Two Resources for Understanding Survival Brain

 

When you look out over your classroom of students, what do you see? Students talking, students writing, students texting, students wiggling, students with their heads down, students staring at nothing.

Which of them are ready to learn? And which of them are just trying to survive?

There’s no way we can get inside a student’s brain, but we can look at students through our trauma-informed lenses. One key concept in our trauma-informed work is the understanding of the stress-response system. Our bodies and brains react to danger in order to keep us safe. But childhood trauma can make this system less effective, causing our stress-response system to activate whether or not real danger is present. And real danger is often present for students, whether that danger comes from an abusive adult, the impacts of racism, or the stressors of poverty.

Much of the information about survival brain can get technical, exploring the neurological systems behind the stress response system. That’s important to understand, but it’s also essential to consider the lived experience of our students.

These are two stand-out resources on survival brain that help to develop an empathetic understanding of what it feels like to exist in survival brain:

Learning Brain vs. Survival Brain: in this video, Jacob Ham illustrates the differences between a calm state for learning and a brain attuned to survival. This is a wonderful visual for introducing this concept.

What Survival Looks like: these incredible handouts detail what it might look like and feel like for students to go into the various modes of survival: fight, flight, freeze, or submit. Reading through these will help develop your empathy for students who enter into survival mode at school.

How might you take this knowledge and make some changes so that your classroom fosters learning brain? What might you do to help your students develop a sense of safety and belonging? Check out these resources, and then let me know what you think!

Zero tolerance and the college classroom

My colleague Emily recently asked me about how to build more trauma-informed college classrooms. Emily and I both teach at a community college, and trauma-informed classroom environments couldn’t be more essential in this setting. While we certainly don’t ask for or collect any data about our students’ experience of trauma, I can infer that a large percentage of our student population has survived adverse experiences. In a typical semester, my class includes:

  • Students who came to the United States as refugees
  • Students who are currently or have in the past served in the military
  • Students who are in recovery from substance use
  • Students who don’t have enough money to meet their basic needs
  • Students who are currently or have in the past been homeless

Using my trauma-informed lens, I know that it’s essential for me to create a safe and supportive environment for these students to thrive. While the adult learner may have gained more coping strategies and self-regulation skills than an elementary school student, adult brains are still impacted by trauma. My adult learners still need relationship and respect to thrive and succeed.

The “how” is not that different from what we know about trauma-informed K-12 environments. I know that a trauma-informed classroom should prioritize connection, empowerment, predictability, and flexibility. I can build all of these things into my syllabus and the way that my classroom runs day to day.

One thing I do want to highlight is the flexibility piece. In a trauma-informed environment, we recognize that context is key, and the same interventions or responses don’t work for every student. In a K-12 setting, this often means looking at school-wide disciplinary policies or behavioral responses. Most experts on trauma-informed education recommend drastically decreasing or eliminating zero-tolerance policies within schools.

Zero tolerance in the syllabus

In a college classroom, I believe that many teachers impose zero-tolerance policies in the name of learning, and we can do better. These policies come up around grading and attendance. They even come up around students’ use of email.

I recently saw a well-known professor share a piece of her syllabus language. It stated (paraphrased): “You must begin your email to me with a salutation, such as ‘Dear Professor.’ Emails that do not include a salutation will be ignored. Seriously, I won’t reply to those emails.'”

This is a zero-tolerance policy: you mess up, and without regard to context, I will not respond to your attempt at communication.

Unwritten messages

Now, I have no idea if this particular instructor actually enforces this policy, or how she might respond given the context of the email. It’s worrisome if she does: often, the instructor is one of the only points of contact a student has on campus (especially true in community college where students don’t live in dorms). Imagine that I am the only trusted representative of the college for a student, and he reaches out through email, writing: “I am really struggling with some mental health stuff. I won’t be in class tomorrow.” He didn’t write “Dear professor.” Do I really ignore the email?

Let’s give the professor the benefit of the doubt and assume that her humanity trumps her policy. I’m still worried about the presence of the policy itself. When I read the policy, I understand: “How you communicate is more important than what you communicate. My preferences for email are more important than what you need.”

That take-away message might prevent students from building a relationship and reaching out when they need help. It might perpetuate a feeling of a power imbalance. And it might contribute to an overall feeling, especially among community college students: “college isn’t about what I learn; it’s about meeting all of these rules – different ones for each professor! I can’t be successful.”

High expectations with care

So what’s the alternative? Maybe you’re reading this and thinking to yourself, “Okay, I get this, but I still want students to use proper email etiquette.”

Me too! This is where we practice the balance of trauma-informed teaching: holding high expectations and communicating care at every step along the way.

Here’s how I do this around email in my classroom:

The first assignment of the semester is to read a short article about how to write professional emails to college instructors. Just google “how to email a professor” and there are several options to choose from. I used this one last semester.

The second half of this assignment is to send me an email, using the tips from the article. I ask students to introduce themselves to me in this email, tell me something awesome about themselves, and share the last book they read. This serves several purposes: I can assess whether they understood the content of the article, and I also start to build relationship. I reply to each of these emails, making a connection about what they shared, and if necessary, giving feedback if they didn’t follow the email format from the article.

This assignment alone does 99% of the work for me. I’ve found that over the semester, most students follow the format, most of the time. If I get any particularly egregious outliers, I respond to the content of the email first (“Hi Andrew, I’m sorry to hear that you’re sick. Please check Moodle this afternoon for next week’s homework”) followed by any feedback about the form of the email (“One more thing – your email was a little hard to follow. If you scroll back up to our Week 1 assignments in Moodle, you can reread the article about how to write professional emails. Thanks!”).

I also encourage students to email me often. In my experience, reaching out for help is the difference between a student who fails or drops the class and a student who struggles but still passes. I want students to reach out, even if they don’t do it “right.”

Finally, I never ignore an email from a student.

Embracing the “both/and”

Trauma-informed teaching is often about the “both/and.” We can both hold high expectations and communicate care. We can both treat adult learners as adults and recognize that “being an adult” doesn’t mean going it alone.

To build a trauma-informed college classroom, I encourage instructors to critically look at how they might decrease zero-tolerance policies and seek to prioritize relationship. Learning is messy; so is healing from trauma. Embrace the mess and we can all be a little more human together.

Trauma-Conscious Teaching Microcredential: Spring Dates

Along with my colleague Robert Black at Antioch University, I’m pleased to continue offering this rigorous microcredential in Trauma-Conscious Teaching. The goal of this program is to help teachers build a strong foundation from which to create trauma-informed learning environments. Each experience is designed to deepen your understanding and also give you practical tools for your classroom and your own reflective practice.

Trauma Conscious Teaching

We’re pleased to now be offering all of the pieces of this microcredential online! See below for spring/summer dates, and click through for descriptions. Get in touch if you have any questions!

Teacher’s Trauma Toolbox

Two webinars: May 8th & 15th, 7:00-8:30pm EST

Book Study: Fostering Resilient Learners

Online book group: April 15th through May 3rd, asynchronous, with a Zoom meeting 4/30 at 7pm EST

Book Study: The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog

Online book group: July 8th through August 9th, asynchronous, with a Zoom meeting 8/6 at 7pm EST

Preventing and Addressing Vicarious Trauma

Webinar: January 30th, 7:00-8:30pm EST OR June 12th, 7:00-8:30pm EST

Trauma-Conscious Pedagogy & Reflective Practice

Mini online course: April 1 through April 26th, asynchronous 

Introduction to Mindfulness and Heart Practices (taught by Robert Black)

Webinar series: Feb 26, March 19, April 9, & April 30 (all at 6:30 to 8:00 pm EST)

Learn with me: spring course information

This spring, I’m excited to be teaching an online class called Beyond the Buzzword: Deepening Knowledge & Practice of Trauma-Informed Education. It’s a 3-credit graduate course, fully online with three real-time video calls so we can connect and talk about our learning. 

In this class, I’m hoping to push past the “101-level” understanding of trauma-informed education and think critically about questions like these:

  • How does identity intersect with trauma?
  • How do we talk about trauma and does it matter? (For example -should we say “trauma-sensitive” or “trauma-informed”? Why?) 
  • Can a school emphasize compliance and also be trauma-informed? 
  • What can we learn from experts in the clinical field who have been doing this work for a long time? 
  • What does trauma-informed school policy look like? 

I’m not the end-all expert on trauma and learning, and a lot of these questions don’t have straightforward answers. I’m hoping to cultivate a learning community through this course, developing our understanding together.

We’ll be guided by two excellent (and very different) texts: 

Troublemakers by Carla Shalaby will help us explore the connection between trauma, compliance, and freedom.

The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog by Bruce Perry will help us face the grim reality of child abuse and neglect and teach us about the connections between trauma, attachment, mental health, and the brain. 

I’ll also be sharing from the collection of articles, research, blog posts, and other resources I collect on various aspects of trauma-informed teaching. 

I hope that you’ll consider joining me for this learning experience, or passing this information along to an interested colleague or friend. Feel free to email me with any questions! 

Trauma-informed teachers need trauma-informed administrators

Trauma-informed teachers need trauma-informed school leaders.

Teachers need support in order to support their students.

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

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

Recognize that your teachers have experienced trauma, too

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

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

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

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

Acknowledge that trauma occurs at school

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

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

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

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

Put your time where your values are.

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

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

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

Know your role

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

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

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

Use your leverage

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

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

Ask Alex: how should I show support to a grieving student?

Today’s question comes from Irene on Twitter:

“Hi! I’m a high school student teacher, just starting to build relationships with my kids. Over the weekend, a student’s father passed away. Her best friend is in my class, and was visibly upset yesterday. Tips on not wanting to pry, but show support?”

Sometimes the simplest things go a long way. It can be enough to say, “Hey, you seem sad. You don’t need to talk about it with me or anything, but I just wanted to say that we’re here for you if you need to talk, or if you need to take a break, or if you want to see a really cute video of my cat playing fetch. Just let me know.” I mean, that’s what I would say (it’s very cute when my cat plays fetch), but customize to how you authentically interact and go for it.

Here are a couple of key points for approaching a student who has something going on, especially when you may or may not know what that “something” is:

  • If a student does want to talk about what’s going on, practice listening and validating their emotions rather than giving advice or solutions. “That must be really difficult,” “It sounds like you feel sad,” “I can see how much that upsets you.” Don’t rush to action or try to fix their problems – just listen.
  • If the conversation feels too complex or heavy for your role (especially as a student teacher), gently let the student know that you may need to bring in others in order to best support them. (Example: “Marielle, thank you so much for sharing this. I’m always here to listen. I was thinking, though, that some of this sounds pretty intense for you and I’m wondering if we could go walk down to the counseling office together. I think it might be really helpful for you to chat with someone who knows a lot about helping kids through this stuff”).
  • Don’t hold onto a student’s trauma by yourself- it’s not good for you or for the student. Talk about what’s going on with your mentor teacher, and others in the school as needed/appropriate. It can be really hard to carry students’ stories, but you don’t have to do it alone.

The biggest tip I can offer for supporting a student who seems like they’re going through a hard time: approach these situations with no expectation that the student lets you know what’s going on. You don’t need to know the details to be supportive. Picture it like this: you’re at an airport by yourself, feeling extremely upset. The people around you don’t know what’s going on but can see that you’ve been crying. Without knowing your story, someone offers you a seat, or hands you an extra snack packet, or helps you with your bag. If you’ve ever been in a situation like this and experienced the kindness of strangers, you know how moving it can be to be offered little gestures of support without needing to pour out your heart in return.

Even though you know your student, and it can feel tempting to try to get the inside scoop of exactly what’s going on, extend them the trusting kindness you might extend to a stranger. Ask them to help you carry something to the office so they can get a quick break from class, pass them a sticky note with a funny doodle on it, let them use your fancy pens for the period. Sometimes in schools I hear of teachers asking students to provide “proof” before excusing an off day, whether it’s a doctor’s note, confirmation that the grandmother really died, or invasive questioning. Being trauma-informed means extending kindness and grace even (especially) in absence of any “evidence” that it’s needed, just because it’s the right thing to do.

I hope your student finds the support they need, and thank you for being a caring teacher and asking this question!

 

If you want to ask a question about trauma-informed teaching and responding to challenging behavior in class, email Alex@UnconditionalLearning.org or get in touch on Twitter at @AlexSVenet!