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.

 

Always Talk About Students As If They Were In The Room

Unconditional positive regard doesn’t stop when my students walk out the door at 2:15.

True unconditional positive regard infuses all conversations about my students, because the way I talk about my students informs my practice when I’m with them.

Recently a comment of mine on an Edutopia post sparked someone else to write a post asking whether venting about students should be banned. This in turn is generating lots of conversation, a lot of which defends teachers’ rights to free speech and holds that venting helps teachers prevent burnout. But I think “should venting be banned” is probably the wrong question.

Here are some questions I’d rather answer:

  • How does my staff culture respect students whether or not they are in the room?
  • Where are my teachers getting emotional support for the challenging aspects of their jobs?
  • How are teachers understanding challenging student behavior? Are they left to make sense of this on their own, or are we using a trauma-informed approach, consulting and collaborating with social workers and mental health professionals, and contextualizing student behavior in our unique community?
  • Are teachers comfortable going to one another for problem-solving and support? Are my teachers willing and able to be vulnerable with one another? Are they in strong enough relationship with one another to offer feedback?
  • Do teachers feel ownership and influence over their classrooms? Their job as a whole? Are they blaming students and families because they feel powerless to make change?
  • What example is being set by school leaders?
  • Does my staff share the same values? Are we understanding one another’s positive intent, or do we question one another’s actual stance toward the students?
  • Am I talking about my students in the same way I would if they were sitting in the room with me?

 

These are tough questions, and in a tough job, sometimes it’s easier to vent and stay stuck than doing the hard work of problem-solving. There is no silver bullet for human relationships, so we are in a constant state of trial and error and more error and iteration and questioning and trying again tomorrow. When we engage one another in true conversation about these challenges, we help move one another forward; we build resiliency.

I can and do have these types of conversations about my students with my students in the room, and with them directly. I’ve said to a student, “I feel really stuck working with you lately, and I’m wondering if you feel the same way, and what we can do about it.” I’ve said to my students, “What you just said really pushed a button for me and I want to take a minute to take care of myself before we move forward in class.”  When I model vulnerability and taking ownership over my own emotions, I make it a little more okay for my students to do the same.

So, should venting be banned? Let’s ask some different questions. Let’s ask them in service of our students. Let’s ask them as if – and when – our students are in the room.

Getting started with trauma-informed teaching

Hope

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!

Start Here

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. 

8 Ways to Support Students Who Experience Trauma (by me) – initial strategies for the classroom

Helping Students Who Have Experienced Trauma (also by me) – more strategies and some bigger-picture concepts

Learning Brain vs. Survival Brain (Jacob Ham) – short video describing what’s going on in the brain of a trauma-impacted kid

10 Things About Childhood Trauma Every Teacher Needs To Know (WeAreTeachers) –  good overview of some important points about trauma

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. 

Lives in the Balance/Ross Greene: essential resource working with behaviorally challenging kids (and many kids who experience trauma exhibit behavior challenges at some point). Check out his book Lost at School as well. 

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 Students Are Traumatized, Teachers Are Too (Edutopia) – information on vicarious trauma and teacher strategies for addressing it.

Wellness: A Guide for Teachers (on this site) – a breakdown of the different aspects of wellness and suggestions for incorporating each

Secondary Traumatic Stress for Educators: Understanding and Mitigating the Effects (Jessica Lander on Mindshift) – overview and resources on secondary traumatic stress in schools

Background Information/Learn More

Ready to dig deeper? These resources will help you build on your basic knowledge and hopefully provide some avenues for your next steps in learning. 

ACE (Adverse Childhood Experiences) Study (CDC) – foundational research on the impact of experiences which may be traumatic. You can also watch this 5-minute explainer video about the ACE study

Beyond ACEs  (this site) – now that you know about ACEs, learn about why we need to be careful when using the language of ACEs to talk about trauma

Addressing Race and Trauma in the Classroom (NCTSN) – a guide to the intersection of race and trauma with practical tips for educators

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

The Paradox of Trauma-Informed Care (Vicky Kelly) – TEDx talk on the basics of developmental/childhood trauma and its impacts on the brain and decision-making

Helping Students with Trauma, Tragedy and Grief (Edutopia) – collection of Edutopia resources on a variety of topics related to trauma.

Fostering Resilient Learners: Strategies for Creating a Trauma-Sensitive Classroom (Kristin Souers and Pete Hall, ASCD) – excellent and easy-to-read book covering the fundamental elements of a trauma-informed classroom.

 

Image credit: 
Steve Snodgrass, flickr Creative Commons

 

 

A New Texture of Normal

I want to write a hundred books. No, maybe a thousand. Or just worm my way into books that are already on the shelves, dropping seeds like Hansel and Gretel wandering through the library.

The plot of these books wouldn’t matter. The protagonists? They can be anyone. What I’m interested in are the characters in the background, on the sidelines, minor characters who provide texture and contrast. I have a mission for these characters.

Right now when I read books, especially those for young adults, these side characters do a lot of things casually. They go to basketball practice. They stand at their lockers. They text their girlfriends. They drive beat-up cars. Whether a vampire or a witch or a high school student or all three, the side characters do what they do and blend into the background. They give us a backdrop of “normal” against which the protagonist shines.

So here’s my mission for these side characters. I want them to create a new “normal.” I want to see the side characters take their antidepressants with lunch. I want them to drive in their beat-up cars to their therapists’ offices. Text their social workers, go to their IEP meetings, name their anxiety.

I don’t want these routines to be the focus of these books. There are already books about struggles and hardships, about being an exception to the rule. Let the protagonists speak to the pain and drama of anxiety, depression, substance use, mental illness. They have something powerful to say.

What I want with the background characters is to create a new kind of a texture, a texture that goes unremarked and unexamined, one that creates a new “normal” backdrop for the stories our teens read. In this backdrop, it’s normal to talk about your depression meds, to go to an alternative school, and to work through difficult emotions with support from adults. If I wrote a thousand books with this new normal as a background, maybe a thousand readers would see a glimmer of their own lives and feel validated and heard. Maybe they would tell a thousand friends, and then a thousand more.

Every one of my students is different and faces different challenges. I think, though, that they would all be served by a community that accepted mental health challenges rather than shied away, by a society that embraced open dialogue about emotions rather than discouraged real conversations. How many lives would be saved if young people everywhere felt like it was okay to share what feels heavy and dark, to bring their thoughts and feelings out into the light?

The good news is that I don’t need to write a million books to get my message across. Maybe it would help, but I can save a lot of time (and paper) if you’ll help do your part. It’s not enough to tell the young people in your life that it’s okay to ask for and receive help. Model it. Show them it is. Express yourself in authentic ways to show young people that they can do it too. Hold your judgement when you hear celebrity or local gossip around someone’s mental and emotional health. Carry yourself with an accepting stance and make time to hear young people’s thoughts. It’s not always easy, but it’s essential.

So will we rise to the challenge? Will we create a new texture of normal? What stands in our way? How do you already do this in your life? I’d love to hear…let’s open the conversation.

We Can All Play a Part

When I talk to other teachers about my school, I often hear, “well, you’re small enough that you can do that.” There’s an attitude that we have a luxury of being small and well-staffed – so we can pay attention to things that public school teachers can’t.

Yes and no.

While we certainly benefit from our staffing ratio, there are strategies we use in therapeutic schools that any public school could put into effect with minimal legwork that go miles in their support of all learners. These changes range from small things, like teachers offering differentiated break opportunities in class, to large rethinking of school structures like discipline/suspensions/expulsions.

This article from the New York Times’ Opinionator column describes some of the work being done in the field right now in creating trauma-informed schools. It’s a good introduction for teachers or schools just beginning to think about how to incorporate trauma-informed practices into their systems and structures.

In a month I’ll be facilitating a conversation at EduCon Philly on Understanding, Intention, and Awareness: Lessons For Everyone From a Therapeutic School. My basic feeling is this: what we do at our therapeutic school isn’t a proprietary “program,” an expertise that takes years to develop, or a secret methodology. It’s an understanding of where our students come from, an awareness of how we bring ourselves to the work, and an intention crafted with the student’s needs in mind. Trauma-informed, special ed-informed, just informed in general  we can all move our schools forward with some self-reflection.

If you’re at EduCon, I look forward to starting the conversation with you all. If you won’t be, let’s connect! How do you think we can move our schools toward more supportive practices for children with trauma histories?

Social/emotional skills, the feedback loop, and SuperBetter

What does it mean to be a friend? How do I manage strong emotions so I can meet my personal goals? Who am I? These are the questions my students explore at the therapeutic school where I teach. Developing social and emotional skills is hard work, and traditional talk therapy or skills work face-to-face does not reach every student. When maladaptive skills “work,” students may be less motivated to change. Finding a supportive community to explore these changes is hard, too, especially when a student’s family context is challenging. We need more creative ways to approach this therapeutic work.

We often hear hear about how online communities such as Facebook and Twitter are ruining our ability to communicate with one another. Teens get into texting fights, parents struggle to keep up with the latest form of communication, teachers try to balance technology integration. But what if we looked at online communities from a strengths-based perspective? How can online communities actually help people develop social and emotional skills? What are the ways in which we can use technology to our advantage in building our ability to have positive, meaningful relationships with others? There is not a large field of work on this topic, but I can offer some related thoughts and insights from the research and my own experience.

What can technology offer that face-to-face conversations or supports cannot? One of the most powerful uses of technology for social and emotional learning is the feedback loop. Thomas Goetz in a 2011 Wired Magazine article described the feedback loop this way:

The basic premise is simple. Provide people with information about their actions in real time (or something close to it), then give them an opportunity to change those actions, pushing them toward better behaviors. Action, information, reaction. It’s the operating principle behind a home thermostat, which fires the furnace to maintain a specific temperature, or the consumption display in a Toyota Prius, which tends to turn drivers into so-called hypermilers trying to wring every last mile from the gas tank. But the simplicity of feedback loops is deceptive. They are in fact powerful tools that can help people change bad behavior patterns, even those that seem intractable. Just as important, they can be used to encourage good habits, turning progress itself into a reward. In other words, feedback loops change human behavior. And thanks to an explosion of new technology, the opportunity to put them into action in nearly every part of our lives is quickly becoming a reality. (Goetz 2011)

The basic cycle of a feedback loop is data collection, meaningful feedback, consequences, and action. Say you want to impact your weight. You  might collect data about how many calories you eat each day. After collecting for a week, you turn this data into a chart of calories consumed – a chart that takes on emotional relevance through your ability to understand and relate to the data. The consequence of your actions become clear: maybe you need to eat fewer calories to lose weight, or you need to eat more to support your workout routine. Finally, you take action and adjust your behavior based on this new information. The feedback loop starts all over again.

Feedback loops are possible without the use of technology, but collecting, displaying, and interpreting data are much easier with the use of the supercomputers we carry around in our backpacks and pockets. Sites that use the feedback loop to positively impact social and emotional behavior could become powerful communities for change, especially with teenagers who often lament, “but how does this apply to me?” Inherent in the feedback loop is relevance, and relevance breeds motivation.

One such website I believe uses the feedback loop to its advantage is SuperBetter.com. SuperBetter was developed by Jane McGonigal, a game designer who created the game when dealing with suicidal thoughts after a traumatic brain injury. The game originated as “Jane the Concussion Slayer,” which she invited her sister and partner to play with her. When McGonigal asked her sister to play a game with her, it was “an easier way to ask for help” (McGonigal 2012). I think about my students and how difficult it is sometimes for them to ask for others to help them work on social and emotional goals, but how easy it might be for them to text or message a friend an invitation to a game.

“Jane the Concussion Slayer” grew into SuperBetter, a free online game (with a paid iOS app) that uses quests, power-ups, bad guys, and allies to help anyone get “superbetter” from anything. The game is customizable to a specific challenge, such as quitting smoking, or can be broad: you can set your objective in the game to “I’m just getting SuperBetter!” Once you create a “secret identity” for an avatar, you then specify your “Epic Win” – or why you want to improve. Behind each of these elements of the game is scientific research supporting how playing the game truly improves your health and wellness. Players can find this research distilled into easy-to-digest articles in the “Secret Lab” section of the website interface.

The game itself focuses on developing players’ resilience in four different research-based areas: emotional, social, mental and physical. Players use “power-ups” for small coping strategies, “quests” to learn new skills, and “battle bad guys” for reflecting on larger, overarching challenges. These categories are exactly the ways that we support students at my therapeutic school, but we do not use the feedback loop as effectively as SuperBetter. In SuperBetter, you gain points as you complete quests and power-ups in each area of resilience. You can go into your Secret Lab and view how your resilience has changed over time and the progress you are making in your well-being. SuperBetter collects the data from your actions in the game, presents it to you in meaningful ways through the gamification/”points” approach, and then you can make your decision on further actions based on how you see the activities supporting or not supporting you. The player then takes actions and the feedback loop starts over again.

However, the true power of SuperBetter is in the community it creates. You can do SuperBetter on your own – but the game encourages and rewards for you for enlisting “allies.” Through the design of the site, you essentially create a social network that is focused on you and your wellness. The set-up of the site allows for only people you have specifically invited to support you to access your activity. Your allies can comment and “like” your progress, award you achievements, and recommend tasks for you. The process brings your allies in and transforms them into part of your feedback loop, adding extra data to the set, making feedback more meaningful, and helping you to consider your consequences.

In SuperBetter’s “secret lab” section about allies, the research about social relationships is synthesized: “having at least two strong social relationships dramatically increases positive health outcomes and helps us succeed in our goals” (SuperBetter Labs 2012). Furthermore, SuperBetter defines what makes a positive social relationship: one that includes positivity, honesty, support and closeness. For students like mine, saying “strong social relationship” would not be sufficient to understand what types of allies one needs in the journey to bettering oneself. The research synthesis on SuperBetter (developed from peer-reviewed papers also linked to in the secret lab) describes those characteristics as well as the benefits of developing a strong relationship with an ally. In this way, SuperBetter not only supports the social and emotional growth between people, but actually teaches how to do this.

There is currently wide support in the field of education for “gamification.” In an article for Edutopia, Matthew Farber describes how gaming elements such as leveling up, achievements, badges, and Easter eggs are used in the classroom. Farber concludes that gaming is “the very definition of constructivism” (2013). The Mozilla Foundation further supports elements of gamification in a paper collaborating with Peer 2 Peer University and the MacArthur Foundation. Learning today takes place across multiple settings, not just a classroom, and in multiple means, not just rote memorization and testing. Yet, “institutions still decide what types of learning ‘count’, with little room or innovation, as well as who gets to have access to that learning” (2012). Badges are a “bridge between contexts” and support motivation, flexibility, and community-building. In SuperBetter, badges are called “achievements” and can be awarded from an ally to their “hero,” further supporting the social and emotional connections in the community.

In addition to the impacts of classroom integration, the act of playing games in itself can have positive emotional impacts. In one study, after playing “casual” video games such as Bejeweled, subjects experienced less physical and emotional stress.  (Russoniello et al 2009). However, these casual games are not social – and do not teach a regulation skill, they are in themselves a coping mechanism. Different research suggests that social online games can impact “real-world” relationship. In a study from Michigan State University, researchers found that people playing games on social networks could practice relationship skills such as initiating, maintaining, and enhancing relationship. They also found loose evidence that certain behaviors reinforced by Facebook games in particular – such as reciprocity – had a positive impact on relationship. (Wohn et al, 2011).

Can SuperBetter and gamification replace traditional means of building social/emotional skills? I doubt it, but I do have faith that using elements of gamification in therapeutic work can engage students. Gamification is another way of making learning visible, tangible, and putting it in the hands of the learner – and in my experience those traits lead to successful learning outcomes, both in content areas and in social/emotional skills. I plan to try SuperBetter with some of my students in the upcoming semester, and to encourage my teachers to use visible markers of learning to support our students’ growth.

References
Farber, Matthew. “Gamifying Student Engagement.” Edutopia. N.p., 2 May 2013. Web. 2 Dec.
2013. <http://www.edutopia.org/blog/gamifying-student-engagement-matthew-farber>.
Goetz, Thomas. “Harnessing the Power of Feedback Loops.” Wired Magazine 19 June 2011: n.
pag. Wired.com. Web. 29 Nov. 2013.
McGonigal, Jane. (2012 June). Jane McGonigal: The game that can give you 10 years of extra life
. Retrieved from http://www.ted.com/talks/jane_mcgonigal_the_game_that_can_give_you_10_extra_years_of_life.html
Mozilla Foundation, People 2 People University and MacArthur Foundation. 2012. Open badges
for lifelong learning. Mozilla Foundation. https://wiki.mozilla.org/File:OpenBadges-Working-Paper_012312.pdf
Russoniello, C. V., O’Brien, K., & Parks, J. M. (2009). The effectiveness of casual video games
in improving mood and decreasing stress. Journal of Cyber Therapy and Rehabilitation, 2(1), 53-66.
“Secret Lab: Allies.” SuperBetter. SuperBetter Labs, n.d. Web. 2 Dec. 2013.
<https://www.superbetter.com/heroes/197132/secret_lab#alliances>.
Wohn, Donghee Yvette , Cliff Lampe , Rick Wash, Nicole Ellison, and Jessica Vitak. “The ‘S’ in
Social Network Games: Initiating, Maintaining, and Enhancing Relationships.” Proceedings of the 44th Hawaii International Conference on Systems Sciences (2011): n. pag.Michigan State University. Web. 21 Nov. 2013.

Where are all the therapeutic educators?

Since I’ve started trying to connect with other therapeutic school educators online, I’ve been able to reach exactly…zero.

I joined Twitter a couple of years ago and have been able to connect with teachers of all subject headings (from foreign language to sex ed), in different countries, in rural schools and in urban schools, pro- and anti- Common Core, you name it. But therapeutic school educators – where are you!?

I have a couple of theories for why it’s been difficult to connect with this particular breed of teachers. First, the student population we serve as therapeutic educators requires pretty concrete boundaries. Therapeutic school educators may feel hesitant to use social media in public ways.

Second, I wonder if being outside of public schools separates us from getting “the word” about new kinds of professional development (like EdCamp) or trends like “connected educators.”

Finally, I wonder if therapeutic school educators feel that most of the resources in the connected educator sphere are not applicable. I know I’ve certainly felt this way – leading to my desire to bring therapeutic school educators together in an online community.

Anyone else have ideas? Where are the connected therapeutic school teachers – or how can we connect those not yet hooked in?