You know those days when you’re glad a particular student is absent? Or when another just blows up in class? Have you ever felt that you’re pretty sure your teaching career needs to be a long-past event? Or maybe you’re in it for the duration but you’re wondering just how much more you can take?

Yes, I’m talking to you! One of the skills that is undertaught in many teacher prep programs is classroom management. Another missing resource is a practical toolkit for teaching when everyone’s nervous system is on high-alert — when the room is ready to snap in a moment.

So what is typically taught in terms of classroom management? Often the advice is to send “problem students” for counseling or file referrals for disciplinary action. And is this a problem? You bet.

You see, the student who sleeps all day (or misbehaves so they can have a special and quiet desk), the student who can’t sit still, or the one who startles like a human seismograph, is — hold your breath — doing THE BEST THEY CAN. Just like you.

Students have a hard time paying attention in class if they’re hungry, if they’ve had no sleep, or if their sleep is disturbed by gunshots or domestic violence. There are also instances where they may be homeless, have a parent deployed, may be experiencing physical or sexual abuse, or could be emotionally neglected. Maybe a parent is incarcerated, or has problems with substance abuse.

Your class might be the only refuge they have. You might be the only adult who seems to care. And yet educators bring their history to the classroom too. This means the impact of traumatic experiences begins to reverberate and mirror, becoming almost contagious, disrupting the skills needed to learn.

What can you do?

  • Breathe. Helping everyone (including you) regulate their emotions starts with breathing. Two minutes of relaxed deep breathing in the morning can save hours of hassle for you and for your students. If this is done across the day? It’s remarkable. The breath-holding that comes with fear is countered, and teaching and learning can occur. No one learns when they’re fearful — the brain diverts all attention to survival. In every subject you can include something about the breath (“How might people in this story have been breathing when …”,  “Let’s count our breaths for two minutes — now let’s do some math about that …”, and more).
  • Teach students a sign to use when they are “flipping their lid.” Daniel Siegel has some great tools to help adults teach children a simple, easy “hand model of the brain” and what happens when they “flip their lid.” Asset Education has a great image that illustrates this topic. How can you help students begin to recognize when their lid is flipping, or when a character in a story has flipped their lid? How can you make this a check-in with students to see where they are?
  • Practice the silence of the wise. Modeling self-regulation is so powerful for children! When one of your students says something inappropriate in class, chances are you want to deal with them right then and show them who’s in charge. Put it on pause. You don’t have to react. You may not need to respond. You’re the adult in the room. Believe it.
  • Help children learn choice-making. One of the neurobiological impacts of trauma is difficulty making choices. You can help children learn how to choose. Present only acceptable options. Use everyday questions: Do you have more than one shirt? What is the reason you chose the one you have on? Here are three colors of paper — which one would you like to use? Children whose environments have been terrifying to them “stall” because the brain is focused only on survival or perhaps they’ve been punished for having a voice.
  • Teach “volume control.” Emotional regulation is something students learn by exposure and modeling. They may or may not even know the names of different feelings — and the characters in narratives they read can help express them. Help students learn about feelings management as a natural process in the classroom. And model this for them (see #3, the silence of the wise).
  • Recognize every student, every day. When class starts, greet each child by name at the door and do an emotional temperature check. You may be the only one who asks how they’re doing. And when you (the adult) model welcoming, calming behavior, it sets the tone for your day (and theirs).
  • Set shared expectations for classroom behavior. Stick to these expectations. At the beginning of the year, have students present the expectations to help newcomers learn them. Educate children on the difference between input and a vote, and help them recognize that what you want is a safer classroom that helps everyone learn. Believe me, the time you spend at the beginning of the year is saved ten times over the rest of the year! Children love consistency, safety, and knowing what’s next — especially traumatized children.
  • Consider the impact of failure. The student who fails subjects or classes gets the message: you’re a failure. And when kids see the “F” it may create danger in their home. On top of that, it can create alienation from other students and the clustering of kids who have trouble learning. Schools who switch to grading systems of “Now” and “Not Yet” keep hope going that a student just hasn’t mastered something — yet. An “F” is a permanent stain you can never erase.
  • Recognize the impact of trauma. Students who come from high-stress, traumatizing environments are impaired by their experience: cognition, attention, and regulation are all challenged based on many factors. Much of the misbehavior you see is caused by trauma in a child’s background, which is not a mental illness and doesn’t require a diagnosis. It requires consistent, predictable, reliable, positive relationships with caring adults. That’s you.

When you factor in the impact of what happens to children on a day-to-day basis, it’s both heartbreaking and helpful. Responding to what we know about the impact of overwhelming experiences on learning makes it easier to respond in the classroom. It decreases the translation from “What happened to them?” to “What’s going on with them?” It increases your compassion, the time you have to teach, and it lowers the stress of what I believe is the world’s most powerful profession. That’s what trauma-responsive teaching brings to the classroom.

Want more? We can help with that! FACTS Ed can get us on your schedule for a practical, educational and helpful professional development.