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Teaching Opinion

Response: A ‘Trauma-Informed Classroom Is a Safe and Secure Place’

By Larry Ferlazzo — May 21, 2019 18 min read
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(This is the last post in a two-part series. You can see Part One here.)

The new question-of-the-week is:

What is trauma-informed teaching and what does it look like in the classroom?

Editor’s Note: This two-part series is being “guest-hosted” by a longtime regular contributor to this column and a widely respected educator, Rita Platt.

In Part One, Rita Platt introduced this series on trauma-informed teaching with contributions from Dr. Christy Wolfe, Jason Harelson, Chris Weber, and Jenny Grant Rankin, Ph.D. She continues the conversation here with her own response, along with contibutions from Beth Parson Stauner, Robert Ward, Amber Chandler, and Kelly Knoche.

Response From Rita Platt

Rita Platt (@ritaplatt) is a national-board-certified teacher and a proud #EduDork! Her experience includes teaching learners of all levels from kindergartner to graduate student. She is currently the principal of St. Croix Falls and Dresser Elementary Schools in Wisconsin, teaches graduate courses for the Professional Development Institute, and writes for MiddleWeb and Routledge Eye on Education:

As a principal, I am no stranger to the effects of trauma on school-aged children. The educators at my school use many strategies to work with my kids. From explicit teaching of social skills to daily check-in and check-out protocols where we reflect on specific behavior goals, our days are filled with trauma-informed teaching techniques.

Often students who have experienced trauma or who exhibit problematic behaviors have difficulty identifying the scale of a problem. For example, a student might have a meltdown because he has to wait before going to the library to check out a new book. Or might fall into a puddle of tears when they spill a glass of milk. Or will violently punch someone who accidentally bumped their arm.

In other words, students affected by trauma can react as if all problems are huge in scale and warrant a similarly huge response. A strategy for helping these students that is particularly helpful and easy to implement is teaching them to identify the relative sizes of different problems and teaching them to react proportionally to the size. Below is a lesson set that can help. Implement it at a time when there is little stress and your students are not in crisis mode or otherwise overly emotional.

Step 1:

Start by asking students to brainstorm a list of any or all problems that might occur in a given day. A good children’s book to get the ball rolling on listing smallish problems is, Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day by Judith Viorst. For older students, talking about “Murphy’s Law” (anything that can go wrong, will go wrong) might spark a similar list. This video is a good introduction to Murphy’s Law. You might have to prompt students to list the biggest problems (right up to tragedies including natural disasters, crimes, and deaths) they can think of as well.

Step 2:

When both lists are created, combine them and work with students to rank them from the the biggest/worst problems to the smallest/least impactful problems. The discussions about where each problem falls on the spectrum are likely to be interesting and provoke reflective thinking.

Step 3:

When a scale of biggest to smalled problems is agreed upon, ask students to add any examples they would like. Then ask them to think about what might be an appropriate reaction to problems at each level on the scale. It is often easiest to start at the top of the scale with the most difficult problems. Students can easily identify that a strong emotional reaction to the loss of a loved one, for example, is appropriate. Then, work your way down the scale.

Step 4:

Create an anchor chart that shows the range of problems with the responses that are likely appropriate for each. Use it as a tool to teach and remind students to gauge the potential effect strength of a problem and to monitor themselves and work to control their reaction to it.

Step 5:

Later, when a student is reacting strongly to a small problem, prompt her/him by saying, “Is this a big or a small problem on our scale?” When they answer, ask, “Is your reaction to the problem matched to its size?” Often, this helps a student who is having an extreme reaction to a small problem calm down and think clearly.

For more ideas on how to implement this strategy, try a simple Google search with the terms, “Big Problem/Small Problem” and you’ll come up with myriad links that might help you help your students learn to self-monitor and match their reactions appropriately to the size of the problems they are experiencing. Regardless of how you implement the strategy, try to remember that students who have survived trauma often have a hard time responding appropriately to problems. It is our job to help them learn to recognize the size of the problem and to help them match their response to it.

Response From Beth Parson Stauner

Beth Parson Stauner has been a special education paraprofessional at a northern Wisconsin elementary school for 10 years. She loves and delights in all children but has a special place in her heart for children who hurt:

As a special education paraprofessional, I work with the “toughest” children. Many of my kiddos have experienced trauma and exhibit challenging (to put it mildly) behaviors. While I’ve had some professional development on trauma-informed practices and nonviolent intervention, most of what I have learned has been through experience.

My principal, who calls me a “natural born teacher,” often reaches out to me to share my practices. Below you’ll find my top 10 list of tips for working with children who have experienced trauma. I hope you find it helpful.

  1. Never take what a child does or says personally. They may be acting out with you because they can’t be that honest elsewhere. It is not about you.

  2. Validate feelings. There is nothing worse, even as an adult, than to have someone tell you to stop feeling an emotion. Try saying, “I get it. I really do. You’re so angry right now! I have been angry too! Let it out! Yell! Punch this pillow! I totally get it!” You can problem-solve with the child later.

  3. Let students know that there is nothing they can do that will make you love them less. Even when kids lie or have explosive behavior, always let them know you still love them.

  4. Admit mistakes and say you are sorry. If you have used a tone of voice that was harsh and hurt a child’s feelings (even if she/he needed to hear harsh words), apologize later. Not only is it good modeling but it also builds close, trusting relationships.

  5. Think outside of the box to help students focus. Let kids stand, use a wiggle chair, have something they can fidget with or a pencil topper to chew on. Break up work; for example, cover half a page of math problems so kids are only looking at five problems instead of 20. Recognize that not all children will give you eye contact and sit still while listening. Some listen best while drawing or fidgeting.

  6. Understand students who face trauma might disappoint you. There will be steps forward and steps back. This is all part of making progress. It is not a straight line.

  7. Find common ground or create it. Eat lunch with students, hang out with them. Learn their interests and become conversant in them. I hate snakes, but one of my student loved them. So, I read lots of books, watched videos, and learned to like snakes (a little). It showed the child I was listening, and when work was done, we could talk about what he loved.

  8. Body language and facial expression are important. Do not inadvertently become a threat to a student. If a child is having a meltdown, never walk directly at them. Use a roundabout way to reach them and stand at an angle. If she/he is sitting, you should sit, too. Look calm and nonemotional, even if you have to fake it. Many times my facial and voice expression seem calm, but trust me, my heart is POUNDING. This is normal. You can deal with your own emotional fallout later (see number 10).

  9. Never be afraid to ask for help. You can’t let your ego get in the way. Sometimes when a student has a “meltdown,” she/he needs a different adult to help. Sometimes you will lose your cool and need to ask another adult to step in. Understand, it’s not about you, it’s about giving the student what she/he needs.

  10. Find someone safe to vent to. You will need it. Educators who work with students affected by trauma can face their own job-related traumatic stress. Letting it go is critical. Also, try to remember to leave what happened yesterday behind. Every day is a new day.

One more thing. Don’t forget the kids who don’t struggle with trauma and/or behavior. They work hard, too, and in my experience, they are usually understanding and kind to students who struggle even though that kindness and understanding aren’t always reflected back to them. Praise and thank those kids that go out of their way to include more difficult students. Let them know that showing kindness is very important. We are educating future leaders. Nurture kindness and empathy.

Response From Robert Ward

Robert Ward is enjoying his 26th year teaching middle school English in Los Angeles and is the author of five books for educators and parents, includingTeaching the Benefit Mindset. In addition to his award-winningRewarding Education blog, Robert’s articles are regularly featured in Edutopia, Education Week, KQED, ASCD, and NCTE. Robert can be followed on Twitter@RewardingEdu and emailed at misterward@sbcglobal.net:

Every student benefits from curriculum and assignments that take them outside of themselves and their own personal (and perhaps painful) worlds. How can we presume that just because a kid is struggling academically or hurting internally they won’t benefit from challenge, a change of pace, or the chance to help others?

There’s ample reason for teachers to honor a child’s current individual interests and experiences (both heartbreaking and heartwarming), as well as to expose every child to the unknown, unexplored, and unexpected. And we owe an expansive, experiential educational approach to our most needy students, just as much as to those who have already been labeled “gifted.”

Exposing students who suffer from trauma to a sense of mystery, wonder, and discovery about people and lands from long ago and far away leads to the openness and empathy that feed abenefit mindset. The benefit mindset is about expansion, reverberation, and connections. The gift the benefit mindset provides to those who actively participate in its expressions of love and leadership is that through this sharing and generosity, our interests grow and our talents flower in ways we could’ve never imagined. The more we let other people in, the more we heal and become whole ourselves.

In my experience, when approached respectfully and strategically, all students rise to intellectual challenges, as well as to altruistic calls of duty. Similarly, every student feels prepared and validated to meet their teacher’s high expectations when they’ve been given the proper support and encouragement to stretch their supposed, often self-imposed, limitations and illusions of separation from others.

Adolescent education owes a great deal to the work of Stanford psychologist William Damon, who developed this definition of purpose: “A stable and generalized intention to accomplish something that is at once meaningful to the self and of consequence to the world beyond the self.” Imagine if every school had this sense of common purpose included in its mission statement!

By teaching the benefit mindset, the driving question of education becomes: How can we use what we’re currently learning to tap into our individual passions and talents, as well as to address the injustices and dilemmas that cause us concern, in order to support the well-being of ourselves, others, and our planet?

Ask your students what lights them up and what breaks their hearts. Every child wants to be moved, yearns for purpose, and seeks meaning. The trick is in tying all those motivators to what you’re teaching your students today, tomorrow, and next semester. This is teaching the benefit mindset, and it just may be the key to inspiring all your students, even those who have experienced trauma and may be rebellious or withdrawn, to begin to care—to care about themselves, their education, their fellow human beings, and our world.

Learning can be liberating. It should expand our minds, our souls, our dreams, our social circles, and free us from the burdens of the past and present that may be holding us back, haunting us, or causing us to hate ourselves and all of humankind.

We can heed the warning of Shawn Ginwright, Ph.D.: “The term ‘trauma-informed care’ runs the risk of focusing on the treatment of pathology (trauma), rather than fostering the possibility (well-being).” We must be careful not to allow trauma or “the worst thing that ever happened to you” define anyone, especially a child. Educators can use the benefit mindset to teach kids to move beyond bad experiences to a place of self-healing, a big part of which occurs when we also focus on the healing and happiness of others.

Response From Amber Chandler

Amber Chandler is the 2018 AMLE Educator of the Year, author of The Flexible SEL Classroom, and an 8th grade ELA teacher in New York:

“My childhood is ruined. I cannot tell people stories about my Barbie dolls or play dates I had with my friends. I never had that for myself, and I have always had to worry about stuff that an adult should worry about.”

These words are from an essay my students do called, “I Believe.” It is very open and it purposefully allows my students to share about themselves to the degree that makes sense to them. It doesn’t require a family tree, which might be complicated or embarrassing. It doesn’t require an inspirational moral at the end because frankly, some of my students don’t have one. It doesn’t have to be factual, as it could be all things that the student believes, even without experiencing them. It can be written in poetry or prose and it is a magnifying glass. It allows students a chance to own what they believe and share it with me. Many students have never been given a space to express their feelings about what they are experiencing, and they haven’t been given a place to process it. This is important for students who’ve experienced trauma.

What was this student’s “I Believe” statement? She wrote: “Throughout my experience I have come to realize you must not take your childhood for granted.” I responded back to her that she’d reminded me of an important truth and I thanked her for it. Over the course of our relationship, she sometimes skipped my class and sometimes came and did amazing work. She alternately was excited to see me or wanted to avoid me, looking the other way in the halls. She struggled in mighty ways, and I gave her space. But I always let her know, “I see you. I can’t solve your problems but I know they exist.”

A “trauma-informed classroom” is a safe and secure place for students who have experienced horrific things. In my class, I want students to know that I am informed of their trauma, that I do know they are trying, and that I can’t believe how amazing they are just to survive their day-to-day life, much less the stresses of middle school.

It is my belief that if a student knows you see her/him as a person with worthwhile beliefs, goals, and aspirations underneath the traumatic story, it can bring order to chaos and offer the student a chance to be seen not just for what has happened to them, but for who they are, what they believe, and who they aspire to be.

Response From Kelly Knoche

Kelly Knoche is the founder and director of The Teaching Well, an organization committed to working in partnership with schools to more effectively support, retain, and leverage the brilliance of their educators. Through her experience as a teacher in the Oakland Unified school district, she saw firsthand the effects of trauma within a system and worked alongside many educators who informed her experience of how to create resilient classrooms:

Trauma-Informed Classrooms Start With You

The heart of a trauma-informed classroom is an educator who is self-aware, reflective, and responsive to not only their students’ trauma but also their own. How you navigate your own triggers and how you set up your teaching practice to care for your own nervous system are the foundation for creating a classroom that feels safe enough for traumatized students to learn. Your relationship to your own trauma will dictate how safely you can hold space for a student’s trauma. Here are some important things to consider:

  • Take time to navigate your personal story; get a therapist, listen to Super Soul Sundays, take time for personal self-reflection. Journaling, getting outside, and prioritizing at least 1 hour a week where your only focus is on your emotional and mental health are important.

  • Take care of your body during the school day; drink water, eat nourishing foods, ask for coverage to go to the bathroom, get 7-8 hours of sleep a night, create mindful breaks in the school day that you and your students do together.

  • Set up your classroom environment in a way that brings you joy and calm. Cover the fluorescent lights with color or shade, fill the walls with student work, have a celebration wall that shows student success and love notes you have received from friends and family.

  • Have a calm space/activity just for you. Perhaps it’s a wonderful soft rug underneath your desk where you can take off your shoes. Perhaps it is metal utensils and a cloth napkin for lunch. Or maybe you have a white-noise machine for after school when you prep for tomorrow’s lesson. Leave a yoga mat in your room for 5-10 minute stretches, a mini-nap, or a short meditation during your prep, before or after school.

  • Stay connected to what brings you joy outside of teaching, such as hobbies, arts, close relationships, family, and friends.

Understand the Science

While this presentation on trauma explains with detail, there are 3 facts I keep in mind as I navigate student trauma or my own.

  1. The best solution to trauma-informed care is to create safe and consistent space before past trauma is triggered. This means thinking about how you set up your space to be clean, organized, and accessible. This means prioritizing creating authentic, trusting relationships with students where you get to know their cultures, interests, concerns, fears, and triggers. This means being aware of body language, choice, and consent in the set up of your classroom.

  2. When a student’s trauma is activated, the priority is to keep them safe, stay calm, and get support as needed. Once a person’s survival body is activated, they are not able to reconnect to group norms or agreements until they move through the body’s survival response. This visual

    from Dr. Bruce Perry demonstrates this well. It is important to understand trauma responses as biological and human, rather than as personality or behavioral deficits.

  3. After the escalation has occurred, and the student and educator’s nervous systems have reregulated, it is critical to invest time with student and community members to reconnect, restore relationship, and learn from what took place.

  4. Trauma is a fact of life, but it is not a life sentence. Trauma heals through safety, connection, and slowly rewiring the brain to slow down the survival response. Focus on resilience and build it into your curriculum.

If you want to know more, the five books I suggest reading are: The Body Keeps Score, My Grandmother’s Hands, The Boy who was Raised as a Dog, Waking the Tiger, and The Deepest Well: Overcoming the effects of Childhood Adversity

Other articles that are powerful on the topic:

KQED Secondary Trauma Symptoms in Educators

When Schools Meet Trauma with Understanding Not Discipline

These steps, of course, apply to all students. Every student will benefit from our improved practices in these areas. Students experiencing trauma will likely not succeed without them.

Thanks to Rita for guest-hosting, and to Beth, Robert, Amber, and Kelly for their contributions!

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