the moment, for sure. Beyond that immediate moment, though, I’m likely to be shaken up as a person, and coping alone doesn’t address that core disruption. I will need to use self-care to help me stay grounded in my sense of myself as a whole person. And I will need to make meaning of the big questions that come up from intense experiences: why did that happen? What does it mean about my student? What does it mean about me? What does it mean about my sense of safety at school – and my student’s sense of safety with me? How should I proceed? It takes time, introspection, and support to think through these questions.

Some supports that may be helpful in making meaning:

  • Meeting with a therapist, counselor, or clergy person
  • Supportive coworkers or supervisors
  • Journaling or reflective art practice

Wellness is ongoing

Wellness isn’t something we work on once and then say it’s done. We can’t attend one training and get certified in wellness; we can’t develop a wellness routine and expect that it will hold through all of life’s changes. However, when we put in the work – when we attend to coping, self-care and making meaning, we give ourselves the gift of wellness – a gift that requires maintenance and reinvention, but that gives us the vitality to sustain ourselves in the service of those we help.