Ask Alex: how should I show support to a grieving student?

Today’s question comes from Irene on Twitter:

“Hi! I’m a high school student teacher, just starting to build relationships with my kids. Over the weekend, a student’s father passed away. Her best friend is in my class, and was visibly upset yesterday. Tips on not wanting to pry, but show support?”

Sometimes the simplest things go a long way. It can be enough to say, “Hey, you seem sad. You don’t need to talk about it with me or anything, but I just wanted to say that we’re here for you if you need to talk, or if you need to take a break, or if you want to see a really cute video of my cat playing fetch. Just let me know.” I mean, that’s what I would say (it’s very cute when my cat plays fetch), but customize to how you authentically interact and go for it.

Here are a couple of key points for approaching a student who has something going on, especially when you may or may not know what that “something” is:

  • If a student does want to talk about what’s going on, practice listening and validating their emotions rather than giving advice or solutions. “That must be really difficult,” “It sounds like you feel sad,” “I can see how much that upsets you.” Don’t rush to action or try to fix their problems – just listen.
  • If the conversation feels too complex or heavy for your role (especially as a student teacher), gently let the student know that you may need to bring in others in order to best support them. (Example: “Marielle, thank you so much for sharing this. I’m always here to listen. I was thinking, though, that some of this sounds pretty intense for you and I’m wondering if we could go walk down to the counseling office together. I think it might be really helpful for you to chat with someone who knows a lot about helping kids through this stuff”).
  • Don’t hold onto a student’s trauma by yourself- it’s not good for you or for the student. Talk about what’s going on with your mentor teacher, and others in the school as needed/appropriate. It can be really hard to carry students’ stories, but you don’t have to do it alone.

The biggest tip I can offer for supporting a student who seems like they’re going through a hard time: approach these situations with no expectation that the student lets you know what’s going on. You don’t need to know the details to be supportive. Picture it like this: you’re at an airport by yourself, feeling extremely upset. The people around you don’t know what’s going on but can see that you’ve been crying. Without knowing your story, someone offers you a seat, or hands you an extra snack packet, or helps you with your bag. If you’ve ever been in a situation like this and experienced the kindness of strangers, you know how moving it can be to be offered little gestures of support without needing to pour out your heart in return.

Even though you know your student, and it can feel tempting to try to get the inside scoop of exactly what’s going on, extend them the trusting kindness you might extend to a stranger. Ask them to help you carry something to the office so they can get a quick break from class, pass them a sticky note with a funny doodle on it, let them use your fancy pens for the period. Sometimes in schools I hear of teachers asking students to provide “proof” before excusing an off day, whether it’s a doctor’s note, confirmation that the grandmother really died, or invasive questioning. Being trauma-informed means extending kindness and grace even (especially) in absence of any “evidence” that it’s needed, just because it’s the right thing to do.

I hope your student finds the support they need, and thank you for being a caring teacher and asking this question!

 

If you want to ask a question about trauma-informed teaching and responding to challenging behavior in class, email Alex@UnconditionalLearning.org or get in touch on Twitter at @AlexSVenet! 

Ask Alex: Why are students’ angry outbursts so unpredictable?

I’m trying out a new type of blog post! In these posts I’ll briefly answer a question from a reader, friend, or colleague on trauma-informed teaching and challenging student behavior. If you want to submit your own question, email me at Alex@UnconditionalLearning.org or tweet me at @AlexSVenet. I’ll be posting three or four of these over the next week – comment below with any feedback and if you’d like to see more of these!

Today’s question/wondering comes from Susan Koch on Twitter:

“Unpredictability of anger outbursts still mystifies me… although The new  “reset spot” in our room seems to be comforting and helpful to the students and to me at these times..”

My thoughts: 

Just like the unpredictability of the traumatic experience itself, the impacts of trauma can be unpredictable. Add to this the fact that many of our students are still developing the tools to process big and difficult events – and you have a situation where students may feel just as confused by their emotional outbursts as you are! Here are two things you can do in tandem proactively (and they both will fit right in with your “reset spot”):

  • Help students develop their emotional vocabulary. Many kids struggle to name emotions beyond “happy,” “sad,” “mad.” Use a tool like an emotion wheel to help students expand their awareness of the full range of emotions (and validate that it’s OK to feel any of them!). You can also use books or videos as opportunities to practice naming emotions in others. “How does Harry Potter feel at the end of this chapter?” + the emotion wheel as a handout = opportunity to develop empathy and other-awareness. If a student has better language to communicate how they’re feeling, they may be more willing to communicate those feelings to others.
  • Help students develop their emotional self-awareness. In schools we often focus so much on academics that we inadvertently cause kids to detach from their emotional and physical experiences during the day. Use check-in and check-out systems that invite students to name (privately or with a vulnerability-level-by-choice aspect) how they’re feeling. Provide moments to pause throughout class/during the day and invite students to think about how their bodies and minds are feeling. Pause in the middle of a suspenseful read-aloud to ask, “Does anyone else have their shoulders up by their ears? Mine always do that when I get tense!” Model self-awareness and find ways to encourage it.

The more students get in the habit of noticing how they are feeling, and gain the ability to describe those feelings, the more likely they are to then be able to self-intervene when emotions feel intense. If you have a particular student who doesn’t seem to be benefiting from this whole-class level of intervention, definitely connect with others in the student’s support network (could be a caregiver, social worker, counselor, special educator, or other supportive person) to discuss more in-depth interventions. The outbursts may never feel fully predictable, but we can work together to help students develop their awareness of how to manage strong emotions.