A trauma-informed classroom that is sensitive to students’ needs provides access to a feeling of physical, emotional, and mental safety among young people. The school, in general, should provide culturally responsive, positive discipline policies, and the staff should be educated on the impact that trauma can have on learning.
72% of children will experience at least one Adverse Childhood Experience before 18.
Students’ needs can vary, but for the most part, a teacher will have to take into account issues of self-regulation, relationships with peers that may affect their engagement, family dynamics that may affect their school and home life, and physical and emotional well-being. Students also fare better when they feel like they are part of a wider community, and can establish a sense of belonging. But the needs of students will change as they develop, so staff members must be adaptable.
If you’re not addressing the trauma, and the students are distracted, checked out, and falling increasingly behind, even the best curriculum won’t matter.
What is important to understand is that trauma affects adolescents in different ways. Some students become reactive, whereas others become reserved. Due to adverse events, student engagement can be challenged. Good levels of engagement maintain that a good student is active, ‘involved,’ ‘finding inherent value’ in the task, and uses enthusiasm and diligence. Some students resort to ‘retreat-ism’ or ‘rebellion,’ which involves being checked-out or disruptive.
Both types of students have a low engagement level in the task, and no commitment. Other students, who wish to avoid confrontation with the teacher, use ‘ritual compliance,’ which involves doing the bare minimum to stay on task.
Finally, others use ‘strategic compliance’, which means they are motivated to some degree, but they actually play the game of school, driven by extrinsic rewards of good grades.
It is the blend of high attention and high commitment that we need – but this is difficult to attain when a student is experiencing ‘brain fog’ and emotional shut-down or does not see any reason why they should be learning. The key components of an intrinsically motivated learner are guided by a teacher who provides a creative space for curiosity to be free, while also giving the students a clear sense of purpose. This empowers the students, whose adverse experiences may have made them resilient in certain situations, but not in a disciplined atmosphere of a classroom.
Why is mental resilience important in a classroom?
For a teacher to be available to the needs of students, responding to emotional and social signals all day, the adult has to be mentally resilient. A classroom climate should be warm, respectful, and safe. The teacher must be informed of all attachment styles and behavioral issues that may occur, as attachment is the foundation of emotional regulation.
Some students, who learn the meaning of discipline and good behavior at school, cannot rely on their chaotic home environment to provide tools for mental resilience. This is when the teachers must step in, as harmonious attachment also forms the basis for socializing students. When adults and students come together well, the students adopt the common behavior or values.
For the adult to be available to their needs, they need to have physical presence, be open to communication, respond to requests for help, and be aware of the student’s needs. Because a teenager’s self-reliance and independence results from a feeling of security, some adolescents may use a solid teacher-student relationship as a time to establish social skills.
In this way, teachers who are mentally resilient can promote levels of warmth, respect, and trust that are helpful to both student and adult. It is more difficult for students to learn how to regulate their emotions during their development when a teacher is not modeling those attributes. This is why the educator’s resilience is so important.
There are models for teachers’ resilience that maintain how teachers’ beliefs about themselves and their role can significantly influence their mental well-being, and the time it takes to bounce back from adversity. Teachers with positive beliefs about their capability will be more likely to develop resilient qualities. This is also maintained by a strong sense of purpose and hope.
Teachers with a positive attitude will go further, but how do we promote this resilient quality? If teachers seek help from others, solve problems, engage in rejuvenating activities, and skillfully manage difficult relationships, this can also increase their resilience. Added to this, the broader emotional context – such as raising educational attainment and meeting targets – can influence efficacy and cause them to look at professional challenges in a positive way.
A good teacher may say, at the beginning of the lesson:
“I’m not going to over-use praise, which will only result in low expectations. When you later go into a work environment, you won’t be prepared for it or used to the fact that you must be internally motivated. Being internally motivated means not swayed by instant rewards.”
“I want you to challenge or affirm other people’s opinions about subject content and participate in lessons. I want you to be more active in speaking up, for good learning behavior. If someone walks into the room, you need to stay on task. I don’t want you to waste valuable learning time. I want you to manage distractions well and make progress in lesson.”
“When you become stuck, I want you to follow the four T’s, with the last one being to ask me a question: think; talk to a peer; use tools and resources for learning; talk to a teacher.”
Strategies to support teacher resilience
If a teacher is organized, protects time for hobbies, and engages in physical activity, they may be less likely to burn out. Trainees, in particular, can flourish by managing their professional relationship with mentors, and the traits of a good trainee matter as much as a good mentor. If the trainee is more open to listening to, and acting on, advice, the mentor is more likely to feel respected and valued.
It is, after all, their time and efforts that will result in good training. If the mentor knows how to calm their emotional brain, and can provide good strategies for the teacher to learn, the student learns by default. One good strategy for developing self-awareness is to imagine the student’s parent on your shoulder when engaging with them.
To develop resilience, a teacher should be firstly motivated by an intrinsic sense of achievement, rather than focused on extrinsic goals, such as passing assignments. Achieving a good grade is important, but seeing the bigger picture, zooming out for perspective, and holding onto what drives you personally, will make you go further.