Ask Alex: Scaffolding Vulnerability for Peer Feedback

This is my occasional feature called Ask Alex, in which I answer questions on trauma-informed teaching, SEL or anything else! Send me a question at alex@unconditionallearning.org or on Twitter! 

Our question for today comes from Lorraine, who writes:

I’m coaching ultimate for the 7th year this spring at a local public high school. Ultimate is a sport known as being inclusive to many abilities, and many traditionally non-athletes find a home in the sport. I’ve coached teams that have had a fun mix of jocks, theater types, band geeks (aka me!), and someone always brings a tagalong friend that sticks around the whole season. Since I coach JV, it’s easy to get everyone play time. I like to think that I help foster an environment where kids can respect each others’ differences, and share the common goals of improving their skills, having fun, and winning games. (The teacher in me wants it to be more than just winning, but…they’re teenage boys, and that seems to always be their goal.)

This year, I want to challenge myself to facilitate more player-led feedback. On my tight, safe, college team, we had appreciation circles at the end of every tournament, offering the person to our left a piece of positive and a piece of constructive feedback. I think this may be possible for my kids, but how can I scaffold it? Any tips or other ideas?

This is a great question that on first glance, might not have anything to do with trauma-informed teaching. But if I could shout anything from the rooftops, it would be: trauma-informed practices benefit all students! This situation reminds me about the importance of intentionality: she could just blast right in, ask the students to give feedback to one another, and let the chips fall where they may. Instead, she’s seeking to approach this with intention: how can I best support this group of students to expand their focus beyond winning, and develop a community of players who give and receive feedback? So thanks, Lorraine, for this question and your dedication to your team!

Creating the Environment for Feedback

The trauma-informed connection here is about vulnerability and safety. Trauma disrupts both a sense of safety in general and a sense of safety in relationship. Often, traumatic experiences are tied up in ruptured relationships, either as a cause or effect of the trauma. Trauma-affected kids struggle with relationships for a plethora of reasons: developmental gaps, broken trust with adults and peers, negative self-concept, and more.

With all of these relational challenges, feedback can be dicey from both sides. On the receiving end, if we don’t trust our relationship with the feedback-giver, we might feel like critical feedback is a dismissal of our worth as people. And if we don’t truly believe that we are worthy to begin with, positive feedback is just noise and we can write it off.

On the giving end, if we don’t believe that our views have value, it can feel paralyzing to come up with feedback. Who am I to tell anyone else what to do, when I’m struggling with my own stuff?

All of this means that safety and trust are pre-requisites to feedback – as Lorraine knew from her “safe, tight” college team. It’s probably not news to many, but we might remind ourselves that just because our team (or class) trusts one another to complete a task – like winning a game – it doesn’t automatically extend to emotional trust and vulnerability.

Scaffolding Vulnerability

Perhaps because of our question-asker, I’m thinking of a metaphor here connected to the Vermont outdoors: the swimming hole. For those of you not familiar, the swimming hole is often a calm spot in a river, lined with slippery rocks. The current can be dangerous or calm depending on recent rainfall, and it can be hard to predict the depth of the water.

Building vulnerability is like picking our way across the slippery rocks. Am I going to fall? What is that squishy thing my foot just touched? Where is it deep enough to jump?Why is the water so cold? Is this safe? Is this safe? Is this safe? 

If you’ve been to this river a hundred times, you might leap right in, knowing that the rocks give way to a sandy expanse beneath you. You trust that the initial cold shock of the water will wear off and feel refreshing. You can accurately assess whether the currents feel faster than normal, and pull yourself out if need be.

Your JV team might be at a state where they’re exploring the terrain of vulnerability for the first time. You might start there: ask about the type of feedback they are expected to give in school, and what their previous experience with it has been. Get a sense of whether they are expert swimmers or newbies.

Then, work from there:

  • Start with building the habit of sitting in a circle and talking. Whether you do this in a formal restorative-circle way or an informal sports-team-huddle way, get the players comfortable with this time spent as a group
  • Build group trust by making sure each player is seen and heard. Again, the tools of restorative practices are helpful here but you can also do something as simple as a rose and thorn. (You could do a variation where players give their rose and thorn of the game- this practices reflection on the game and vulnerability of one’s own areas for improvement, without the added emotional risk of directing this reflection at others)
  • Begin with whole-team feedback and then zoom in on smaller groups. Start by asking players to come up with something the whole group did well and that the whole group could work on next time (you probably already do something like this). When this feels comfortable, put players into smaller groups (maybe by position) and ask each group to give another group feedback. When this has become routine, they may be ready to move to individual level.
  • Don’t forget to explicitly teach the skill. Have a discussion about what makes feedback helpful and what makes it hurtful. Create sentence stems that players can use (“You helped our team by ____,” “Next time I wonder if you could try ________.”)
  • Reflect, reflect, reflect. Give students time to think about how feedback feels. Build the self-awareness at the same time as the skill practice.
  • Give it time. Just like picking our way across the slippery rocks, sometimes it just takes multiple visits, practice, and the confidence that the last 10 times we did this, it worked out OK. Building trust is slow – don’t worry too much if you don’t get there this season. There’s always next time.

 

The Big Picture

“Resilience” is the new buzzword connected to trauma-informed education, and I can understand why: it feels like the antidote to trauma, the protective factor that will help kids bounce back.

I sometimes feel that the focus on resilience feels too intangible. What does it actually look like? How do we help kids build it, rather than just insisting that they need it?

Lorraine’s scenario is a great example of how and when we might help build resilience. As she moves through this process with intention, her students are going to practice building trust, maintaining relationships, and handling critical feedback with grace. Those are essential social-emotional skills that foster resilience.

Thanks for this question, and I’d love to hear in the comments about other ideas to develop a safe and supportive culture of feedback!

P.S. If you’re interested in the connections between coaching and educational equity, especially connected to Ultimate, I highly recommend following Chris Lehmann!

Ask Alex: how do I balance academics and emotional support?

Today’s question comes from Jessica Carlson on Twitter:

“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! 

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.