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! 

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 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 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.