Building a Trauma-Sensitive Learning Environment

I struggled with how to introduce this list without telling stories that aren’t mine to tell. Last September I asked the new principal of a local high-needs school about her new job. She said it was “good work.” I used that phrase whenever someone would ask about my new job. “It’s good work,” I would answer. How to explain that in a blog post?

I finally realized that it doesn’t matter if your school is high-needs or not. As Kristin Souers writes in Fostering Resilient Learners: Strategies for Creating a Trauma-Sensitive Classroom, “Because the statistics are so overwhelming, I encourage you to view every student as though he or she has experienced trauma or is exposed to chronic stress” (2). Here’s my incomplete list of how to begin to build what Souers calls a “trauma-sensitive learning environment.”

1. See students as more than their story.

In Fostering Resilient Learners, Souers writes that we should focus on the effect that events have on our students rather than on the details of the events themselves. This shift in focus encourages us to “see students as more than their story” (16).

What does it mean to see our students as more than their story? Aren’t we building relationships? Isn’t it important that every single student in a school be known?

Yes, we’re building relationships, and yes, it’s essential that every student in a school be known, but we don’t have to know every detail to teach the student. Nor does the student have to reveal all of her or his life story to every single teacher. While a student’s story is important, it can also be shorthand for a set of assumptions that might or might not be true for that student.

It is helpful, for example, to know that a student suffers from crippling anxiety, or needs kind words, or doesn’t get support outside of school. In some cases, I am the teacher who knows the story, the one the student confides in. Just as often I’m not, and that’s okay too, because the changes I make for the crippling anxiety or the need for kind words or the support someone isn’t getting at home? Those are changes that benefit all my students, whether I know their story or not.

As much as we believe otherwise, the more we tell the story, the less we see the student. My students are more than their ACEs.

2. If they can, they will.

Many of us, as Souers writes in Fostering Resilient Learners, “associate behavior with choice” (32). If you only read one more book between now and the start of your school year, it should be Ross Greene’s Lost at School. Greene writes that behavior is a matter of lagging skills and unsolved problems rather than a decision by a student to misbehave. For me, the key change is to think about challenging behaviors as a problem to be solved rather than a choice that a student has made. If they can, they will.

When we see challenging behavior as a problem to be solved rather than a choice made by a student, it completely changes our relationship as teacher and student. Imagine that a student walks out of my class without permission every day. If I view this exit as a choice that the student is making, then the solution is obvious: the student needs to stay in class. On the other hand, if I view this exit as the demonstration of a lagging skill, a sign that my student is facing a problem that he or she lacks the skill to solve, then the situation is very different. I still want my student to stay in class, but if I remember, as Greene repeats, that “Kids do well if they can,” then I’m more likely to work with my student to identify the problem and master the lagging skill. (I’m only touching briefly on the content of Greene’s book. You can learn more about his work with Collaborative and Proactive Solutions here.)

3. Every student, every day.

File Jul 21

Sometimes, simple is better. When we returned to school after break in January, I set a simple focus for myself each day. Greet every student by name. Look and see their faces. Ask questions. A few weeks later, I wrote Connect in my planner on a Monday and Connect again on a Tuesday. At the very end of the school year, one of our instructional leaders tasked us to meet with every single reader before the year ended. It seemed an impossible task, but I met with as many students as I could. Tell me about the book you’re reading. What are your plans for next year? What do you want to do after high school?

I know we can’t confer with every student every day, but how many students do we stop and talk to each day? Do we take a minute to really see every student in front of us, or do we simply launch into our lesson after a cursory glance so that we can take attendance? I know that I can look without seeing, especially after I’ve taught a few periods in a row. I know that I need to stop, breathe, observe, connect. I might not get to everyone, but the goal remains the same.

Every student, every day.

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