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  These emotions can be internalized by our students, which causes them to appear withdrawn, shut down, or non-engaged.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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Childhood trauma – part 2

Last week I encouraged you to watch the TED Talk by Nadine Burke Harris titled “How childhood trauma affects health across a lifetime.”  If you missed it and still would like to watch it, click here.  Even if you didn’t watch the talk, hopefully there will be information in today’s post that will help you understand: 1) the impact of trauma on children; 2) that childhood trauma can affect any community; and 3) a few ways to be able to impact the lives of students and their families to improve outcomes.

Childhood trauma: it affects brain development, the immune system, hormonal systems, and the way our DNA is read and transcribed. It leads to increased risk of heart disease and lung cancer, and can cause a 20-year difference in life expectancy.  Even with all these factors, many doctors are not prepared to be able to identify childhood trauma, and even fewer have the tools necessary to treat these issues.

Trauma

 

Many physicians, especially those that work in public health, are trained to try to identify root causes of an illness.  When 50 people from the same neighborhood begin exhibiting the same symptoms, doctors are not only going to treat the patients, they are also going to look at what’s going on in that neighborhood.

Dr. Harris began to notice a pattern in many of her patients that she couldn’t initially put her finger on.  She was having kids referred to her for ADHD, but she could not make that diagnosis.  As she got to know more of these patients, the pattern that she found in many was that they had experienced some form of severe trauma.

There is a direct link between childhood trauma and adult onset of chronic disease, as well as mental illness, doing time in prison, and work issues, such as absenteeism.Eventually, Dr. Harris learned from a colleague of a study called the Adverse Childhood Experiences Study (ACEs Study).  This ongoing study is a collaboration of Kaiser Permanente and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.  I believe that every educator needs to be aware of the ACEs Study.  The study shows a correlation between ACEs that occurred prior to reaching the age of 18 and many health and social problems as an adult.  Here are some basic stats from the ACEs Study:

  • 17,300 adults were part of the original study
  • 70% were Caucasian
  • 70% were college educated
  • All participants have/had livable wages and health insurance
  • All were middle class or affluent

While there were many forms of trauma that the participants in the study had been through, the study identified the top 10 ACEs.  They are:

  1. Sexual Abuse
  2. Physical Abuse
  3. Emotional Abuse
  4. Physical Neglect
  5. Emotional Neglect
  6. Loss of a Parent
  7. Witnessing Family Violence
  8. Incarceration of a Family Member
  9. Having a Mentally Ill, Depressed, or Suicidal Family Member
  10. Living with a Drug Addicted or Alcoholic Family Member

ACEs scores are determined by 1 point per each of the ACEs listed above.  A couple things to be aware of about ACE scores: first, they are extremely common.  67% of the population had at least one ACE, and 12.6% had 4 or more ACEs.  Second, the higher the ACEs score, the worse the potential health outcomes.

ACEs can also have an impact on student success.  In one Washington State University study, students who had at least 3 ACEs were 3 times likelier to experience academic failure.  They are 5 times likelier to have attendance issues.  And they are 6 times as likely to exhibit behavioral problems.

Sunset chaserWhy does this happen?  For the normally developed brain, when it encounters a stressful situation the adrenal gland kicks in and releases adrenaline and cortisol, which gets the body ready for fight, flight, or freeze.  For a child living in trauma, those adrenal glands are constantly being triggered, which causes their brain to have bottom up control, and prevents the upper part of the brain (those that control reasoning, self-control, learning, and understanding), from being able to take control.  And what are the triggers for our trauma students?  You may never know.  It could be walking into their home, it could be a loud voice, it could be a simple as a facial expression.  These triggers are so frequent that the trauma brain is constantly in fight, flight, or freeze mode.

One of the things that we all know is that being an educator can be a very emotional task.  You become connected to your students, you want the best of them, and no matter how hard we try, there are times that they become frustrated.  These frustrations may manifest themselves in many different ways.  We have to be able to help our students to calm their brains and return to top-down control.  Punishments and logic will not work for a dysregulated student.  Instead, our students need relationships, connections, and acceptance.  When we are able to stay calm when our students are not, we may be able to help get our students back to calm.  Remember, when a student is struggling, it is not about us, and we can’t take it personally.

Your presence is the most precious gift you can give another human being.In their book The Trauma-Informed School, Jim Sporleder and Heather T. Forbes identified a few strategies that we can all use to interact with students (and I would suggest that these strategies work for all kids, not just those who have been through trauma).  Here’s a few of them:

  • Respond instead of react – ask yourself “am I responding to this student as a person or am I reacting to his behavior?”
  • Give emotional space – allow the student to be upset, and be there to support the student when they are once again regulated.
  • Ask the right questions – What’s driving the behavior? What can I do to improve my relationship with this student?
  • Statements that show support – What do you need from me right now that takes care of you and allows me to continue teaching?
  • Choose your battles – sometimes it’s best to just get your class going on something, then quietly approach the student to check in.
  • Keep yourself regulated – drop your personal mirror and seek the cause to the problem that is happening in front of you.

No two situations are going to be identical.  No two kids are going to react in the same way.  What works today might not work tomorrow, but simply being aware of what’s going on in the brains of our students, and some possible strategies for when a student becomes dysregulated will help all of us to be able to better meet the needs of our kids.

What strategies have been successful for you?  Are there things that you have done in the past with kids that aren’t included here?  Share your thoughts in the comments below so that we can all spread our knowledge.

Childhood trauma

Last weekend I was listening to the most recent episode of the TED Radio Hour, a radio show that is based on a common theme, and then embeds portions of TED Talks, as well as interviews with the people who gave those talks around that central theme.  The episode I was listening was titled “Hardwired” (click here if you’d like to listen to the episode), which was looking at how human behavior is based on both our genetics, as well as our experiences in life.

One of the speakers who is included in this episode is Nadine Burke Harris, a pediatrician in San Francisco.  After listening to her portion of the radio show, I had to watch her full TED Talk.  In her talk “How childhood trauma affects health across a lifetime” she talks about the unbelievable impact that trauma can have on childhood brains, as well as the long term health impacts of those who have lived through trauma.

Many of us are tempted to say “that doesn’t happen here.”  I challenged you to watch the TED Talk and think a little more critically about what Harris has to say about trauma.  This does happen here.  There are students who walk into our school every day who have faced adversity that has an impact on their brain development.  Next week, I’ll follow up with a little more of my thoughts on trauma in kids, but I hope you will find the time to watch this excellent TED Talk.

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?

Engaging & empowering our students

Last week I shared with you some data on student mental health issues, anxiety, and student engagement.  I closed the post with these three points:

  1. Mental health concerns in our students are rising.
  2. Levels of engagement decline as our students grow older.
  3. Even with increased focus on standards, performance on standardized testing has remained stagnant.

So what can we do?  I’m sure that all of you have noticed these patterns in our own classroom, but knowing the pattern is only part of the task of finding a solution.  In last week’s post I shared the work of two college professors.  Going back to their work, I hope to share a couple ways we might be able to help fight anxiety and lack of engagement.

Peter Gray, the psychology professor from Boston college, feels that the key to learning and growth for our students is free play:

Children today are less free than they have ever been.  And that lack of freedom has exacted a dramatic toll.  My hypothesis is that the generational increases in externality, extrinsic goals, anxiety, and depression are all caused largely by decline, over that same period, in opportunities for free play and the increased time given to schooling.

So as a school, what does play look like?  For one it means we have to be sure to value recess/physical activities during the school day.  There is clear research that one of the benefits of physical activity is increased student engagement.  Think about your classroom on an afternoon where we did not have outdoor recess due to weather.  What are the engagement levels like?

Several recent research studies have looked into increased free play time in the school day, and the results suggest that students with regular recess behave better, are physically healthier and exhibit stronger social and emotional development.

Knowing these facts, does that lead you to think about changing what you do when you return to the classroom on a day when we are unable to go outdoors for recess?  Hopefully you can think about finding a way to squeeze in some free play on those days.  If not free play, then a few short brain break activities to get the kids out of their seat and moving.

And what about the days that students already get their recess?  Does that mean we don’t need to look for other opportunities for play?  Many of our teachers have been doing outdoor activities here at school this week.  I’m sure that they would share that the students are loving the activities they’ve been doing – they are active, engaged, and empowered in this learning environment.  My question though: Do we only save activities like this for the end of the school year?  Or do we try to integrate play into our lessons throughout the year?  How can we make use of our outdoor space, our small and large group instruction rooms, or even just the hallway to get the kids up and playing as they are learning?

Next we have the issue of engagement.  For the purpose of this piece, I am defining engagement in school based on the Schlechty’s Center for Engagement definition:

  • The student sees the activity as personally meaningful.
  • The student’s level of interest is sufficiently high that he/she persists in the face of difficulty.
  • The student finds the task sufficiently challenging that she believes she will accomplish something of worth by doing it.
  • The student’s emphasis is on optimum performance and on “getting it right.”

Is it engagement when we work hard to get students into content that we have selected for them?  You may be able to get their attention, but if it’s based on extrinsic goals (like a grade) the motivation may not last.  So here are some ways you might be able to increase motivation in your classroom:

  1. Students are more motivated academically when they have a positive relationship with their teacher.
  2. Choice is a powerful motivator in most educational contexts.
  3. For complex tasks that require creativity and persistence, extrinsic rewards and consequences actually hamper motivation.
  4. To stay motivated to persist at any task, students must believe they can improve in that task.
  5. Students are motivated to learn things that have relevance to their lives.
HSE21 Best Practice Model
HSE21 Best Practice Model

As you spend time thinking about bringing more inquiry into your classroom, as you work to better incorporated the HSE21 Best Practice Model, you will begin to notice increases in your student engagement.  When we provide our students with challenges, with activities that are relevant to their lives, when learning is rigorous and based on inquiry-driven study, when students are able to apply their learning in collaborative ways, when we work to incorporate more of the HSE21 Best Practice Model we will see increases in student engagement.  In fact, if we work towards truly relevant and rigorous study students will not only be engaged, but actually will be empowered to take their learning to levels that we can’t possibly imagine!

As we approach the end of the year, take some time to reflect on things you have tried that have been new.  What activities have led to increased levels of engagement?  What ways have you been able to get a kid truly excited about what they are learning?  Now, think ahead – how can you take the things that have been successful and expand on them for next school year?  Share your thoughts in the comments below.