Creating space for the emergent

One thing that is for certain in an uncertain time: crises will happen this school year. Personally, locally, nationally, and globally, disasters large and small will occur. There will be gun violence, unjust action from lawmakers, death and grief, and conflict. This is not pessimism talking, it’s reality. 

In this reality, how do we plan for a trauma-informed school year? I want to recommend just one practice for this upcoming school year: create space for the emergent. I use the term “emergent” here to mean all that emerges unexpectedly, whether that is a big crisis or a small but disruptive drama among classmates. Abundant resources exist for teaching “on the day after,” but when we anticipate the many days after we can more smoothly address them as they come. 

Slowing down, feeling and healing 

Scholar Samira Rajabi writes that “Trauma makes it so the constructed world no longer makes sense to the person who suffers.” When personal and collective trauma occurs, we lose our bearings. To process, feel our feelings, and ultimately heal, we need to slow down. We need space to notice and name our experiences. We sometimes need to hear others acknowledge that things are not okay. But none of these things are built into the typical structure of school. More often, students and teachers are expected to carry on with business as usual, which often compounds and worsens trauma. 

When we pretend that a crisis won’t happen, and plan for an uninterrupted school day and school year, we are doing ourselves and our students a disservice. We are setting ourselves up to scramble. But we can choose to build in structures that are responsive to unpredictability. When the next local or national crisis occurs, will we launch into our own crisis mode, figuring out what to shuffle, how to make space, whether/when to talk about it, or will we thank ourselves for proactively creating the container? 

When I already know that there is a space that can be used to address emergent needs, my focus shifts from scrambling to planning. I no longer have to worry about shifting timing around, introducing conversation norms, or coaching my students to talk about hard topics if we’ve been practicing from day one. I can’t know the details and complexity of how I will approach each situation ahead of time, but I can trust that space exists in which to do the work. My students and I can still experience routine in the face of disruption, and in that predictability we can be vulnerable together. 

Creating space for the emergent with students can look like advisory, community circles, or a check-in routine. In its most simple form, space for the emergent just means “regularly scheduled time we use to address whatever is coming up for us today.” 

The most important resource is time, of course, but teachers also need support in learning how to facilitate hard conversations, respond to student emotions, and honor personal agency in meeting students’ needs. These are complex skills, but thankfully there are many fantastic resources available, particularly in the field of restorative practices. adrienne maree brown’s Emergent Strategy is also a great resource for embracing change and facilitating through the emergent.

I want to talk about a less-common structure: creating a space for the emergent with school staff. Part of teaching is emotional labor, or the process of managing our emotions to fulfill our job duties. In teaching, we do this when we attempt to project a calm and grounded presence to our students even when we don’t feel that way internally. We do this because we know that children need to feel safe to learn, and that the grounded presence of adults helps to create that sense of safety. Teachers need support in order to do this complex work in the face of crisis. A regular space for teachers to address the emergent can support how we show up for our students. 

Morning Meeting: a routine to support staff

 At my old school, the container for emergent needs was a ten-minute morning meeting before students arrived. Most days, morning meeting was just announcements and greeting other teachers. If something emergent happened that day, we could use morning meeting to process, strategize, and make sure we all felt ready for the day. Sometimes, a particular school social worker or administrator would briefly share a plan: “Student X had a rough night last night, here are the basics of what happened and here’s what they need today.” Other times, it was a more loose check-in: “Did everyone see the news last night? Who needs help with how to respond when students bring it up?” 

From morning meetings, I learned a few things about creating space for the emergent, which I’ll map to my four priorities framework:

  • The space should be predictable. The purpose is to create a container that is there regardless of the crisis, so that no one has to figure out how to create the space on the fly. My anxiety about teaching on the day after a crisis was calmed many times because I knew we had morning meeting. 
  • The space should be flexible. On some days, morning meeting was two minutes of saying good morning and “remember that Kyle is getting picked up early today.” Another day, we circled up to briefly process our reactions to the death of a student’s parent so that we could support his needs rather than project our own feelings about grief. The school social worker reminded us of a previous professional learning session that would help us find the words we needed that day. Morning meeting flexed each day to help us meet emergent needs.
  • The space should be connected. I loved the brief moment of community connection at morning meeting, to greet one another as people and check in before the rush of the day. Sometimes we did a structured check-in, but more often we just chatted. This was just one of many ways we built strong relationships at school, and these relationships were essential in being able to sustainably respond to crisis. Morning meeting wasn’t just about responding to student crisis or current events, but could also help us be responsive to one another’s needs. When a coworker’s partner was going through a prolonged medical emergency, we could check in to see if he needed any particular support that day. The space allowed for creating community care.
  • The space should foster empowerment. Morning meeting wouldn’t have been effective if it were purely a space for administrators to read announcements or if it were a one-way email to read. I felt empowered by morning meeting because teachers were invited into problem-solving, processing, and to show up as our full selves. I facilitated morning meeting the day after the 2016 election. Most of us were surprised at the election result, worried, and deeply aware of the vast political spectrum of our student body and their families. I didn’t have any answers that day, so during morning meeting I simply opened the conversation. “How do we want to show up for our students today?” A supportive space to respond to the emergent recognizes that no single person holds “the answer” to unexpected and complex problems. Instead, the space taps into the wisdom of the room. This also ensures that it is not just up to one person in power to determine what the crises even are. Open space allows anyone to bring a concern to the group and receive support. 

Morning meeting may not be the particular structure that works for your school, so it’s up to you to adapt, create, and imagine one that meets your unique needs. Use the four priorities (predictability, flexibility, connection, and empowerment) to guide your decision-making. And start where you are. If you can’t create space every day, create it once a week or even once a month. And remember that when we create space for the emergent, it won’t just capture crises: you’ll also be creating space for joy, growth, and celebrating one another. 

Being proactive

Trauma-informed practices must be proactive. Before the crisis is the best time to plan for the crisis. Open spaces like circles, advisories, or morning meeting create space to slow down and be responsive, while also strengthening community. So ask yourself: when the crisis comes to your door this school year, will you scramble, or will you be grateful you planned ahead? Let’s start planning. 

Photo by Josephina Kolpachnikof on Unsplash

Hypervigilance (and a free self-regulation resource)

I’ve been thinking a lot about hypervigilance.

In a slide deck for a recent training, I used this picture on the slide about hypervigilance:

That should give you some idea of what hypervigilance means: ears perked up, eyes wide open. Hypervigilance is that state of heightened awareness as we scan our environment for cues that we are either safe or in danger. It’s a state we go into when we feel threatened so we’re on alert too protect ourselves.

I’m worried about hypervigilance in the classroom this fall. By the time teachers and students walk into schools in August or September, they will have spent the past five to six months constantly hearing that being around other people is dangerous. That the air is dangerous. That touching things is dangerous. We are all on alert. We are hypervigilant because we should be: we need to keep ourselves safe.

But how can we feel safe, and learn, and teach, when we’re so hypervigilant?

In general, I believe that most schools should be continuing online until they can ensure safety for students and teachers to be in the building. With outdated HVAC, windows that don’t open, and myriad other problems, many schools simply cannot ensure safe operations. Yet, schools are opening. And even in buildings where the physical plant is up to the task, teachers and students will still be hypervigilant. We need to be to keep ourselves and each other safe.

So where does that leave teachers, who know that our own stress directly impacts the stress of our students? Where does that leave teachers who know they need to be grounded and calm in order to be their best selves in the classroom? This is what I’ve been worrying about lately. There’s no easy answer. It’s not right (or possible) to ask teachers to turn off their hypervigilance. Yet we need to support one another to find moments of groundedness, of calm, so we can be present for our students.

My colleague Carolyn and I co-taught a course on wellness for teachers last summer. One focus of our course was that individual strategies for being well work best in the context of system-wide policies and conditions that support wellness. In other words, you can’t self-care your way out of an oppressive situation.

But this is one of the “both/and” moments in trauma-informed education. We both need to fight for systems change, and we need tools on an individual, immediate level to help settle our minds and bodies so we can stay present.

With all of that as context, Carolyn and I created a resource for teachers to support their own self-regulation when they are in the physical building this year:

We hope that you’ll use these tools as ways to slow down during your day. We chose strategies that you can do quickly, in a mask, and mostly unnoticed by those around you. We hope you’ll tape this to your desk or keep it in your binder, and when you notice yourself feeling especially hypervigilant, you’ll take a moment to slow down and get grounded.

This list of tools won’t fix the unsafe working conditions. It won’t end the collective trauma we’re in. But we hope it will provide you the moments of calm that you need to be present for your students and for yourself.

Thank you to teachers everywhere, whether you’ll be online, face-to-face, or some ever-changing mix of the two. You are enough, and you are amazing.

COVID19 & trauma-informed practice

There are no shortage of resources floating around about emergency distance learning and coronavirus and it can get quite overwhelming, so I’m not doing a comprehensive resource round-up here. Instead, I’m using this post to gather together some links related to my work from the past few weeks. I will update as I have more to add.

Thanks for everyone’s support and interest in my work lately! I’ll be continuing to offer a few additional PD opportunities over the coming weeks. Dates, information, and registration are all on Ticketleap.

Four Core Priorities for Trauma-Informed Distance Learning

This article is a write-up of a workshop I’ve been offering on trauma-informed practice guideposts for distance learning.

Trauma-Informed Practices & Distance Learning – Lunch & Learn Video and Transcript

If you missed it live, check out the recording and transcript of this Q&A I did with Life LeGeros. Some great questions were asked and I hope I shared some helpful answers!

Social-Emotional Support in the New World of Distance Learning

I wrote this piece for SLJ on social-emotional support in distance learning. Spoiler alert: it starts with taking care of yourself.



Trauma-informed teachers need trauma-informed administrators

Trauma-informed teachers need trauma-informed school leaders.

Teachers need support in order to support their students.

A trauma-informed school isn’t a collection of individual classrooms implementing a series of unconnected strategies. Trauma-informed work is about relationships, and relationships thrive in a healthy community where everyone has a sense of belonging and worth.

Administrators are key in setting the tone for this culture, and there are concrete ways you can do this. Here are some areas for school leaders to consider as they work toward a trauma-informed school environment.

Recognize that your teachers have experienced trauma, too

77% of teachers are women. 1 out of 3 women experience some form of sexual violence in their lifetime. Sexual violence is only one of many types of possibly traumatic experiences, but looking at those numbers alone should make you pause to consider the experiences that your teachers carry with them.

When you facilitate or provide professional development for your teachers, remember that these same teachers may be at any point in the process of managing the impacts of their own trauma: they may experience no adverse impacts, or every day they may be struggling with mental health and emotional wellness. Administrators must be mindful that teachers are carrying these experiences with them every day at the same time that they are being asked to support struggling students.

Administrators should use the same best practices that they ask teachers to use with students: provide flexibility, choice, and voice. Approach challenges with curiosity and empathy. Place a priority on autonomy and self-direction. Create opportunities for teachers to take a break during an overwhelming day, or take a day off to rest without being judged.

In addition, administrators should be sure that teachers are aware of the internal and external supports available to them. Is there counseling provided through employee assistance? What resources are available through the school or union for teachers who need extra help? Do teachers know about community organizations that serve adults? Make this information available to all staff, and play your part in destigmatizing mental health support.

Acknowledge that trauma occurs at school

Vicarious trauma, or the so-called “cost of caring,” has been written about in depth and administrators should educate themselves on how teachers may be struggling with it. Vicarious trauma is indirect – it’s the consequence of bearing witness to someone’s struggle.

But teachers may also be directly experiencing trauma in your school. One definition of trauma is when dangerous events overwhelm our capacity to cope. A teacher who has witnessed or been a target of violence within the school may experience this as traumatic. They also may not – it depends a lot on the specific situation, the coping skills of the person involved, and the preventative or risk factors both inside and outside of school.

Pay special attention to special educators, teachers who help intervene in crises, or teachers working with children who get physically or verbally aggressive. When there’s a critical incident involving a student, make it a part of the follow-up protocol to touch base with the teacher to see how that teacher is doing and what he needs.

We can expect teachers to be professionals about the difficult parts of their jobs, but we need to also expect them to be human. Use your leadership to make it okay to respond like a human to a tough day, and provide empathy and care on those tough days.

Put your time where your values are.

It’s heartening to hear administrators talk about the value of self-care. But if we tell teachers “practice self-care!” without actually providing the supports to do so, we’re just victim-blaming (“Burned out? Guess you didn’t self-care enough”).

A trauma-informed school leader recognizes that teachers are whole humans, trying to show up in full humanity for their students, and this can be draining and exhausting. Instead of presenting a PowerPoint about self-care, a trauma-informed school leader makes time within the school schedule for breaks. They create time for processing and making meaning in small groups. They offer flexibility and encouragement for teachers to actually use personal days, take vacations, and go home on time.

Trauma-informed school leaders create a culture where care is communal, not just a responsibility of the individual on her own time.

Know your role

Again, the work here is parallel to what teachers should be doing in the classroom. Our job is not to be a “trauma detective,” but rather to provide universal supports to all.

For administrators: don’t be a trauma detective with your staff. Especially because you have a professional relationship, provide opportunities for social-emotional support for all your employees but don’t expect any of them to reveal personal information.

Provide opportunities for your employees to connect with you as a person, but let them choose the level of vulnerability. If you’re worried about the wellness of an employee, ask “Are you okay?” but provide multiple paths for the teacher to get their needs met. Maybe talking to you is appropriate, but going back to my previous point, this is where it will be helpful to be able to provide other resources.

Use your leverage

As an administrator, you are uniquely positioned to make a big impact on inequitable systems, unsustainable working conditions, and allocation of resources. Do your research about the systems-level changes that make a difference for students who experience trauma, and then use your position to advocate for those changes.

Ask your teachers what they and their students need. Let them know you will fight for them, and then do it. Instilling hope is an essential part of a trauma-informed environment – you can do this through your pursuit of justice. Now get to work!

Wellness: A Guide for Teachers


To sustain our work as teachers, we need to take care of ourselves. Wellness as a whole is important, but it’s also essential to look at specific elements of wellness that are all equally necessary to sustaining when the going gets tough.

Coping strategies

These are the tools and skills we need to make it, on a basic level, through a tough day. Coping strategies can be big or small, but we need to have a variety in our toolbox so we can access them as needed. These might be things you do in the middle of a stressful class, during a small break in your day, or right when you get home and need to transition from one part of your day to the next. Many of us have fall-back coping strategies and might benefit from expanding on them – sometimes it takes a little practice.


  • Focusing on breathing
  • Drinking a cup of tea
  • Stretching, yoga, other physical movement
  • Texting a supportive friend
  • Looking at a funny comic or silly cat picture online

These are just a few tiny examples, but coping strategies are essentially anything that can help you manage a strong emotion and get yourself regulated. It’s important to remember that not all coping strategies are healthy ones, and it depends on the person and situation (example: eating a snack might be a good coping strategy for someone, but might be problematic for another person). The essential thing is to develop your own list of strategies that are right for you.

Coping strategies are also great to model for students who are having a hard time. If I normalize stopping class for a minute to take a few deep breaths, my students can begin to internalize some healthy coping strategies of their own.


Rather than disparate strategies, self-care to me is a more general frame that I am doing things that help me stay well and sustain me as a person. Self-care helps me fill my cup and stay connected to who I am as a person, not just as a helper. Self-care looks different for everyone, but here are some common areas of self-care: 

  • A physical activity practice (running, yoga, cycling, team sports)
  • Spending time with animals or living things (gardening, taking care of fish, snuggling your dog)
  • Spending meaningful time with friends and family
  • Reading, watching TV or movies you enjoy, doing puzzles
  • Making and creating – music, crafts, projects

Self-care requires ongoing attention to balance, and committing to spending time that fills up the well rather than draws from it. Self-care isn’t selfish; instead, it’s what allows us to be of use to others. You can’t give others energy you don’t have, and self-care is what allows us to generate that energy.

Making meaning

This is one area of wellness that often gets missed in our narrative about taking care of ourselves. In addition to coping in the moment and self-care in an ongoing way, making meaning is required when we’re faced with challenging work. When something intense happens, whether it be a challenging class period, a student blow-up, a conflict with a coworker, or at tragedy in the school community, we need to not only cope with our emotions, but to make sense of what happened. Making meaning is the act of grappling with how challenging experiences fit into our sense of self and our worldview, and how they change us and change our work.

As an example, if a student explodes at me in class and ends up hitting me – I will need to cope in the moment, for sure. Beyond that immediate moment, though, I’m likely to be shaken up as a person, and coping alone doesn’t address that core disruption. I will need to use self-care to help me stay grounded in my sense of myself as a whole person. And I will need to make meaning of the big questions that come up from intense experiences: why did that happen? What does it mean about my student? What does it mean about me? What does it mean about my sense of safety at school – and my student’s sense of safety with me? How should I proceed? It takes time, introspection, and support to think through these questions.

Some supports that may be helpful in making meaning:

  • Meeting with a therapist, counselor, or clergy person
  • Supportive coworkers or supervisors
  • Journaling or reflective art practice

Wellness is ongoing

Wellness isn’t something we work on once and then say it’s done. We can’t attend one training and get certified in wellness; we can’t develop a wellness routine and expect that it will hold through all of life’s changes. However, when we put in the work – when we attend to coping, self-care and making meaning, we give ourselves the gift of wellness – a gift that requires maintenance and reinvention, but that gives us the vitality to sustain ourselves in the service of those we help.