I remember my frustration with this student. He was always absent. His work was not turned in. He was disengaged.
He was also bright and brimming with potential. I would work with him at lunch. I would prod him to get his work in, come to class, be the student he could be.
Finally, we learned the truth of this young man’s home life. He missed so much school because he was afraid to leave his mom unprotected with her boyfriend. That’s when it really sank in.
This student wasn’t lazy; he was taking on responsibilities not meant for an 8th grader to carry. This student wasn’t disengaged with my class; he was overly engaged in the act of survival.
Research proves this is true for many students enrolled in public schools across America. The brain cannot focus on learning when it is alert for danger.
David Sousa, an international consultant in educational neuroscience explains, “There is a hierarchy of response to sensory input. Any input that is of higher priority diminishes the processing of data of lower priority. The brain’s main job is to help its owner survive. Thus, it will process immediately any data interpreted as posing a threat to the survival of the individual…Upon receiving the stimulus, the reticular activating system sends a rush of adrenaline throughout the brain. This reflexive response shuts down all unnecessary activity and directs the brain’s attention to the source of the stimulus” (2017).
Eric Jensen agrees. He writes, “Stress adversely affects cognition…Exposure to chronic or acute stress is debilitating. The most common adaptive behaviors include increased anxiety and an increased sense of detachment or helplessness” (Jensen, 2010).
Often, educators, counselors and those working in social services share that student misbehaviors are frequently an indicator of some type of trauma or unmet need. Educators and others dealing with youth need to be cognizant of changes in behavior, grades, or personality (Dean & Wagnon, 2019). Sousa advocates for teachers to understand their power and potential within their classroom. “Teachers can… promote emotional security in the classroom by establishing a positive climate that encourages students to take appropriate risks” (2017).
According to Zaretta Hammond, “The brain’s two prime directives are to stay safe and be happy…We cannot downplay students’ need to feel safe and valued in the classroom…It is not enough to have a classroom free of psychological and social threats. The brain needs to be part of a caring social community to maximize its sense of well-being” (2015).
With all that in mind, here are 5 ways every educator can create a climate of success for students that have experienced various types of trauma in their lives.
1. Reflect: Start with yourself. What in your own life has created unintended biases? We need to expose ourselves to experiences and develop relationships that will push against the beliefs we are comfortable with. We all need a place that allows for a reflective discontent in which we consider our own belief system and pedagogical practices so we can continue to grow.
2. Build relationships: We know this as teachers, but sometimes we forget in the hustle of meetings, emails, and the creation of lessons. Students always do more for those that show they care for them. I strongly believe any time you invest in learning about your students and building relationships with them will return to you in the motivation and buy in of students as you teach them throughout the school year.
3. Create a safe classroom environment: As much as you need to know about your students to create a classroom that invites learning, so too do you need to create a community culture where students are safe within the walls of your classroom. Team building activities and collaborative learning are ways that you can create a classroom of learners that root one another on to take risks and to support one another.
4. Don’t go it alone: None of us can do this alone! None of us have all the answers. We must rely on the experts at our site and district to support us in meeting the needs of our students. I am so thankful for the special education teachers, counselors, community liaisons, and administrators that supported me in being a better teacher and provided and sought out answers I did not have.
5. Self-care: You cannot pour from an empty cup. In order to best love your students, you have to be well. Make yourself a priority in small ways often, and in big ways occasionally.
We know teachers. I have spent my life as a teacher and many of my favorite people are in education. I know you care and spend the time to be the best for your students. Keep up the important work you are doing. You matter. Your investment matters and your work is never in vain. Cheers to you!
Dean & Wagnon. (2019). Hear my voice: Tales of trauma and equity from today’s youth. Lanham: MD: Rowman & Littlefield.
Hammond, Z., & Jackson, Y. (2015). Culturally responsive teaching and the brain: Promoting authentic engagement and rigor among culturally and linguistically diverse students. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin, a SAGE Company.
Jensen, E. (2010). Teaching with poverty in mind: What being poor does to kids brains and what schools can do about it. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.
Sousa, D. A. (2017). How the brain learns. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin, a Sage Publishing Company.