Q-TIP – Quit Taking It Personally

Earlier this week, I shared a document with the staff of my school with some strategies in dealing with students who are dysregulated.  I can’t claim that I created it, it was shared with me by another administrator in the district (thanks Lisa!).  I know that for some, the term dysregulation may be a new one, so let me define it quickly:

Dysregulation: An emotional response that does not fall within the conventionally accepted range of emotive responses.  These emotions can be internalized by our students, which causes them to appear withdrawn, shut down, or non-engaged.  For other students dysregulation will manifest as externalized behaviors such as acting out, being emotional, and trouble calming down.  Some students may show a combination of internalized and externalized behaviors.

Dysregulated ExpectationsThis term came to me as I began learning more about the trauma-informed school model at a training this summer with Jim Sporleder.  Earlier this year I had two posts related to childhood trauma (you can find them here and here).  While the strategies that we learned in our training definitely are beneficial for students who have been through trauma, we know that any student has the potential to become dysregulated, so it is important that all teachers understand how to communicate and work with a dysregulated student.  At the right you will see a screenshot of the document I shared with my staff (if you click on the screenshot, it should enlarge, or feel free to download the document here: ExpectationsStudentsDysregulating).

In the email that went with the document, I shared with our staff that working with a dysregulated student can be very difficult if we aren’t able to keep ourselves regulated.  I reminded our staff of the acronym Q-TIP – Quit Taking It Personally.  Logically I think we all know that when students are dysregulated, it’s not because they woke up with the goal of making the day horrible for us.  There is always a lot more to the story.  It’s still very easy for any of us to feel as though a dysregulated student is “doing it to us.”

After sharing the document, I heard back from one of the Instructional Assistants that works with some of our Exceptional Learners, and her opinion about what she notices with teachers interacting with students who are struggling:

What I notice, and what I think goes along with your Q-tip reminder, is because my kids (FAP, CFL, FIATS) are -labeled-, teachersstudents react different to them. They are way more pa

I think what Kristin says above about expectations is such an important point. We expect our students, especially for those of us who live in the middle grades, to have the appropriate responses.  When they respond in ways outside those norms, we have a harder time maintaining that patience and empathy that we might be able to show students who do have a “label.”

My hope is that we can all remember that when a student is struggling, no matter what their label may be, the manifestations of that dysregulation has very little to do with us.  What happens during and after the dysregulation however is something that we have control over.  If we can use the suggestions in the document above, we may be able to help a student return to a regulated state, which in turn will allow us to move forward in learning and growing.

What are your thoughts of the document above?  Are there strategies that have been successful for you in working with dysregulated students, that aren’t included in this list?  Have you found that there are things on this document that don’t work?  Share your thoughts in the comments below.

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The bear trap analogy

Today I was sitting with a student who had a rough start to the day.  He had gotten himself into some trouble because of a poor choice he made in class.  We were talking about what happened, and instead of talking about the incident today, the student started sharing with me about an argument he had with his dad yesterday.  It was almost lunch time and this student’s frustration was not with anything that happened today.  It was an eye opener to me – here’s a kid who had been in our building for almost 3 hours.  He was angry about something that happened yesterday, but he hadn’t had a chance to process those feelings with anyone.

As we started talking about what happened over the weekend and how it related to his incident in class, this student came up with a brilliant analogy.  He shared a story about a picnic, and I’m going to try to recreate it here:

Imagine going on a picnic, you have your lunch set up, and then you realize that you left something you needed in the car.  You walk back to the car to get what you need, and when you return there’s a bear eating your picnic lunch.

So maybe the next time you go on a picnic, you set a bear trap to keep the bear away, but while you’re busy watching for the bear, a bird sneaks up, and tries to takes some of the food, but the bear trap chomps down on the bird.

Somet
Sometimes the bear isn’t really here at school.

The student shared with me that in this analogy, the picnic lunch represents the student’s peace of mind.  The bear represents the true thing that the student was truly upset about, for this student it was the anger about yesterday’s argument.  The bear trap represents the student’s anger – for this kiddo it’s set and ready to go off at any time.  The bird can represent that thing that happens here at school that sets off an angry student – it could be another student, it could be something a teacher says, it could be the bus driver, etc.

More often than not, the students who walk in with their bear trap set are not actually on edge because of things that are going on here at school.  Even though this student “went off” here at school, his bear wasn’t in this building.  Instead a bird managed to set him off.

None of us are able to read our students minds, so we can’t always know who it is that is walking around with anger bottled up inside, however we all know who it is in our class that often seems to be the one who does lose their temper.  These are the students that we need to be aware of at all times.  Make it a point to check in with your students who might be that bear trap just waiting to go off.  It seems like more often than not, these students who reach their breaking point do so right before or after a break – sometimes even just the break of a weekend.  It also seems that for most of these students, once they have a chance to talk, a chance to process, they are much more likely to hold it together for the rest of the day (or sometimes even longer).

If you have a student like this in your homeroom, seek them out, check in, build relationships, let them know that you care, and make sure that they know you are there for them.  If you aren’t able to connect with that kiddo, maybe there’s someone else who can – a teammate, another teacher, a counselor, or someone in the office.  We want these kiddos to feel like they have a trusted adult and a connection here at school.  If you find a student who seems to be ready to lose it, talk with them.  See if you can figure out what’s wrong, if they don’t want to talk to you, see if they would like to talk with that other trusted adult.  Keep looking for ways to support the struggling student.  Through these steps, you might be able to help protect the birds who happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Have you ever had one of those moments with a student?  They are really upset about something beyond our control, but they reach their breaking point in your room.  What has worked well?  What hasn’t worked so well?  Share your experiences in the comments below.

How do we respond to student behaviors?

In last week’s post we discussed the role of trauma in student behaviors we see.  Each one of us can think of one or two students who manage to get under our skin and push our buttons.  What we have to remember is that for some of these students, they are acting out due to something that we cannot control – they have been through some type of trauma in their life.  It leads to behaviors we don’t understand, and that makes it difficult for us to respond in the appropriate way.  The goal of this post is to think carefully about how we respond to those students so that we are intervening in a way that offers support.

Imagine for a moment that you were to look up from your computer right now, and see this:

Imagine this bear walked into the room you’re in right now. What would you do?
Imagine this bear walked into the room you’re in right now. What would you do?

What would you do?  How would you react?

For our students who have been impacted by trauma, every adult that they meet is a bear like the one you see above.  That includes their teachers!  For these students, they are constantly watching for the dangerous bear.  They may not be able to interpret an innocent or neutral look, action, or touch from their teacher or others at school as being benign.  The brains of our traumatized youth lose the ability to understand the difference between safety and danger, and will falsely signal danger and hostility EVERYWHERE.  As a result, these students behave in ways that are not considered appropriate in the normal school environment.  They lack the language skills to be able to describe how they feel, so they act out in ways that we might describe as reactive, impulsive, aggressive, withdrawn, or defiant.  These challenging behaviors have become coping skills that help them survive in abusive or neglectful situations.  Remember from last week’s post, children who have dealt with trauma are living with their focus on the survival portion of the brain (fight, flight, or fright).  Since all of life is about survival for these students, they generalize the behavior to all other environments – even school where we think they should feel safe.

So when students are acting out, especially students that we believe (or possibly even know) have lived through one of the traumas addressed last week, we need to shift our perspective in how we react.  Oftentimes we see this behavior as willfully acting out or disrupting class, or consciously refusing to engage with learning.  Instead, we need to see that:

  1. These responses are based on personal experiences
  2. Students are seeking to meet their needs
  3. They have difficulty regulating emotions
  4. They lack some of the important skills to be successful in school
  5. They believe that adults cannot be trusted

troubled-childrenWe need to put into place supports and other interventions to address these issues.  Instead of seeing the behavior and asking (or even thinking) “What’s wrong with you?” we need to shift our mindset to “What happened and how can I help?”  In order to be sensitive to trauma, we must recognize the prevalence and impact of trauma in our students’ lives and create a framework that provides support, is sensitive to the unique needs of students, and is mindful of avoiding re-traumatization.  I’m sure that some of you are looking now for a list of exactly what to do in each situation.  It doesn’t exist.  Each child is different, their needs are different.  You must take the time to offer your support, your help, and let these children know that you truly care for them.  You do this through paraverbals (tone of voice, body language, volume, and cadence of speech).  Deliberately slow your speech, soften your voice, choose a kind tone, and be supportive of the student.  Students who feel supported are more likely to feel safe.

I think we can all agree that when students feel safe, they are more likely to act in ways that are safe, so how can we support that?  First, we need to ask ourselves if the student is fearful, anxious, frustrated, or tense.  Next, our responses to inappropriate behaviors need to be predictable, and our students who struggle need to have an agreed upon safe haven (maybe the resource room, maybe the counselor’s office, maybe with another teacher) where they can go to work through their complex emotions.  Finally, when that student is ready to return to class, we must find an opportunity to rebuild rapport with that student (this step is quite possibly the MOST important in helping students to feel supported).  Continue to let them know you care, and that you are here to help.  Ask them to let you know how you can help.  They may not have an answer today or tomorrow, but eventually they may have an idea that will support them.  We also have to remember – for students to behave appropriately, we must model and teach the behavior we want to see (this is not the same as telling students what we expect).

In order to help students feel connected in schools, we should work hard to build relationships – especially with the students who struggle the most.  Greet each student at the door of your classroom every day.  Be aware of your student’s likes and interests (these can be used as a distraction in times of crisis).  As I’ve said before, know your kids and love them for who they are.

While we can’t protect our students from all the evils of the world, we can be allies, mentors, and role models.  The relationships we build with our students will help them as they grow, recover, and begin to heal from their trauma.

What experiences have you had with students who have been through trauma?  Have you found strategies that seem to be successful?  Let us know what has worked for you in the comments below.

 

The role of trauma in student behavior

We’ve all been there, you’re in the middle of class, things seem to be going well, and then you notice what one student is doing.  Maybe they have completely shut down, maybe they are talking to a neighbor, or maybe they are acting out in some way that draws the attention of other students from the current activity to the student who is misbehaving.  The natural (and often simplest) reaction is to redirect, sign a behavior card, raise our voice, or maybe even submit an office referral.

In my personal opinion, a lot of the time that acting out behavior stems from something that has absolutely nothing to do with you, your class, or the students in your classroom, but from something that we as teachers have no influence over.

A couple days ago, I was at a PBIS (Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports) training with several other members of the PBIS team in my school, as well as some of the other PBIS teams in our district.  We spent a portion of time discussing the role that trauma plays in student behavior and learning.  So, as a working definition, here is how we’re going to define trauma for this post:

Trauma refers to extreme or chronic stress that overwhelms a person’s ability to cope and results in feeling vulnerable, helpless, and afraid.  The event(s) that led to trauma may be witnessed or experienced directly.  Trauma often interferes with relationships, self-regulation, and fundamental beliefs about oneself, others, and one’s place in the world.

the-hurt-that-troubled-children-create-is-never-greater-than-the-hurt-they-feelTrauma can occur from lots of different things – there is simple trauma (serious accident, disaster, one-time physical assault); complex/developmental trauma (witness domestic violence, death of a parent / caretaker, ongoing physical or emotional abuse, ongoing neglect, homelessness, living with family members with untreated mental illness or substance abuse, or having a family member deployed in the military); and finally historical / generational trauma.  Children who have been through traumas like those listed above can have various levels of stress, but those who are living with high levels of stress spend much of their life in the fight, flight, or fright mode.  These children respond to the world as a place of constant fear.

All this stress leads to issues with brain functions and development, and make it very difficult for students to focus on learning.  Oftentimes these students fall behind in school; fail to develop healthy relationships with peers; and/or create problems in classrooms and at school because they are unable to trust adults.

So now that we know a little about where this trauma and stress comes from, we need to examine what it may look like in the classroom.  Let’s first look at the development of the brain.  For typical children, who do not have toxic levels of stress in their lives, they are able to spend very little of their time focused on survival, and as a result are able to spend much more of their time devoted to cognition and social-emotional functions.  For the children who have experienced developmental trauma, the majority of the brain’s attention is focused on survival skills (the fight, flight, or fright reactions), which means there is little time or energy to devote to cognition or the social-emotional functions.

When students have experienced trauma, you may notice some of the following traits:

  • Day dreaming
  • Impaired social & emotional function
  • Difficulty retaining information
  • Labeled as learning disabled
  • Can sit in classroom and not learn
  • Less mature problem solving
  • Use violence as a tool
  • Feel the need to control their environment

These traits can lead to various effects on learning, including the ability to: acquire language & communication skills; understand cause and effect; take another’s perspective; attend to classroom instruction; regulate emotions; engage in the curriculum; and utilize executive function (make plans, organize work, follow classroom rules).

So now we’ve talked a bit about what trauma is, what may have caused trauma in our students, and some of the traits that may happen as a result.  Next week we will look at how our responses can play a role in student behavior, especially those who have experienced some form of trauma in their lives.

In the comments below share your thoughts on this topic.  Have you had experiences working with students who have lived through trauma?  What worked?  What didn’t work?

Teaching Conflict Management

Last year when we surveyed teachers on the topics they would like to look into as part of the Professional Development for the 2016-2017 school year, some of you chose to “write-in” a topic that you would like to learn more about.  One of the write-ins was:

“Problem solving social situations, especially with friends, recess, lunchtime, specials, etc.”

Learn Like a PirateWhile there are ways that we could probably take that idea and turn it into a PD Topic, I thought that I would give some tools that you might be able to use in the classroom the first time that you see a situation of conflict develop – my goal here is to provide you with a right now strategy.  I can’t claim this idea – the majority of this post is based on ideas from the book Learn Like a Pirate by Paul Salarz (@PaulSalarz).  Mr. Solarz is a fifth grade teacher in the Chicago area and runs a student-led classroom.  There are so many tips in the book to help guide students to collaborate, be empowered, and take leadership in their own learning.  I highly recommend it!!!  The following ideas come from the Teaching Strategies for Dealing with Conflict section on page 56.

In a classroom where you are integrating student voice and student choice and allowing opportunities for students to collaborate there will invariably be some type of disagreement.  We’ve all seen it happen – Tommy and Jeff partner up.  Everyone (including them) knows this is a bad idea.  One strategy would be to break them up before they even have a chance to start working.  However, in a collaborative community, everyone needs to learn how to work with everyone.  Not only will it help your classroom run more smoothly, it’s an important lifelong skill!

We all know what happens next…  If you allow them to work, before long there’s a disagreement.  Our reaction can make or break this situation.  Instead of saying that this is what you knew would happen, and separate them, what if you gave them the tools to find a solution on their own?  What an awesome opportunity to turn this situation into a teachable moment – not just for Tommy and Jeff, but for the whole class.  Here’s what you could do:

  1. Get the entire class’s attention – “Give me five!”, hands up, or whatever strategy you use in your classroom.
  2. With a sincere smile on your face, look at Tommy and Jeff and thank them for having a little bit of trouble because it gives you the opportunity to teach everyone how simple it can be to get through conflicts.
  3. Ask the boys to describe what happened, then teach the whole class the following strategies (you might even consider making an anchor chart for this skill to post in the room – or even better, have the students make the anchor chart!):

Lets settle thisRock-Paper-Scissors: Do you know how many arguments my friends and I have avoided with a simple game of rock-paper-scissors?  When your students can’t decide who gets what job, or what color the background should be on a poster, a single round of rock-paper-scissors can be just the perfect way to find a solution!

Compromise: Take a portion of each person’s idea and combine them together.  (“I want to watch the video clip first.” “But I think we need to plan our poster design.” “Why don’t we plan our poster design right after we watch the video!?”).  Hopefully they can find a solution that makes them both happy!

Choose Kind: Sometimes the best solution to conflict is just to do what the other person wants because it’s also a good idea!  As the quote from Dr. Wayne Dwyer goes: “When given a choice between being right and being kind, choose kind.”  Winning an argument while also hurting a classmate does not help the class win.  This summer I began using the phrase Choose Kind with my children (7 and 4 years old). It’s amazing to see how often they have been choosing kind to solve their disagreements.

The earlier you can teach these strategies to your class, the sooner they can begin to implement them.  Once students understand the process, these steps can be used even when you aren’t there – the lunch room, hallways, recess, etc.  If you don’t run into a conflict after a few days, then you might want to role play a scenario.  The sooner these strategies are introduced, the better!

As with any other strategy, we have to be ready to reinforce the use.  You can’t just introduce it once and then assume they all know it and will be successful.  Every time you notice a conflict, make sure students know you are aware (proximity, a concerned smile, etc.), but don’t just jump in and solve the problem.  Give them a little time to see if they will come to a resolution on their own.  For this strategy to truly be effective, the students have to come to use it on their own.

After you witness students come to a resolution, let them know how proud you are of how they handled it, and see if they would be willing to share their experience with the class.  If they are, have them act it out so the whole class can learn from the situation.  If students don’t want to share, that’s ok too!  They may be shy or embarrassed by what happened.

If students can’t get past the conflict on their own, then you might have to gently remind them of the conflict-management strategies to help them move on (this is where that anchor chart could be really handy!).  It’s also ok if another student steps in to help with finding a solution.  What a sign of good collaboration!

Continue the conversation in the comments below.  Could these strategies work in your room?  What else have you done that’s been successful?  Conflict can be such a distraction and sticking point that we can all use some good new ideas!