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With Larry Ferlazzo

In this EdWeek blog, an experiment in knowledge-gathering, Ferlazzo will address readers’ questions on classroom management, ELL instruction, lesson planning, and other issues facing teachers. Send your questions to lferlazzo@epe.org. Read more from this blog.

Teaching Opinion

Response: Ways Educators Can Respond to Student Trauma

By Larry Ferlazzo — December 17, 2016 21 min read
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(This is the first post in a three-part series)

The new “question-of-the-week” is:

How can educators best learn about—and respond to—trauma that students have experienced or are experiencing?

Trauma, whether it’s in the past or present, can have a huge impact and lasting effect on our students’ lives. How can educators best respond to it? That’s the question that this series will be examing. Coincidentally, Education Week Commentary has also published a special report this week on the topic: Student Trauma: How School Leaders Can Respond.

Today, Mary Ann Zehr, Dr. Jennifer Davis Bowman, Cindi Rigsbee, Kenneth Baum, David Krulwich, Judie Haynes, Dr. Debbie Zacarian, and Lourdes Alvarez-Ortiz, PhD contribute their answers to that question. You can listen to a ten-minute conversation I had with Jennifer, Cindi and Marry Ann on my BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

In addition to sharing resources I’ve collected at The Best Ways For Responding To Student Trauma, I’d like to share a brief piece that I’ve written which may appear in a forthcoming book by Debbie Zacarian, Judie Haynes and Lourdes Alvarez-Ortiz (another excerpt can be seen later in this column).

I’ve taught many students—both immigrants and non-immigrants—who either have experienced trauma in their past or continue to experience in their present.

Being supportive, particularly by emphasizing two-way conversation as opposed to one-way communication (which, unfortunately, is often what happens in many classrooms), is the key strategy I use to work with students in this type of situation.

Here’s one example from this past semester:

The majority of students in my Beginner/Intermediate English Language Development class were refugees from Central America, many of whom experienced trauma with a capital “T” in their home countries and in their journey to the United States. On top of those struggle, many were missing what most of what most of my previous students had—a living situation which included other members of their nuclear family.

One day I saw a first-person account written in accessible English about gang violence in El Salvador. I had individual conversations with students to see how they would feel reading such a piece. Would it hit “too close to home” or would they want to try reading it? All said they wanted to read it, but when I brought copies to class, one student , “Alfredo,"said he wanted to read it along in the corner.

So, “Alfredo” took his copy of the article, move his desk to one of the corners and positioned it so he had his back to the rest of us. We began reading it together with students leaping at the chance to interject their own comments and connections to the article. At one point, I could tell—even from just seeing his back—that Alfredo was having a hard time. I asked students to continue to read as partners and went over to see Alfredo. He then took out his phone and began to show me photographs of all his friends who had been killed by gang violence in El Salvador and tell me their stories.

Afterwards, all students, including Alfredo (who had previously not been very interested in academic work), asked that we read and write as much as possible about what was happening in Central America.

Respecting students by first asking their permission to bring in an article on such a personal “hot-button” issue, acknowledging the different ways they might want to react to it, and listening to their personal commentaries all combined to form a more cohesive classroom community and provide superior opportunities for highly engaging academic lessons.

Leading with our ears instead of our mouths works with students experiencing trauma—and with most others, too!

Response From Mary Ann Zehr

Mary Ann Zehr teaches English at the International Academy, a high school for English-language learners that is part of the Francis L. Cardozo Education Campus in the District of Columbia Public Schools in Washington:

The short answer to this question is that if a school has students who have experienced trauma, it should have social workers and counselors on hand to evaluate students’ psychological and emotional needs and address them.

I’m in my sixth year of teaching in DC’s public high schools. While I’ve always taught English-language learners, last school year I taught for the first time in a school for newcomers that uses the model of the Internationals Network for Public Schools. I collaborate in a team of teachers who instruct the same 100 students. We meet for at least two hours every week to talk about instruction and the social and emotional needs of our students. One half hour of each week is devoted to discussing social and emotional needs of students with a guidance counselor and deciding on interventions.

We teachers are often the first people in the school to notice signs of depression or other reactions to trauma. By meeting regularly in teams we can compare notes. So a structure of having teachers meet to talk about students is one important element of addressing trauma.

My school has the good fortune of having bilingual counselors and a bilingual social worker. They’ve helped students by talking with them about their feelings in their native language and sometimes referring them for therapy.

Almost all of my students immigrated from El Salvador, Honduras, or Guatemala and many of them have experienced trauma. Some were traumatized as small children when one parent or both parents left for the United States without them. Many of my students traveled to the United States as unaccompanied minors and some had bad experiences during their journey. And after they arrived in the United States, some experienced new trauma as they adjusted to living with people who seemed to be strangers.

I give my students opportunities to talk about hardships with open-ended assignments and questions. For example, I planned a unit that focused on immigration. We read excerpts of the book, “Enrique’s Journey,” by Sonia Nazario, which is about an impoverished teenager from Honduras who rides freight trains across Mexico and crosses the Rio Grande to try to reach his mother in the United States. Enrique experiences a lot of trauma. When he’s riding a freight train, some men beat him up badly enough that he almost dies. He recovers from his injuries and in North Carolina reunites with his mother, whom he hasn’t seen for more than a decade. We read the excerpts in both Spanish and English.

In response to the readings, I asked students to share one thing that happened to them on their trip to the United States. Quite a few students said that, like Enrique, they had traveled on Mexican freight trains and crossed the Rio Grande. Some shared details as unrevealing as “I ate Mexican food,” but others seemed to want to talk about difficulties of their journey, such as lacking food and water. One student said that for three hours he traveled cramped up inside a box that was transported in the luggage area of a bus. Another said he crossed a river with crocodiles in it. If they shared a bad experience, I said to them, “I’m sorry that you experienced that and I’m glad you are now safe.”

I assigned students to write an essay in response to the book arguing whether immigrants should or shouldn’t come to the United States. Everyone argued that immigrants should come to the United States. Many shared that immigrants come particularly from Central America because they are poor and want a better life or because they feel unsafe in their home countries because of gang violence. They had the option of choosing to include their own experiences in the essay as well.

It seems that it is healing for students to talk about trauma in a safe setting. Sometimes this happens one-on-one, when a student speaks with me outside of class. It happens when they talk with guidance counselors and social workers. But it’s also appropriate to gives students opportunities to talk about trauma in class if it is through open-ended questions and assignments.

Response From Dr. Jennifer Davis Bowman

Jennifer Davis Bowman envisions classrooms filled with thinking caps-because uniforms are uninspiring as well as students with plastic utensils-because every student deserves a seat at the learning table. As an educator with a terminal degree in Special Education and a License in School Counseling, she’s written about her classroom and higher education experiences in Teaching Tolerance, ASCD, and Teach Thought. For education research and resources follow her on twitter: @DrJDavisBowman:

Are you a traumatized teacher? Too bad schools only focus on student trauma.

What does trauma look like in today’s classroom? This is the question posed during every trauma sensitivity training.

At first, the answer seems easy. It’s simply reciting the red flags of child abuse. It’s briefly recalling the referrals to the school counselor. It’s quickly spouting the duty to warn. It’s a bit more difficult, however, to admit the emotional costs of teaching traumatized students. So, instead of providing more statistics and signs for students’ trauma, let’s balance the conversation and address how student trauma impacts teachers.

We can accomplish this in a couple of ways. For starters, when asked what trauma looks like, intentionally make an addendum to the question: What does trauma look like-for teachers? Considering my classroom time with a student that cuts, my answer includes...

  • Replaying my request for her to take off her jacket over and over
  • Rethinking classroom boundaries
  • Second-guessing if I said the right thing

Adjusting the question forces us to talk about what makes teaching traumatized students scary.

So, if you’re saying: But, I’m not a scaredy cat—I’ve got this... Let’s not go there. Remember, the toughest challenge is thinking you’re not one of those teachers. Let me explain. There is evidence that up to 50 percent of helping professionals experience emotional distress due to their work with traumatized individuals. Not only is Secondary Trauma Stress (STS) common, there are specific factors that place teachers at risk:

  • If you are female

  • If you are new to the profession

  • If you have a large class size or teaching load

  • If you have a personal history with trauma

  • If you have minimal or no training in trauma sensitivity

  • If you have not developed and implemented a self-care routine

But maybe you’ve opened up about the emotional toll. Maybe you’re a closet know-it-all and can recite the risk factors backwards. In that case, ask yourself, How do I show STS in the classroom? Take note. The question is not if, but how STS is expressed. Think about it. Are you guarded-intentionally limiting opportunities for sharing personal information in your classroom? Are you bottling up the stress-the evidence seeping from your body via migraines and stomach aches? Are you overcompensating-spending hours referral writing, parent conferencing and professional developing?

There’s an old recommendation for if your plane is going down, “Put your oxygen mask on first.” According to teacher interview data, it works for trauma informed classrooms too. It’s no surprise that when self-care is prioritized, educators feel better prepared to address student trauma.

Turns out, that in order to reach my student that cuts, I first needed to reach for my oxygen. Let’s change the conversation on classroom trauma-to place an oxygen mask within the reach of every teacher.

Response From Cindi Rigsbee

Cindi Rigsbee is a National Board Certified ELA/Reading teacher currently on loan to the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction where she works on recruitment and retention initiatives like beginning teacher support. With over 30 years in education, Cindi is a cheerleader for the profession as evidenced in her book Finding Mrs. Warnecke: The Difference Teachers Make. A member of the Center for Teaching Quality’s Teacher Leaders Network, Cindi was a contributing author to Teaching 2030: What We Must Do for Our Students and Our Public Schools, Now and in the Future. She blogs at cindirigsbee.com:

As a language arts teacher, I learn a great deal about the traumatic experiences of my students through their writing. Journals and blogs sometimes tell all to the unsuspecting teacher. But truly I want to know who my students are. So one of my journal prompts is “What is the worst thing that ever happened to you?” I’ve gotten everything from “I saw my brother shot and killed” to “I was grounded from watching TV.” Something as simple as those two statements can tell an important story about the differences among my students and the lives they lead.

Aside from writing assignments, the best way for teachers to learn about their students is, well, to ASK. If the relationship has been formed early and nurtured throughout the school year, students will answer questions willingly. Prompting questions include:

  • Are you getting enough sleep at night? You seem a little tired.
  • What do you do for fun outside of school?
  • I saw you sitting alone at lunch. Is there some drama going on I need to know about?

Asking students about their lives can lead to an important dialogue or to....nothing. Sometimes kids are open and want to share, but sometimes they shut down and refuse to talk.

The key is to be understanding and patient, regardless of the information you receive. Continue to offer kindness to the student, and soon the student may feel comfortable enough to reach out. Call in resources as well—counselor, social worker, school nurse, coach—all can be colleagues who can help when a student is working through a traumatic experience.

Unfortunately, our students sometimes come to school under dreadful circumstances, and the truth is...we may not know. That’s why we must establish a culture of kindness, understanding, and respect every day, not just when we’re going through hard times. I tell my students, “This classroom is your family, and you’re safe here.” And I do everything in my power to make it so.

Response From Kenneth Baum & David Krulwich

Kenneth Baum and David Krulwich are, respectively, the former and current principals of the Urban Assembly School for Applied Math and Science, a public school in the Bronx, New York serving grades 6 through 12. They are co-authors of the new book, The Artisan Teaching Model for Instructional Leadership (ASCD 2016):

We have all read research about the importance of social-emotional skills (“grit,” “mindfulness”). Clearly, students who have suffered trauma in their lives are more likely to be absent, misbehave and struggle academically. But even with all the research about the importance of social-emotional health, we are only now beginning to consider what schools can do to foster it in students.

As principals in the Bronx (in one of the lowest-income communities in the country), we have worked with many students who have suffered trauma outside of school. Of course, children struggle in every neighborhood—rich or poor—but the South Bronx is not an easy place to be a child. Schools certainly cannot solve every problem and cannot provide the intensive mental healthcare that some students need. But in our experience, there are a several things educators can do:

1) Advisory, Enrichment and Trips

Schools should create structured and unstructured opportunities for students and adults to talk about their lives, even if takes time away from the topics in the state standards. Advisory and homeroom periods are incredibly important opportunities for students to share about their lives. Teachers also can participate in sports and arts activities after school, and take kids hiking and to the park. It is amazing what we learn when we spend time with students outside the classroom—they talk about their friends, families, and goals—and there is no way for schools to help address trauma if we don’t know about it.

2) Let Counselors Be Counselors

True, schools need additional funds for more counselors. But it is troubling how many schools use guidance counselors as programming coordinators and college advisors. Those roles are important, but they don’t need to be done by guidance counselors. It is crucial for counselors and social workers to spend their time counseling students. School leaders should train a teacher to handle programming, and hire a college advisor to coordinate college applications.

3) Beware of Discipline Codes

When a student has a serious discipline or attendance issue, a personal crisis often is the cause, and therefore, it is a perfect opportunity to discover a problem and try to help. But the response all-too-often is for educators to follow a systematic discipline code:

  • Three latenesses = one detention
  • Cursing in class = two detentions
  • Fighting in the yard = 3 day suspension
  • Fill out a form, refer it to the dean, problem solved.

These “referrals” are missed opportunities to identify students in crisis. Schools should build into their discipline systems a mandate that teachers try to identify the reason for the misbehavior before they refer it to someone else. Sometimes a consequence is needed, but there is no reason teachers can’t speak with students before administering punishments. At our school, teachers are not allowed to refer a student for a punishment without a detailed description of their conversation and the steps they took before contacting an administrator.

4) Student-Centered Classrooms

Many school leaders stress the importance of student voice and urge teachers to spend less time lecturing. This is important academically, and also for social-emotional reasons. Invariably, teachers who lecture too much are the ones who say, “Johnny is misbehaving. He keeps interrupting my lesson!” But when students are working in groups and discussing engaging assignments--more often than not, these are the same teachers who get to know their kids best: “Johnny told me his grandmother is in the hospital. I think he should speak to a counselor.” It’s not a coincidence. Teachers who speak less are listening more.

Response From Judie Haynes, Dr. Debbie Zacarian and Lourdes Alvarez-Ortiz, PhD

Judie Haynes taught K-6 ESL for 28 years and has authored and co-authored seven books on the education of ELLs. She is the founder of everythingESL.net and writes a blog for teachers of ELLs for TESOL International.

Dr. Debbie Zacarian, the founder of Zacarian & Associates, also founded the Center for English Language Education and Advancing Student Achievement at the Collaborative for Educational Services, Northampton, Mass., where she led various professional development initiatives for thousands of educators of diverse learners and wrote policies and was the expert consultant for many school districts and state agencies. For over a decade, she served on the faculty of the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. She can be reached at debbie@zacarianconsulting.com:

Lourdes Alvarez-Ortiz, PhD, is a highly accomplished bilingual/bicultural school psychologist and school leader with more than two decades of experience working in inner city school districts. Dr. Alvarez-Ortiz has also worked as an educational administrator in the non-profit sector where she successfully pioneered innovative educational reform initiatives targeted to improving the opportunities and outcomes of students and schools deemed at risk of failure. She can be reached at lalvarezortiz@comcast.net or connect with her on Twitter @lalvarezortiz.:

According to the National Survey of Children’s Health (2014), half of the nation’s total student population are students who have or are experiencing trauma, violence and chronic stress. This startling statistic should instantly raise our level of alarm about the epic number of pre-K-12 youth across every segment of our nation’s student population. Research points to the urgent need to approach the topic of students living with trauma, violence and chronic stress from a more positive stance as opposed to looking at it from a deficit-based lens. Although not negating the effects of trauma on individuals, the field of psychotherapy suggests that focusing on people’s inherent strengths (what they bring) has been proven to lead to better outcomes than operating from what we perceive as their weaknesses (Seligman, Rashid & Parks, 2006).

In educational settings, there is additional research that shows that we can help students be more successful and engaged when we draw from their internal strengths and capacities (Biswas-Dienera, Kashdan, & Gurpal, 2011). Part of our thinking needs to shift from what we believe is not happening and impossible to what is happening and possible. To do this we must take time to:

  1. Identify students’ existing strengths

  2. Honor, value, and acknowledge these strengths

  3. Help students become aware of their strengths

  4. Build instructional programming that boosts social ties and networks by drawing from students’ strengths

These are essential for teaching students living with trauma, violence, and chronic stress. One of the most exciting aspects of being an educator is supporting every student to draw from their strengths and capacities to develop the skills, competencies, and confidence to be an active learner, an independent and critical thinker, and an invaluable member of their learning community, local community and beyond. It calls for us to create a classroom and school environment where everyone is seen as already capable, already learning, and already contributing (Zacarian & Silverstone, 2015). Positive youth development (PYD) supports this way of thinking. Foundational to PYD is a belief that children’s outcomes are not inevitable or predictable based on what we perceive are their circumstances. Core to PYD are two foundational principles:

  1. All students and families bring great assets and capacities and

  2. Our brains have great capacity to build new pathways for being and acting (Floyd & McKenna, 2003; Lerner, Almerigi, & Theokas, 2005).

Let’s look at the first element- that all students and families bring great value to learning. Moll, Amanti and Neff (1992) coined the term funds of knowledge to describe the expertise that families bring to their child’s learning. They conducted research on families living in the border region between the United States and Mexico. Where some might say that the families were ‘uneducated’ and, therefore, could not help their children in school, they found the opposite. The families’ they studied possessed very high levels of knowledge and skills that related to their work, home life, and wellbeing. Further, and more importantly, these families passed this knowledge onto their children who then possessed these skills and knowledge. What is critical for us to consider as we begin to explore students living with trauma, violence and chronic stress is that their ‘school’ lives can be productive, positive, and fulfilling when we ‘see’ the assets and strengths that our students and families bring.

A second and equally critical component to working with students and families experiencing this phenomenon is that, as humans, we have the capacity to ‘overcome the odds stacked against us.’ The scientific field of neuroplasticity points to our brain’s capacity to create new pathways. Latest advances in the field suggest the ability of the brain to “rewire itself,” under certain conditions, giving us an enormous amount of hope in our work with students who have experienced trauma. What is important for us as educators to consider is how we contribute to creating an environment that capitalizes on human inherent strength to benefit our students and families.

This response is drawn from Zacarian, D., Haynes, J. and Alvarez-Ortiz, L. (2017). Teaching students living with trauma, violence and chronic stress using a strengths- based approach. Alexandria, VA: ASCD

Thanks to Mary Ann, Jennifer, Cindi, Kenneth, David, Judie, Debbie, and Lourdes for their contributions!

Please feel free to leave a comment with your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org.When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

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