Ask Alex: how do I balance academics and emotional support?

Today’s question comes from Jessica Carlson on Twitter:

“If a student is not doing their schoolwork/classwork because of the grief / trauma they’re experiencing in the moment, what’s the best way to help them through both?”

I love this question because it gets at the critical intersection between unconditional positive regard and pedagogy. Let’s look at how we can approach this situation with a combination of high expectations and centering humanity: 

I’ve often heard the misconception that in trauma-informed education, we should lower our academic standards for students who have been impacted by trauma. In fact, the opposite is true. If we lower expectations, we might reinfornce a student’s negative self-image: “My teacher doesn’t think I can do this – I knew it – I’m not good enough.” The alternative? Hold high expectations – and help students reach them. The idea of “islands of competence” is a helpful one: we can start with student strengths and then create bridges to new content and skills.

So now to our question: you have a student in your class who cannot do their work or engage in class that day. It’s your understanding that this is connected to trauma and/or grief. What’s next? 

The key here is flexibility. While maintaining our high academic standards, we should provide students with flexible ways to meet those standards. We also have to just be human and meet students where they are.

If a student comes into class, clearly upset, and can’t seem to focus or get started on her work – be a human. What would you do if you saw a coworker or friend in that situation? You probably wouldn’t repeatedly prompt them to complete their work. Ask your student if they’re OK, encourage them to take a break, give them some space. Acknowledge that their emotions are valid and you care about them. And then – this is the key – follow up. 

How might this follow-up look? 

“Hey Sarah, I’m so sorry you were feeling so down today. Can we check in about the project? Tell me what you’ve gotten done so far and what your next step is. Then we can figure out if you’re going to need an extension or if you’re on track.” 

“Tim, thanks so much for letting me know you needed a break today. While you were out of the room, we went over some new material. I have a couple of options for you on getting that information – I can give you a link to a Khan Academy video on the same topic, or you can read from the textbook chapter and then come check in during lunch to go over questions. Which would work better for you?” 

“Hi Lee. How are you feeling now after doing some sketching and those deep breaths we talked about? That’s great that you’re feeling better. I wanted to touch base because we did the first step of a group activity today, and I want to make sure you feel ready to join into your small group tomorrow. Let’s go over the outline I handed out and then we can figure out what else you step into group work tomorrow.”

In all of these examples, we meet our students with empathy, as humans, first. Then, we review the academic expectation, and approach the student with a collaborative attitude. We don’t leave them to figure out how to catch up on their own, which may be an overwhelming task for students who are already overwhelmed. 

I also find it helpful to be clear about what I can be flexible about and what I can’t. This requires us to be clear about the “why” behind our activities and assignments. If the student missed skills practice, how else might the student practice the skill? If the student missed a building block of content, how could the student access that instruction? We shouldn’t simply ask students to make up every single thing we did in class just because we did it. It has to matter to their ongoing learning and growth toward competency. 

One more thing to think about: if this becomes a pattern for a student, it’s worth scheduling an outside-of-class check-in, with any combination of the student and: family, other teachers, counselor, special educator, other supportive adults. Lead a discussion, centering the student’s thoughts and ideas, about the pattern that’s been coming up, and how the team of support can work together to help the student address both the underlying emotional needs and the ongoing academic work (Ross Greene’s Plan B approach might work really well here). 

To sum it up: meet your student with unconditional positive regard. Affirm their emotions and address the immediate emotional need. Maintain high expectations, but with a flexibility of how to arrive at competence. And when patterns develop, work as a team.

Thanks for the question, and if you have a question of your own, send me an email at Alex@UnconditionalLearning.org!