A broken glass window with an out-of-focus view of a field behind it

What about the other kids in the room?

Your student is breaking stuff.

Not idly breaking stuff, like accidentally snapping a pencil or shredding a piece of paper with fidgeting hands. I mean tearing apart your carefully composed bulletin board, knocking your framed poster to the floor and shattering the glass, red-in-the-face and not responding to anyone’s words kind of breaking stuff. 

How teachers and schools respond to this moment falls across a wide spectrum. Using our “teacher voice.” Yelling. Calling in an administrator. Calling the parents. Calling the police. Clearing the classroom. Taking away privileges. Physically restraining the child. Moving the child to a seclusion room. Threats. Punishments. Bribes. 

In that mix, we also have trauma-informed practices. Calm, quiet voices. Reassurances of safety. Clear options using few words. Reminders of pre-taught strategies and cues. Restorative conferencing to follow up. Getting to the root of the problem once we’re ready to talk again. 

When students are blowing up, melting down, or generally in a crisis of overwhelming stress, trauma-informed responses require time, quiet, patience, attunement, and creativity. They require a system that is built to support that time, quiet, patience, attunement, and creativity. They require proactive planning and skill-building so we feel prepared when the moment arrives.

This is difficult work, but urgently important. Seclusion and restraint in schools causes lasting harm to children. Punitive discipline contributes to the criminalization of children, and students of color and disabled students are most impacted. Even our youngest children are subject to suspension. We need a change.

But with change comes resistance.

When I work with teachers on making the shift from punitive discipline to trauma-informed, restorative approaches, a question often comes up: “what about the other students in the room?” This question is both about “in the moment” – what about the other kids present when their classmate is loudly struggling? – as well as “out of the moment” – what about the other kids when their classmate shows up the next day and the other kids haven’t seen them being suspended or punished?  

Sometimes this question is a genuine one. Teachers wonder how to logistically make trauma-informed interventions happen when they have dozens of students. Sometimes there is concern for the other students who repeatedly witness a struggling peer. As an adult it can be difficult to be present when someone else is in crisis, and so naturally we worry about our students feel when a classmate is escalated.

But other times, “what about the other students?” comes as a challenge. From these educators, I hear both a frustration with how hard it can be to support a student in crisis and a sense of overwhelm at the idea of rethinking their approach. These teachers often want to continue using the same compliance-based, controlling discipline strategies they have been using forever, because in some ways these strategies seem to “work.” They “work” if our goal is to regain compliance. Not only that, but punitive, individualistic strategies are also incredibly popular not only in our schools but in our society. “What about the other kids?” just echoes that reality. 

Along with “what about the other students?” I also hear things like, “doesn’t this traumatize them too?,” “it isn’t fair,” “we need to get back to learning,” “kids need more consequences when they disrupt the class.” All of this tells me that asking “what about the other kids?” may be a way to sidestep the hard work of rethinking, well, everything about classroom management. 

Wherever the question is coming from, I do believe it’s one worth taking up. Know that what I’ve written here only begins to scratch the surface. More resources and reading provided at the end.

With that: let’s talk about the “other kids.” 

The “other kids” can have proactive conversations

The moment of a student meltdown follows many other moments we have with our students, and precedes many more. We can take some of those moments to prepare our students proactively. It’s naive to pretend that we will simply never have a student in crisis, or that no student will ever explode in anger, or that no student will ever get into a conflict in our classroom. Children do all of these things because they are all part of growing up. Especially in the context of intense stress and trauma, we should expect that our students will have a hard time and it will get loud, messy, and chaotic. 

When we can accept that these moments will happen, we give ourselves permission to shift from blaming ourselves or others, and instead to focus on planning proactively. If you know that at some point during the school year, one or more of your students will scream, cry, and break things in your classroom, what might you do to prepare your entire classroom community? How do you want students to show up for each other in those moments? What do you want students to know about how you will respond? Are there other people in your building you want to introduce to your class before the moment of a crisis? Are there tools you want students to practice? Conversations about care that you might have? How will you support students to be gentle and kind with one another – and with themselves? 

One teacher told me that one of her kindergarten students was having a meltdown one day. Another classmate saw that her peer was having a hard time and decided to help. She took a moment to create a drawing of her own calm-down strategies, then approached the upset student and handed them the paper. What more could we ask for students to learn about community? 

The “other students” in the room have agency over how they show up in difficult moments. Just like we support students to practice and use their agency responsibly in their learning, friendships, and community, we can do the same when it comes to moments of crisis.

The “other kids” need your help to make meaning 

Not all stress is trauma. There’s a whole range of stressful experiences in our day-to-day life that might feel unpleasant or difficult but do not scar us in the way that trauma does. What’s the dividing line between stress and trauma? While there’s no clear answer, one key element is sense-making. A stressful experience that we process on our own, without context or support, can quickly turn traumatic as it overwhelms our internal capacities. But a stressful experience that we can process with those around us, that others can put into context, that we receive reassurance about? This may remain a stressful experience, but not ultimately become trauma.

Because sense-making influences whether an experience is stressful or traumatic, the “other kids” need you to help them make sense. Put yourself in your student’s shoes. Your classmate is screaming and throwing chairs. The principal, who you don’t really know, comes into the room and firmly puts her hand on your classmate’s back and half-pushes him out of the room. Your teacher looks flustered and says “okay everyone, now we’re going to get back to work.” Your day moves on. How do you integrate this experience? What does it mean? With no guidance to create an understanding, you invent your own.

When we are upset and overwhelmed, sometimes we hurt others. Helping students understand what’s going on for a classmate doesn’t mean excusing any harm that happens during a moment of crisis, but it can help guide an empathetic path of moving forward. I think about all of the times that friends or family have shown me love during a hard time, even when I wasn’t showing up to our relationship as my best self. Their empathy created the space for healing conflict later on. That kind of community sustains people through life’s hardest moments. We can practice that in schools. 

Our students need us to help them understand what it means when a classmate is struggling. They need us to create space and hear how they felt, and validate their emotions. They need help understanding why a situation got so big and scary all of a sudden. They need to hear us say that their classmate is getting the support they need (and mean it), and to hear us say that their classmate is still a cherished member of our community (and mean it- more on this in a moment). Young children are capable of these conversations, and we owe it to them to slow down and have them.

The “other kids” can be helped to feel safe 

Some teachers have the concern that the other students feel “unsafe” when “the one” is continually dysregulated and out of control. Safety, though, isn’t just the absence of chaos. We can be surrounded by chaos and feel safe because someone we trust is there with us. We can be surrounded by chaos and feel safe because we are empowered to make our own choices and walk away. We can be surrounded by chaos and feel safe because we have learned to tell the difference between someone having a hard time and someone threatening us. In other words, simply removing “the one” child having a hard time isn’t the only way for students to feel safe, and when we conflate “calm” and “safe” we miss opportunities to actually foster an internal sense of safety that students can carry long after they leave the classroom. 

When I worked in a therapeutic school, I had many moments in which I was surrounded by chaos: a student screaming, crying, breaking things, fighting, you name it – and yet, in that moment, I felt safe. How? I knew that my colleagues and my administrators had my back. I was trained well and had a wealth of strategies to lean on. I knew that support would be available to me after the crisis passed, and without a doubt, someone would be there to process with me and check in on me. And I had agency to walk away or tap in a colleague at any time. I certainly wasn’t calm or having a great time during some of these moments, but safety came from an abundance of internal and external resources.  

What might it look like for our students to have this sense of safety, even in moments of chaos? What if students knew their classmates and teacher had their back? That someone would check in on them later and help them process, without a doubt? That they had been taught proactively and had a wealth of strategies to draw from? That they had agency to walk away or ask for help? What might it look like to provide the tools and structures for all students to feel safe, rather than using the single rusty tool of removing one child from the room? Proactive work, such as the community-building roots of restorative practices, can help us lay the foundation of safety.  

The “other kids” are watching and listening to how you respond

When one child is struggling visibility and loudly, our response to that one student speaks volumes to all the rest. I can’t really say it much better than Carla Shalaby in her book Troublemakers: Lessons in Freedom from Young Children at School (2017), so I’ll let her words take it from here:

“It isn’t the behavior of the children that threatens community; it is the response to that behavior, the use of exclusion, that threatens community. When a child is excluded, it teaches the other children that belonging to the classroom community is conditional, not absolute, contingent upon their willingness and ability to be a certain kind of person. In this paradigm, belonging is a privilege to be earned by docility, not a basic human right that is ensured for every child” (p. 162). 

All of which leads me to say…

The “other kids” aren’t actually “other kids”

When we say, “just remove that one student so all the other kids can learn,” what are we really saying? As Dr. Shalaby says, this line of thinking can only conclude by believing that some children are disposable and that our community doesn’t actually include everyone. Listen: it’s okay to be frustrated by class not going the way we planned, or by students feeling upset and worried by a peer’s behavior. It’s okay to feel frustrated that nothing seems to be working for a child who continues to explode because they are carrying so much stress. 

In the midst of this frustration, however, we need to ask ourselves hard questions. What do I truly believe about community? What would it look like if my decisions were really rooted in unconditional positive regard for every single student? What if I chose to teach in a way that centers the people, the children, over the learning every single time?

The truth is, all of us are “that kid” sometimes. We all melt down or explode – or we desperately want or need to. We all struggle. We all experience grief, trauma, and stress. The children in your classroom who aren’t visibly breaking stuff might be doing so but silently, inside themselves. They may be wondering whether it’s okay to let it all out, to vent their anger and rage. They may be wondering: am I safe enough anywhere to really show how I feel? 

So as educators, we have to answer: are they safe enough? Really? And if they are, how can I prove it to them? I think when a student gifts us with the opportunity to support them through a moment of crisis, we have an opportunity to care not only for that student but to demonstrate our care for the entire class community. If we are brave enough.

To learn more:

Thank you to Heather Lippert for her feedback & thought partnership on this blog post.

Photo by Eyasu Etsub on Unsplash

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

I’m not a therapist, but I don’t need to be: let’s unpack “trauma-informed” vs. “trauma-specific”

I regularly hear the phrase “I’m not a therapist/counselor/social worker” in discussions of trauma-informed education and social-emotional learning. This is most often uttered by stressed-out teachers who are rightfully tired of new expectations being placed on their jobs. Indeed, it’s hard to process any implication that teachers should be doing more in a society that underfunds and harshly criticizes schools and teachers, 

At the same time, trauma is real and it influences students, educators, and the systems and structures of schooling itself. Because of this, we have a responsibility to be responsive to trauma’s presence. And caring educators everywhere have embraced the movement for trauma-informed schools as a way to accomplish this.

As I’ve said elsewhere, one of the joys of the trauma-informed schools movement is that it’s decentralized. There’s no single authority or curriculum to buy.  This means we can make trauma-informed education relevant and authentic in our unique settings. The challenge, of course, is that we don’t always agree on terms. Concepts related to trauma and education can be muddy and cause confusion.

In the spirit of deepening our understanding, let’s tease out some conceptual clarity together. Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the difference between trauma-informed and trauma-specific, and what the difference means for our role as educators.

Trauma-informed vs trauma-specific

According to a report by DeCandia, Guarino and Clervil from the American Institutes for Research, “trauma-specific services are clinical interventions, whereas trauma-informed care addresses organizational culture and practice.” Let’s unpack this in the context of school.

The phrase trauma-informed in schools refers to the universal and proactive shifts we make across an entire school, informed by our understanding of trauma. While definitions of trauma-informed education vary, most rely on a framework that includes aspects focused on creating safe, collaborative, and connected environments. Trauma-informed education recognizes that all people are impacted by trauma in various ways. Implementation includes classroom-level and school-wide shifts to meet the social, emotional, and academic needs of the entire school community in ways that are informed by what we understand about trauma. 

In my book I invite readers to ask “how is trauma present in our school?” as a way of seeing and acknowledging the many ways that trauma impacts us. Answering this question allows us to notice not only the impact of trauma on individuals, but also the ways that trauma influences organizational structure and culture, and the history and present concerns of our communities. 

As frequent readers may know, I don’t often map my work to the Multi-Tiered Systems of Support model (more on that in a minute), but if that’s a helpful frame of reference, trauma-informed approaches would largely fall under “Tier 1.”  

Trauma-specific refers to healing modalities that are designed to help a person or a group of people move through trauma. I am intentionally here expanding on the language quoted above which defines trauma-specific as a “clinical intervention.” If we understand trauma through a social model, and specifically include Indigenous perspectives in our understanding, then healing from trauma isn’t purely a clinical or psychiatric pursuit. 

Trauma-specific modalities might include: particular forms of therapy that are intended to support trauma survivors, group support, culturally specific healing practices and ceremonies, or wraparound support. Trauma-specific services, interventions, or supports are typically led by a qualified or experienced individual or group, such as a licensed clinician, a community healer or elder, or a faith leader. 

In schools, trauma-specific approaches might be used within the greater context of trauma-informed education. For example, all students attend an advisory block that focuses on social-emotional learning, and some students opt into a trauma-specific group facilitated by the school counselor. Trauma-specific services also might occur in a school where trauma-informed education isn’t being implemented on a broader scale. Students might be referred or identified for trauma-specific services that take place inside or outside of school. 

 Students, teachers, and other members of the school community may also be engaging in trauma-specific work completely outside of school, and they may or may not choose to share any part of that work with school staff. For that reason, I wouldn’t necessarily call trauma-specific approaches a “Tier 2 or 3 intervention” because this erases the many ways students may access trauma-specific services or community. The language of tiers can also erase the fact that teachers and other school staff may need this support as well. 

Whole-school organizational culture and practicesModality of services and supports
Everyone benefitsIdentified individuals or groups opt in
Everyone can lead and play a partLed by qualified or experienced individuals or groups (clinicians, healers, etc)
Proactive as well as responsiveResponsive 
Teacher role is to create a safe and supportive environmentTeacher role is to participate by invitation
Recognizes that trauma is omnipresent and emphasizes a shared responsibility to mitigate the impactCan be beneficial for individuals and/or groups seeking specific therapeutic approaches and/or for specific trauma-origins (e.g. natural disaster survivors)

Why the difference matters

Let’s return to the phrase “but I’m not a therapist.” When we understand the distinction between trauma-informed and trauma-specific practice in schools, it becomes clear that teachers actually don’t need any particular clinical knowledge or expertise in order to implement trauma-informed education. In fact, we become more clear on the fact that teachers actually shouldn’t be leading trauma-specific work.

Teachers aren’t usually trained, licensed, or experienced to lead trauma-specific therapies or approaches. Even if you happen to be both a clinician or healer and a classroom teacher, our professional responsibility requires that we avoid dual roles that could cause confusion on the part of the young people we are trying to support. This means that while teachers may play an important role in the web of community support for a young person, we are not the ones creating, leading, or assessing a child’s healing process from trauma. That means that you, as a teacher, do not need to inquire into a child’s traumatic history, create a clinical or other therapeutic approach, or provide counseling services in order to be trauma-informed. 

Teacher roles in trauma-informed vs. trauma-specific approaches

In trauma-informed practice, a teacher’s role is to be part of the proactive community of support for all students, and to participate in the system shifts needed across the school. I write extensively about this in my book Equity-Centered Trauma-Informed Education. In a trauma-informed school, teachers are mindful of role clarity and boundaries. While we can and should engage in conversations about our own and students’ emotional selves as part of social-emotional learning, we also commit to emotional safety and avoid being “trauma detectives.”

A teacher’s role in trauma-specific supports for students is influenced by a variety of factors, but most of the time, it is to participate when we are invited to do so, following the lead of the person or people coordinating a young person’s plan (including the young person themself). Teachers are not leading the process, but may support the process from within our role. And as we participate in the process, we do not need to know all the details of a person’s traumatic experiences, detailed lists of triggers, or other private information. More relevant is what support is needed and how we can be helpful. 

Let’s walk through an example. Scott is a student at Fictional High School (FHS). Scott’s family’s home was destroyed in a recent natural disaster, and his entire family experienced this loss as deeply traumatic. As a family, they make use of a few trauma-specific supports in their community. Scott and his siblings attend a summer camp for kids impacted by natural disasters. Scott’s parents meet monthly with their faith leader to process their emotions and find support in parenting through trauma. And Scott has an individual counselor from the community health center who picks him up after school for therapy every Friday. In their time together, Scott’s counselor has the role of helping Scott to process his trauma and learn coping mechanisms. 

As part of their sessions, Scott and his counselor talk about his experience at school. They talk about some of the positive trauma-informed aspects of FHS: teachers use flexible pedagogy like project-based learning, which Scott enjoys. Student mental health is openly and proactively discussed, so Scott feels comfortable letting teachers know when he is having a hard day. And the school board recently revised their attendance policy to be more trauma-informed, so Scott won’t be penalized when his family prioritizes a restful trip to his cousin’s house for a long weekend.

They also talk about what’s stressful: Scott says that he feels overwhelmed by how big and noisy it is as FHS. Since the disaster, he feels overwhelmed during passing time, and the anxiety of the hallways lingers throughout each class.

Scott and his counselor decide that his teachers may be able to help. With the counselor’s support, Scott and his parents meet with some of his teachers. Together, they create a plan for Scott to discreetly leave each class five minutes early so he can avoid the busy passing period. Scott feels supported by this plan and his anxiety during the day decreases.

In this example, Scott’s teachers are participating in a trauma-specific approach at the request of Scott’s counselor, family, and Scott himself. This participation doesn’t require the teachers to know all of the details of Scott’s trauma or to be clinical experts. All it requires is their flexibility, empathy and willingness to actively listen to, believe, and enact the support Scott says he needs.

We need both 

As we consider how both trauma-informed and -specific approaches are implemented in our schools, we also must remember that healing from trauma is non-linear and may take a lifetime. Schools may play a role in a person’s healing journey – and/or school may be an unsafe place for students to engage in trauma-specific services. Some people heal from trauma without ever engaging with formal trauma-specific support. While teachers may choose to refer a student for evaluation or connect them with clinicians inside or outside of school, it ultimately has to be a person’s choice whether to engage with trauma support or not. We must respect individual children’s and young people’s choices. 

In a school and community’s ecosystem, we need both trauma-informed and trauma-specific approaches. All people, regardless of trauma experience, deserve an environment that is collaborative, community-oriented, and safe – the goals of a trauma-informed approach. And all trauma survivors deserve to have the option of high-quality, accessible, and culturally-responsive care that will help them heal. 

As teachers, we don’t need to be therapists or counselors. We do need to affirm our students’ humanity and unapologetically prioritize well-being in our schools. And we need robust, well-funded, and connected systems of support in our communities. When proactive and responsive support is accessible and universal, who knows what healing might be possible? 

Thank you to Helen Thomas for her thought partnership in expanding my understanding of Indigenous Knowledge Systems as it relates to this topic, and to Kate Dearth and Rhiannon Kim for offering feedback on a draft of this post.

Photo by Scott Trento on Unsplash

Survival adaptations and moving forward from here

Scrolling TikTok the other day, I saw a fantastic post by comedian and veteran Patrick Loller. In it, Loller draws parallels between their experience as a veteran struggling to reintegrate to civilian life and people struggling to adjust to “post-pandemic” life. Some of the key points in the TikTok:

  • There were public health campaigns about staying inside, distancing, etc, but not parallel campaigns about how to reenter the world 
  • People often process trauma after the crisis is over, so some may be processing/struggling now in a way they weren’t a few months ago
  • Humans adapt well to traumatic situations, but those adaptations don’t just go away when the crisis is over

I really appreciate the way that Loller puts this so clearly, and it’s got me thinking a lot about adaptation, trauma, and where schools go from here. What adaptations have we made to cope with the pandemic, and how will we let those go as we enter post-pandemic (or at least post-vaccine) life? 

Adapting to the pandemic 

Even as I write this, I notice one of my own adaptations to this collective trauma: an unwillingness to plan ahead to “post-pandemic” school. When the world so rapidly changed in March 2020, and restrictions and case counts continued to fluctuate, I adapted by narrowing my focus. I didn’t plan too far ahead, and focused instead on what I could do today or this week. I wrote “post-pandemic” and immediately felt that adaptation’s tug. Don’t get too comfortable, my survival system tells me. We may not be out of the woods yet. It’s going to take some time to unlearn that instinct, to truly feel safe, and to focus more on the future.

Educators adapted to pandemic teaching. Our students have adapted to pandemic learning. And we’ve all adapted to pandemic survival. We’ve learned to be hypervigilant, constantly scanning our environments for cues of threat and danger. We’ve learned that being physically close with people isn’t safe. We may emotionally distance ourselves because we’ve adapted to being alone. We might not ask for help from peers because we’ve been figuring it out ourselves. These are just a few examples. What adaptations have you made?

Unlearning, shifting, and how things are now

As the world changes yet again this summer and fall, a few things feel important to me. First, to recognize that we aren’t “going back” to anything. Things are shifting to something new. The goal isn’t to shake off adaptations and go back to an old way, but to find adaptations that help us live with how things are now. Within this, let’s acknowledge that the pandemic isn’t over, even though case counts are lower in many places. Indeed, some people may find themselves more stressed or leaning more heavily on survival adaptations now that most states have ended systemic safety guidelines.

Second, recognize that things have changed. Our adaptations helped us survive a pandemic, but survival isn’t the whole story. We might feel we learned lessons or new skills. We might be worse for wear. We carry grief and trauma from the act of surviving, and the fact that so many did not. Adaptations to stress can permanently shift how we interact with the world. Don’t expect yourself or your students to have the same patterns or personality that we did before.  

Third, we can recognize that the work of unlearning our survival adaptations isn’t simple or easy. We have to recognize our patterns, evaluate whether they still serve us, and practice other ways of being. For me, some of this work will take the form of mindful noticing and self-reflection. We can also lean on friends, family, and other support systems to process and make sense of change. This can be as simple as a quick conversation: “I went into the store without a mask today, for the first time since this all began. Here’s how my body felt during those five minutes.” “How did it feel to hug your sister?” “I’m trying to decide whether to stay virtual for this workshop or go in person. How would you decide?” As we build our self-awareness, we can make choices about where to go from here. 

Supporting students 

For educators supporting students, we should remember that this process is personal, it’s messy, and we can’t necessarily dig into the details with each of our students. We can foster moments of self-reflection, but we can’t unpack everything. Students may need or want to lean on their own support systems. And just because the pandemic crisis is abating (in some places, at least) doesn’t mean that crisis is over in general. We don’t know what students are going through, and more crises are sure to come. As some students work to let go of pandemic adaptations, others may still be actively in survival mode every day for unrelated reasons.

This means that we need to show up for students with flexibility and care. Survival adaptations aren’t “disruptive,” “inappropriate,” or “disobedient,” even though that’s how we might label them at school. They are behaviors and actions that literally keep us alive. 

The best we can do for students is the same we try to do for ourselves: build self-awareness and make choices about where to go from here. Just as we reflect with our own colleagues, friends and support system, we can offer moments of reflection for our students. 

I recommend that teachers find ways to do this that are not connected to a grade or evaluation (don’t make it worth “points” or anything!), keep it private, keep it optional, and have a plan for connecting students to additional support if needed. Building self-awareness can look like simple prompts: how do you feel today? What does your body feel like when you walk into the school building? What are some of the ways that you cope with hard times? 

You can also model this for your students by commenting on the moments you notice your own adaptations: “oh wow, I just noticed that I keep inching away from you while we’re talking. It’s not about you; that’s one of the things I started doing during the pandemic to try to stay distant from people.”

Remember: there is no timeline for healing, and it can’t be rushed. Some students may be able to establish a sense of a “new normal” relatively quickly, while others will be impacted for a long time. There is no moral value to how fast you adapt, so we need to unconditional create space for how all of our students show up any given day.  

Striving for safety 

We can’t let go of survival adaptations until we are actually and truly safe. Teachers cannot create true safety for our students, because no one can define safety for someone else. But we can do the work of striving for safety, especially through systems change. We can advocate for our schools to follow public health guidance, to adequately staff and fund our classrooms, and to support families. We can push back against the current wave of harmful laws being passed in many states, banning discussions of race in schools and dehumanizing transgender children. 

We must take up this structural work with the same vigor and enthusiasm as we bring to creating our cozy corners, bulletin boards, or classroom check-ins, because true safety can’t be accomplished within our individual classrooms alone. When we do this systems-level work, we move closer to the possibility that schools are a place where students (and teachers) can do the hard work of adapting to something new.

I think again of Loller’s TikTok: people struggle when we leave them to their own devices to adapt to a changed world, and it doesn’t have to be that way. As we approach the fall, let go of “back to normal” or “learning acceleration” and embrace the mess instead. Let’s join alongside our students and view this next school year as a transitional time, and support everyone to adapt to what’s next. This is how we move forward: with care, together.

Photo by Stefan on Unsplash

Navigating the anniversary of collective trauma

The anniversary of the “lasts” will start to roll by during the second week of March. The last time I taught in person. The last time I sat in a room with teachers. The last meal at a restaurant with loved ones. I picture lights in the windows of a tall building, turning off one by one until the whole thing is dark. Mid-March will mark one year since COVID-19’s impacts cascaded in the United States, isolating most of us at home as the world seemed to shut down. 

Trauma anniversaries mark the return of a date or season in which we endured trauma in the past. According to the National Center for PTSD, trauma anniversaries impact us because of the way that our memories store our traumatic stress. We can feel trauma anniversaries in our bodies even if we aren’t conscious of them in our minds. You may notice that you or your students have an increase in anxiety, or are flooded with memories of last spring. We can support ourselves and our students by acknowledging this anniversary and navigating it together. 

Although the pandemic has been a collective trauma, we experience it individually. Some are navigating acute grief following the death of a loved one, or many loved ones. Some are struggling with isolation, depression, or anxiety. We may reflect on growth, opportunities, or new possibilities brought on by all the shifts of the past year. And all of these may be present at the same time, bringing internal friction as we hold contradictory thoughts and feelings. 

We need to hold space for each individual to make their own meaning of the past year. The only wrong way to approach the anniversary of collective trauma is to ignore it. 

Reflecting on the year 

One way to honor a trauma anniversary is to slow down and step out of the everyday school rush to notice and reflect. In the classroom, this might look like journaling, creating a group timeline of the past year, or a discussion prompt in a community circle. 

This reflection can be hard as we sit with uncomfortable feelings including grief, sadness, loss, and uncertainty. Resist slipping into toxic positivity or requiring students to come up with something they appreciated about the past year. There are some seasons of our lives with no silver linings. Rather than seeing your role as a fixer or even a helper, see yourself as a witness to your students’ experiences. 

Slowing down may feel scary, because sometimes we cope with difficult emotions by staying busy. Be mindful that pausing to reflect may not be a welcome experience, and provide options for students so they can opt into reflection or not as they see fit. Don’t require students to publicly share their reflections, and make sure that all of your students know about resources available in your school or community for additional support. 

Rituals and memorials 

Rituals are one way to mark anniversaries and help students process and find meaning. Many cultures have specific rituals for recognizing loss, marking anniversaries, and transforming trauma. These might look like formal memorials, symbolic gestures like candle lighting, or creative expression like creating a community mural or other piece of art. Storytelling is also a powerful way to process trauma. Students might write, record, collect, or share stories from the past year – moments large and small, of pain or resistance or ordinary moments in a changed world.  

Ask your students how they want to mark the passage of this past year. Continue to hold space for the many experiences of students and community members. Some students may want to not want to partake in public activities at school, and we must honor students’ agency in choosing to participate or not.

It’s also important to balance any special events or activities with maintaining routines. As students remember the upheaval and disruption of last March, it’s natural for them to worry about the same thing happening again – and indeed, many schools are currently undergoing cycles of disruption as they open and close for in-person learning. Continue with routines that help students feel safe and connected.

Recognizing is humanizing 

When we intentionally acknowledge trauma anniversaries, we push back against a system that would prefer we just forget. Judith Herman wrote in the introduction to her classic text Trauma and Recovery: “The ordinary response to atrocities is to banish them from consciousness. Certain violations of the social compact are too terrible to utter aloud: this is the meaning of the word unspeakable. Atrocities, however, refuse to be buried. … Remembering and telling the truth about terrible events are prerequisites for both ther restoration of the social order and for the healing of individual victims.” With over two million deaths from COVID-19 worldwide, untold millions are grieving the atrocity of the pandemic. Recognizing the collective trauma anniversary with our students is a way to stand in solidarity as we work together for a better future.

Photo by Sixteen Miles Out on Unsplash

Is the pandemic a teachable moment?

The fall is fast approaching. Despite the lack of clarity about what school is going to look like, teachers are starting to prepare. One of the topics I’ve seen come up in teacher conversations: whether or not to use the pandemic as a teaching moment in our classrooms. Should you create math lessons using data about case numbers in different states, for example? Should students write pandemic journals? Would it be appropriate to do a unit on the 1918 pandemic flu?

Idil’s thread on pandemic math sparked me to write this post. She sums it up well when she says: “It’s a lot to ask to do a math lesson about this well. It is hard pedagogical work & hard emotional labour. We have a responsibility to speak to the moment, and it’s a pandemic and maybe folks aren’t ready to learn to do all of this at the same time.” 

This is really the “both/and” that lies at the heart of trauma-informed practices. Ignoring hard topics and pretending they do not belong in the classroom is to ignore our students’ (and our) life experiences. The truth is that it’s not possible to “leave it at the door” especially when, for many of us, there is no physical door to our classrooms anymore. When the “door” is a Zoom window, it’s really not reasonable to ask people to pretend that things can have any semblance of normalcy. At the same time, trauma-informed practice doesn’t mean we must (or should) directly engage with or unpack student experiences of trauma. It can be triggering and overwhelming to examine or reflect on hard times while we’re living through them. So we both cannot ignore trauma and hard times, and we shouldn’t focus on trauma and hard times in ways that do harm. How do we make sense of this?

As with most things when it comes to teaching, there is no single “right answer.” Instead, here are some guiding questions that can be helpful in navigating your decision-making about using the pandemic as a teachable moment.

Guiding question 1: is this lesson/activity/unit appropriate if one of my students, students’ family members, or colleagues dies from COVID-19? 

This question, for me, is the most important consideration. I’ve seen a few “cutesey” activities shared on Twitter and Instagram, including a journaling project called “I survived the pandemic!” In this project, students are supposed to write in the style of the Scholastic “I Survived” series. When I saw this, I couldn’t stop thinking about what it would feel like to hand this writing prompt to a student whose parent had just died from COVID, or who was worried every day about getting sick and not surviving. What is the value of this writing project for that student?

If you’re considering using the pandemic as a teachable moment, remember this: the pandemic is not over. Thousands have died and thousands more will die before a vaccine is available. Students and staff in your school will lose loved ones or have lost them already. Students and staff in your school are afraid and anxious. We should not do any activity that makes light of the pandemic, treats it with irreverence, or fails to recognize the emotional gravity of the situation. 

Guiding question 2: Am I asking students to opt out or opt in?

For some students, engaging with pandemic-related academic content will be triggering, stressful, and overwhelming. For others, engaging with pandemic-related academic content will feel relevant and empowering. Some students might feel both ways at the same time. Choice is important. I sometimes hear teachers say: “well, if any student has a problem with it, I’ll just offer them something different.” Here’s the thing: that puts the burden on students to recognize they are having a hard time and then make themselves vulnerable in speaking up.  If you require the whole class to engage in a pandemic-related activity, it might be overwhelming for students to try to opt out or ask for an alternative activity. Because of the power dynamics in most schools, students may not even realize they can ask at all. Instead of asking students to opt out, provide multiple options from the start. 

Make it shame-free. Don’t say “this is the activity we’re doing, unless you don’t want to in which case you can do this other not-as-cool thing.” Create two (or more) equal options, or open-ended projects or topics. For example: “Today we’re practicing persuasive writing by creating public health messaging. Your task is to create a public service announcement. You can choose from this list of topics: eating vegetables, moving for 30 minutes a day, or washing your hands and wearing a mask.” Or keep the prompt wide open!

Elizabeth Dutro, in writing about trauma-informed literacy pedagogy, says that “making intentional space for stories of trauma is always posed as invitation, never as requirement.” This frame is essential whether we are inviting students to directly reflect on their experiences or to engage in academics connected to ongoing collective trauma.  

Guiding question 3: What’s the balance?

Engaging in pandemic academics will help some students process and make meaning of their experience. But making meaning shouldn’t be forced or required, and often it’s impossible to make meaning of a traumatic experience while the experience is still happening. Remember that your students (…and you, and your colleagues) may just be in survival mode until the danger has passed. If you have personally experienced trauma or grief, you likely know that meaningful reflections on those experiences often come months, years, or decades after the actual event. 

At the same time, creating space to process and check in can be powerful. Whether it’s a community circle, a rose and thorn check-in, or another structure, it’s important to make space for your students to bring their full selves to school. Witnessing one another’s daily triumphs and struggles is part of what builds a strong community. Students often look to their teachers to help guide their understanding of the world when the world feels complicated. Classrooms – virtual or in-person – should be centered around our shared humanity. To show up as full people, in all of our complexities, we need space to talk about what’s going on and what we’re feeling.

The key here is balance. It’s not helpful to remove all mention of current events from the classroom and ban all discussion of the pandemic. It’s also not helpful to spend all day, every day engaging in heavy conversations, with no break from the weight of the world. Make room for students to escape into unrelated topics. Make room for joy, fun, and silliness. Those moments matter. 

Guiding question 4: What do my students say they need?

As a final guideline, we need to remember that we’re not going to get it right all the time. It’s not possible to avoid every single potential trauma trigger in the classroom, or anticipate every person’s emotional reaction to any topic. You can only make decisions informed by the best information you have available. The bulk of that information needs to be your students’ and their families’ feedback and ideas. Find ways to build in regular, ongoing feedback from your students. You might use a simple Google form, send an email, or schedule 1:1 conferences. Ask about how things are going, what feels good about class, what feels challenging, what students and their families need from you. Adjust your practice based on what you learn. 

This year is going to be difficult. There won’t be any single answers to the complicated questions in front of us. I hope these guidelines can help you to embrace a “both/and” approach. Sending each and every one of you strength and support. Thanks for reading. 

Summer learning

*update: both of these classes are now full/closed. Stay tuned for future course and workshops! 

Professional development online mini-course

ReTURN to School with Trauma-Informed & Restorative Practices: I’m excited to be collaborating with Triad Restorative Justice for this mini-course for educators. Over two weeks, you’ll learn about the foundations of trauma-informed and restorative practices and put your learning into action by creating a plan for your return to school – whatever that may look like. I know that, for me, when times feel uncertain and I’m trying to figure out how the heck to teach, I return to my core values of trauma-informed and restorative practices. We hope to offer you a space to explore how these approaches can ground your work as well. 

Details and pay-what-you-can registration here. 


One-credit graduate course

Excited to share a new graduate course I’m teaching through Antioch University. This 1-credit course for teachers explores the four priorities of a trauma-informed approach, with a focus on how to apply this learning to the fall. No one has any answers about what the fall will look like, but what’s certain is the uncertainty and unpredictability for ourselves and our students. I believe that trauma-informed principles can help ground us and guide us through difficult times, providing clarity on what’s important for us and our students.

The course is four weeks long, mostly asynchronous with some live Q&A/community-building sessions on Zoom. I’m hoping to build a collaborative learning community so you can network, brainstorm, and dream with other teachers.

More details and registration here.


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.



Resource Round-Up: Mindfulness in Schools

Are you thinking of implementing mindfulness, breathing, yoga or other wellness-focused social-emotional learning in your classroom? These practices can be powerful ways to develop self-awareness and wellness tools for life, but beware: these practices can also be unhelpful or even harmful, too. As with any new practice, we educators should think critically about mindfulness, breathing, yoga, or wellness practices before implementing them. Here are some of my favorite resources to help with this critical analysis:

First, read Paul Gorski’s piece on Equity Detours and check that you’re not using social-emotional learning as a racial equity detour.

Next, Christina Torres on how mindfulness won’t save us, but fixing the system will. We need to balance supporting kids to cope with addressing the conditions that require them to cope in the first place.

When offering students wellness strategies, we need to make sure we’re not just forcing students to use strategies that work for us. Here’s a piece from me on self-determination and SEL.

Turning to mindfulness specifically, it’s important to understand that mindfulness activities can actually be triggering for trauma-affected students. Read more from Katrina Schwartz here.

Speaking of which, this is a fascinating piece on why “take a deep breath” isn’t always good advice.

We should also consider the question “who gets to be well?,” posed by Dr. Angela Rose Black. She created Mindfulness for the People to center the voices and experiences of People of Color in the mindfulness movement and this interview with her is a great read.

Want a deep dive into how mindfulness in schools can be problematic (or powerful)? Read this journal article on “Beyond Deep Breathing.”

If you have additional resources or insights to share, please leave a comment!

This post is a write-up of a Twitter thread – you can find the original here.

Photo by freestocks.org on Unsplash

Recommended Reading: “No one noticed, no one heard”

While doing research for my book, I came across this report from the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (in the UK): No one noticed, no one heard: a study of disclosures of childhood abuse. [Content note: the report contains discussion of multiple types of abuse and the impact of abuse on children and families.]

I have SO many swirling thoughts after finishing my reading of this report. If you work with children, take the time to read this. Here are some of my initial thoughts, but I know I’ll be processing this study for a long time.

This study looked at the experiences of young people (ages 18 to 24) reflecting on their disclosures of childhood abuse prior to age 18. Of the 60 young people interviewed by Debbie Allnock and Pam Miller, most (80%) told someone or tried to tell someone of the abuse they endured. Yet 90% of those who disclosed had a negative experience in their disclosure journey: they weren’t believed. They were ignored. They were spoken down to, or left out of the process. Sometimes disclosure made things worse, as when a teacher reported a child’s disclosure to her parents (who were the perpetrators of the abuse).

There were also moments of success and support, many involving disclosure to peers and friends. This made me think of how we talk to all students about supporting one another through hard times. Are we so focused on helping teachers become trauma-informed that we overlook one of the biggest resources our students have – one another?

Here are some of the big takeaways for me from this report:

  1. Believe kids when they disclose abuse. No matter what.
  2. Schools need to get crystal clear on the process of support and communication after student disclosure. It’s not just about complying with mandated reporting law. How are we communicating with students about the process in a way that empowers them? How are we explaining the process in a developmentally appropriate way? How are students supported after the legal boxes are ticked?
  3. Get to know your students. So many of the young people in this study wished that their teachers and other adults asked what was wrong. You can’t notice that something is wrong if you don’t know your students in the first place.

As I read, I also couldn’t help but think about the recent trend of schools asking students to fill out ACEs checklists. In Allnock and Miller’s study, young people shared the pain of disclosing their abuse only to have it ignored or minimized, or for there to be no meaningful follow-up. For those children who told someone about abuse while it was happening, fewer than half said that their disclosure led to the abuse actually stopping. Fewer than half. Youth in the study also shared that sometimes they weren’t ready to disclose to authority figures, choosing to talk to friends instead. I wonder about the experience of students prompted to fill out an ACE checklist, and whether there is meaningful follow-through on these disclosures. Why ask if we aren’t ready to truly hear, and to act? We need to take great caution as a field when considering the dynamics of disclosure as it connects to ACEs. Children wanted to be noticed and asked personally by a trusted adult if something was wrong. Schools need to carefully consider what all of this means in the context ofboundaries and role clarity.

These are just some of my initial thoughts, but I hope you can see what a powerful resource this is for anyone working with children. I encourage you to read the whole report for more recommendations and action steps from the authors.  The report contains the words of the young people themselves and there is nothing more powerful than listening to their voices. 


Image credit: Photo by Guillaume de Germain on Unsplash