Rules that teach the wrong message

A trauma-informed teacher should encourage non-compliance from her students.

*record scratch*

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.

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