Every day, students across the country attend school, where they are expected to perform to their best abilities. There are clear standards for what constitutes the “best,” and that often leaves children who are struggling with emotional regulation or the impacts of trauma behind. How to help these students who are clearly struggling with emotional regulation and executive functioning skills remains a challenge even for the best teachers. Often, these students are labeled as “disruptive,” “bullies,” or “behavioral problems.” In reality, these students are searching for stronger connections and meaning without knowing the best strategies to find them. Even if only a small portion of the student body has experienced trauma, the entire school will be impacted by the effects. For this reason, it is important that a trauma-informed school takes a school-wide, collaborative approach.
At my school, Epiphany School, which has very small class sizes of about 12 students each, students closely interact with their peers and faculty throughout the extended day. For some students, such familiarity comes easy. For others, it presents a challenge and a barrier to their learning.
Wrap-Around Services: Counseling
A trauma-informed school has to be fully committed to addressing students’ mental health needs. Such a school provides wrap-around services to students, which includes individualized professional counseling and a team-based approach that encourages collaboration between behavioral health care providers, school administration, teachers, and parents or guardians. For some students, these multiple touch points allow them to be seen in a different light and get their different needs met.
For example, James* is a student who has experienced a lack of stability at home and is recently dealing with his parents’ separation. Processing the separation of his mother and father has left him with a rocky relationship with his mother. He searched for affection in school by refusing to pay attention, saying inappropriate and distracting things in side conversations, and producing work slowly. He was constantly requesting individual assistance and feedback, even during whole class discussions.
I initially saw his behavior as disruptive. After a few weeks of this behavior, I made it a point to check in with his school-assigned behavioral counselor. She shared that James could actually explain his behavior and be reflective about what it is that he wants to achieve. She suggested that I set time out of the day for a Flex block that I would dedicate to helping James catch up on the work he was missing. When telling him about this time, the counselor advised, it was important for me to frame it as a choice and opportunity, not a requirement. I would let James know that I was available during that time should he decide that he wanted to use me as a resource to help. These types of counseling insights can be helpful for teachers to understand how to best support a student, and provide independence, voice, and control that so many students feel they need to regain when they have experienced trauma. At such a small school as Epiphany, that means we are also able to provide private counseling services in coordination with other organizations and do home visits when students enter the school.
Building Relationships: Trouble Communicating Emotions
James and I were just beginning to build our relationship. But building relationships is easier said than done. As a first year teacher, I had a hard time adopting a warm-strict approach with my students. This approach is a delicate balance of showing kindness and affection while maintaining strict boundaries and consistency with your disciplinary system. Adopting this approach seemed to be an effective method for teaching students to trust me while also providing structure and routines. I, however, often came off as very harsh. I did not allow them to share their points of view, and my administration advised that I quickly shut down heated conversations with students. I often simply left students with a “because that’s the rule” or “because I said so”. I was afraid of getting into tit-for-tat power struggles with students. The responses I gave my students, however, are not real reasons any human would find acceptable or helpful. As young humans, students deserve the right to learn why a rule is in place or why their behavior is not meeting expectations. Especially for children who struggle with naming and navigating their emotions, essential components of emotional regulation, understanding and calmly communicating the “why” behind student actions and teacher responses is essential.
Not only that, but being a first year teacher anywhere at a new school can be tough. As students transition to new teachers each year, they test this teacher’s boundaries–a period I like to call “getting to know you”–and teachers are also getting to know the school. For example, I was eager to teach Legend*, as I heard from his previous teacher that he really enjoyed math and excelled in the classroom. I saw his leadership potential in the classroom as he was good friends with others–like James, who was also in his class. They, however, saw themselves as the class clowns. They made jokes, disrupted class, and generally did not seem to take their education seriously.
After Legend performed below his potential on a test, I sat down with him and his father to discuss his behavior. His father was formerly incarcerated, recently released, and separated from his mother. In this discussion, I noted that Legend’s grade was not reflective of his true capabilities, and told Legend that he had the potential to go to Harvard (my alma mater) if he wanted, he just needed to apply himself. He crossed his arms and pouted, “I don’t want to go to college. I’ll just work at McDonald’s.” We ended the meeting shortly thereafter. Speaking to children when they are ready to have a mature conversation is also essential for relationship building. I stayed in contact with the parent, but did not think much came of that initial meeting.
Needless to say, it was not all good with Legend after this meeting. He continued to act out, particularly when he felt academically challenged to think critically or when he was being assessed. After one particularly difficult test for him (after he had a rough week that involved being sent out of the classroom very often), we got into it. There was back and forth yelling, and I lost my temper. But I made it a point to apologize to him later, modeling behavior I would like to see from him. I told him I would love to sit down with him and do homework. He accepted the offer. While he was working, I explained how he knew exactly what to do in each problem without my help, how quickly he was able to comprehend and solve each problem, and how he needed to speak up in class because his insights were valuable. I also noted tests were a source of anxiety for Legend, and he began to advocate for himself to be tested in a separate room.
Slowly but surely, Legend began to see that I was not his enemy, in fact, I was one of his biggest fans because I recognized his potential. I began to consciously call on Legend towards the beginning of class to get him engaged early on, and allowed him to lead some of the simulations we were working on. A couple of weeks later, I was surprised to see Legend had a Harvard lanyard hanging around his neck. I overheard some of the other students ask him about it, and he responded, “I’m going into nerd mode.” Just because students have experienced adversity does not mean we need to lower expectations for their education. In fact, high expectations have to be held in hand with high support. This support means a full wrap-around approach, like counseling, and emotional support, boosting students’ self-confidence.
Promoting Student Autonomy: Routines and Space
Creating routines in schools can build in time for movement and student autonomy. In my classroom, students walk into their group desks, complete a do-now or get started reviewing their homework. Having a routine for what students are expected to do when they come into the classroom is great for managing a classroom, but also provides structure and control for students who have experienced a loss of control. Once we complete our problem solving task and discussion and get started on classwork, achievements like completing homework or having a clean binder allow students to gain couch privileges. Providing flexible seating for students, especially those who are in school for extended hours, is also important to promote student autonomy. Many lower age classrooms have small couches and cushions for students, but even high school classrooms can benefit from this type of learning environment. After providing clipboards to students, they can complete problems and get started in a cozier space.
Another surprising but effective method of inserting choice into the space you share with your class is flexible lighting. Sitting under fluorescent lights all day can be exhausting, especially with students that have extended hours. Having flexible light fixtures can ease some of the anxiety that fluorescent lights bring with them, and provide new warmth to your classroom. It also allows students the possibility to choose the lighting and seating they feel most comfortable in to get work done.
As teachers, we know that we have to “put on our own air mask first,” and then help the students with theirs. We bring baggage to our jobs too, and especially the role of the teacher can take an emotional toll on us. At another school where I worked, students were invited to participate in circles where they talked through different scenarios, learned executive functioning skills like time and emotional management, and discussed themes surrounding identity and healthy relationships during an advisory block. Students were hesitant, and not all students spoke, but some shared valuable and powerful insights about their values. Being able to articulate their beliefs was a form of vulnerability often not found in middle school, and many of them found their voices through this practice.
As staff, a part of our professional development was to do the same. Every two weeks, we sat around a circle and started with a check-in on a scale. People were very vulnerable. We talked about heavy topics like identity and its relationship to our work. It created a bond between people at an all new school, and allowed us to center our work in a way that allowed for us to discuss how difficult it could be.
*Students’ names have been changed for the sake of privacy.