Don’t you know, little one, that I am supposed to be doing five other things at this very minute, that I slept horribly last night because I was worried about you, and that I don’t even have a spare moment to use the bathroom today?
So, that’s a no?
Students don’t wait for us to have a free moment and a clear mind before they have a crisis, do they?
Along with several of my colleagues, I am on a journey to becoming a trauma-informed educator. As I travel this path, it is becoming glaringly obvious that I am my biggest stumbling block. Standstills with students are typically created by my lack of time, patience, or my stubbornness. The students? Their behavior can be upsetting, irrational, and very ugly, but their behavior is often predictably rooted in an attempt to gain control, to feel safe, or to belong.
This past week, I needed to remind myself of these four truths as I worked with students:
- Understand that anger is a cover-up emotion. In Daring Greatly, Brené Brown describes anger as a socially acceptable mask for a myriad of other emotions. The student could be feeling shame, confusion, jealousy, surprise, worry, mistrust, or sadness, yet the chosen behavior looks a lot like furious anger. It is so important that we look past the ugly, angry behavior to try to understand what the student is really feeling.
- We cannot punish the effects of trauma out of our students. Yes, there should be appropriate consequences for poor behavior choices. But, we must understand that the work–helping our students learn socially acceptable behavior, feel good, and overcome their circumstances–is done through strong, positive relationships. Different students need different things during a crisis. They may need quiet time, they may need distraction, they may need to do something physical. But they are all the same in what they DON’T need. They don’t need our anger, they don’t need a lecture about their behavior, and they don’t need our judgement. The learning from their behavior comes later, after the crisis.
- Believe them and acknowledge their feelings. Sometimes our students’ feelings are illogical and it is hard to not jump right to teaching them about the illogic of their feelings. Instead, let’s pause our self-righteousness for a moment to acknowledge that how they feel is how they feel. Often when I remember to do this, when I begin with “I am sorry to hear that you are feeling ________,” I can see an immediate physical change in the student. Their eyes light up, their shoulders drop down because they don’t have to hold the weight of their feelings on their own, and they are ready to talk about how to turn their day around.
- Taking good care of ourselves is key to overcoming our own stumbling blocks. It takes an inordinate amount of mental energy to push aside our instincts, our biases, our own insecurities, and our own feelings as we try to support students who have been affected by trauma. It becomes a nearly impossible task when we also have to overcome lack of sleep, poor nutrition, lack of exercise, or not taking time to fuel our souls by doing things we are passionate about.
The journey to becoming a trauma-informed educator is full of beautiful lessons that not only help us be better educators for students who struggle the most, they help us better support all the people in our lives. And, students who haven’t experienced trauma benefit from the same strategies as students who have been affected by trauma. These same truths apply to relationships outside of school and can help us be better parents, spouses, friends, etc. What connections did you make to these four truths? Share in the comments or at #Path2Serendipity.
Trauma is a fact of life. It does not, however, have to be a life sentence.
-Peter A. Levine
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