I am not a clinical or licensed mental health professional, but I have been in low-performing classrooms as a teacher, coach, school leader, and consultant long enough to recognize one critical thing. In the lives of many students in our high-needs schools, trauma exists and it impacts teaching and learning daily.
I know I am not alone in my recognition of this fact. The reasons for why a student may have or is experiencing trauma can lie in unexplored shadows, but the effects are often publicized billboard style in teachers’ lounges, principals’ offices, staff meetings, and even in the very hallways where students walk daily. You may have heard or said the phrases before, “he can’t sit, she hates everyone, he has no social skills, she runs out of the class every day.”
Recently, an inexperienced yet dedicated teacher retorted to me that expecting students with trauma to behave was actually traumatizing the student. I had heard others a few months ago comment through social-media posts saying, “our students don’t need no-nonsense, they just need nurturing.” Both comments to me reflect a fear that I believe many teachers and school leaders have, “Students with trauma just can’t learn”.
This strikes me. I’ve survived one traumatic event after another in my early life. It would be impossible for me to recount some without offending family members. Others are plain and clearly visible; such as the 20-inch scar on my left leg which stands as a constant reminder of a head-on car collision I survived at the age of 20. Like many children living with trauma, I know I am not special. Trauma is common. Trauma comes in many forms; poverty, abuse, neglect, discrimination, racism, etc. It is also very survivable. What is broken can be healed and become even stronger. Students living with trauma are the most wanting to feel confident, capable, noticed. Therefore, when adults expect and support these students in learning until they achieve, the achievement actually serves to help heal the trauma. They realize that not all adults are sources of harm, but instead adults help you achieve just like others do.
What does this mean for those of us working in schools? Here is a five-step survival checklist that is also PART of the process of becoming more culturally responsive to the needs of students:
BRING IT! Bring your strongest growth mindset; the one that knows healing is possible. Students living with trauma tend to have a lot of practice at detecting negative motives and emotions in adults. Teaching with a mindset of positivity, joy, and a true sense that growth happens are the bridges to learning for these students.
CARE! Name yourself “Chief of Care.” Like a “Chief of Surgery”, you can nurture the healing from the walls of your classroom/school just by listening, caring, and encouraging day after day. For example, share a story of struggle with a student and communicate that you are a source of support with them. Don’t assume that they know!
KNOW! Spend the time to get to know the student, to listen, to incorporate the home culture and strengths. See the child, not just the trauma. Ask them what matters most to them, what they enjoy the most, and what they would change if they could. Replicate the actions of a mentor while also sharing that the students have a lot to teach you about him/herself and his family or culture.
TEACH to REACH! Teach so that students can REACH their potential and get beyond the trauma. My teachers treated me like the future turnaround principal I would become, not just the withdrawn child who preferred the playground to the classroom and as a result, I knew that learning was a way to be successful.
SEEK! Seek support from colleagues and acknowledge your own need for care and coaching as a professional. Teaching and building relationships with students living with trauma will make you uncomfortable and is even painful because of the empathy you feel. Empathy can be positive and powerful if we talk about it and use it to motivate actions that support students instead of distancing ourselves from their struggle.
We all wish we could eradicate the trauma for our students and ourselves. The reality is the most effective action is to focus on transforming trauma into strength through the nurturing relationship of an unwavering belief that students with trauma CAN. As a child living with trauma, one of the best things that happened to me was that I was in a school that gave children structures for success, that expected positive behavior and achievement. Rules, consequences, and routines were clear for all of us every day. The focus was always the learning. It is evident to me and many others that this is not true for many of our urban schools today and the blame is usually placed on the students, parents, or the trauma. As a result, teachers lower expectations, give up on building a positive relationship and fail to deliver the next step of the learning process including learning how to read, think, write, and reason. If the expectations had been lowered for me, would I have reached as high then and now or would I have believed that I was broken? BRING IT, CARE, KNOW, and TEACH to REACH, and SEEK. All of our students are worth it!
by Wanda Perez, CT3 Associate
To learn more about Wanda, click here.