Educators today hear a lot about attending to students’ social-emotional needs and implementing “trauma-informed” practices.
For some, I’m sure this sounds like jargon, but that’s not the case in the University City school district in Missouri, where I teach.
Here, we have embraced the goal of “humanizing” school and returning joy to our classrooms. Our district is located just six miles from Ferguson, where Michael Brown was fatally shot on August 9, 2014. That incident ignited racial tension and brought national attention to the problems of inequity and discrimination in and around St. Louis. In our district of over 2,500 students, the tensions were palpable both within and beyond our classrooms.
Then in 2016, Missouri launched a trauma-informed schools initiative to realize, recognize, respond to and resist the impacts of trauma. Trauma-informed practices have simple goals but are complex to achieve. But the hard work is paying off. Our district has seen the total number of student suspension days reduced by half since we started this important work. In my own classroom, I see much less off-task behavior, and I notice students taking a moment to breathe deeply when they need to refocus.
I have received training and support to bring trauma-informed practices to our school aligned with this “Missouri model.” Our district is accelerating its use of restorative practices to resolve disciplinary issues and conflicts, and it offers training and support to staff members to facilitate student empowerment. Last March, our board of education passed a landmark resolution addressing student well-being and equity that guides our work.
Gary Spiller, executive director of our office of student support and innovation, describes this as building a culture of “with” — not “to” or “for” — students. As Spiller says, our work on trauma-informed practices is about creating powerful relationships in the classroom, so that students feel like they belong, have a voice and are supported to learn at higher levels.
When students come in feeling crummy, they know that someone will be there to help.
By learning about and approaching our students as individuals, we learn how to tap into their strengths and reach them as learners.
We need to remember that too often, students are told to sit and obey adults, but sometimes this is nearly impossible because they’re experiencing things in their homes and neighborhoods that many adults don’t face. When our goal is to teach students, the last thing we want to do is add to their stress. Instead, we need to give them the tools they need to thrive. They should want to come to school because it’s a safe place where they have trusted adults they can connect with.
For the middle-schoolers I teach, if there’s something going on in their lives, focusing on science content can be hard. So I try to greet students with a smile and give them a hug, an encouraging word or a fist bump — instead of asking directly what’s wrong or “Why are you doing this?” Sometimes, we need to do a check-in through a restorative circle that we call “thorns and roses,” where we ask students to share concerns and successes.
When students are dealing with trauma and poverty in their lives, something as simple as not having the right binder can set a student back and prevent them from concentrating on a lesson. Instead of lecturing them about remembering their supplies, I ensure they know that a missing binder isn’t the end of the world and give them one to keep them on task and feeling positive.
At my school, we strive to say four positive comments for every negative one. And this makes the infrequent less-than-positive comment easier to hear. By the way, not everyone — students or staff — has to be “warm and fuzzy” for this approach to work, because it’s based on being real and being yourself. Kids always know when you are being real and when they can trust you.
Of course, teachers can’t be flexible, positive and supportive without feeling supported themselves. In University City, there are classes for educators in yoga, meditation and wellness so that we can deal with the stress that comes with the work we do. Our community partner, Alive and Well Communities — with support from the Every School Healthy campaign of America’s Promise Alliance — helps with ongoing coaching, working with school-level teams, while supporting us and sharing knowledge.
Through this, I’ve learned much more about how the human brain responds to trauma, and how learning can be affected by trauma. As teachers, let’s all send a message that we are interested in these young people as human beings, and that school can be a positive place. It can be as simple as taking a few moments to ask a student about a favorite outfit or game, or even asking what a student did over the weekend. With adults in their corner, students and their brains can shift from survival mode to feeling safe and calm so they can settle in and learn.
Lanesha McPherson teaches sixth-grade science at Brittany Woods Middle School in University City, Missouri.