Learn with me this summer: Trauma-Conscious Teaching book groups

This summer I’m facilitating two online book groups and I would love for you to join me!

About the books

Fostering Resilient Learners

Image result for fostering resilient learnersThis fantastic read, by Kristin Souers and Pete Hall, succinctly and compellingly outlines the basic information and approaches for creating a trauma-informed classroom. Each chapter has concrete examples and great reflection questions. This book is a “quick read,” which is good because you’ll want to read it two or three more times! I highly encourage this book for anyone who’s just getting started with trauma-informed teaching, or for anyone who’s looking to better communicate some of these concepts out to your staff. There are several great activities, metaphors and examples that you’ll immediately want to share with others.

This book group is three weeks long and each week you’ll read about 50 to 70 pages.

The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog

Bruce Perry is one of the leading researchers on child trauma. You may recognize his name from his recent segment with Oprah on 60 Minutes. In this book, Perry shares case examples from his career to illustrate how early trauma

Image result for the boy who was raised as a dogimpacts children, and how adults can help in the healing process. This book is for you if you’re looking for more in-depth knowledge on how trauma affects the brain and the body.

This book group is five weeks long and each week you’ll read about 50-60 pages. Please be aware that, because this book uses real and specific examples of abuse and neglect, it can be quite triggering and/or hard to read. In our discussions we’ll build in time and space to process the emotions that come up while reading this book, and I encourage folks reading it to take breaks or skip sections as needed.

Book group structure

Each book group will take place in an online forum through Antioch University. I will be posting the chapters to read for that week along with some suggested discussion questions. Throughout the week, participants are encouraged to respond to discussion questions or post any thoughts, questions or reflections of their own while reading. I’ll also be posting some additional resources

Trauma Conscious Teaching

connected to the theme of the week’s reading.

At the end of each book group, I’ll be hosting a live video chat for participants to discuss our learning, ask questions, and brainstorm next steps in our work. When completed, you’ll receive a certificate for professional development hours, and you can also use your learning for this course toward the Trauma-Conscious Teaching Microcredential.

Any questions?

Please feel free to get in touch, or simply sign up! Click the title of the books above for the link to the registration pages. I hope to learn with you this summer!

 

 

When our students identify with the shooter

“When school shootings happen, why don’t we talk about it?”

This is a question posed by a student group working with Tom Rademacher. It stopped me in my tracks when I read it, in a photo posted by Tom of whiteboard notes from a student activist planning session.

The question, to me, is the whole ballgame of education. When our students want and need to talk about what’s important to them, do we show up? Do we create space? Do we set aside our lesson and just listen? Do we sit in the discomfort, because we serve our students, or do we avoid hard conversations in our own self-interest?

In the last few months, I’ve been thinking a lot about how our own fears as educators (and people) can drown out our ability to hear what our students are really saying.

In the aftermath of yet another school shooting, we expect that our students are going to be scared. We, as the adults, are also scared. Will I die today in this place? It’s a horrifying question to consider, yet we see images of the victims and can’t help but feel connected. I teach English, too. I would stand in front of my students, too. Our students see themselves: I would send that text. I would speak out if I survived. I would be terrified.

Yet, what do we do when our students see themselves reflected not in the victims, but in the shooters?

In my time teaching at a therapeutic school, many of my students were more likely to be categorized as bullies, not targets. Their “challenging behavior” was often what landed them at our school- or, their original school’s response to that behavior. Many of these students lacked coping skills and healthy boundaries. They struggled to form and sustain reciprocal relationships. Faced with trauma, poverty, mental health challenges, and a whole range of adverse experiences, these students were often in survival mode. Doing the best they could.

Survival mode isn’t inspirational. My students were often unkind. They made awful choices. They lied and lashed out and broke stuff. I cared deeply about every single one of them, even though it felt impossible sometimes. That was my job. I saw the magic in every one of them. Even when they were jerks.

I cared deeply about every one of them. And that care made it possible for me to hear them say “I am going to bring a gun to school” and really listen to what they meant.

As I write this, I feel the tension and I hear objections echoing. “We have to take all threats seriously.” Yes, I agree. “We can’t make excuses for these perpetrators’ behavior.” I agree.

And. Some of our students will read the news and identify with the shooter. They feel lonely and isolated. They feel powerless. They don’t have the skills to cope with the overwhelming feelings. They wonder, “If I did the worst possible thing in the world, would anyone still love me? Does anyone really care that much about me?”

So when a student who I care about says, “I want to bring a gun to school,” how should I respond?

“You can’t say that.”

“Don’t joke about that.”

“I need to call the administrator.”

“I need to call the police.”

Or should I say, “That sounds like a really intense feeling. Tell me more?” Should I say, “I really care about you and it makes my heart hurt to know that you are that angry. Let’s talk about it?” What would it look like to set aside my own fear and let myself empathize with a student who is empathizing with what I perceive as evil?

What would it look like to recognize the complexity of trauma and how victims so often become perpetrators? What would it look like to learn into that messiness and choose empathy instead of fear?

I wish I knew how to identify when a student is reaching out for help or when they have crossed over the point of no return. I wish I knew what the line was – when a student is speaking their truth and seeking connection, and when a student is sharing a murderous plan. I wish I knew how to prevent these atrocities. And I am not making a case against sharing information, reporting, or intervening.

But I’m wondering. When we talk about school shootings, can we be brave enough to recognize that some of our students identify with the shooter? And can we hold them in our care, our empathy, and our curiosity? Can we pull them closer into our community and say, “No matter what awful thing has crossed your mind, you still belong here”?

I don’t know the answers. But I am committed to wrestling with them until we find a better path forward. I am holding all of the victims, past and future, in my heart, and all of my magical, struggling students, too.

 

 

 

“In the real world”

One of the most common lines of resistance when it comes to social-emotional learning in schools: “But what about in the real world?”

I’ve heard this objection over and over in response to social-emotional learning and support strategies in schools. “In the real world, there’s no such thing as a Peace Corner.” “In the real world, no one is going to sit in a circle and talk things out with you.” “In the real world, you don’t get unlimited chances.”

Let’s look a little closer on what it means to invoke “the real world” as a reason not to provide children with social-emotional support.

Real world versus…fake world?

The most obvious objection here is the implication that schools are somehow not “real.” When students spend most of their waking hours on school and school-related activities for at least 13 years, I don’t see how we can argue that this time isn’t “real.” Yes, children are preparing for adulthood – but all of the time they spend on the way to adulthood counts, and students deserve to develop skills and experience supports specific to their time in school.

It’s also essential here to remember that children’s brains are different from adult’s brains, and children developmentally need different support as they grow. Just as you use training wheels on a bike, you also need support as you develop skills to manage your emotions, develop healthy sense of self, and learn to connect with others.

The real world isn’t black and white

One of the common threads of “real world” objections seems to be that “in the real world, there’s no support.” Is this really true? In the “Peace Corner” video linked above, the strategy presented is essentially a way to support students to take a break when things are stressful. Don’t most adults find ways to do this during their work days? We go to the water cooler, we take a quick walk, we space out at our desk for a few moments, we linger on the way to the restroom.

In objecting to restorative practices or alternatives to suspension, the “real world” argument goes that “people aren’t that understanding in the real world.” While this one varies largely depending on context, let’s look at it from the lens of interpersonal conflict (which describes a huge portion of what ends up being “disciplined” in schools). Yes, it’s true that some behaviors may get you fired on the spot. But most of the time, when we mess up in the “real world” we actually do “talk it out.” We meet with our supervisors. We talk things through with our spouses. We get messy with conflict rather than receiving a harsh sentence from above. We need to be able to tolerate frustration, find ways to solve our own problems, and manage relationships.

Another one I’ve heard is, “in the real world, you don’t get do-overs.” Tell that to the many folks who have retaken drivers tests, reapplied for jobs or college admissions, or revised work assignments. Part of the real world often involves the process of evaluating our mistakes and incorporating that reflection into a new course of action.

Whose real world?

There are also cultural assumptions built into the “real world” objections. There seems to be an individualistic stance, an idea that in the “real world” we are all on our own. While this may be the dominant view of white Christian America, the reality is different in other cultures that emphasize connectedness, community, and mutual care. When we perpetuate the myth of meritocracy, kids suffer.

In many people’s “real worlds,” connections are how we survive and thrive. We need to support students to learn how to create and sustain healthy relationships – the “social” aspect of social-emotional learning.

Real world, or a better world?

Most importantly, we should stop talking about the “real world” because it keeps us from talking about a better world. If the premise of a “real world” argument is that the real world is harsh, why would we want to replicate such a world in our schools? From a developmental standpoint, exposing children to harsh conditions causes lasting neurological damage, whereas surrounding children with loving, supportive relationships buffers them from future trauma.

We need to surround them with more caring, not less. And when these children, raised with the confidence that they matter, enter adulthood, they’ll be more equipped to make change. They won’t merely be prepared for the “real world” – they’ll create a better one.

 

Photo credit: Emma Craig, flickr

Learn with me: Trauma-Conscious Teaching Micro-credential

Whenever I run a training, share a blog post, or have a conversation with educators about how trauma affects student learning, I hear the same things: “I want more resources,” “I wish I had learned about this sooner,” “How can I learn more?” Teachers are hungry for information about how to better support our students whose lives and learning are impacted by trauma. Whenever I hear these comments, I’m further inspired to get training and reflection opportunities to more teachers so we can all get on the same page about how our schools can foster change and resilience.

I’m really excited to share that we are launching a micro-credential program for Trauma-Conscious Teaching through Antioch University. This collaboration is taught by myself and mindfulness specialist Robert Black, and open to all as a non-credit-bearing opportunity (you don’t have to be an Antioch student to enroll).

For those new to the concept, micro-credentials are intended to offer personalized, competency-based experiences for teachers, recognizing formal and informal learning. Many places define and structure micro-credentials differently. For our experience through Antioch, the micro-credential involves participation in a series of online and face-to-face workshops, webinars, mini-courses, book studies, and reflection. There are six to seven options; completing five of these plus a capstone reflective project comprises the micro-credential, all centering around increasing our support of trauma-affected students.

The micro-credential is for you if:

  • Small, “bite sized” course opportunities fit your schedule (the longest experience is a 5-week book study)
  • You want to dig into the content, skills, and reflective practice necessary to better support trauma-affected students
  • You are in the vicinity of, or can travel to, Keene, New Hampshire (for now, the in-person opportunities take place there. We hope to eventually offer everything online)

I’ll update this post once we get a full information page up on the Antioch website, but in the meantime you can register for several of the experiences coming up this spring:

 

These dates are just for the first round of the micro-credential – I’ll be updating soon with dates for Fall 2018 and more information about putting the pieces together with a capstone project. You are also more than welcome to take any of the piece “a la carte” without taking the entire micro-credential. Stay tuned and please let me know if you have any question! I hope I’ll see you in one of these experiences to learn together.

The Challenging Student Challenge

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.

What can one teacher really do about trauma?

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.

 

Letting go of ACEs to support trauma-affected students

 

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/shevtech/status/948221926371221507