Last week, Educational Considerations published a new issue of their journal with the theme “Dear Teacher: Children and Trauma.” I have an article in this issue discussing boundaries and role-clarity for teachers in trauma-informed schools. Head over to Educational Considerations to check out my article and the rest of the excellent pieces in this issue.
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.
When training teachers on trauma-informed classroom strategies, the most frequent pushback I hear is “I don’t have enough time or resources.”
Maybe this is because we start with defining the problem, and it is bleak. Some estimate that between one third and one half of all children experience trauma. The impacts of trauma on the brain and body can be severe, pervasive and long-lasting. Trauma can contribute to challenging behavior and mental health challenges, and can negatively affect a child’s ability to learn.
It’s easy to feel hopeless.
Something we’ve known for a long time is that consistent, caring relationships are one of the biggest factors in helping children heal from trauma. Enter the teacher’s protest: “I have so many students,” “I don’t have enough time to help them all,” “There are no resources in my school.”
All of those things are true – and I do believe that we need to drastically change the education system in many ways, for the benefit of all students. But what can we do the in the meantime?
The answer, it turns out, is to sweat the small stuff.
In Bruce Perry’s updated version of The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog, endnotes add updates from current research to his classic accounting of the effects and treatment of trauma. In one section, Perry discusses the idea of “therapeutic dosing” – the question of the timing, frequency and content of therapy that best supports healing from trauma.
Indeed, long-term and enduring changes to neural networks can be created by an intense period of stimulation that lasts less than a minute. Synaptic splitting, which is one way these connections can change, can occur in meres seconds of intense stimulation – and if the intense experience is repeated four times within an hour, the change will be maintained long term.
Just as a traumatic experience can alter a life in an instant, so too can a therapeutic encounter.
….The good news is that anyone can help with this part of ‘therapy’ – it merely requires being present in social settings and being, well, basically, kind. An attentive, attuned, and responsive person will help create opportunities for a traumatized child to control the dose and pattern of rewiring their trauma-related associations. … The more we can provide each other these moment of simple, human connection – even a brief nod or a moment of eye contact – the more we’ll be able to heal those who have suffered traumatic experience.
-Bruce Perry , 2017 edition of The Boy who was Raised as a Dog, p 308-9
This idea of “therapeutic encounters” or “therapeutic moments” should be one of the first things we teach pre-service teachers. What I love about this concept is that it both gives us permission, and it holds us accountable. It gives us permission to play an active role in the healing of others, because that role can be a tiny empathetic moment, a personal question, a joyful high-five. It also holds us accountable, because this work isn’t too hard for any of us: none of us can say we don’t have the training, the experience, or the expertise to have a therapeutic encounter.
Now imagine that every teacher, staff member, adult in a school commits to creating therapeutic moments within the school day. Imagine they all agree to slow down just a little bit, be kinder in the hallways, use twenty seconds of passing time as an opportunity to say a genuine “It’s nice to see you” to a student. If we can create a web of therapeutic moments, interconnected by our unconditional positive regard, we can create the environment for change.
My favorite part from the quote above, again: Just as a traumatic experience can alter a life in an instant, so too can a therapeutic encounter. You never know how the small moments can add up to change for a trauma-affected child – so let’s create a tapestry of these small moments within our schools so we all can heal.
I would like to see the trauma-informed education community focus less on ACEs, and in particular to stop asking students and staff to take ACEs surveys. The ACEs checklist wasn’t designed for that, and I think it does more harm than good.
For those not familiar, ACE stands for Adverse Childhood Experiences, which were the focus of a CDC-Kaiser study originally conducted in the 1990s. ACEs seem to have become synonymous with childhood trauma, and are often invoked in writing about trauma-informed education practice. An example of this is the popular documentary Paper Tigers, which is about a school identifying as trauma-informed and relying heavily on the vocabulary of ACEs as they shift how their school supports trauma-affected students.
At a conference last fall, I facilitated a group discussion for those interested in trauma-informed education. Participants were sharing how they were making changes to their schools to incorporate trauma-informed strategies. One participant shared that as a part of the admissions process for her charter school, she was planning on asking students to fill out an ACEs questionnaire. I’ve heard of other schools and staff groups being asked to do the same: to fill out a survey created from the list of ACEs identified in the CDC study. Presumably, the information from these surveys help schools identify students in need of support, and perhaps help teachers better understand how their own experiences impact their work with trauma-affected students.
I would like to strongly caution school leaders from using an ACEs survey with students or staff in their settings.
Limitations of ACEs
The ACEs identified in the CDC study aren’t meant to be inclusive of every possible traumatic experience. As is the case with any study, they needed to narrow down their focus in order to measure and study. The adverse childhood experiences that were focused on in the study were:
- Physical abuse
- Sexual abuse
- Emotional abuse
- Physical neglect
- Emotional neglect
- Intimate partner violence
- Mother treated violently
- Substance misuse within household
- Household mental illness
- Parental separation or divorce
- Incarcerated household member
Each of these items were assessed based on responses to specific questions in a lengthy questionnaire. When you search online for quizzes to determine your own “ACE score,” you’ll find a boiled-down 10-question survey which asks one to answer “yes” or “no” to experiencing each of the above ten items during the first 18 years of life.
Taking a ten question survey about childhood adverse experiences has a few problems. First is the issue of what’s not on the list. Focusing only on the ACEs list excludes a huge range of experiences; for example, the traumatic impacts of racism – not an ACE. Traumatic natural disaster, such as a hurricane, flood or fire? Not on the ACEs survey. If your intention is to use the ACEs survey to find out what percentage of students or faculty have experienced trauma, your data will be incomplete at best.
In addition, trauma is widely viewed as subjective – an interplay between dangerous events and our capacity to cope – and one’s experience of a potentially traumatic event is impacted by risk factors and protective factors. Because of this subjectivity, we cannot immediately assume that an ACE score correlates to an experience of trauma. Divorced parents is on the ACEs survey – which may be an adverse experience, but might not be trauma. To conflate all ACEs with trauma is a false equivalency, which makes “ACE score” an incorrect shorthand for trauma.
More than a number
To ask kids to take ACEs survey is to distill all of the complexities of their lives into a number, and that number isn’t really going to help your practice, anyway. Trauma-informed work in a school setting is all about relationship – should knowing if a student has 0, 4 or 7 ACEs change or impact whether we build relationship with them?
Speaking of relationship: requiring students or their families to report on these adverse experiences is a risky proposition. Asking these questions may open the door to conversations that educators are not prepared to have, and without mental health training and structures, these conversations may do more harm than good.
Even as a mental health screening tool, “the current ACE inventory was also not chosen through a rigorous process of scientific review to establish the best predictors of health outcomes” (Finklehor, 2017). With this in mind, schools should critically question what screening information they hope to gain through an ACEs score and consult with mental health professionals about best-practices tools.
Trauma-informed strategies are best practices for all kids. Does knowing how many students have high ACE scores change that? You should assume that your community suffers the impacts of trauma. Use state-level data if it helps to build community understanding and buy-in for trauma-informed practices, while also pushing all stakeholders to recognize that it’s not about the number.
We do our best work when we directly listen to the needs of our community and the individuals within it. Resources spent on ACEs screening might better be spent investing in building relationships.
ACEs as a profesional development tool?
For all the same reasons – don’t ask all your staff to fill out an ACEs survey. Like kids, your staff/teachers have varied and complex histories – and while taking ACEs survey might be enlightening for some, it should be completely optional and presented as only one among many strategies that teachers can use to gain self-awareness. Remember that many of your teachers have indeed experienced adverse situations as a child, and being asked to reflect on and check “yes” or “no” to these experiences may be harmful to their ongoing process of recovery.
Teachers absolutely should have self-awareness of “their own stuff” they are bringing to working with trauma-impacted kids. ACE information could be one option. There are many others. We should trust educators to choose their own strategy for building self-awareness.
I worked at a school for 8 years with a mostly trauma-impacted population. I was never asked to do an ACEs survey, and students/families were only asked to share specific history w/clinical staff, at their own pace. Our clinical director also held the opinion that, while it was helpful to know about specific triggers or needs, you can do the work with any kid if you know how to use the general frames and strategies. You don’t need to be a trauma detective to be effective.
A grain of salt
With all of this in mind, how should we proceed? Use the ACEs for what they are: an interesting data set that helps inform our understanding of long term impacts of a specific set of adverse child experiences. There is a wealth of other research on trauma and its impacts on children, and it’s worth spending the time to investigate different frameworks and ways of understanding this issue.
In working with the humans in our schools, seek other ways to understand your students and raise self-awareness in staff. Respect individuals’ paths to recovery and use trauma-informed practices as a mindset that supports all students.
This post is an expansion of a Tweet thread I wrote that can be found here: https://twitter.com/AlexSVenet/status/948221926371221507. And here’s a more recent thread with some additional reading: https://twitter.com/AlexSVenet/status/1359521708634431488
In education, obviously we talk constantly about learning. That’s our job here, right? Fostering learning, assessing learning, innovating learning experiences, understanding learners.
But as teachers, we have a lot of unlearning to do, too, especially when it comes to how we “manage” our classrooms. Many educators replicate the systems of classroom management that they themselves experienced, without often pausing to wonder whether the underlying philosophy of this “classroom management” is the right one.
I recently read Alfie Kohn’s book Beyond Discipline for the first time. I’ve been familiar with Kohn for a while and my previous school was heavily influenced by his philosophy, but reading his book was invigorating. I highlighted approximately half of every page. Kohn’s overall premise is that a focus on compliance in our schools harms children and adults, and we can do better by developing community instead: “the more we ‘manage’ students’ behavior and try to make them do what we say, the more difficult it is for them to become morally sophisticate people who think for themselves and care about others” (p. 62).
It sounds great in practice – but it takes so much unlearning for educators who have spent their whole lives in systems that value compliance. So many teachers are also in positions where compliance is demanded of them every day by administrators, state decision-makers, federal laws. Kohn quotes de Charms: “When teachers are treated as pawns, they don’t teach, they become drill sergeants.” Teachers need not only to unlearn how they were taught, but also actively swim against the tide of compliance that is the reality of many schools.
So how do we unlearn? First, I think we need to connect to the big picture. For me, this could look like reading books from my favorite educational philosophers, or books that challenge my understanding of the status quo, or seeking out articles from diverse perspectives. I need to expand my worldview, and in doing so, take apart and discard the parts that don’t serve me or my students anymore.
Connecting to the big picture can also look like dreaming together with other educators – whether that’s attending a conference, and Edcamp, or simply talking with a teacher friend over dumplings about the dreams we have for our students.
Unlearning also takes practice. I’ve been thinking about both/and – we need to think about and talk about the big picture, but we also need concrete ways to test things out. In thinking about unlearning “classroom management,” a couple of concrete ways to try it out include the CPS model and restorative circles. I find that when I commit to trying something concrete, I can practice not only the actual strategy, but managing the feelings of frustration and uncertainty that come in the midst of a change of philosophy.
Unlearning is difficult, especially when everyone is telling us that the “way it’s always been” is the way it should always be. But as Kohn says, “to create a classroom where students feel safe enough to challenge each other – and us – is to give them an enormous gift” (p. 77). Unlearning compliance and embracing a messier version of community is the foundation of a healthy democracy. That’s the direction I want to move with my students.
I’m looking forward to teaching a workshop this October on the teacher’s trauma toolbox. The goal is to help teachers get started with trauma-informed teaching and learning. I hope teachers will walk away having developed their understanding of child trauma as well as jumpstarted their thinking on trauma-informed strategies for their classrooms.
Trauma-informed teaching isn’t something you can master after a one-day workshop, or a semester class, or even many years of intense study and practice. It’s an ongoing process to support students who have experienced trauma, because every child is different and every response to trauma is different. Moreover, being in relationship with people with traumatic experience can be difficult, and requires regular checking in with ourselves and recalibrating so we can sustain the work.
The trauma toolbox
We can best prepare to serve students with traumatic backgrounds by developing our own toolbox. Not every tool will work for a given job, but if we maintain a diverse set we are more likely to have what we need when we need it. Some tools will work for many situations, while we save others for a very specific project. When using trauma-informed strategies, the range of tools is essential because one student’s response to trauma will never be exactly the same as another’s. This is especially true when “challenging” behavior comes up; I may need to try a dozen different tools before I find the one that works.
As most handy folks and homeowners also know, sometimes our own toolbox isn’t enough, and it’s essential to know when to call the plumber or the electrician. An essential aspect of our trauma-informed toolbox is knowing when to call on others – whether they be school counselors, psychologists, or social workers, or your local mental-health or child welfare agency. There’s also something to be said for the home-improvement show, youtube video or internet forum where we can get a refresher on how to use the tools we already have, or get unstuck when we’re frustrated.
Where the metaphor falls apart
While your home toolbox may be used to fix broken stuff, we aren’t “fixing” students and they certainly aren’t broken. Here I’ll use a different metaphor for our role in supporting students who’ve experienced trauma – the hike.
Ever been hiking with someone who hasn’t really been hiking much before? You’re both walking on the same path, but maybe it’s slightly easier for you, because you have more practice. You don’t need to tell your hiking partner how to walk, because they already know how to do that, but you might make some suggestions if there’s a tricky uphill scramble.
As you walk, you’re paying attention to the other hiker, and guiding the way, but the two of you are also connecting, together, and noticing, together, what’s going on in the woods around you. While the less experienced person might need your help at times, you might also need them and rely on their expertise as you cross obstacles together.
You might need to prompt your hiking partner when to stop and take a break and drink some water, but it’s also essential that you pay attention to your own needs, as well. Supporting our students through trauma is something we do together, walking side by side, while ultimately respecting the autonomy of the journey.
The path through healing from trauma can be difficult and complicated, and we do best when we walk it together, whatever the metaphor.
I hope you’ll join me on October 7 in Keene, NH for the Teacher’s Trauma Toolbox workshop. Can’t attend? Check out resources for getting started with trauma-informed teaching or get in touch to schedule a workshop at your site.
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!
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.
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.
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.
Wasn’t teaching supposed to get easier?
Didn’t someone tell me that teaching would get easier? That working with tough kids would get easier? That balance, boundaries, pedagogy, content, all of it would feel easier someday?
I’ve learned so many skills. Doesn’t skill acquisition make it easier? I know now how to assess without a survey, teach without a whiteboard/pen/computer/book, build foundation without condescending, encourage voice and choice without judgement or expectation. I’ve learned so many things through observing teachers who are smarter than I am, through asking students what they needed, through collaborating with parents and families and caregivers. And I learned a lot of things the hard way, by messing up, by disappointing students, by missing opportunities, by reflecting, reflecting, reflecting.
Soooo…isn’t it supposed to be easy by now?
I’ve immersed myself in lenses and frames and tried to incorporate the best lessons to my students’ benefit. I’ve long since dropped the pretense that I know even a fraction of all there is to know, I’ve abandoned the belief that there are silver bullets in education, I’ve embraced the mess and complexity and journey of trying to be more inclusive, anti-racist, feminist, culturally sustaining, trauma-informed. I own that I will never be perfect at any of it. I wear my vulnerability and fallibility.
So I’m comfortable being uncomfortable. I’m okay not being okay. I’m at peace with the process. But like, can it get a little less challenging yet? Don’t I get something for all this work?
Okay. I know. It doesn’t get easier. It doesn’t get easier because teaching is about being in relationship with humans, and more specifically, developing humans. In my case, even more specifically, developing humans who are facing immense challenges every single day. And humans are endlessly complex, and endlessly challenging, and endlessly amazing and resilient and wonderful. Humans are messy and get into conflict and misunderstand and hurt and hate and love and apologize and sometimes say the most astonishing things, like “thank you” and “I care about you” and “I’m proud of myself.”
Teaching will never be easy, because human relationships will never be easy, and that’s amazing. No amount of training or professional development or introspection will ever protect me from the ups and downs of being really emotionally invested in my students, and I don’t want to be numb to the process. I never want to lose the openness that allows for true relationships, those true relationships through which everything is possible.
So my new school year’s resolution is to let go of the idea of “easy.” Bye, easy. I won’t miss the idea of you. Let me embrace the mess and joy of the challenge, instead.
Unconditional positive regard doesn’t stop when my students walk out the door at 2:15.
True unconditional positive regard infuses all conversations about my students, because the way I talk about my students informs my practice when I’m with them.
Recently a comment of mine on an Edutopia post sparked someone else to write a post asking whether venting about students should be banned. This in turn is generating lots of conversation, a lot of which defends teachers’ rights to free speech and holds that venting helps teachers prevent burnout. But I think “should venting be banned” is probably the wrong question.
Here are some questions I’d rather answer:
- How does my staff culture respect students whether or not they are in the room?
- Where are my teachers getting emotional support for the challenging aspects of their jobs?
- How are teachers understanding challenging student behavior? Are they left to make sense of this on their own, or are we using a trauma-informed approach, consulting and collaborating with social workers and mental health professionals, and contextualizing student behavior in our unique community?
- Are teachers comfortable going to one another for problem-solving and support? Are my teachers willing and able to be vulnerable with one another? Are they in strong enough relationship with one another to offer feedback?
- Do teachers feel ownership and influence over their classrooms? Their job as a whole? Are they blaming students and families because they feel powerless to make change?
- What example is being set by school leaders?
- Does my staff share the same values? Are we understanding one another’s positive intent, or do we question one another’s actual stance toward the students?
- Am I talking about my students in the same way I would if they were sitting in the room with me?
These are tough questions, and in a tough job, sometimes it’s easier to vent and stay stuck than doing the hard work of problem-solving. There is no silver bullet for human relationships, so we are in a constant state of trial and error and more error and iteration and questioning and trying again tomorrow. When we engage one another in true conversation about these challenges, we help move one another forward; we build resiliency.
I can and do have these types of conversations about my students with my students in the room, and with them directly. I’ve said to a student, “I feel really stuck working with you lately, and I’m wondering if you feel the same way, and what we can do about it.” I’ve said to my students, “What you just said really pushed a button for me and I want to take a minute to take care of myself before we move forward in class.” When I model vulnerability and taking ownership over my own emotions, I make it a little more okay for my students to do the same.
So, should venting be banned? Let’s ask some different questions. Let’s ask them in service of our students. Let’s ask them as if – and when – our students are in the room.