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.
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.
In education, obviously we talk constantly about learning. That’s our job here, right? Fostering learning, assessing learning, innovating learning experiences, understanding learners.
But as teachers, we have a lot of unlearning to do, too, especially when it comes to how we “manage” our classrooms. Many educators replicate the systems of classroom management that they themselves experienced, without often pausing to wonder whether the underlying philosophy of this “classroom management” is the right one.
I recently read Alfie Kohn’s book Beyond Disciplinefor the first time. I’ve been familiar with Kohn for a while and my previous school was heavily influenced by his philosophy, but reading his book was invigorating. I highlighted approximately half of every page. Kohn’s overall premise is that a focus on compliance in our schools harms children and adults, and we can do better by developing community instead: “the more we ‘manage’ students’ behavior and try to make them do what we say, the more difficult it is for them to become morally sophisticate people who think for themselves and care about others” (p. 62).
It sounds great in practice – but it takes so much unlearning for educators who have spent their whole lives in systems that value compliance. So many teachers are also in positions where compliance is demanded of them every day by administrators, state decision-makers, federal laws. Kohn quotes de Charms: “When teachers are treated as pawns, they don’t teach, they become drill sergeants.” Teachers need not only to unlearn how they were taught, but also actively swim against the tide of compliance that is the reality of many schools.
So how do we unlearn? First, I think we need to connect to the big picture. For me, this could look like reading books from my favorite educational philosophers, or books that challenge my understanding of the status quo, or seeking out articles from diverse perspectives. I need to expand my worldview, and in doing so, take apart and discard the parts that don’t serve me or my students anymore.
Connecting to the big picture can also look like dreaming together with other educators – whether that’s attending a conference, and Edcamp, or simply talking with a teacher friend over dumplings about the dreams we have for our students.
Unlearning also takes practice. I’ve been thinking about both/and – we need to think about and talk about the big picture, but we also need concrete ways to test things out. In thinking about unlearning “classroom management,” a couple of concrete ways to try it out include the CPS model and restorative circles. I find that when I commit to trying something concrete, I can practice not only the actual strategy, but managing the feelings of frustration and uncertainty that come in the midst of a change of philosophy.
Unlearning is difficult, especially when everyone is telling us that the “way it’s always been” is the way it should always be. But as Kohn says, “to create a classroom where students feel safe enough to challenge each other – and us – is to give them an enormous gift” (p. 77). Unlearning compliance and embracing a messier version of community is the foundation of a healthy democracy. That’s the direction I want to move with my students.
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
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.
While the buzzword factor may loom large, it doesn’t have to be complicated to get started with social-emotional learning in the classroom. SEL “programs” or curricula may certainly be helpful in providing a common language or structure for educators across a school, but you don’t need to buy anything to provide social/emotional learning opportunities. It can be as simple as acknowledging emotions, making space to understand them, and reflecting on the intersection of academic and social/emotional learning.
I teach a community college first semester seminar. The goals of the course are around reading, writing, and research for college, and there’s an overarching mission that the course will help students start their college careers successfully. We learn good habits of college work and identify resources. I also incorporate social/emotional learning because I value emotional self-awareness as a key tool of college (and life) success.
Social skill-building in 5 minutes or less
In an ongoing way, we do a quick rose-and-thorn check-in at the start of each class. Rose- something good that’s going on for you. Thorn – something not so good. It brings everyone’s voice into the room (even if just to say “pass”) and it acknowledges that we’re all bringing things to the classroom that evening with us. It helps set the stage for our interactions with one another – if you shared about your really bad day, I can offer you some extra kindness. If you shared that you’re feeling good this evening, I can borrow some of your enthusiasm. It also provides a platform for creating social connections. I’ve watched students connect with one another over shared interests that they might not have known about if not for check-in. You have a two-year-old too? You also play soccer? You drive a motorcycle? Healthy social interactions are easier when you have a place to start, and this structure provides a platform for students to share something authentic with their community. It’s a really simple structure that takes less than five minutes, but the benefits are huge.
Incorporating emotional awareness into content
For a more focused social/emotional learning experience, I’ve been slowly transforming the section of the course that explores the concept of systemic oppression and privilege to incorporate emotional self-awareness as a key concept. We begin by reading Margaret Wheatley’s essay “Willing to be Disturbed.” We discuss the emotional barriers that can get in the way of hearing one another’s stories. Then, students read and dig in to the concept of privilege and write a reflection – not just on the content, but on their emotional experience with the content. They answer the question, “why is it so hard to talk about privilege?”
When students arrive in class to discuss privilege with one another, we start with a self check-in: what emotions am I feeling right now, and how is that going to impact my ability to listen? I use a chart with a list of common emotions arranged by intensity, and students reflect on how intensity of feeling might help or hinder your listening skills. I’m transparent when we do this activity: I know this may feel childish or unrelated to academics, but at the heart of academic discussion lies empathy. Our healthy emotional management supports our capacity for empathy, and our social skills support our capacity to build empathetic relationships. Students take this reflection seriously and bring the self-awareness into their conversations.
With all of these proactive steps, I’ve experienced an improvement in the depth of conversation, the risks students are willing to take when trying on a new perspective, and their ongoing growth as learners.
SEL is just like any other teaching strategy
None of these social/emotional learning strategies are complicated or groundbreaking. They don’t take a lot of prep work. They cost nothing. Social-emotional learning is an investment of time – but it doesn’t have to be that much time. It’s an investment of energy – but as with all new classroom strategies, after the first go-around it gets easier. It doesn’t need to take time away from content, but rather can enhance students’ ability to dive into content and skill.
So I see social-emotional learning more as holding a central value about how I see my students. We do this already in the classroom. If I understand my students to be emerging critical readers, I’ll make room for skill-building. If I understand my students to need practice with the writing process, I’ll build in opportunities to learn. When I understand my students as whole and emotional humans, practicing their self-regulation and social skills, of course I’m going to make time to attend to their needs. It can be that simple.
To sustain our work as teachers, we need to take care of ourselves. Wellness as a whole is important, but it’s also essential to look at specific elements of wellness that are all equally necessary to sustaining when the going gets tough.
These are the tools and skills we need to make it, on a basic level, through a tough day. Coping strategies can be big or small, but we need to have a variety in our toolbox so we can access them as needed. These might be things you do in the middle of a stressful class, during a small break in your day, or right when you get home and need to transition from one part of your day to the next. Many of us have fall-back coping strategies and might benefit from expanding on them – sometimes it takes a little practice.
Focusing on breathing
Drinking a cup of tea
Stretching, yoga, other physical movement
Texting a supportive friend
Looking at a funny comic or silly cat picture online
These are just a few tiny examples, but coping strategies are essentially anything that can help you manage a strong emotion and get yourself regulated. It’s important to remember that not all coping strategies are healthy ones, and it depends on the person and situation (example: eating a snack might be a good coping strategy for someone, but might be problematic for another person). The essential thing is to develop your own list of strategies that are right for you.
Coping strategies are also great to model for students who are having a hard time. If I normalize stopping class for a minute to take a few deep breaths, my students can begin to internalize some healthy coping strategies of their own.
Rather than disparate strategies, self-care to me is a more general frame that I am doing things that help me stay well and sustain me as a person. Self-care helps me fill my cup and stay connected to who I am as a person, not just as a helper. Self-care looks different for everyone, but here are some common areas of self-care:
A physical activity practice (running, yoga, cycling, team sports)
Spending time with animals or living things (gardening, taking care of fish, snuggling your dog)
Spending meaningful time with friends and family
Reading, watching TV or movies you enjoy, doing puzzles
Making and creating – music, crafts, projects
Self-care requires ongoing attention to balance, and committing to spending time that fills up the well rather than draws from it. Self-care isn’t selfish; instead, it’s what allows us to be of use to others. You can’t give others energy you don’t have, and self-care is what allows us to generate that energy.
This is one area of wellness that often gets missed in our narrative about taking care of ourselves. In addition to coping in the moment and self-care in an ongoing way, making meaning is required when we’re faced with challenging work. When something intense happens, whether it be a challenging class period, a student blow-up, a conflict with a coworker, or at tragedy in the school community, we need to not only cope with our emotions, but to make sense of what happened. Making meaning is the act of grappling with how challenging experiences fit into our sense of self and our worldview, and how they change us and change our work.
As an example, if a student explodes at me in class and ends up hitting me – I will need to cope in the moment, for sure. Beyond that immediate moment, though, I’m likely to be shaken up as a person, and coping alone doesn’t address that core disruption. I will need to use self-care to help me stay grounded in my sense of myself as a whole person. And I will need to make meaning of the big questions that come up from intense experiences: why did that happen? What does it mean about my student? What does it mean about me? What does it mean about my sense of safety at school – and my student’s sense of safety with me? How should I proceed? It takes time, introspection, and support to think through these questions.
Some supports that may be helpful in making meaning:
Meeting with a therapist, counselor, or clergy person
Supportive coworkers or supervisors
Journaling or reflective art practice
Wellness is ongoing
Wellness isn’t something we work on once and then say it’s done. We can’t attend one training and get certified in wellness; we can’t develop a wellness routine and expect that it will hold through all of life’s changes. However, when we put in the work – when we attend to coping, self-care and making meaning, we give ourselves the gift of wellness – a gift that requires maintenance and reinvention, but that gives us the vitality to sustain ourselves in the service of those we help.
Didn’t someone tell me that teaching would get easier? That working with tough kids would get easier? That balance, boundaries, pedagogy, content, all of it would feel easier someday?
I’ve learned so many skills. Doesn’t skill acquisition make it easier? I know now how to assess without a survey, teach without a whiteboard/pen/computer/book, build foundation without condescending, encourage voice and choice without judgement or expectation. I’ve learned so many things through observing teachers who are smarter than I am, through asking students what they needed, through collaborating with parents and families and caregivers. And I learned a lot of things the hard way, by messing up, by disappointing students, by missing opportunities, by reflecting, reflecting, reflecting.
Soooo…isn’t it supposed to be easy by now?
I’ve immersed myself in lenses and frames and tried to incorporate the best lessons to my students’ benefit. I’ve long since dropped the pretense that I know even a fraction of all there is to know, I’ve abandoned the belief that there are silver bullets in education, I’ve embraced the mess and complexity and journey of trying to be more inclusive, anti-racist, feminist, culturally sustaining, trauma-informed. I own that I will never be perfect at any of it. I wear my vulnerability and fallibility.
So I’m comfortable being uncomfortable. I’m okay not being okay. I’m at peace with the process. But like, can it get a little less challenging yet? Don’t I get something for all this work?
Okay. I know. It doesn’t get easier. It doesn’t get easier because teaching is about being in relationship with humans, and more specifically, developing humans. In my case, even more specifically, developing humans who are facing immense challenges every single day. And humans are endlessly complex, and endlessly challenging, and endlessly amazing and resilient and wonderful. Humans are messy and get into conflict and misunderstand and hurt and hate and love and apologize and sometimes say the most astonishing things, like “thank you” and “I care about you” and “I’m proud of myself.”
Teaching will never be easy, because human relationships will never be easy, and that’s amazing. No amount of training or professional development or introspection will ever protect me from the ups and downs of being really emotionally invested in my students, and I don’t want to be numb to the process. I never want to lose the openness that allows for true relationships, those true relationships through which everything is possible.
So my new school year’s resolution is to let go of the idea of “easy.” Bye, easy. I won’t miss the idea of you. Let me embrace the mess and joy of the challenge, instead.
The core paradox of teaching is that the work requires us to be both confident and humble, self-assured and self-critical at the same time.
It isn’t about me – it’s about my students. What I need out of a learning experiences comes second to what my students need. Their needs as learners drive my pedagogy.
Yet, it is about me – I need to be a well and healthy person in order to serve my students. So I need to put myself first, find ways to fulfill my intellectual curiosity, and find joy in my day to day experience.
My student’s behavior isn’t about me – it’s about their patterns, their developing brains, their trauma, their mental health, their challenges. When my students disrupt or yell or kick over a chair, it isn’t personal.
And – it is personal. My student who says “I don’t f-ing trust you” – Did I give her enough reason to actually believe that she can trust me? My student who blows out of class again and again – did I create a classroom that was conducive to his self-regulation, or one that increased his anxiety? If I say “it’s not about me” and leave it at that, I’m letting go of my responsibility to meet each student’s needs.
My students’ growth isn’t about me: it’s about their amazing resilience, their families’ years of support, their community and culture and traditions and everything else that goes beyond the six hours a day I see them, and the years of their life they spend in my school. When they are my age, my students might not remember me, nor should I expect or need them to – what matters is that my students grow into the amazing adults I see them becoming.
But? It is about me. And I can take a few quiet moments here at the end of the year to pause and appreciate before I jump back into the work. Sometimes I do make a difference that I can see in the student: he can read more fluently than before, she can more confidently describe the emotions she’s feeling, they can say “I felt cared about this year.” I know I contributed to that and I can feel proud of our work together. And sometimes I make a difference I won’t see, and I can give myself some hope that the student who didn’t succeed while we worked together might carry away some small piece of me to use later when she needs it.
The work continues. We’re never done. It can be easy for the scales to tip into one side or the other, claiming ownership where we should center our students or playing martyr when we should center ourselves. But it’s a beautiful dance to stay balanced in the middle, where the growth happens.
This post is intended to be a jumping-off point for those seeking to become more trauma-informed in their education practice. It is not meant to be an exhaustive list of resources, but rather a collection of accessible places to start to get familiar with concepts and strategies.
I would love to add onto this list, especially in some areas of intersection: trauma informed and… (specific populations, identities, and settings). Please be in touch or comment below if you have resources to share!
The 12 Core Concepts (National Child Traumatic Stress Network) – this is a fantastic resource to give you the foundations of knowledge you need for working with students who have experienced trauma. This is also a great resource to share with coworkers, parents and other caregivers to start developing some common language and understanding of these concepts.
The Basics: Understandings and Strategies
These posts and videos will help you get a “Trauma 101” understanding of the major background information you need to start with trauma-informed practice.
Child Trauma Toolkit for Educators(from the National Child Traumatic Stress Network) – more comprehensive (while still being succinct and clear) guide around understanding and supporting students who have experienced trauma. Send this one to your principal!
Big Picture Approaches
While these approaches aren’t specific to students with trauma, they support a school community where trauma-affected youth can thrive.
Restorative Practices (International Institute for Restorative Practices) – when thinking about trauma-informed practice, “discipline” must be reimagined, and restorative practices is a great path forward.
Teacher Self-Care and Wellness
It’s essential that educators take care of themselves while they take care of others. These resources highlight the “why” and the “how.”
When Schools Cause Trauma (Teaching Tolerance) – an essential perspective on how schools can perpetuate trauma and inequity, and how we might disrupt this
Toxic Stress (Harvard Center on the Developing Child) – simple explainer (with video and visuals) on the concept of toxic stress. For more on the impact of racism as it relates to chronic/toxic stress, see this article in The Atlantic by Melinda D. Anderson
“Tough love,” as I understand it, doesn’t serve our students. However, there are valuable aspects to the concept of tough love, and I want to offer an alternative way to talk and think about these concepts.
The concept of “tough love” doesn’t have a single definition, but its connotations are common enough that Rusul’s comments really struck a chord with me:
“Tough love,” to me, connotes a combination of caring and accountability, but that accountability has a tinge of “no excuses.” “Tough” implies that accountability needs to be absolute, and that accountability must necessarily be harsh, forced or adversarial. I find that “tough love” also comes with a built-in power dynamic – people rarely describe a relationship with an equal as “tough love.”
However, the core idea of “tough love” does resonate with me – caring and accountability is a great combination. I want to offer a different way to talk about this combination that I believe serves our students better: unconditional positive regard for the person with conditional response to behavior or choices.
Unconditional positive regard means “I care about you, you have value, you don’t have to do anything to prove it to me, and nothing is going to change my mind.” I expand on this concept a lot here:
Conditional response to the behavior or choices means: “I don’t have to agree with every choice you make, but I understand that a choice with negative consequences does not detract from your value as a human, and I will care about you no matter what choices you make. I will help you understand the consequences (positive, negative or neutral) of your choices, and if there are impacts on me, I will respond in an authentic way.”
Where tough love says: “you gotta get this done,” conditional response says: “looks like you haven’t done your work. Tell me why, we’ll work together, and I’ll tell you what you can expect if you miss your deadline.”
Where tough love is firm and “objective” and sometimes discipline-driven, unconditional positive regard with conditional response is person-centered, and responds with natural consequences. It’s not “anything goes,” but it also doesn’t rely on arbitrary rules or consequences. Rather, a conditional response is aligned with a person’s true impact on others.
Where tough love says: “I love you, but..” unconditional positive regard with conditional response says: “I care about you, and…”
Some of you may be using the phrase “tough love” to describe an approach more like unconditional positive regard with a conditional response to behavior/choices. Shifting our language (even though the latter is more of a mouthful!) will help us be more clear about our practice and align our talk with our walk.
Students benefit when we care about them and hold them accountable, but in ways that are truly person-centered and respond to the student’s need for clear expectations, and not our own need for control or compliance. Let’s unconditionally care for our students while we do the messy work of responding to the challenges, together.