Questions and Answers from our Weathering the Storm: A Trauma-Informed Approach to the Return to School webinar

We had a fantastic webinar with Dr. Will Henson and Education Week on August 6th, and were thrilled with how many people care about this important topic. Many participants shared with us that through this webinar they learned some key strategies for incorporating trauma-informed practices into their efforts this fall. For those of you who did not catch it or want to pass it on to others you can still access it here

We had so many questions this time, we have grouped them by similar topic, and Dr. Henson did his best to answer them.  Please email us at info@321insight.com if you have additional questions or would like to learn more about our licensed online PD series for school districts. 

Adult Wellness

What are some suggestions you have to help keep staff members feeling connected during this time as well as personal wellness for them?

If you are online, have some virtual break room time for people to chat, eat their lunch together, or just see each other.  People are hungry for connection.  Run some wellness sessions online where people can check in. It does not have to be a place to talk about problems, just a welcoming environment where staff can connect and relax together.  Take extra time when you are one on one with someone, even online, to ask how they are doing.

How do we address teachers who may suffer from Secondary Traumatic Stress because they are being exposed to a number of students suffering ACEs?

Part of educating your staff about trauma is building on the personal wellness we talked about in the webinar.  Just as stress and anxiety can transfer from us to kids it can also transfer from kids to us.  That is why self-awareness is such an important trait to develop so when we do pick up stress, we don’t let it take over.

Could you please talk more about resiliency in the face of uncertainty?  For example, a teacher and school could be completely prepared and start the year well, but we all know that governments could quickly make a decision to close onsite schools for a period.

Since the pandemic began, uncertainty has been the new norm and everyone handles it differently. It has become the number one issue for many educators I work with.  Many express concern about not knowing what’s expected or how to do their job.   They fear failing the kids or not performing up to expectation.  It’s easier to be resilient when everything is predictable. That being said, adults can learn new resiliency skills, and it should be a focus at this time.

What can I do to increase my self-awareness and not let my thoughts and feelings control or consume me?

Okay, start here: First, just become aware of your thoughts and your emotions.  Just notice them.   What do they feel like?  What are you thinking about?  How does it feel in your body? Notice them without reaction or judgement.   Just become curious about what’s going on inside.   Make it a habit.   And see how this changes your relationship to those thoughts.   

Trauma-Informed Practices

Can you speak to ways that trauma affects executive functioning?

Trauma creates automatic defensive responses in people.  These responses bypass the thinking brain that, given the chance, could make a better decision.   In the webinar I gave the example of the veteran returning from combat.  He sees a car backfire and before his thinking brain can say “that’s just a car”, his survival instincts kick in and he throws himself prone on the ground.   These automatic responses happen in kids with trauma all the time, although they look a little different.  Trauma also interferes with people being able to attend and concentrate and do the things the executive system is good at.   

Can you speak to the relation/overlay between trauma informed/responsive and culturally responsive instructional strategies and environment?

Because we are all human, trauma tends to affect people the same way,   That said, because we are all so very different, there are going to be many aspects of trauma-informed practices that must take culture into consideration.  These might include;

  • How relationships are built
  • How people talk about difficult subjects
  • Low vs High context communication (what is spoken vs implied)
  • How the culture relates to people in authority 
  • How the culture treats time (especially as we talk about predictability and routines)

What are your thoughts around the language shift from trauma-informed to trauma-responsive schools.

What we call things is important.  I like using words that talk about a call to action.   We need to do more than just be informed, but change our practices so we are taking action and not just mitigating the impact of trauma.  We need to focus on those things that heal it – quality relationships with adults, safe school environments (etc..) We at 321 Insight are highly supportive of trauma-responsiveness, and that is why we focus on tools for educators to implement to take action.

Do you agree that mindfulness training is beneficial?

Absolutely beneficial.  If you are someone who enjoys the practice, you will certainly see that it is very much about self-awareness. Some people are skeptical of the word mindfulness but if you can get them past the initial hesitation, it has a lot of clinical evidence behind it.  For those of us that have had a less than healthy COVID-19 diet, I would recommend the Eat Right Now app.  It is focused on a mindful approach to eating that teaches you mindfulness as you go.

 How do you see counselors and teachers working together as partners to support students? 

Now, more than ever, there needs to be a dialogue between teachers and counselors.  Counselors need to be helping teachers understand how to be supportive.  Help the team learn the importance of  integrating social and emotional curriculum, as well as watching for warning signs that a child is struggling.   Teachers need to be ready to refer a student to their counselor even if that is only a virtual meeting.

Have you heard the term caution fatigue in relation to COVID-19 stress?

Caution fatigue refers to people losing diligence over time in the way they take precautions against contamination.  From what I have seen so far, it will be a real issue to get kids to take precautions to start with and to follow those precautions for any period of time. 

What types of behaviors do you predict we might note in students experiencing trauma in our classroom?

Some of the more common things we see in students who have had multiple ACEs are quick and intense reactions to stressors or problems, hypervigilance (constant scanning), a frequent misinterpretation of others intentions as hostile, and difficulty sitting still, attending, and concentrating.

What are your thoughts on combating the potential dropout rates for our students with higher ACES?

By the time students get into high school it is likely they have already had a lot of negative experiences at school with staff that don’t know how to handle the behaviors that are often associated with trauma.  They likely have a history of behavior referrals, poor attendance, and academic problems.  What gets kids to stay is connection to educators and to their school community.   The more we can involve kids in sports, clubs, committees, projects…anything that speaks to their strengths – the fewer kids will drop out.

I work with a population that already had to deal with a lot of trauma — even before Covid-19. I noticed that many of them had a difficult time learning (for good reason), and I’m wondering what I can do to help them deal with their trauma, but still maintain high expectations for learning.

The ideal combination is pairing HIGH EXPECTATIONS with HIGH SUPPORT.  You hold the expectations high (but achievable for that person) and you support them with everything you have. You don’t lower expectations in response to failure. You don’t lower support in response to behavior issues or lack of attendance.   

Tools/Resources/321 Insight 

Can you please share the link to the article you mentioned had some activities that we can do with our students?

During the webinar I referenced a series of videos we recorded during last Spring’s school closures. The videos feature me teaching specific social emotional skills to students via Zoom. They can be found here

What is the role you see Collaborative Problem Solving playing in the return to school and how can it be used in conjunction with the tool kits in the 321 Insight professional development?

 Collaborative Problem Solving is a talking-based intervention, which requires a student to be able to access their thinking-brain in order to be effective. A key part of 321 Insight’s Trauma Informed PD Series is helping students become regulated –which gives them access to their thinking brain. In addition, a necessary baseline for CPS to work effectively is a trusting/ secure relationship with an adult so all of 321 Insight’s information on establishing relationships and trust would be good places to set the stage for using CPS. I would think about training and modeling CPS for students returning to school so it becomes an expected routine in response to various problems.

Can you direct us to resources with specific ideas/tips for creating routines, opportunities for self-regulation, etc., for distance learning?

321 Insight’s Trauma Informed PD Series is designed to give specific ideas and tips for creating routines, opportunities for regulation, building relationships, and more in both an in-person and distance learning environment. If you’d like a free demo account, please click here and fill out the form to request an account. 

You mentioned a blog with more information and ideas. What is the address?

You can subscribe to our blog at www.321insight.com/blog

Environment/In-Person/Face Masks

I am going back in class with full classes and full days.  We have extreme movement restrictions, so how can I stop the spread of anxiety when we have limits on physical breaks from the space?

First, I would start with welcoming energy before you dive right into all the rules.   As you discuss the rules, help the students understand a few things. Help them see why these rules are good for the class, that they are temporary.  Discuss how they can take breaks and how they can connect with you and each other.  Be sure to share where and when they can lower their mask for some breathing time.   Try to create ways for your students to do what they need instead of spending all your time enforcing things.

How do you convey warmth while wearing a mask?

83% of warmth (i.e. your good intentions actively conveyed) is whether or not you are authentically smiling.   An authentic smile is conveyed in the entire face, not just the mouth and people can see that whether they know it or not. Humans are designed to read expressions.   I would personally have a smiling picture of myself on my person or in the room, especially if the class has not seen my face before.

My school/jail is unclean, antiquated, and we have no cleaning staff.  How could I feel confident, exude presence, power, and warmth in that atmosphere?

Do what you can to take care of your environment.  Bring in rugs, space heaters, electric candles, diffusers, posters.   SHOW that you are someone who cares about this shared space.  Keep it as clean and organized as you can.

How do I make students feel safe if I don’t feel safe?

If you are nervous and anxious about conditions right now, that is going to transfer to your students.  Helping students feel safe in uncertain times is about your presence with them.   I’m going to assume that not feeling safe isn’t dominating every second of your day.  You can be that person who is a solid ally for your students in troubling times.  If you are having trouble dealing with it yourself, I suggest… 

  1. Don’t engage in chronic news watching.  The news sensationalizes and dramatizes so many things these days.  Get the facts from reliable agencies like the CDC.
  2. Take time to focus on your personal wellness and self-care.   It’s very important in this day and age.
Regulation Strategies

What are some quick regulation strategies for when teachers get dysregulated in class by a student?

A few that I rely on…

  1. Don’t try to control what you can’t control. You are not in control of the student’s actions.  
  2. Slow down your thinking, speaking, and movements.  If you don’t need to be in a rush, don’t be.
  3. Don’t pit yourself against the student.  See the issue as you and him or her working together to solve a problem.
  4. Keep centered on having a good relationship with the student.  I like to tell my staff “chase the relationship, not the behavior.”
  5. Take a deep breath if you need to.

What are some strategies or frameworks for addressing student reliance on electronics for self-regulation?

Aside from educating students about them, I see some kind of mindfulness practice as very useful for students.   If you can build that into your day, great!  Otherwise, don’t allow students to use electronics during class and especially do not use them for regulation breaks.   They are distracting, not regulating.   The problem with electronics is that people use them to self-regulate so much that they begin to forget how to do it themselves.   Electronics are especially bad for younger children as they need to learn to self-regulate by being alone with their thoughts.   When we take that away by giving them a constant distraction we do them a great disservice.

Relationship Building 

In thinking about building trust and relationships with a new cohort of students, what are your thoughts about balancing whole group, small groups, and individual time with all students to support relationship building?

It sounds great if you can get individual time with students.  That is something many have lost.  While online we don’t have those private moments anymore where we can pull someone aside and get to know them.  So this year you will have to do what you can.  If you have office hours, reach out to each student to schedule time to meet with them one-on-one.  Even if you only have a big group session online, learn your students names and use them.   Call it out when you see someone do something great.   A little can go a long way. 

How can we focus on being relationship-first in an environment that prioritizes testing and accountability? How do we do this online?

Relationships are super important in order to get to all the academics.   You won’t have one without the other.   You will get more engagement once your students trust you.  Being authentic is important.  I think we naturally know how to build relationships with people and we can do it while teaching content and while doing it online.  It’s not a separate thing, it’s so much about who we are as people and how we show up, how present we are and the quality of our connection.

How do you approach families and bolster family engagement with a trauma informed lens?

Get to know the  families and caregivers of your students.  Learn their names and engage with them when you see them.   Make calls home for things that are positive.  So many educators never call a parent unless the student did something bad.  When parents feel like an educator likes their kid, they are so much more willing to engage. Families will soon learn to trust you just as students will.   

How can we support students with traumatic responses, while ensuring that we are not eliciting trauma stories that we may not be trained/equipped to support the student in regulating and processing possible intrusive memories/flashbacks? In other words, balancing trauma informed practice without walking into more clinical trauma therapy zone?

There is nothing about trauma-informed practices that says we have to identify which student has what trauma and talk about it.  I agree that we as educators are not necessarily equipped for that.   The hallmark of a trauma-informed environment is to create a place where students feel safe.   They interact with regulated adults, in a safe and predictable classroom, where they have relationships with trusted staff members.  Rules and expectations are clear, and there is a clear path to success.

Social Emotional Learning
How does trauma informed practice relate to formal SEL programs?
SEL is a set of skills kids need to be successful. Trauma-informed practices set the stage for the
student by building a safe and welcoming environment, and allow students to learn regulation in order
to access their thinking brains.  SEL teaches new skills and in an ideal delivery model, incorporates the practice of those skills into the classroom.  As we discussed, kids don’t learn new social and emotional skills by reading a book on SEL. They learn by practice and repetition. 

Request a free copy of our Better Together: A Trauma-Informed Approach to SEL here

Other than attendance, what assessments do you recommend to gauge SEL progress in the virtual classroom?

For SEL, my metric would be for kids to see value in the lessons and use them. Then to discuss and reflect on their  progress.  I want to see kids demonstrate those skills under pressure.  So for example, if we are
working on response to frustration, I want to see it change or at least have the student try those new responses out and get better over time.

How can kids bring some of this social emotional learning home to their parents? Would simply saying “guess what I learned in school today” work? What else can they do?

Teachers can create assignments or ways for them to share lessons back to parents. Teachers can tell parents what their children are learning about and how they can reinforce this at home. Many parents are hungry for ways to help their children and appreciate information they can reference.

What do we feel is the school’s responsibility of supporting the social-emotional wellness of students during this time? What is the parent’s responsibility?
I don’t think we should divide it up.  We know this: when kids are struggling, they don’t learn. Period. So parents and teachers have to do all they can to support social and emotional wellness. So much of that is creating safe, stable and supportive environments where kids will thrive. Those environments can be at home and in the classroom.

Distance Learning

What do you recommend for students with a history of trauma who have disengaged from/ with distance learning. 

Distance learning does not work for all learners.  For kids who disengaged this past year, we reached out a lot and tried to re-engage them in any way they would engage.   I told my staff to call and keep calling until someone told us not to.   We did not drop our expectations and we continued to give the student messages that we wanted them back.  Some teachers even drove out to home visits.  In short, turning off the computer or not logging in is easy.  We tried to make it a little harder.

Should students have the choice to turn off their video during remote learning?

In my opinion, they should only have the choice to turn off their video for short periods of time.  Otherwise they will just check out. However, you should check to see if your district has a policy about this, and if so, follow the policy.

Students from remote places are having difficulty in continuing their online classes. I am afraid they will feel stressed. How can I help them as a teacher?

Talk to them about that stress.  What is it that worries them?   Help them problem-solve the issues that are getting in their way.  Start online instruction slowly.  Get people used to the interface first.    Repeat instructions for the first couple of days or weeks until you feel like people are getting the hang of it.

Can you share ideas for distance learning with early childhood students?

Early childhood learning online is going to be a challenge.  It’s going to be very important to keep kids engaged. They are certainly not going to passively learn numbers and letters. There has to be a way for them to participate, answer and interact.

How can we get to know and teach our English Language Learners on-line when there is that language barrier?

Go slow and try to imagine yourself in this situation as the learner.  This is where personal wellness pays off.  You are going to have to be super patient, go slow and maybe change your expectations of how much is going to get done so you can preserve the process and make the experience something the learner wants to return to.

How do you  deal with a learner that can’t focus on the virtual class?

Virtual school is not an easy transition for everyone.  Don’t blame the learner and don’t tell them to “focus” more.  They probably can’t increase their focus or sustain it for any period of time, but, I’ll bet that learner has a lot of suggestions on how to improve things for them. Be willing to ask good questions and listen.

What are some cultural things that a teacher should be thinking about when working with their class remotely?

Be mindful that not every person has access to and familiarity with the internet, nor do they use the internet in the same way.    The internet can be very low context – it simply delivers information and provides little back and forth to enhance learning.  Check the websites you plan to use to make sure the information on them is culturally sensitive and appropriate for the students you are teaching.

How do you address anxiety of students who have issues with technology? Such as; Power outages and internet issues?

Online schooling can expose some of the inequities in society. A student should not miss instruction because they cannot afford the internet.   Make sure to alert your district of families you know that may need assistance getting technology or internet access.

Students will be attending school on rotation from September where I work. Students who are not in school will be given tasks to complete until they are next in school. Are there any tips for writing of instructions that assist with conveying a sense of warmth or creating a sense of safety in these activity packages?

Write your instructions with the student in mind. Take time to discuss how glad you are to be working with them, how much you want to see them in person and how you are there to help.  Make it obvious!

General Questions

Do these strategies vary from adult learners instead of K-12 students?

All the strategies we discussed are important for adults to some degree. As adults return to the learning environment they bring with them their own stress and experiences. Building relationships, keeping things predictable and structured, and teaching them stress reduction and regulation skills will be important.

How much time should teachers take to process everything that has been going on with their students?

Given  the reality of time constraints,  I would start with doing a few things.  First, a simple quick quality connection – if that’s online, a 1:1 meeting with students (even just 5-6 minutes) just to say hi, get to know each student personally as best as you can.  Second, I would hold office hours so they can access you.  You can also do some screening questions or assign some writing about their experiences in the last 6 months that might give you an idea of who is struggling and who is not, and possibly make some referrals.  

Want more from Dr. Henson and 321 Insight?  Check out www.321insight.com.

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