I love teaching this class. It’s designed around a reflective practice, case-study model. Teachers choose one student and work on building relationship with and better understanding that student, asking: “What can this student teach me about my teaching?”
We also dig in to two of my favorite texts: Fostering Resilient Learners and Lost at School. I pair these readings with other texts and concepts to help participants think about their practice in new ways.
This class is hybrid online and face-to-face. The two in-person meetings are in Montpelier, VT (exact location coming as soon as I confirm it). I hope you can join us!
This is the story of why I won’t recommend that you do yoga.
I’ve spoken before about how trauma-informed teaching is not a list of strategies. One reason I go back to that idea, often, is that we need to remind ourselves that this work is slow, and sticky, and no strategy is going to “work” every time. A dimension of this is self-determination.
Healing from trauma can be a life-long endeavor, and it’s not straightforward: experience trauma, then heal from it. Wouldn’t that be simple? It’s not the reality: trauma is often ongoing. It compounds. It comes in waves. It adds all kinds of secondary adversities.
So healing is messy. Especially when we’re talking about students, who are still kids. They might not even have “healing” as a concept. They might just be in survival mode.
Given all of this, it’s important that we honor self-determination. This means that we respect that other people are going through a process. We can help, we can guide, but it’s their process and theirs alone.
Teachers, in particular, can’t enter into our work thinking “I’m going to heal my students.” We can only create the conditions within which students might begin or continue that journey. “Creating the conditions” looks like developing an environment where relationships are prioritized and safety is paramount. It also means offering strategies and opportunities for fostering wellness and self-regulation, but recognizing that students can and should determine for themselves whether, when, and how to use those strategies.
Giving up on yoga
I’ve struggled with anxiety for a long time. I cannot count the number of times that people have suggested yoga. Seriously, I grew to kind of hate the idea of yoga because people seemed to think it was some kind of magical cure-all. I tried a couple of yoga classes and felt pretty “meh” about it. Most importantly, it wasn’t the right thing to address my anxiety at the time.
The strategy didn’t work because it wasn’t the right fit for me. How often does this happen when we teach? All the time. We blame the strategy because it didn’t “work.” And we dig into our same two or three strategies because we just feel like they should work, despite our students showing us or telling us they aren’t. I hear this frustration from teachers after trying a variety of new things, like restorative circles or mindfulness.
What happens when the strategies don’t “work?” We often abandon them. I certainly did that with yoga. And for me, personally, abandoning yoga was the right choice at the time. In our classrooms, abandoning new strategies isn’t always the right thing to do. Implementing restorative circles, for example, can take a ton of time and practice to get right. New routines take time to build. But often, in the pursuit of building and implementing, we lose sight of self-determination. Do we make it okay for students to say, “you know what, this approach really just doesn’t work for me right now”?
The right suggestion at the right time
This month, I finally started doing yoga. Why now? My friend suggested a particular at-home video series I could try, and the conditions were right. There was a free way to try the strategy. I have a schedule that allows me to do this each morning with no time crunch. And more importantly, I just kinda was in the right space to do it.
Part of the reason it “stuck” this time was that the suggestion from my friend was not “try yoga, it will change your life,” but “if you feel like trying yoga, here’s a video series I liked.” The way she recommended it respected my self-determination. So the conditions and timing were right, and I finally tried yoga. To my surprise, yoga has really worked for me in managing my anxiety. I spent so long feeling resentful of how people pushed yoga at me that I genuinely wasn’t expecting it to “work.”
I hope it’s clear by now that I’m not recommending yoga to others as a way to manage anxiety. It might work for you, or it might not! Instead, I’m recommending something else: find balance in your teaching practice so that it’s okay for students to hate yoga.
As teachers, can we accept that our favorite social-emotional and wellness strategies might not be the right ones for our students, right now? How could we create an environment in which students feel free to try things out, but also feel free to say “this isn’t for me.” I only knew that I hated yoga because I tried it a couple of times. As an adult, I had the agency to just stop going to yoga. What does “hating yoga” look like in your classroom, and how might you encourage both the exploration of new things and the ability to say “I don’t like that new thing” and leave it on a shelf for now?
I’ll spare you the yoga metaphors, but balance really is essential. Flexibility balances with predictability. Our guidance and support as teachers balances with self-determination of our students as people.
What does this look like? If you offer mindfulness, brain breaks, self-regulation strategies, etc, provide opt-out alternatives. Explain the benefits of your strategies but don’t make blanket statements about how effective/ineffective they might be. Use your reflective practice to consider the complex dynamics at play between your own leadership and your students’ autonomy.
Exposing students to social-emotional tools is really important work. Equally important is the work of helping them reflect on whether, how, and why those tools might be helpful or not helpful in their own journey.
Most importantly, remember your role: you’re walking alongside your students in their healing process, not leading the way. You can create the conditions for growth, but don’t put yourself in the role of a savior. We can set the table, but we can’t make others eat. You can send me listings for my yoga studio, but you can’t make take the class. But maybe, one day when the time is right, I’ll give it a try – and be thankful that I had the freedom to make that choice on my own.
Let’s take some time this fall to dig into trauma-informed education. I would love for you to join me in these workshops and classes – click on the titles below for more information and registrations. Please reach out with any questions!
This is a hybrid online/in-person class (two on-the-ground meetings in Castleton, VT). The course is organized around your own self-reflection as well as an in-depth case study of one of your challenging students. This is an in-depth opportunity to experience a mindset shift and learn alongside a supportive cohort of classmates. Texts include Lost at School and Fostering Resilient Learners. Please note the dates of this course have changed. They are accurate at the link.
In this workshop, you’ll get a crash course on how trauma impacts children in school and what we can do about it. Equal parts theory and practice, our day will include discussion, reflection, and information that you can use to jumpstart your trauma-informed work in schools.
Kristin Souers and Pete Hall’s book Fostering Resilient Learners is an accessible, engaging read that will help spark new ideas for trauma-informed implementation. Our book group takes place asynchronously for three weeks with a “live” group video call at the end so we can discuss, problem-solve, and share ideas.
Working with trauma-affected youth can take its toll on educators. Participants will learn about the differences between trauma, vicarious trauma, and burnout, and about the individual and systemic changes we can make to stay healthy and well in our work with students.
This four-week online mini-course provides you with the opportunity to reflect on how you might align your learning design with trauma-informed practices. This course takes place toward the end of your winter semester; this is a great opportunity to reflect and make changes as you head into the second half of the year.
Personalized professional development, consulting or coaching
Didn’t see something that would meet your needs? Get in touch to schedule customized professional development for your school or organization!
A trauma-informed teacher should encourage non-compliance from her students.
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.
If what we’re doing now to help challenging students was working, we wouldn’t feel so challenged. Teachers are frustrated and burned out. Administrators are searching for options. We all share the collective guilt of knowing we’re not adequately serving the students who need the most support, whether their “challenges” are connected to learning differences, trauma, poverty, racism, or simply a response to a school system that doesn’t fit for them (as it doesn’t fit for so many).
A complex problem with no easy solutions. It’s easy to feel stuck.
So I offer you a small way to get un-stuck: the Challenging Student Challenge. It’s not going to fix anything, but I promise it’s worth your time: it’s the first step to a paradigm shift we all need to better serve our kids.
Ready? Here’s how to participate:
Choose one of your challenging students.
Make a giant list of that student’s strengths and interests. Find out as many as you can. Ask other teachers, ask the student’s parents, ask the cafeteria staff, ask the students themselves. Write down as many strengths (academic or otherwise) and interests, passions, hobbies as you can.
Choose one of the interests from the list. Make it one that you don’t know that much about.
Spend 30 minutes researching/digging into that interest – this could look like: watching Youtube makeup tutorials; reading a NASCAR magazine; watching an episode of their favorite show on Netflix and reading a fan blog; learning the basics of how to play rugby – you get the idea. Teach yourself as much as you can about this interest.
Go back to your student and have a conversation about what you learned.
Reflect on the experience and share it with someone, whether that’s talking to a coworker or friend, or sharing on Facebook or Twitter (if you tweet, tag #challengingstudentchallenge)
That’s it! It’s a small investment of time – maybe one hour out of your life. I think you’ll be surprised and delighted at the difference it makes for both you and your student. And it will hopefully spark a mindset shift that gets you thinking about more ways to see and honor the good in all your students, focus on strengths, and get unstuck so we can all move forward together.
In follow-up to this post, I wanted to share a quick strategy that is deceptively simple yet sets the stage for social-emotional learning:
Edutopia recently shared this video about Peace Corners:
It’s simple, right? Set up a comfy corner, invite students to use it to take a break, add in a little reflection sheet. Yet, there are so many layers to how this can help students:
Honors and respects students’ autonomy by choosing when to take a break
Gives students a safe and non-shaming “out” (since it’s open to everyone in the class)
Encourages reflection and development of self-knowledge through reflection sheets
Creates space within the classroom community rather than asking to students to leave the classroom community completely
Provides sensory tools for self-regulation
Helps students internalize self-management skills that are transferable across settings
Communicates care and a whole-school commitment to social/emotional support
Peace corners – or any other name you choose to call this self-regulation space – are a simple, visible way to incorporate social/emotional support. It’s a trauma-informed strategy that benefits all students. I’m trying one this year with a mixed-elementary age extracurricular class – I’ll update on how it goes!
While the buzzword factor may loom large, it doesn’t have to be complicated to get started with social-emotional learning in the classroom. SEL “programs” or curricula may certainly be helpful in providing a common language or structure for educators across a school, but you don’t need to buy anything to provide social/emotional learning opportunities. It can be as simple as acknowledging emotions, making space to understand them, and reflecting on the intersection of academic and social/emotional learning.
I teach a community college first semester seminar. The goals of the course are around reading, writing, and research for college, and there’s an overarching mission that the course will help students start their college careers successfully. We learn good habits of college work and identify resources. I also incorporate social/emotional learning because I value emotional self-awareness as a key tool of college (and life) success.
Social skill-building in 5 minutes or less
In an ongoing way, we do a quick rose-and-thorn check-in at the start of each class. Rose- something good that’s going on for you. Thorn – something not so good. It brings everyone’s voice into the room (even if just to say “pass”) and it acknowledges that we’re all bringing things to the classroom that evening with us. It helps set the stage for our interactions with one another – if you shared about your really bad day, I can offer you some extra kindness. If you shared that you’re feeling good this evening, I can borrow some of your enthusiasm. It also provides a platform for creating social connections. I’ve watched students connect with one another over shared interests that they might not have known about if not for check-in. You have a two-year-old too? You also play soccer? You drive a motorcycle? Healthy social interactions are easier when you have a place to start, and this structure provides a platform for students to share something authentic with their community. It’s a really simple structure that takes less than five minutes, but the benefits are huge.
Incorporating emotional awareness into content
For a more focused social/emotional learning experience, I’ve been slowly transforming the section of the course that explores the concept of systemic oppression and privilege to incorporate emotional self-awareness as a key concept. We begin by reading Margaret Wheatley’s essay “Willing to be Disturbed.” We discuss the emotional barriers that can get in the way of hearing one another’s stories. Then, students read and dig in to the concept of privilege and write a reflection – not just on the content, but on their emotional experience with the content. They answer the question, “why is it so hard to talk about privilege?”
When students arrive in class to discuss privilege with one another, we start with a self check-in: what emotions am I feeling right now, and how is that going to impact my ability to listen? I use a chart with a list of common emotions arranged by intensity, and students reflect on how intensity of feeling might help or hinder your listening skills. I’m transparent when we do this activity: I know this may feel childish or unrelated to academics, but at the heart of academic discussion lies empathy. Our healthy emotional management supports our capacity for empathy, and our social skills support our capacity to build empathetic relationships. Students take this reflection seriously and bring the self-awareness into their conversations.
With all of these proactive steps, I’ve experienced an improvement in the depth of conversation, the risks students are willing to take when trying on a new perspective, and their ongoing growth as learners.
SEL is just like any other teaching strategy
None of these social/emotional learning strategies are complicated or groundbreaking. They don’t take a lot of prep work. They cost nothing. Social-emotional learning is an investment of time – but it doesn’t have to be that much time. It’s an investment of energy – but as with all new classroom strategies, after the first go-around it gets easier. It doesn’t need to take time away from content, but rather can enhance students’ ability to dive into content and skill.
So I see social-emotional learning more as holding a central value about how I see my students. We do this already in the classroom. If I understand my students to be emerging critical readers, I’ll make room for skill-building. If I understand my students to need practice with the writing process, I’ll build in opportunities to learn. When I understand my students as whole and emotional humans, practicing their self-regulation and social skills, of course I’m going to make time to attend to their needs. It can be that simple.