a path on a mountain

The trauma-informed toolbox (and mixed metaphors)

I’m looking forward to teaching a workshop this October on the teacher’s trauma toolbox. The goal is to help teachers get started with trauma-informed teaching and learning. I hope teachers will walk away having developed their understanding of child trauma as well as jumpstarted their thinking on trauma-informed strategies for their classrooms.

Trauma-informed teaching isn’t something you can master after a one-day workshop, or a semester class, or even many years of intense study and practice. It’s an ongoing process to support students who have experienced trauma, because every child is different and every response to trauma is different. Moreover, being in relationship with people with traumatic experience can be difficult, and requires regular checking in with ourselves and recalibrating so we can sustain the work.

The trauma toolbox

We can best prepare to serve students with traumatic backgrounds by developing our own toolbox. Not every tool will work for a given job, but if we maintain a diverse set we are more likely to have what we need when we need it. Some tools will work for many situations, while we save others for a very specific project. When using trauma-informed strategies, the range of tools is essential because one student’s response to trauma will never be exactly the same as another’s. This is especially true when “challenging” behavior comes up; I may need to try a dozen different tools before I find the one that works.

As most handy folks and homeowners also know, sometimes our own toolbox isn’t enough, and it’s essential to know when to call the plumber or the electrician. An essential aspect of our trauma-informed toolbox is knowing when to call on others – whether they be school counselors, psychologists, or social workers, or your local mental-health or child welfare agency. There’s also something to be said for the home-improvement show, youtube video or internet forum where we can get a refresher on how to use the tools we already have, or get unstuck when we’re frustrated.

Where the metaphor falls apart

a path on a mountain

While your home toolbox may be used to fix broken stuff, we aren’t “fixing” students and they certainly aren’t broken. Here I’ll use a different metaphor for our role in supporting students who’ve experienced trauma – the hike.

Ever been hiking with someone who hasn’t really been hiking much before? You’re both walking on the same path, but maybe it’s slightly easier for you, because you have more practice. You don’t need to tell your hiking partner how to walk, because they already know how to do that, but you might make some suggestions if there’s a tricky uphill scramble.

As you walk, you’re paying attention to the other hiker, and guiding the way, but the two of you are also connecting, together, and noticing, together, what’s going on in the woods around you. While the less experienced person might need your help at times, you might also need them and rely on their expertise as you cross obstacles together.

You might need to prompt your hiking partner when to stop and take a break and drink some water, but it’s also essential that you pay attention to your own needs, as well. Supporting our students through trauma is something we do together, walking side by side, while ultimately respecting the autonomy of the journey.

The path through healing from trauma can be difficult and complicated, and we do best when we walk it together, whatever the metaphor.

I hope you’ll join me on October 7 in Keene, NH for the Teacher’s Trauma Toolbox workshop. Can’t attend? Check out resources for getting started with trauma-informed teaching or get in touch to schedule a workshop at your site.

Language Matters, or Why I Love Edutopia

So there are a lot of websites that have tips and resources for teachers. Why do I always refer people to Edutopia​? My answer lives in this story.

Edutopia has pages for different subjects, and one is mental health. Their description used to read like this:

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“Life in the 21st century is exciting but also stressful. Discover and share resources for promoting psychological well-being.”

As someone who works intensely with young people who struggle with mental health issues, this language rubbed me the wrong way. Mental health isn’t about “exciting but also stressful,” and I felt that the descriptor made light of those struggling with trauma, anxiety, depression, and other mental health challenges.

Language matters, and I think these small messages all around us build up to influence our thinking. Our worldview is shaped by the narratives around us. Edutopia focuses on “what works in education,” and to me, continuing misunderstanding and stigmatization of those with mental health challenges is not “what works.”

So I said something about the page description to the team at Edutopia, like, hey, I don’t think this description is doing what you want it to do, and here’s why.

The response to my concern is why I will recommend Edutopia and its community to anyone who wants resources on what works in education. The team there could have ignored my feedback, or could have said, “well, it’s just two sentences on a page, it doesn’t matter.” Instead? They asked me for more feedback – how would I rework the language? They took things under consideration as part of their larger process. And ultimately, they made a change.

Here’s how the page looks now:

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“Find compassionate perspectives and evidence-based strategies to foster school environments that promote psychological well-being and support students experiencing behavioral, emotional or social challenges.”

That is language I can stand behind. That language validates the challenges and invites teachers into the process. More importantly, the change shows me that Edutopia not only recognizes the importance of language, but also the importance of feedback and evaluation, and the hard work it takes to consistently align our “walk” with our “talk” – our values with our actions. As an educator I hope I can capitalize on moments of feedback as effectively as I saw Edutopia do here. Reflectiveness, openness, and a willingness to grow – that’s what “works” in education.

Phrases I Can’t Live Without

I hear a lot of conversations in educator spheres about “the power of relationship.” We all know relationship is important; we agree that caring about our students is essential if they are going to trust that they can learn safely in our classes. I’d love to see the conversation turn now to the how of powerful relationship with students. I’m lucky to work in a school where I have the luxury of time and a small ratio to get to know my students well, but I think anyone in any setting can build powerful relationship if they develop the skills to do so.

One small thing anyone can do is pay attention to her speech. How do your words line up with your stance toward students? Are students hearing in your everyday conversations how much you care about them? Here are some of my go-to phrases for aligning my walk with my talk.

 

  • Tell me more. I can spend all day trying to analyze, interpret and theorize what’s going on with my students, but I find that if I listen well enough, the student will tell me exactly what’s going on and what they need. Same with coworkers and staff.
  • I don’t know. Being in authentic relationship means being vulnerable. Whether it’s an answer to a math question – I really don’t know! – or an acknowledgement that I don’t know how it feels to be in foster care, in a fight with my step-dad, struggling with hunger – saying I don’t know allows me to be honest and allows my student to trust that I’m not just going to fake my way through our relationship. “I don’t know” is best followed up with but let’s figure it out together. 
  • In response to a variety of questions, from “Can I take a break?” to “Can’t I just drop out of school?” to “Can I study medical marijuana?”: Yes – now let’s think about what that will mean – for you and for those around you. Starting with “yes” validates that what my student wants is valid, important, and ultimately, up to him, not me. Exploring choices is the meat of our work together.
  • I care about you. Not going to lie, it felt kind of weird the first few times I said the phrase “I care about you” that directly to students. But I think pretty much everyone deserves to hear loudly and often how much others care about them, and when I care about my students, I’m going to let them know and I’m not going to let them forget it.
  • I care about you but here’s how I was impacted by the choice you just made. There’s no such thing as a “good kid” or “bad kid,” just a kid with context who makes choices. I try to remember this in every moment I feel frustrated by a situation with a student, and then I try to say very clearly that I’m not dismissing the student herself, but hoping we can work through a choice she made. “I’ve seen you be kind to others before – so when you just called me a name, I was confused. Let’s talk about what’s going on.” Feels a lot better than “You can’t talk like that in here, go to the principal’s office,” doesn’t it?
  • You have value. If we are to prevent students from “falling through the cracks,” we need to remind them all day, every day that they have value and are valued by the community. Whether it’s recognizing a kind comment, strong academic work, increased effort, or even just showing up to school on a day they didn’t want to – these little recognitions add up to the message that you, yes you, have value here.

 

What are your go-to phrases, or best alternatives to “traditional teacher talk” that you use to help your students learn and grow, and to build positive relationship?