Your student is breaking stuff.
Not idly breaking stuff, like accidentally snapping a pencil or shredding a piece of paper with fidgeting hands. I mean tearing apart your carefully composed bulletin board, knocking your framed poster to the floor and shattering the glass, red-in-the-face and not responding to anyone’s words kind of breaking stuff.
How teachers and schools respond to this moment falls across a wide spectrum. Using our “teacher voice.” Yelling. Calling in an administrator. Calling the parents. Calling the police. Clearing the classroom. Taking away privileges. Physically restraining the child. Moving the child to a seclusion room. Threats. Punishments. Bribes.
In that mix, we also have trauma-informed practices. Calm, quiet voices. Reassurances of safety. Clear options using few words. Reminders of pre-taught strategies and cues. Restorative conferencing to follow up. Getting to the root of the problem once we’re ready to talk again.
When students are blowing up, melting down, or generally in a crisis of overwhelming stress, trauma-informed responses require time, quiet, patience, attunement, and creativity. They require a system that is built to support that time, quiet, patience, attunement, and creativity. They require proactive planning and skill-building so we feel prepared when the moment arrives.
This is difficult work, but urgently important. Seclusion and restraint in schools causes lasting harm to children. Punitive discipline contributes to the criminalization of children, and students of color and disabled students are most impacted. Even our youngest children are subject to suspension. We need a change.
But with change comes resistance.
When I work with teachers on making the shift from punitive discipline to trauma-informed, restorative approaches, a question often comes up: “what about the other students in the room?” This question is both about “in the moment” – what about the other kids present when their classmate is loudly struggling? – as well as “out of the moment” – what about the other kids when their classmate shows up the next day and the other kids haven’t seen them being suspended or punished?
Sometimes this question is a genuine one. Teachers wonder how to logistically make trauma-informed interventions happen when they have dozens of students. Sometimes there is concern for the other students who repeatedly witness a struggling peer. As an adult it can be difficult to be present when someone else is in crisis, and so naturally we worry about our students feel when a classmate is escalated.
But other times, “what about the other students?” comes as a challenge. From these educators, I hear both a frustration with how hard it can be to support a student in crisis and a sense of overwhelm at the idea of rethinking their approach. These teachers often want to continue using the same compliance-based, controlling discipline strategies they have been using forever, because in some ways these strategies seem to “work.” They “work” if our goal is to regain compliance. Not only that, but punitive, individualistic strategies are also incredibly popular not only in our schools but in our society. “What about the other kids?” just echoes that reality.
Along with “what about the other students?” I also hear things like, “doesn’t this traumatize them too?,” “it isn’t fair,” “we need to get back to learning,” “kids need more consequences when they disrupt the class.” All of this tells me that asking “what about the other kids?” may be a way to sidestep the hard work of rethinking, well, everything about classroom management.
Wherever the question is coming from, I do believe it’s one worth taking up. Know that what I’ve written here only begins to scratch the surface. More resources and reading provided at the end.
With that: let’s talk about the “other kids.”
The “other kids” can have proactive conversations
The moment of a student meltdown follows many other moments we have with our students, and precedes many more. We can take some of those moments to prepare our students proactively. It’s naive to pretend that we will simply never have a student in crisis, or that no student will ever explode in anger, or that no student will ever get into a conflict in our classroom. Children do all of these things because they are all part of growing up. Especially in the context of intense stress and trauma, we should expect that our students will have a hard time and it will get loud, messy, and chaotic.
When we can accept that these moments will happen, we give ourselves permission to shift from blaming ourselves or others, and instead to focus on planning proactively. If you know that at some point during the school year, one or more of your students will scream, cry, and break things in your classroom, what might you do to prepare your entire classroom community? How do you want students to show up for each other in those moments? What do you want students to know about how you will respond? Are there other people in your building you want to introduce to your class before the moment of a crisis? Are there tools you want students to practice? Conversations about care that you might have? How will you support students to be gentle and kind with one another – and with themselves?
One teacher told me that one of her kindergarten students was having a meltdown one day. Another classmate saw that her peer was having a hard time and decided to help. She took a moment to create a drawing of her own calm-down strategies, then approached the upset student and handed them the paper. What more could we ask for students to learn about community?
The “other students” in the room have agency over how they show up in difficult moments. Just like we support students to practice and use their agency responsibly in their learning, friendships, and community, we can do the same when it comes to moments of crisis.
The “other kids” need your help to make meaning
Not all stress is trauma. There’s a whole range of stressful experiences in our day-to-day life that might feel unpleasant or difficult but do not scar us in the way that trauma does. What’s the dividing line between stress and trauma? While there’s no clear answer, one key element is sense-making. A stressful experience that we process on our own, without context or support, can quickly turn traumatic as it overwhelms our internal capacities. But a stressful experience that we can process with those around us, that others can put into context, that we receive reassurance about? This may remain a stressful experience, but not ultimately become trauma.
Because sense-making influences whether an experience is stressful or traumatic, the “other kids” need you to help them make sense. Put yourself in your student’s shoes. Your classmate is screaming and throwing chairs. The principal, who you don’t really know, comes into the room and firmly puts her hand on your classmate’s back and half-pushes him out of the room. Your teacher looks flustered and says “okay everyone, now we’re going to get back to work.” Your day moves on. How do you integrate this experience? What does it mean? With no guidance to create an understanding, you invent your own.
When we are upset and overwhelmed, sometimes we hurt others. Helping students understand what’s going on for a classmate doesn’t mean excusing any harm that happens during a moment of crisis, but it can help guide an empathetic path of moving forward. I think about all of the times that friends or family have shown me love during a hard time, even when I wasn’t showing up to our relationship as my best self. Their empathy created the space for healing conflict later on. That kind of community sustains people through life’s hardest moments. We can practice that in schools.
Our students need us to help them understand what it means when a classmate is struggling. They need us to create space and hear how they felt, and validate their emotions. They need help understanding why a situation got so big and scary all of a sudden. They need to hear us say that their classmate is getting the support they need (and mean it), and to hear us say that their classmate is still a cherished member of our community (and mean it- more on this in a moment). Young children are capable of these conversations, and we owe it to them to slow down and have them.
The “other kids” can be helped to feel safe
Some teachers have the concern that the other students feel “unsafe” when “the one” is continually dysregulated and out of control. Safety, though, isn’t just the absence of chaos. We can be surrounded by chaos and feel safe because someone we trust is there with us. We can be surrounded by chaos and feel safe because we are empowered to make our own choices and walk away. We can be surrounded by chaos and feel safe because we have learned to tell the difference between someone having a hard time and someone threatening us. In other words, simply removing “the one” child having a hard time isn’t the only way for students to feel safe, and when we conflate “calm” and “safe” we miss opportunities to actually foster an internal sense of safety that students can carry long after they leave the classroom.
When I worked in a therapeutic school, I had many moments in which I was surrounded by chaos: a student screaming, crying, breaking things, fighting, you name it – and yet, in that moment, I felt safe. How? I knew that my colleagues and my administrators had my back. I was trained well and had a wealth of strategies to lean on. I knew that support would be available to me after the crisis passed, and without a doubt, someone would be there to process with me and check in on me. And I had agency to walk away or tap in a colleague at any time. I certainly wasn’t calm or having a great time during some of these moments, but safety came from an abundance of internal and external resources.
What might it look like for our students to have this sense of safety, even in moments of chaos? What if students knew their classmates and teacher had their back? That someone would check in on them later and help them process, without a doubt? That they had been taught proactively and had a wealth of strategies to draw from? That they had agency to walk away or ask for help? What might it look like to provide the tools and structures for all students to feel safe, rather than using the single rusty tool of removing one child from the room? Proactive work, such as the community-building roots of restorative practices, can help us lay the foundation of safety.
The “other kids” are watching and listening to how you respond
When one child is struggling visibility and loudly, our response to that one student speaks volumes to all the rest. I can’t really say it much better than Carla Shalaby in her book Troublemakers: Lessons in Freedom from Young Children at School (2017), so I’ll let her words take it from here:
“It isn’t the behavior of the children that threatens community; it is the response to that behavior, the use of exclusion, that threatens community. When a child is excluded, it teaches the other children that belonging to the classroom community is conditional, not absolute, contingent upon their willingness and ability to be a certain kind of person. In this paradigm, belonging is a privilege to be earned by docility, not a basic human right that is ensured for every child” (p. 162).
All of which leads me to say…
The “other kids” aren’t actually “other kids”
When we say, “just remove that one student so all the other kids can learn,” what are we really saying? As Dr. Shalaby says, this line of thinking can only conclude by believing that some children are disposable and that our community doesn’t actually include everyone. Listen: it’s okay to be frustrated by class not going the way we planned, or by students feeling upset and worried by a peer’s behavior. It’s okay to feel frustrated that nothing seems to be working for a child who continues to explode because they are carrying so much stress.
In the midst of this frustration, however, we need to ask ourselves hard questions. What do I truly believe about community? What would it look like if my decisions were really rooted in unconditional positive regard for every single student? What if I chose to teach in a way that centers the people, the children, over the learning every single time?
The truth is, all of us are “that kid” sometimes. We all melt down or explode – or we desperately want or need to. We all struggle. We all experience grief, trauma, and stress. The children in your classroom who aren’t visibly breaking stuff might be doing so but silently, inside themselves. They may be wondering whether it’s okay to let it all out, to vent their anger and rage. They may be wondering: am I safe enough anywhere to really show how I feel?
So as educators, we have to answer: are they safe enough? Really? And if they are, how can I prove it to them? I think when a student gifts us with the opportunity to support them through a moment of crisis, we have an opportunity to care not only for that student but to demonstrate our care for the entire class community. If we are brave enough.
To learn more:
- Carla Shalaby’s Troublemakers: Lessons in Freedom from Young Children at School
- Equity-Centered Trauma-Informed Education
- Amplify RJ
Thank you to Heather Lippert for her feedback & thought partnership on this blog post.