What does it mean to foster resilient learners? The authors of Fostering Resilient Learners: Strategies for Creating a Trauma-Sensitive Classroom (2016), Kristen Souers, a licensed mental health therapist, and Pete Hall, a veteran school principal and education consultant, provide teachers with important knowledge and techniques for developing resilient learners by helping students overcome trauma.
Trauma, or an Adverse Childhood Experiences(s)(ACE’s), is “an exceptional experience in which powerful and dangerous events overwhelm a person’s capacity to cope” (Souers and Hall, 2016, p. 15). The ACE’s can stem from various sources, such as:
- Substance abuse in the home
- Parental separation or divorce
- Mental illness in the home
- Witnessing domestic violence
- Suicidal household member
- Death of a parent or love one
- Parental incarceration
- Experience of abuse
- Others (natural disaster, criminal behavior in the home, terminal or chronic illness of family member, military deployment of family member, homelessness, bullying, etc.)
Trauma is prevalent and it does not discriminate. It has become an epidemic and it occurs in all populations, socioeconomic levels, cultures, religions, and education levels. Sadly, nearly 35 million children in the US have experienced at least 1 type of trauma (Souers and Hall, 2016).
Teachers face the impact of student’s trauma every day in their classrooms. Here, student trauma can manifest itself as chronic absenteeism, disengagement, and behavior problems, among others. Too often, teachers are not adequately prepared to identify and address the challenges that stem from trauma and this can result in teacher frustration, low job satisfaction, and burn-out. Therefore, it is essential for teachers to learn about the importance of resiliency and how to foster it in the classroom.
Resilience is “our capacity to acknowledge and attend to personal difficulties while still working toward expectations” (Souers and Hall, 2016, p. 154). Resilience doesn’t make the trauma disappear; however, it is about developing the skills to see past the trauma, find purpose and enjoyment in life, and manage stress in a healthy way (Souers and Hall, 2016).
So, how do we as teachers help our students be resilient learners?
The Classroom: fostering resilience in a trauma-sensitive learning environment
- Building strong relationships and creating an environment that is safe and healthy enough for our students is essential for trauma-sensitive classrooms. The ways teachers communicate, attune to needs and emotions, hold students accountable to expectations, offer second chances, model characteristics of healthy relationships, and be available, predictable, and consistent can help students build resiliency and learn a different way of being (Souers and Hall, 2016).
- Keeping the classroom out of “OZ”: when a trigger disrupts learning in the classroom, the key is to help students identify and learn to manage triggers in healthy ways (Souers and Hall, 2016). Be proactive and prepare students for beginning of class, make a habit of supporting learning through peer tutoring and cooperative learning opportunities, and involve students in the operation of the class (Souers and Hall, 2016, p. 63). By having a plan, you can avoid power struggles, address triggers, and stay out of OZ.
- Develop effective communication habits for everyday interactions with students and for times of crisis and conflict. Souers and Hall (2016) provide 6 steps for communication with students (p. 79):
- Teachers need to balance availability (emotional investment) and accountability (meeting of standards for learning, behaviors, and choices). Avoid viewing or treating students as damaged. Students are “forever changed, not forever damaged” by the trauma they experienced (Souers and Hall, 2016, p. 137).
- Teach students about the biology of trauma and how the stressors of the flight, fight, or freeze response lead to a “downstairs brain” that disrupts learning. Teachers need to guide students into their “upstairs brain,” where the higher-functioning part of the brain helps students think, reason, and regulate the downstairs brain (Souers and Hall, 2016).
- There are many services available to help students with their traumatic experiences both inside and outside of the school. It’s important for students to know all of their options when seeking help. These services may include: school counselors, social workers, mental health therapists, psychologists, nurses and doctors, and helplines.
In this video, Dr. Meredith Fox discusses the impact of trauma informed teaching:
Strategies for Teachers
- “Cement shoes”: stay true to who you are as a person and teacher by developing a mission statement and consistently acting in congruence with personal mission to support students and hold them accountable
- Be “safe enough” for your students
- Give students (and yourself) grace
- Give appropriate praise (“cookies”)
- Invest in self-care techniques to avoid frustration and burn out
Understanding trauma prevalence and how it effects the brain is more important than ever in today’s society, where mass shootings, school violence, adolescent metal health issues (depression, suicide, anxiety, etc.), substance abuse, and other issues have become more common place. Teachers can be an integral part of the solution to helping students overcome trauma, develop resilience, and facilitate the necessary conversations around trauma in our schools and communities (Souers and Hall, 2016).
Additional blogs on fostering resilience in the classroom:
Reference: Souers, K. and Hall, P. (2016). Fostering Resilient Learners: Strategies for Creating a Trauma-Sensitive Classroom. ASCD, Alexandria, VA.