10 Trauma-Informed Classroom Strategies for Navigating Behavior Emergencies

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There is that moment in every teacher’s life when the energy shifts, maybe seemingly out-of-the-blue, but you know it the instant it happens. A student is upset; everyone else is immediately on high alert, and your leadership and credibility hang in the balance as all eyes are on you to see what you will do.

When this happens to me, the hair on my arms stands up, my senses are on overdrive and I have an almost out-of-body experience as I watch myself with racing mind consider the approaching derailment.

Years of trial and error in scenes like this have led me to 10 simple trauma-informed classroom strategies that have proven over and over again to help me navigate behavior emergencies, maintain a safe, trauma-sensitive environment, and keep my class on track.

With this post I’m starting a new series of personal, nail-biter stories that illustrate these 10 trauma-informed classroom strategies for navigating behavior emergencies. In this post I'll share the strategies, and then the first story.

10 trauma-informed classroom strategies that have helped me navigate behavior emergencies.

  1. Breathe and don’t panic. Slowly breathing in through my nose for a count of four, holding for a count of four, and breathing out through pursed lips for a count of four can help me calm down and clear my mind so I can lead my learning community.
  2. Stay in charge. I am always the leader of my classroom. Abdicating my authority by letting one student take over breeds resentment among the other students. The other students want me to keep the train on the tracks. As a matter of fact, they expect it.
  3. Validate feelings and needs. I don’t have to agree with someone’s interpretation or perspective to honor it. I can summarize what I hear the distressed student saying and take a guess at his/her feelings and needs.
  4. Adopt a non-threatening posture and steady voice. I can stay in charge and avoid threatening body language. I can give the student a break from eye contact or stand at an angle to him or her to avoid a confrontational pose. Using a non-threatening posture or looking away for a bit buys the upset student time to compose him/herself and is less likely to make that student feel cornered or threatened, helping to calm things down. My calm, steady voice provides backup for reducing threat.
  5. Hold an alert readiness. This is the body language I use when walking alone on a dark street. It is relaxed, but alert. I look around, show I am paying attention and take energetic strides with purpose and confidence. I can hold this same alert readiness in my classroom. It says, “I’m aware of what’s going on and I’ve got this.”
  6. Refer to structures. To have a safe classroom I need to have some structures in place – ways I do things that I can refer to when emotions are high and folks aren’t sure what's going to happen next. Referring to structures reminds students that I am taking responsibility for keeping the space safe and I have a plan and I intend to follow it. Referring to structures also takes the focus off of individuals and a temptation to blame, find a scapegoat, or make someone “wrong”. Structures are just how we do things, when things are good and when things are not so good. Reminding students of those structures, while practicing #1 - #5 above, can sometimes be all that I need to turn things around. These practices are consistent with creating a safe classroom environment.
  7. Reflect back strengths. #7 reflect back strengths and #8 remind of goals are both related to holding a vision of who my students are becoming, one that they can borrow when they feel they’ve lost their way. Trauma-impacted learners who get triggered have momentarily lost their way and need both of these. Using these two strategies reminds them of who they are becomingwhat they already know how to do that they can do now, and actually starts the process for #9 offering them an alternative and #10 helping everyone save face. All of these together are consistent with nurturing healing relationships.
  8. Remind of goals. This piggybacks on #7. Here is where I remind upset students of the goals they have shared that are important to them as a way to provide motivation for getting unstuck. #7 and #8 open the way for #9.
  9. Offer an alternative. This is where I offer an alternative behavior that allows an upset student to meet his/her needs while helping me keep my class on track.
  10. Help save face. Most students, even upset students, generally welcome kind, unobtrusive, and non-judgmental assistance in helping them move past their upset and regain their composure in a way that is a win-win for us both.

To see how these might look and sound in action, here is story #1.

Story #1: But I don’t WANNA be in your class!

(Names have been changed.)

With waist length hair flying about his head while standing at the entrance to my prison classroom waving his “Call Out”, a man shouted, “I’m NOT in this class, I don’t know why I’m on the Call Out. I DON’T WANNA be in your parenting class!

We had just started introductions and now all eyes were riveted on the upset gentleman in the doorway, arms flailing, eyes wide, and hair on the fly with the energy of his unhappiness. I excused myself from the group and stepped to the doorway, introduced myself to the distraught man and asked his name. “It's Kevin”,  he said, “and I DON’T WANNA be in YOUR parenting class,” he added vigorously.

Breathe and don’t panic. Stay in charge. Steady my voice. Validate feelings.

“I understand Kevin, but you know if you are on the Call Out we don’t have a lot of options for the length of this class today. I’m sure that’s frustrating for you."

His energy calmed a bit but he still stood eyeball-to-eyeball with me, and didn’t offer to stay. I let several seconds pass and said gently, “Do you have children?”

“Yes,” he said, “One, but I never see him. His mom won’t bring him; that’s why I don’t want to be in YOUR parenting class!”

Adopt a non-threatening posture. Refer to structures. Offer an alternative. Remind of goals. 

“That makes sense," I said, pausing again, averting my eyes to buy some calm down time for him.

Then I met his eyes and said quietly, “I’m wondering, would you be willing to come in and join us, just for today, since being somewhere else could be problematic for you, and get your drop paperwork at the end of class? There’s no sense in getting a DR (Discipline Report and potential loss of privilege) for being where you aren’t supposed to be. Anyway, if you pass the time here and stay for the class, you won’t risk that and I’ll sign an Administrative Drop and you’ll be off the Call Out by the next class meeting, with no negative consequences."

Stay in charge. Offer an alternative. Adopt a non-threatening posture. Validate needs. Help save face.

He squirmed a bit, but had softened considerably since the start of the conversation.

“You’ll sign without trying to talk me in to anything?”

“Absolutely, the decision is completely yours.”

“Can’t you sign now?”

“Well I could sign now, but staying is still a good idea since the Call Out says this is where you are from 9:00-11:30 today."

The ensuing seconds brought some foot shuffling from him and no talking from me. I made no eye contact but instead busied myself picking invisible lint off of my sleeve.

Looking back up and as casually as I could manage I added, “We are doing introductions and telling a little about ourselves and our kids. I need to get back. Would you join us, just for today?” I said turning slightly away, holding my breath for his response, with one eye watching the curious group staring our way.

In a grudging sigh he said loud enough for the other men to hear “Ok, JUST for today” as he found a seat at the horseshoe configured set of tables. Though I let out a silent sigh of relief, I acted as if it was no big deal, saying nothing as he took his seat. Since I made no big deal, the others in the class made no big deal and we quickly got back to the task at hand, introductions of the dads.

A Dad borrows a vision of who he wants to become.

Kevin was delightful and exuberant, listening raptly to the other dads share about their kids. Based on his engagement, when everyone else had introduced themselves, I invited Kevin to introduce himself. He choked back a quiver in his voice to share a little about his son, whom he had not seen since he'd been incarcerated. And then he settled in for the remainder of the class.

At the end of class I approached him with the Administrative Drop.

“Ummmm”, he said. “I’m not sure. I think I need to get more information. Can I come back Wednesday and let you know?”

“No problem,” I said, stuffing the form into my class notebook, turning away to hide my pleasure, not wanting to take anything away from his decision. Fighting the smile that played at the corners of my mouth and that threatened to enter my voice, I cleared my throat and said as casually as I could, “Sure, let me know Wednesday.”

And off he went.

It became an affectionate class joke…has Kevin decided yet? At least once a week someone bellowed across the classroom, “Hey Kevin, have you decided yet?” Everyone would laugh, Kevin the loudest, adding, "I think I need more information!"

Kevin struggled with reading and writing but he worked hard in every class and always turned in his homework. At check-in he often shared stories about how he was applying the skills he learned in class at his job in the prison kitchen. One of the things that made him such a joy to have in class was his delight in sharing his successes. 12 weeks and 90 hours of class later he told the group, “This is the first thing in my life I’ve ever finished. I'm part of something when I'm here. I don't want it to end.”

Please share your trauma-informed classroom strategies.

Please join the conversation and share your stories and trauma-informed classroom strategies in the comment section below.