Years ago on the first night of a parenting class at a homeless shelter I panicked at the sight of 20 parents slumped in their chairs avoiding eye contact with me. Some even rested their foreheads on their arms on the table in front of them, not even pretending to be interested in what I was saying. One woman with arms crossed in front of her shook her head vigorously “no” while the rest of her body screamed “You are WRONG!” as I presented Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs to an unbelievably unbelieving audience.
Panic sets in.
It was a major, “Oh no,” moment for me. Face-saving solutions raced through my head like high-speed trains. I thought up a variety of panicky escape scenarios, most of them sounding something like, “Well, it is the first night of 10, the first hour of our 2 ½ hour class. I could talk faster, GET through this and pretend it never happened. Surely we can put it behind us and recover.”
Escape and feigned obliviousness, while appealing to my desire to soothe my singed self-image, did not appeal to my desire to not waste these good people's time. So, aborting all panicky escape strategies I stepped in front of the oncoming train and did the following.
1. Name what is happening and ask for feedback.
I said...“You aren’t buying this are you?”
That brought all the half-closed eyes and sagging chins to attention. People sat up straight and looked at their neighbors to see if they’d really just heard me correctly. I could see the wheels turning…
“Did she really say that or I am having a really great dream?”
So I asked again, “You aren’t buying this. Can we talk about it?”
Electric energy shot through the room like a crack of lighting. The woman who had shaken her head at me with a deep frown creasing her brows cleared her throat and said, “Actually, no we are NOT buying this!”
I looked around the room, and slowly heads began to nod in agreement with her, nervously though, still unsure of how I might react.
2. With genuine interest and no defensiveness, ask what is true for them.
“Ok,” I gently said, “What’s your truth? Would you teach me?”
The young woman who had shaken her head at me got up out of her chair and approached the Maslow hierarchy poster at the front of the room. All eyes followed her.
“I don’t believe that physiological needs make up the foundation of how we get through life,” she said, with finger tapping the bottom of the triangle.
In a slow, but deliberate voice she continued, “When you don’t know what you will feed your kids tonight, or where they will sleep safely, or if they will be warm enough, you stop thinking about how you will possibly make that happen on your own when you have no resources.”
As she spoke she trailed her finger to the top of the pyramid, delicately and tentatively touching the self-actualization triangle and said, “You know that more important than your hunger or chill, or fear about having no where safe for your babies, you know that you will not lose your humanity to meet those needs, that surely there is a higher power who is looking after you. You accept the facts of your situation, name your powerlessness in that moment, and appeal to that higher power because that’s all you have, when you are hungry, cold and scared.”
There was a reverent hush in the room that was palpable.
3. Start where they are and honor their lived experience.
And then I ripped Maslow’s Hierarchy off the wall and crumpled it in my hands. Eyes widened and jaws dropped but no one was napping now.
I handed her the marker, and gently asked, “Will you show me what life looks like for you?”
With all eyes on her, she redrew the triangle with self-actualization and its creative problem solving, morality, lack of prejudice, acceptance of facts, spontaneity, and creativity as the foundation where physiological needs used to be, then drew in the remainder of the pyramid as Maslow had ordered it.
As I scanned the room I saw glistening eyes and flushed faces watch her, heads nodding slowly in agreement.
4. Recast the vision of where you are going (without losing your intended outcome) to better fit your learners.
“Well then,” I said, "this is the pyramid of needs from which this class will work from now on.”
There was an immediate shift in everyone's energy. I think I could actually see people decide to stay in the room and engage. This change let learners know that I saw, heard and valued them. I could make this change without impacting any best practices or my intended outcome for the class.
5. Take an important step in creating a safe classroom.
This exchange changed everything. The rest of the evening and the weeks that followed were marked by openness, energy, authentic sharing and hard work.
Admitting I was wrong and asking for my students' feedback became my first step in creating a safe learning environment for them. It was a way to genuinely touch hearts and it helped me earn the privilege of offering ideas and skills that could later change minds. Touching hearts and changing minds are critical steps in supporting adult learners’ efforts to transform their behavior to better meet their goals.
Please Join the Conversation.
What strategies do you use to create safety and a trauma-informed learning environment for your adult learners? Please share your strategies in the comment section below.