Zero tolerance and the college classroom

My colleague Emily recently asked me about how to build more trauma-informed college classrooms. Emily and I both teach at a community college, and trauma-informed classroom environments couldn’t be more essential in this setting. While we certainly don’t ask for or collect any data about our students’ experience of trauma, I can infer that a large percentage of our student population has survived adverse experiences. In a typical semester, my class includes:

  • Students who came to the United States as refugees
  • Students who are currently or have in the past served in the military
  • Students who are in recovery from substance use
  • Students who don’t have enough money to meet their basic needs
  • Students who are currently or have in the past been homeless

Using my trauma-informed lens, I know that it’s essential for me to create a safe and supportive environment for these students to thrive. While the adult learner may have gained more coping strategies and self-regulation skills than an elementary school student, adult brains are still impacted by trauma. My adult learners still need relationship and respect to thrive and succeed.

The “how” is not that different from what we know about trauma-informed K-12 environments. I know that a trauma-informed classroom should prioritize connection, empowerment, predictability, and flexibility. I can build all of these things into my syllabus and the way that my classroom runs day to day.

One thing I do want to highlight is the flexibility piece. In a trauma-informed environment, we recognize that context is key, and the same interventions or responses don’t work for every student. In a K-12 setting, this often means looking at school-wide disciplinary policies or behavioral responses. Most experts on trauma-informed education recommend drastically decreasing or eliminating zero-tolerance policies within schools.

Zero tolerance in the syllabus

In a college classroom, I believe that many teachers impose zero-tolerance policies in the name of learning, and we can do better. These policies come up around grading and attendance. They even come up around students’ use of email.

I recently saw a well-known professor share a piece of her syllabus language. It stated (paraphrased): “You must begin your email to me with a salutation, such as ‘Dear Professor.’ Emails that do not include a salutation will be ignored. Seriously, I won’t reply to those emails.'”

This is a zero-tolerance policy: you mess up, and without regard to context, I will not respond to your attempt at communication.

Unwritten messages

Now, I have no idea if this particular instructor actually enforces this policy, or how she might respond given the context of the email. It’s worrisome if she does: often, the instructor is one of the only points of contact a student has on campus (especially true in community college where students don’t live in dorms). Imagine that I am the only trusted representative of the college for a student, and he reaches out through email, writing: “I am really struggling with some mental health stuff. I won’t be in class tomorrow.” He didn’t write “Dear professor.” Do I really ignore the email?

Let’s give the professor the benefit of the doubt and assume that her humanity trumps her policy. I’m still worried about the presence of the policy itself. When I read the policy, I understand: “How you communicate is more important than what you communicate. My preferences for email are more important than what you need.”

That take-away message might prevent students from building a relationship and reaching out when they need help. It might perpetuate a feeling of a power imbalance. And it might contribute to an overall feeling, especially among community college students: “college isn’t about what I learn; it’s about meeting all of these rules – different ones for each professor! I can’t be successful.”

High expectations with care

So what’s the alternative? Maybe you’re reading this and thinking to yourself, “Okay, I get this, but I still want students to use proper email etiquette.”

Me too! This is where we practice the balance of trauma-informed teaching: holding high expectations and communicating care at every step along the way.

Here’s how I do this around email in my classroom:

The first assignment of the semester is to read a short article about how to write professional emails to college instructors. Just google “how to email a professor” and there are several options to choose from. I used this one last semester.

The second half of this assignment is to send me an email, using the tips from the article. I ask students to introduce themselves to me in this email, tell me something awesome about themselves, and share the last book they read. This serves several purposes: I can assess whether they understood the content of the article, and I also start to build relationship. I reply to each of these emails, making a connection about what they shared, and if necessary, giving feedback if they didn’t follow the email format from the article.

This assignment alone does 99% of the work for me. I’ve found that over the semester, most students follow the format, most of the time. If I get any particularly egregious outliers, I respond to the content of the email first (“Hi Andrew, I’m sorry to hear that you’re sick. Please check Moodle this afternoon for next week’s homework”) followed by any feedback about the form of the email (“One more thing – your email was a little hard to follow. If you scroll back up to our Week 1 assignments in Moodle, you can reread the article about how to write professional emails. Thanks!”).

I also encourage students to email me often. In my experience, reaching out for help is the difference between a student who fails or drops the class and a student who struggles but still passes. I want students to reach out, even if they don’t do it “right.”

Finally, I never ignore an email from a student.

Embracing the “both/and”

Trauma-informed teaching is often about the “both/and.” We can both hold high expectations and communicate care. We can both treat adult learners as adults and recognize that “being an adult” doesn’t mean going it alone.

To build a trauma-informed college classroom, I encourage instructors to critically look at how they might decrease zero-tolerance policies and seek to prioritize relationship. Learning is messy; so is healing from trauma. Embrace the mess and we can all be a little more human together.

Learn with me: spring course information

This spring, I’m excited to be teaching an online class called Beyond the Buzzword: Deepening Knowledge & Practice of Trauma-Informed Education. It’s a 3-credit graduate course, fully online with three real-time video calls so we can connect and talk about our learning. 

In this class, I’m hoping to push past the “101-level” understanding of trauma-informed education and think critically about questions like these:

  • How does identity intersect with trauma?
  • How do we talk about trauma and does it matter? (For example -should we say “trauma-sensitive” or “trauma-informed”? Why?) 
  • Can a school emphasize compliance and also be trauma-informed? 
  • What can we learn from experts in the clinical field who have been doing this work for a long time? 
  • What does trauma-informed school policy look like? 

I’m not the end-all expert on trauma and learning, and a lot of these questions don’t have straightforward answers. I’m hoping to cultivate a learning community through this course, developing our understanding together.

We’ll be guided by two excellent (and very different) texts: 

Troublemakers by Carla Shalaby will help us explore the connection between trauma, compliance, and freedom.

The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog by Bruce Perry will help us face the grim reality of child abuse and neglect and teach us about the connections between trauma, attachment, mental health, and the brain. 

I’ll also be sharing from the collection of articles, research, blog posts, and other resources I collect on various aspects of trauma-informed teaching. 

I hope that you’ll consider joining me for this learning experience, or passing this information along to an interested colleague or friend. Feel free to email me with any questions! 

Trauma-informed teachers need trauma-informed administrators

Trauma-informed teachers need trauma-informed school leaders.

Teachers need support in order to support their students.

A trauma-informed school isn’t a collection of individual classrooms implementing a series of unconnected strategies. Trauma-informed work is about relationships, and relationships thrive in a healthy community where everyone has a sense of belonging and worth.

Administrators are key in setting the tone for this culture, and there are concrete ways you can do this. Here are some areas for school leaders to consider as they work toward a trauma-informed school environment.

Recognize that your teachers have experienced trauma, too

77% of teachers are women. 1 out of 3 women experience some form of sexual violence in their lifetime. Sexual violence is only one of many types of possibly traumatic experiences, but looking at those numbers alone should make you pause to consider the experiences that your teachers carry with them.

When you facilitate or provide professional development for your teachers, remember that these same teachers may be at any point in the process of managing the impacts of their own trauma: they may experience no adverse impacts, or every day they may be struggling with mental health and emotional wellness. Administrators must be mindful that teachers are carrying these experiences with them every day at the same time that they are being asked to support struggling students.

Administrators should use the same best practices that they ask teachers to use with students: provide flexibility, choice, and voice. Approach challenges with curiosity and empathy. Place a priority on autonomy and self-direction. Create opportunities for teachers to take a break during an overwhelming day, or take a day off to rest without being judged.

In addition, administrators should be sure that teachers are aware of the internal and external supports available to them. Is there counseling provided through employee assistance? What resources are available through the school or union for teachers who need extra help? Do teachers know about community organizations that serve adults? Make this information available to all staff, and play your part in destigmatizing mental health support.

Acknowledge that trauma occurs at school

Vicarious trauma, or the so-called “cost of caring,” has been written about in depth and administrators should educate themselves on how teachers may be struggling with it. Vicarious trauma is indirect – it’s the consequence of bearing witness to someone’s struggle.

But teachers may also be directly experiencing trauma in your school. One definition of trauma is when dangerous events overwhelm our capacity to cope. A teacher who has witnessed or been a target of violence within the school may experience this as traumatic. They also may not – it depends a lot on the specific situation, the coping skills of the person involved, and the preventative or risk factors both inside and outside of school.

Pay special attention to special educators, teachers who help intervene in crises, or teachers working with children who get physically or verbally aggressive. When there’s a critical incident involving a student, make it a part of the follow-up protocol to touch base with the teacher to see how that teacher is doing and what he needs.

We can expect teachers to be professionals about the difficult parts of their jobs, but we need to also expect them to be human. Use your leadership to make it okay to respond like a human to a tough day, and provide empathy and care on those tough days.

Put your time where your values are.

It’s heartening to hear administrators talk about the value of self-care. But if we tell teachers “practice self-care!” without actually providing the supports to do so, we’re just victim-blaming (“Burned out? Guess you didn’t self-care enough”).

A trauma-informed school leader recognizes that teachers are whole humans, trying to show up in full humanity for their students, and this can be draining and exhausting. Instead of presenting a PowerPoint about self-care, a trauma-informed school leader makes time within the school schedule for breaks. They create time for processing and making meaning in small groups. They offer flexibility and encouragement for teachers to actually use personal days, take vacations, and go home on time.

Trauma-informed school leaders create a culture where care is communal, not just a responsibility of the individual on her own time.

Know your role

Again, the work here is parallel to what teachers should be doing in the classroom. Our job is not to be a “trauma detective,” but rather to provide universal supports to all.

For administrators: don’t be a trauma detective with your staff. Especially because you have a professional relationship, provide opportunities for social-emotional support for all your employees but don’t expect any of them to reveal personal information.

Provide opportunities for your employees to connect with you as a person, but let them choose the level of vulnerability. If you’re worried about the wellness of an employee, ask “Are you okay?” but provide multiple paths for the teacher to get their needs met. Maybe talking to you is appropriate, but going back to my previous point, this is where it will be helpful to be able to provide other resources.

Use your leverage

As an administrator, you are uniquely positioned to make a big impact on inequitable systems, unsustainable working conditions, and allocation of resources. Do your research about the systems-level changes that make a difference for students who experience trauma, and then use your position to advocate for those changes.

Ask your teachers what they and their students need. Let them know you will fight for them, and then do it. Instilling hope is an essential part of a trauma-informed environment – you can do this through your pursuit of justice. Now get to work!

Learn with me: Fall 2018 courses and workshops

 

Let’s take some time this fall to dig into trauma-informed education. I would love for you to join me in these workshops and classes – click on the titles below for more information and registrations. Please reach out with any questions!

Supporting Challenging Students: Trauma-Informed and Strengths-Based Strategies (3-credit graduate course)

This is a hybrid online/in-person class (two on-the-ground meetings in Castleton, VT). The course is organized around your own self-reflection as well as an in-depth case study of one of your challenging students. This is an in-depth opportunity to experience a mindset shift and learn alongside a supportive cohort of classmates. Texts include Lost at School and Fostering Resilient Learners. Please note the dates of this course have changed. They are accurate at the link. 

Teacher’s Trauma Toolbox (September 29, 1-day workshop)

In this workshop, you’ll get a crash course on how trauma impacts children in school and what we can do about it. Equal parts theory and practice, our day will include discussion, reflection, and information that you can use to jumpstart your trauma-informed work in schools.

Book Study: Fostering Resilient Learners (three week online group in October)

Kristin Souers and Pete Hall’s book Fostering Resilient Learners is an accessible, engaging read that will help spark new ideas for trauma-informed implementation. Our book group takes place asynchronously for three weeks with a “live” group video call at the end so we can discuss, problem-solve, and share ideas.

Preventing and Addressing Vicarious Trauma (October 17, webinar)

Working with trauma-affected youth can take its toll on educators. Participants will learn about the differences between trauma, vicarious trauma, and burnout, and about the individual and systemic changes we can make to stay healthy and well in our work with students.

Trauma-Conscious Pedagogy & Reflective Practice (four week online mini-course, 11/26-12/21)

This four-week online mini-course provides you with the opportunity to reflect on how you might align your learning design with trauma-informed practices. This course takes place toward the end of your winter semester; this is a great opportunity to reflect and make changes as you head into the second half of the year.

Personalized professional development, consulting or coaching

Didn’t see something that would meet your needs? Get in touch to schedule customized professional development for your school or organization!

“In the real world”

One of the most common lines of resistance when it comes to social-emotional learning in schools: “But what about in the real world?”

I’ve heard this objection over and over in response to social-emotional learning and support strategies in schools. “In the real world, there’s no such thing as a Peace Corner.” “In the real world, no one is going to sit in a circle and talk things out with you.” “In the real world, you don’t get unlimited chances.”

Let’s look a little closer on what it means to invoke “the real world” as a reason not to provide children with social-emotional support.

Real world versus…fake world?

The most obvious objection here is the implication that schools are somehow not “real.” When students spend most of their waking hours on school and school-related activities for at least 13 years, I don’t see how we can argue that this time isn’t “real.” Yes, children are preparing for adulthood – but all of the time they spend on the way to adulthood counts, and students deserve to develop skills and experience supports specific to their time in school.

It’s also essential here to remember that children’s brains are different from adult’s brains, and children developmentally need different support as they grow. Just as you use training wheels on a bike, you also need support as you develop skills to manage your emotions, develop healthy sense of self, and learn to connect with others.

The real world isn’t black and white

One of the common threads of “real world” objections seems to be that “in the real world, there’s no support.” Is this really true? In the “Peace Corner” video linked above, the strategy presented is essentially a way to support students to take a break when things are stressful. Don’t most adults find ways to do this during their work days? We go to the water cooler, we take a quick walk, we space out at our desk for a few moments, we linger on the way to the restroom.

In objecting to restorative practices or alternatives to suspension, the “real world” argument goes that “people aren’t that understanding in the real world.” While this one varies largely depending on context, let’s look at it from the lens of interpersonal conflict (which describes a huge portion of what ends up being “disciplined” in schools). Yes, it’s true that some behaviors may get you fired on the spot. But most of the time, when we mess up in the “real world” we actually do “talk it out.” We meet with our supervisors. We talk things through with our spouses. We get messy with conflict rather than receiving a harsh sentence from above. We need to be able to tolerate frustration, find ways to solve our own problems, and manage relationships.

Another one I’ve heard is, “in the real world, you don’t get do-overs.” Tell that to the many folks who have retaken drivers tests, reapplied for jobs or college admissions, or revised work assignments. Part of the real world often involves the process of evaluating our mistakes and incorporating that reflection into a new course of action.

Whose real world?

There are also cultural assumptions built into the “real world” objections. There seems to be an individualistic stance, an idea that in the “real world” we are all on our own. While this may be the dominant view of white Christian America, the reality is different in other cultures that emphasize connectedness, community, and mutual care. When we perpetuate the myth of meritocracy, kids suffer.

In many people’s “real worlds,” connections are how we survive and thrive. We need to support students to learn how to create and sustain healthy relationships – the “social” aspect of social-emotional learning.

Real world, or a better world?

Most importantly, we should stop talking about the “real world” because it keeps us from talking about a better world. If the premise of a “real world” argument is that the real world is harsh, why would we want to replicate such a world in our schools? From a developmental standpoint, exposing children to harsh conditions causes lasting neurological damage, whereas surrounding children with loving, supportive relationships buffers them from future trauma.

We need to surround them with more caring, not less. And when these children, raised with the confidence that they matter, enter adulthood, they’ll be more equipped to make change. They won’t merely be prepared for the “real world” – they’ll create a better one.

 

Photo credit: Emma Craig, flickr

Learn with me: Trauma-Conscious Teaching Micro-credential

Whenever I run a training, share a blog post, or have a conversation with educators about how trauma affects student learning, I hear the same things: “I want more resources,” “I wish I had learned about this sooner,” “How can I learn more?” Teachers are hungry for information about how to better support our students whose lives and learning are impacted by trauma. Whenever I hear these comments, I’m further inspired to get training and reflection opportunities to more teachers so we can all get on the same page about how our schools can foster change and resilience.

I’m really excited to share that we are launching a micro-credential program for Trauma-Conscious Teaching through Antioch University. This collaboration is taught by myself and mindfulness specialist Robert Black, and open to all as a non-credit-bearing opportunity (you don’t have to be an Antioch student to enroll).

For those new to the concept, micro-credentials are intended to offer personalized, competency-based experiences for teachers, recognizing formal and informal learning. Many places define and structure micro-credentials differently. For our experience through Antioch, the micro-credential involves participation in a series of online and face-to-face workshops, webinars, mini-courses, book studies, and reflection. There are six to seven options; completing five of these plus a capstone reflective project comprises the micro-credential, all centering around increasing our support of trauma-affected students.

The micro-credential is for you if:

  • Small, “bite sized” course opportunities fit your schedule (the longest experience is a 5-week book study)
  • You want to dig into the content, skills, and reflective practice necessary to better support trauma-affected students
  • You are in the vicinity of, or can travel to, Keene, New Hampshire (for now, the in-person opportunities take place there. We hope to eventually offer everything online)

I’ll update this post once we get a full information page up on the Antioch website, but in the meantime you can register for several of the experiences coming up this spring:

 

These dates are just for the first round of the micro-credential – I’ll be updating soon with dates for Fall 2018 and more information about putting the pieces together with a capstone project. You are also more than welcome to take any of the piece “a la carte” without taking the entire micro-credential. Stay tuned and please let me know if you have any question! I hope I’ll see you in one of these experiences to learn together.