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.


Learn with me this spring

The students who fall through the cracks and get pushed out of their communities need us to change how we approach our work with them.  This change can happen when we take the time and space to self-reflect.

I believe that self-reflection is one of the most important things teachers can do to improve their support of all students, the challenging ones especially. We need to identify our hidden beliefs and emotions to understand why some students feel more frustrating than others. We need to find ways to transform our experiences into meaning and align our philosophies with our practice.

This spring, I’m teaching a graduate course through the Castleton Center for Schools to help teachers take the time for this self-reflection, focusing on trauma-informed and strengths-based approaches to working with challenging students. The course meets face-to-face twice in Winooski, Vermont, to allow us to build community and dive into thoughtful conversations about our practice and our beliefs. In between those two meetings, we’ll read, reflect and discuss online, applying new learning directly to our current classroom environments.

At the end of the course, you can expect to walk away with concrete strategies, problem-solving approaches, and many resources to explore. I also hope you’ll walk away with more questions than answers, and a willingness to carry that inquiry into your work.

Please join me to create a learning community that will help you build your skill set to support challenging students.

Register at the Castleton Center for Schools site.