January 7, 2017
by Larry Ferlazzo
I recently published a three-part series in Education Week Teacher about responding to student trauma. Unfortunately, I had misfiled this response from Kevin Parr, and he graciously agreed to let me post it here.
Kevin Parr is a fourth grade teacher in Wenatchee, Washington and a 2014 ASCD Emerging Leader.
As educators, our personal lives are so intertwined with our work that what happens in our personal life affects our work with kids, (just as our work with kids can affect our personal life). At times then, the most difficult part of teaching is managing our personal life so that it does not interfere with our responsibility to be fully present and available to our students each and every day.
I have been fortunate to live a life free of much of the trauma my students have experienced in their short lives. Sure, I have had my fair share of stressful times, but nothing that would really classify as traumatic. Meanwhile, many of my students come to school with a history including multiple traumatic experiences (divorce, imprisoned parent, poverty, domestic violence). Never having experienced these types of trauma myself, however, made it difficult for me to truly empathize with my students. Sure, I have read about the effects of trauma, but reading about something and experiencing it are completely different things. This past winter, however, when my father passed away unexpectedly, I tasted the effects of trauma and learned a lot about how I could best support my trauma-affected students.
Through reflecting on my own reaction to a traumatic experience, here are a few simple things I learned about how I could interact better with students with trauma:
Cut them some slack (but not too much): When I was dealing with my own trauma I had trouble remembering simple things, even topics we were focusing on in class at the time. Knowing this, I realized I need to offer extra pencils, replacement papers, and reminders freely and without interrogation to trauma-affected students. That said, nobody enjoys feeling forgetful so our compassion needs to come with capacity-building so students can become better at holding themselves accountable for their learning.
Check up often: A student’s traumatic experiences can be uncomfortable and stressful for teachers to talk about. Therefore, the easiest thing for a teacher to do is to ignore them. This is especially true if teachers haven’t experienced the same types of traumatic experiences as their students, partly because they may feel like they don’t have any advice to give them. For me, the truth was that onceI had told someone about my father, I wanted them to ask about it. I wasn’t looking for advice or first-hand experiences so a simple, “How are you feeling today?” or “I’m thinking of you,” meant a lot to me. For teachers, checking in like this can go a long way toward building the trust and relationships students need to successfully manage their traumatic experiences.
Maintain routines: After my father’s passing everything seemed unstable and unpredictable. At the same time, I just wanted things to be “normal.” One of the easiest things teachers can do to help students in this regard is to establish and maintain routines in the classroom. The more predictable a teacher can make the classroom environment will translate directly to student comfort and ability to put more energy and focus into their learning.
Traumatic experiences are widespread in our schools. How teachers interact with and react to students is critical in helping them through their difficult times and create learning environments where they can thrive. One thing teachers can do is reflect on their own traumatic experiences, how they were affected and what helped them through.