Building resilience

Last Friday, I was out of my building for a professional development opportunity. Cornelius Minor, one of my #eduheroes was in town and working with teachers and administrators from across our district. Anytime he’s around, I make it a point to spend time learning with him. I’ve had the privilege to meet him on 4 different occasions, and his message always feels fresh to me. I’ve written about his visits before, and I’m guessing that this most recent visit may result in a couple of different topics to share with you. If you really want to see a bit of my in-the-moment thinking, you can check out the thread of tweets I shared while Cornelius was presenting here:

For those of you who don’t know much about Cornelius, he is a Brooklyn-based educator who still spends most days in a middle school classroom, but his skills as an educator can translate to any level or subject area. Every time I’m in a room with Cornelius, I feel like I’m with a close friend who is helping me become the best educator I can be to support the students I work with!

On Friday morning, Cornelius started the day with a guiding question for our thinking: “How can we create conditions where all kids succeed?” While he did not come back to the question multiple times, the work we were doing helped to answer that question, at least for me.

One of the standout portions of the day for me was a conversation he shared about building resilience in his students. There were three things he said that he feels all students need to know or be able to do to be resilient in the classroom. He said that all kids need to know:

  1. What learning looks like
  2. When to pause
  3. How to talk to parents about what you’re working on at home

Let me expand on each of those thoughts just a bit – some of what I share here will be based on the thinking Cornelius shared, but some will be my own thinking as I have been reflecting on the day.

What learning looks like – Think for a moment from the perspective of a student in your classroom (if you are a teacher). What must that day feel like? Depending on your age, you go from one learning activity to another, sometimes with a clear understanding of the purpose of what you’re doing, sometimes without that understanding. For our elementary students, most of these learning activities take place in the same room. For our middle-grade students and up, they may be transitioning to a different classroom every 45-ish minutes with a 5-minute break to get from one class to another. Our students might start working on reading, then shift to word work, then to writing, then to math, and hardly have a moment to pause and reflect between these transitions. In that whirlwind of a day, can you identify what the purpose of the activity is? How do you feel when your day is jam-packed with things to do? Can you remember what you accomplished during your day? I know for me, I cannot! As educators, we can help build resilience in our kids by defining what we are working on. Tonight, I asked my son what he was doing for math homework. He shared that he was learning how to figure out percentages, like adding a tip to the bill at a restaurant. I was excited about this answer because often the answer I get is “stuff” or “I don’t remember what we did today.” I must have caught him at the right moment. We can support this understanding of what learning looks like by sharing things like success criteria, or “I can” statements so that kids know what the target is for their learning and building in moments to pause and reflect in our lessons. If we think about the learning cycle, learning does not happen if there is no time for reflection. And if our students can’t share what they are learning, then did they really learn it?

When to pause – Life for a child can be a challenge, and for some of our students, these challenges can lead to a student acting out in a physical or verbal way, shutting down, or possibly even just leaving the classroom. When students notice that they are becoming dysregulated, they need tools to be able to react appropriately. If they don’t yet have the tools, we must teach them. Most of the time, there are three reasons students need to take a pause from what they are working on in class – they feel overwhelmed, they need a moment to think or process, or they need to help someone else. Often, students have not been taught yet how to pause what they are doing, so that pause may turn into putting a head down and not engaging in work, or it may result in goofing around, or worse! What students need is to know what a pause should look like. When students in Cornelius’s class need a pause, there is a three-step process: 1) Put your pencil down and find the clock on the wall and focus on the second hand. 2) Watch the second hand until it goes all the way around and is pointing at the same number as when you started looking at the clock. 3) Take a deep breath, pick up your pencil, and get back to work. And he also teaches students how to help someone who has taken a break – when they notice that their tablemate has taken a break, they can put their pencil down, watch the clock, and when their neighbor has taken a breath and picked up their pencil, they can turn and say, “How may I support you?” Sometimes kids may not be able to answer that question, but they know they have support, which helps them get regulated.

What I think we all know is that when we are feeling overwhelmed, or need a moment, we need to try to help our brain slow down. By focusing on the clock, we give our brain something to think about other than whatever is overwhelming us. During that time, we are breathing. When we stop whatever we’re doing just to breathe, the mind-body connection helps alleviate stress. Blood pressure will come down, and stress hormones are able to filter out of the brain. The pause allows us to come back closer to our baseline. After that minute, students should be better prepared to engage in their work.

How to talk to parents about what you’re working on at home – This one probably applies more to students who are in our older grades or have moved on to middle school or high school. As teachers, when we have our students take work home, we know that there is a risk that parents may help their child. Or that a parent may say “I think you should do all the problems on this page for practice” even though you have only assigned a few. If parents do the work, we don’t really know where our kids are (one of my issues with homework, but that’s a different post). When parents ask their kids to do extra work, they are taking away a child’s time to be a child (parents do this with the best of intentions, but as a teacher, I know just as well if my students understand their math work after 4 problems as I would if they did 20). Cornelius has taught his students 2 sentences that they can use if a parent is trying to help too much:

“Even though I can’t do/understand it, I know the right questions to ask.”

“No thank you, I’ve got it from here.”

Parents just want to help, but part of what we need students to learn is how to advocate for themselves. By being able to say these things to their adults at home, they are advocating for their own skills.

These are just a few ideas that came from our day with Cornelius to support resilience in our students. What other ideas might you have? Do you have ways you help build resilience in your students? Share your thoughts with us all in the comments below.


As an educator, I have long believed in the value of relationships. When I was still in the classroom, I worked hard to get to know all my students. I was a big fan of utilizing free moments in the day to talk with kids. I’d ask them about their family, pets, outside interests, or whatever they wanted to talk about. I felt that the more I knew about my students, the easier it was to connect with them during class time because they knew that I cared about them as a person first. As a classroom teacher, I probably had a good relationship with some of the families of my students, but I don’t think I realized the value of investing in meaningful relationships with my students’ families.

When I moved into an administrative role, I knew that it probably wouldn’t be possible to know all our students as well as I had when I was a classroom teacher. But in the administrative role, I soon came to realize that I needed to know more than just my students. It quickly became apparent that in this role, I needed to know the families of my students. Early in my administrative career, I participated in a book study around The Speed of Trust by Stephen M. R. Covey. It is a book that comes to mind regularly in my current role as an elementary school principal. The key takeaway from the book is that when trust is high, the speed of our relationships is that much faster. To me, the key to a high-trust environment is meaningful relationships.

Here are just a few of the reasons that I take the time to build strong relationships with the families of our students:

  1. Improved student outcomes – According to, when parents are actively involved in their child’s education, students tend to perform better academically and have better attendance. I have learned that sometimes the families of our students have had negative interactions with schools in the past. Sometimes those situations go back to their own childhood.
  2. More effective collaboration – When we have strong relationships between the school and our families, we can develop plans to meet the needs of our students both at home and at school. In a high-trust relationship with a family, having conversations about home life and strategies parents might try with their child at home is more welcome. Parents will see that we are trying to help provide the support that students need to learn and grow into their greatest potential.
  3. Better school culture – When relationships are strong between school and our families, parents are more likely to be involved in school events. This involvement helps to support a positive and supportive school culture.

There are several ways that I work to build relationships, and by extension, trust, with our families. When we have events at school that parents will attend, I make a point to connect with as many of the families as possible. These small interactions show that I care about their child, and by extension, them. The welcoming and warm environment we strive to create helps our families feel comfortable to be here. I often encourage parents to volunteer in classrooms, sign up to be a substitute teacher, or help with events being led by our PTO. I also see the role of the principal as being the head communicator of a building. I strive to tell our story in multiple ways. Each week, in our school newsletter, I do a video update called “The Tiger Update.” Using video, I find that families can hear my voice and see my face – it seems more well-received than a weekly note from the principal in our newsletter. I also strive to share our school’s story on social media. As a school, we have a Facebook and Twitter feed. When parents know what’s happening at school, the connection is stronger, which helps build that relationship.

Overall, building a strong relationship with the families of our students helps create a high-trust environment that will better support our goals of having an impact on the learning and growth of every student who walks into our school.

The Warm Demander

The Warm Demander

Recently, I attended the Indiana Association of School Principals Fall Professionals Conference. This conference brought together school leaders from all over the State of Indiana for a few days of learning with several keynote speakers, and then some great breakout sessions. While there are many things that I could share with you from the various learning opportunities, there was one thing that stuck out to me. In one of the sessions, our presenters shared something called the “Warm Demander Chart.” This chart is based on the work of Zaretta Hammond, and it looks like this:

As you look at the chart, you’ll notice four quadrants, which are based on two axes. The vertical axis is based on a spectrum from passive leniency to active demandingness, in other words, it’s how high of expectations we place on our students. The horizontal axis is based on a spectrum from professional distance to personal warmth. These traits will impact actions by teachers in a classroom, but also impact students’ perceptions about their sense of belonging.

Recently, in our building, we have been digging into the work of John Hattie. In that work, we’ve learned that research should impact practice within the classroom. In his work, Hattie has identified a variety of influences on learning. In that research, things like teacher-student relationships, school climate, sense of belonging, and teacher estimates of achievement (in other words, our expectations of students) all meaningfully contribute to accelerating academic success.

Which is why I want to come back to the Warm Demander Chart. Take a moment to go back to it and reflect on a couple questions. First, where do you strive to fall on that chart? Next, if you don’t fall where you strive to fall, where do you feel like you end up instead? Finally, as a spectrum, there may be moments when we might move from one quadrant into another. What are the things that might cause you to move somewhere other than where you strive to be?

When I was at the conference session, we were split into groups to discuss the chart. Within that small group, all of us agreed that we strive to fall into the “Warm Demander” quadrant, but that there might be moments when we land somewhere else. As people around the room shared with the whole group, almost everyone said that they want to fall in that “Warm Demander” quadrant, and I’m guessing that is true for those of you who are reading this post.

But the more we talked, the more we realized that there were similarities in the moments we might move into more of the “Sentimentalist” quadrant. What I notice when I look at this quadrant is that because we care about our students so much, we want to protect them – from failure, from difficulty, from the struggle. Most likely, we do so with the best of intentions. We might know that the student has lots of struggles outside of school, such as poverty or trauma, and we don’t want to add to that.

Then a guy I was sitting near said something that I hope will always stick with me:

Let that sink in for a moment…

Now, pause and think about your students. There is probably at least one (and maybe more than one) student that we lower our expectations. And again, we do this with the best of intentions. But here’s the reality – for that student, one of the best ways to help them out of the situation they are in is a solid education. In life, there are going to be struggles for each of our children. One of the best things that we as educators can do is to provide them with a safe space and appropriate scaffolds in moments of productive struggle. Over time, they will then develop skills to help them handle moments of productive struggle independently. If we lower our expectations because “My poor babies just can’t handle that” (yes, I have heard that said about students by teachers that I have worked with), we might be crippling them in the situations they will face in the future.

It is appropriate as a teacher to hold all students to high expectations and then add in some personal warmth so that all our students know what struggle will look like, but also that people are there to provide a helping hand along the way. This is such an important piece of the learning process for our students. So, the next time you begin to think to yourself that you might lower your expectations for one of your students, remember that decision could have long-term impacts on our kids.

In the long run, our goal is to meet every kid where they are when they come to us and provide them with learning opportunities and support along the way so that they may grow to the greatest extent possible. That won’t happen when we lower our expectations for kids.

Challenge yourself to keep the expectations high for every student. We can still be that loving, warm, caring person while also expecting the most of our students they are capable of!

The kids we worry about

Over the past 2 weeks, I have been spending a lot of time in meetings. These meetings bring our MTSS (multi-tiered systems of support) team at school together with classroom teachers. The goal is to hold an initial meeting to review the beginning of the year data on our students. For each class, we look at the class profile on NWEA assessments, current guided reading levels, and any other data a teacher has to bring about their students. We spend time in these meetings discussing what the data tell us about our students, and how we might provide the best possible support.

We always love to begin our conversations around strengths, but ultimately, a big chunk of our time is spent discussing students of concern.

I know that when I was in the classroom, I always had a running list in the back of my mind of kids I worried about. If any of you are like me, you probably have a list as well. But what do we do with that list? After a recent learning session with Cornelius Minor, I found myself pulled back to his book We Got This, and there’s a section that caught my attention based on the conversations we’ve been having in our MTSS meetings. On page 38, Cornelius shares a resource called “Thinking About Kids in My Classroom.”

What I love about this resource, is that it takes what many of us may do – having a running list of our students of concern in the back of our minds – and asks us to make it more formal. So, here’s what I challenge you to do in the next couple of days – On a piece of paper, a post-it, the notes app on your phone, or wherever works for you, make a list of the kids you worry about. This might include kids who are struggling with curriculum, or maybe something in their assessment data is concerning, or it might be kids who don’t seem to “fit in” with the rest of your class, or maybe you see that they are acting out in your classroom. I believe there is so much power in making an actual list of the kids we’re worried about. When the list is mental, it’s easy to just forget about someone, or almost feel like you’re playing whack-a-mole with the issues that seem to be the biggest at the moment. But when we make the list more formal, when we write it down, we have to reflect on what we can do to create an environment where all our students can thrive. As I reflect on the work of Cornelius Minor, I’ve learned that maybe those students on that list are not successful because there is something about our system, the way we do school, that fails a subset of people.

As Alexander Den Heiher reminds us, “When a flower doesn’t bloom, you fix the environment in which it grows, not the flower.” If a whole subset of our students is unsuccessful in school settings, we might need to engage in the hard work of looking at what about our environment needs to be changed.

So, once we have our list of kids we’re worried about, what we can do is think about how we might sort them into groups. Examples of groups Cornelius shares in We Got This include (but are not limited to) “kids who are below benchmark”, or “kids who are still learning English”, or “kids who can’t stop talking.” As you learn more about your students, consider all the other things these students might have in common. The more commonalities we identify, the easier some of our later steps might be.

Next, it’s important to think about what students need to do to be successful in your class. When was the last time you took a moment to define your own success criteria? And even more importantly, have you defined this for your students? If you can’t define what success looks like in your class, how could your students who struggle possibly know what they need to do?

Once you’ve defined success criteria, Cornelius asks “what barriers keep some students from achieving that success?” This is why relationships matter so much. We have to know our kids well in order to define our barriers. Sometimes identifying those barriers may mean we need to work with the family of our students.

Once you have identified some barriers, you can make a list of ways that those barriers could be removed. What could you try? What could you implement? Then, treat your ideas as little experiments. As you try things, pay attention to how it impacts your students. Does it make a difference? If not, try a different strategy to remove that barrier. If you’re struggling to figure out ways to remove barriers, seek support from a colleague. Maybe they have an idea that you haven’t tried yet! Have you ever created a formal list of the kids you’re concerned about? How has that changed the way you reflect on your students? If you’ve never utilized this strategy, what ideas or questions are you left with? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

Channeling student behaviors

It’s always interesting to me watching students at the beginning of a school year. We are already approaching the end of the first month of school here in our school district, and while many of our students have settled into the typical routine, some are continuing to struggle. I’m trying to reflect on a couple of my recent learning opportunities as I think about some of the behaviors we’ve been seeing and how we as a school might respond to those behaviors.

A couple of weeks ago, I was able to participate in a training called Restorative Leadership: Authority with Grace. Much of this training was spent learning about and then reflecting on how to lead our sphere of control in a restorative way. One basic concept that fits with other thinking recently is that we should separate the deed from the doer by affirming the worth of the individual while disapproving of inappropriate behavior. We must first see our students as people. This allows us to identify their strengths, as well as areas for continued growth. Challenging behaviors are often telling us of some unmet need, and when we look at it that way, it’s easier to separate the child and the behavior.

Then last week I had the privilege to spend a day learning from and with Cornelius Minor. If you aren’t sure who that is, he is an educator who is dedicated to working with teachers, school leaders, and others to support equitable literacy reform across the globe. If I had to distill my thinking about the day into one thought, it was a question he posed at one point. He asked, “How are we making sure that our institutions are more hospitable to kids?” A train of thought that I’m thinking about because of this has to do with the systems that exist within the school culture. Cornelius pointed out that in schools, some of our approaches do not see kids. Kids know that this isn’t ok, which causes them to act out. In turn, we treat kids as if they are broken, and we give them labels. He went on to share that disproportionately, this can happen to our multilingual students, our students with learning disabilities, and our marginalized populations. If we go back to the beginning of the chain and try to fix the fact that kids are not always seen or heard in the school environment, then maybe we break that chain.

Then, today, I happened to be over by the bookshelf in my office and I noticed a book I haven’t picked up in a long time. Early in my career, the members of my fifth-grade team read the book Teaching with Love & Logic: Taking Control of the Classroom by Jim Fay & David Funk. As I reflect on all these pieces of learning from my many years of public education, it keeps bringing me back to the relational side of management, leadership, and most importantly for this post, discipline.

What if we started thinking about how we handled problematic behavior differently? If the goal of equitable work in schools is to create a more hospitable environment for kids, we must go back to another one of the basic beliefs of restorative work: We respond to situations WITH people, not TO them, FOR them, or NOT at all.

As educators, we need to think of ourselves as “child watchers” who are observing our students. What do we notice about them? What makes them happy? When do they get frustrated? What seems to motivate them?

If you’d like an idea of how to keep track of the things that you are learning about your students, there are a couple of options:

  • You could use a page in a notebook for each student.
  • You could create a spreadsheet with a list of all your students and begin filling in things you notice.
  • You could use a paper with several boxes on it and use each box for a different student (this was a method I used – I would have 8 boxes per page, which meant 3-4 pages for a class).

If you notice that there is a student’s page or box that isn’t as full as the others, it’s time to create some opportunities for learning. Seek that student out for 2 minutes a day to talk about anything not related to school. It’s amazing how much you can learn in a few short stints of time.

The more we notice about our kids, the more we can use those things to our benefit. As an adult, if you have a student who talks out in class and causes disruptions, the easy solution is to remove them from their group, seat them on their own, or possibly even have them leave the room. And how does that feel to the student? That we are doing something to them, not with them. And ultimately, we must remember that the word discipline comes from the Latin word disciplina which means instruction or knowledge. Discipline isn’t about what we do, it’s about teaching how to do the appropriate thing.

What if instead, we took a moment of our day to have a conversation with a student about the impact that behavior has on the class? What if we turned it into a topic for a community circle where other students can share how talking out or creating disruptions impacts them? Next, you might be able to process with the student during an unstructured time of the day (in the hallway as you’re walking to related arts, during a passing period, or a quick chat during recess) about how their behavior has impacted others. Then, what if you find ways to feed that student’s desire to talk? Could you increase the number of turn and talks during a lesson to help that student who is talking too much? Could you make a portion of the lesson partner or group based? If you let the student know that you see what it is that they need and that you are going to try to create more opportunities for that, it may help shift the behavior. When we think of teaching as art and creation, we must ask ourselves what we can create that will support our students who are struggling.

When we create a classroom environment that provides students with a way to have their needs met, we make the learning environment more hospitable for the student that needs to talk.

Take a moment to reflect on the problem behaviors that you are seeing. See if you can piece together what the behavior is, and when it is happening. Then, ask yourself if there is a way you can take that behavior and channel it towards something more positive. In the Love & Logic mindset, this would be called providing choices within limits. We all know that there must be certain limitations within the classroom, but if we let students know when and where in their day they will be able to make choices, they should be able to uphold your expectations in other parts of the day.

And something that I want to make clear – none of what I’m saying is meant to imply that there should never be consequences for a child’s poor choices. Whether we are working from a restorative mindset, from the mindset of creating a hospitable environment, or from a Love & Logic mindset, consequences certainly can be a part of the learning process. We just need to make sure that the consequence is reasonable, natural, and appropriate. In fact, “Children will learn from their mistakes when: They experience the consequences of their mistake; and Adults in their environment provide empathy.” (Fay & Funk, Teaching with Love & Logic, pg. 37). When adults express sorrow for a student’s poor choice and the resulting consequence, children have a much greater opportunity to grow.

What ideas does this spark for you? Do you want to think about how you might react to problematic behavior? Or does this spark some questions for you? Learning happens when we reflect, so share your reflections in the comments below!

Being trauma-responsive

Being trauma-responsive

Last week, we hit a big milestone – two years since most schools shut down due to the Covid-19 virus. This anniversary had me thinking about the trauma that we have all been living through over the past two years. But I’ve also been thinking about the impact it has had on our students. We have now hit the point where school is starting to feel a lot more normal in terms of our day-to-day operations. At the same time, there is something different going on. I was thinking about the impact that the trauma of Covid-19 has had on our students in the past couple of years. I know that here in my school, we’ve been seeing behavioral trends different than anything that might have been considered “typical” for our students.

Let’s think about why that might be. In my K-4 school, the students we serve were somewhere between 3ish years old and second grade when things shut down in March of 2020. When I think about what happened to those students in the past couple of years there are several things that stand out to me. For the ones who were not yet school age, they probably missed out on opportunities to attend pre-school, summer camps, sports, and other activities outside of the home, among so many other potential events. Think about the amount of social interaction and peer-based learning that was missed! I don’t love the phrase learning loss for a multitude of reasons, but one of the things that I believe strongly about how humans learn is that it is done socially. This missed social interaction can help explain so much about behaviors occurring in kids currently. And many of our students who were already school-aged at the beginning of the Covid-19 reality also missed out on much. Along with activities outside of the school building, they may have lost connection to friends and trusted adults when school shut down. You could connect trauma to those lost connections.

Now I know, not all kids have been impacted in quite the same ways. When I walk into classrooms, there are certainly students who seem to be rather normally developed based on their age and grade level. But one of the things I understand about trauma is that the same event may be traumatic to one person, but not impact others in the same way. And another thing I understand about trauma is that those experiences change us. Trauma has an impact on our brain chemistry, it leads to bottom-up control in our brain.

I wanted to throw in a quick reminder about how the brain works here – the amygdala is the lowest part of the brain and is our alarm system, the hippocampus is the mid-brain and assists with learning and memory, and the prefrontal cortex is the front of the brain and manages thoughts, behaviors, and helps us control emotional responses. When the amygdala takes control of the brain, it causes most of the other parts of the brain to go offline.

If you want to know more about the impacts of trauma on the students in our schools, you might want to learn a little bit about the Adverse Childhood Experiences Survey (ACES) study. I’ve written about that in a two-part post titled “Childhood trauma.” You can see part 1 here, and part 2 here. In the ACES study, there is a 10-question survey, and each question that is answered yes equals 1 point. The higher the score for a person, the greater the correlation to a variety of negative health outcomes later in life, including alcoholism, drug abuse, depression, suicide, and even heart disease and lung cancer. In one study, students who had at least 3 ACES were 3 times as likely to experience academic failure, 5 times as likely to have attendance issues, and 6 times as likely to exhibit behavioral problems.

Last week I connected with a former colleague who now works with students in multiple school districts in the area. As we were talking, she shared that the behavioral trends I was seeing had become something of a universal experience in the schools that she serves. If we consider the experiences of the past two years, you could argue that the Covid-19 reality has created at least one ACE for all our students, and depending on other experiences, possibly more (we know that there are students who lost a close family member, that equals one ACE).

What helped pull all this thinking together was an article in the most recent edition of Principal, a publication from the National Association of Elementary School Principals. “Safe Signals for Preschoolers” is an excellent article on the role that trauma-supportive schools can play in creating an environment where students feel safe, cared for, and ready to learn. Based on that article, I wanted to share some tips that you might consider implementing in your classroom or setting. One thing to note: you might be thinking “But I don’t have any students with trauma in my class.” The data we have on ACES says that is probably false. In the initial ACES study, the participants were 75% white, 39% were college-educated, another 36% had college experience. We also know that most of them would be considered affluent because all the participants in the study had health insurance. ACES know no bounds and can impact students of various backgrounds. Odds are pretty good that you have students with one or several ACES sitting in your classroom right now that you don’t even know about. Implementing trauma-responsive strategies will benefit those students who have been through trauma that we aren’t aware of. In addition, trauma-responsive interventions are beneficial to all students, not just the ones we think need them.

First and foremost, to be ready to learn our students need to have a safe environment. The human brain is like a radar, constantly monitoring what’s going on around them, and for most of us, that just happens in the background. For students who have several ACES, their brains are dealing with higher levels of cortisol (the body’s stress hormone). This higher level of cortisol in the brain causes what’s sometimes referred to as toxic stress. This causes the brain to be stuck in survival mode or the lower portion of the brain. When stuck in the lower brain, a student’s brain cannot physiologically take in knowledge or problem-solve. Here are a couple things you might do to help a student feel safe in your classroom:

  1. Relationships: Students must sense that you can take care of them – to send signals of safety, think about things like your appearance, facial expressions, eye contact, etc. Often what we do through our nonverbal communication can help a student feel safe or unsafe, even more so than any of our verbal communication. And a child’s perception of this is what matters most. If they don’t perceive that you care, then they may not feel like they do have a meaningful relationship. Kids are pretty perceptive!
  2. Predictable schedule: Students feel safe when there is consistency, and the brain mistrusts uncertainty. Consider a visible schedule, and let students know in advance (when possible) of changes.
  3. Transitions: Whenever possible, try to minimize transitions. Each one feels like something of a loss for our students. When a transition is coming, give plenty of warning – let them know there are 5 minutes left, or a 1-minute warning to wrap up, or a count down.

A few years ago, we had a summertime training on Trauma-Informed Schools. Jim Sporleder, the former principal of an alternative high school in the state of Washington and now a consultant on training others on how to implement trauma-informed strategies in our schools, led the training. One of the things that I always recall about that training is that he challenged us to “Be the one…” Often for students of trauma, the best intervention is a solid relationship with a trusted and caring adult. The kids we struggle with most are often the ones who most need that relationship. They might push us away as a defense mechanism related to the traumas they have been through. We just have to keep trying to let them know, through our words, our actions, and our non-verbal communication, that we are there to support them, and that we care for them.

As I’ve worked in schools and implemented more trauma-informed strategies, one of the things we’ve had to also think about is how to respond to negative behavior. For our students who have lived through trauma, those cortisol levels in their brain often cause them to live in a constant state of “Fight – Flight – Freeze.” A self-protection strategy that they have developed is to act out, shut down, or sometimes simply run away. I don’t know about you, but I’ve seen an increase in students leaving class without permission, I’ve seen an increase in students who simply shut down in class, and I’ve seen some acting out towards peers, teachers, or others. Here are some strategies that you might implement to help create that trusting environment:

  • Modeling appropriate behaviors, then using guided or independent practice and repetition
  • Do-overs or reboots when things go wrong – a teacher can coach a student through a difficult situation and help them try again and be successful
  • Role plays, puppet practice, scripted stories, or behavioral rehearsals

Remember, behavior is a form of communication. Often students are telling us that they don’t have the words or skills to describe what they are feeling. Some people though, mistake trauma-responsive strategies as implying that consequences are not appropriate. This is not the case. There are times when students need to be held accountable for their actions. These accountability measures help students to learn that they are accountable for their actions, but at the same time, they will not necessarily change a child’s behavior. When our students feel a true relationship with their teacher or another trusting adult at school, they will have a stronger internal drive to please the people who care for them. Consequences may be a temporary measure to help other students feel safe or to help parents understand the severity of the behavior, but they will not change a child.

Ultimately, for healing to happen in our students who have been through trauma, we need to show them the everyday acts of kindness that we might want to see when going through struggles in our own lives. As I shared before, connections to invested adults are the best intervention to provide opportunities for healing for our students. Our students may not remember all the things we teach them, but they certainly will remember how we made them feel.

#IMMOOC Week 3: Proactive vs. reactive

In my first year as an assistant principal, I felt at times I was running around, putting out fires, and never seeming to make any progress on the things I was doing.  For those of you who have been an assistant principal, you probably recall the feeling of only being able to react to the things that were happening around you.  I was trying to learn my role, learn the expectations that students and staff had for me, and help however I could to lead our students towards success.

I’m so glad that I’m past that feeling! (Most of the time, let’s be real, sometimes you have no choice but to react!)

Currently I’m in my sixth year as an assistant principal, and it has become a lot easier to identify ways to avoid reacting.  I have learned that every year there is a group of students that I lovingly refer to as my “frequent flyers.”  I typically know who those 6th graders will be because I probably got to know them in the 5th grade year.  I typically learn who those 5th graders will be because they start to have some difficulties early on.  For these frequent flyers, I work (and sometimes it really is work) to build relationships with them.  I talk with them at times other than when they have made a poor choice or are feeling escalated.  I work to get to know what makes them tick, and use that to my advantage.

This strategy helps me to recognize when something is off.  At the start of every school day I’m on the sidewalk greeting students as they come in off the buses.  If one of my “frequent flyers” has his/her head down, or is behaving differently than normal, I know that something must be off.  I might pull them aside to have a quick chat right there, or I might go find them as classes get started so that we can have a more private conversation.

School teachers (or leaders

By getting to know those kids that most need to be known, I have found that they are not as likely to have the explosive behavior that might lead me to have to go back to my reactionary steps.  I’m a big believer that when we know what makes a kid tick, we are a lot more likely to be able to find the spark that leads to success and learning.

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.

Reaching all our students

One of the challenges of teaching kids in the middle grades (I’m calling that 5th through 8th grade for the purpose of this post) is that physical maturity and social emotional maturity do not always match up.  A couple days ago I was talking with a teacher about the immature behavior of a student.  A comment that stuck with me after I walked away was “But he’s the biggest one in the class…”

Sometimes there is a misconception that the tallest kids are going to be the most mature and therefore capable of doing the most, and that the smallest ones are the least mature.  But in my experience, that expectation doesn’t always work hold true.

The next chance you get, just scan your room.  As you look, you will see a huge variety in physical differences among the kids that are sitting in your room.  Not only are each of those kiddos physically different, they all have differences in their cognitive, social, and emotional needs.  While it’s easy to recognize those physical differences, perceiving what’s going on inside a child is much more difficult.  With all of these differences, how do we try to meet those needs?

Meeting the needs of all learners by differentiating instruction begins with accepting the fact that your students are all cognitively different than one another.

The Center for Applied Special Technology has been focusing their work on the Universal Design for Learning (UDL).  There are three main principles of UDL, and thinking about these principles as you design learning experiences will help you better to reach the diverse needs of your students.

  • Principle 1: Provide multiple means of representation: We can all agree that our students all learn in different ways.  This means it is so important for us to present and represent learning in multiple ways.  Some students would learn best from a video clip.  Others might learn best from a reading assignment.  Others might need graphic organizers to help them to capture their learning.  The key is to remember that if you only provide one entry point for learning, you probably will not reach all your students.
  • Principle 2: Provide multiple means of action and expression: We all have our preferred ways to be able to express our knowledge.  For me, I love to share my learning through written expression. Others might prefer to record a quick video clip, while still others might want to create a presentation through Power Point. The same is true of our students.  While we can have our big ideas and learning targets that we want students to reach, they don’t all have to show what they know in the exact same way. The more choices we offer students in expressing their learning, the more likely we are to meet the needs of every student.
  • Principle 3: Provide multiple means of engagement: We all know that if learners are not engaged, they are not going to be learning.  Students are most engaged when they are given the opportunity to participate in authentic learning experiences that are responding to their questions, concerns, or interests.  If we can give students opportunities to develop they questions or look into their concerns and interests within the scope of our learning goals, they will be more engaged, and feel empowered

Ultimately, our goal for all students is that they learn and grow.  Through the use of these 3 principles, you can design learning experiences that allow our students to feel engaged and invested in their learning, and in turn you will be more likely to move our students forward in their learning.  What are your thoughts?  Have you seen these principles help your students find more success in the classroom?  Are there any principles that you would add to this list?  Share your thoughts in the comments below!

What do you know about each of your students?

At the beginning of this school year we held a back to school retreat.  One of the slides was based on something that Aaron Hogan, author of Shattering the Perfect Teacher Myth, had shared in his Twitter feed this summer.

My Challenge

We have talked over the years about the value of relationships.  We all know that there are some students who are EASY to get to know.  At the same time, we all know that there are some students that are very difficult to get to know.

Getting to know about the things that are tied directly to school is what teachers do. Test scores, homework completion, attentiveness in class…  I think all of us are good at that.  To have a true and meaningful relationship with a student, we need to have a knowledge of all the aspects of the child’s life, not just their ability to “play school.”  To know this, we have to be excellent watchers and listeners.  This watching and listening has to come from the idea that the only way to create solid learning environments for our students is through truly knowing a student.

Do you have a system of tracking what you know about kids?  Whether you have a spreadsheet that you type info into, a stack of notecards with one for each kid, a class list with simple notes, sticky notes in a binder, or whatever works for you, there needs to be some way to keep track of the things you know about those kids.  If you haven’t done this yet, take a few moments in the coming week to assess your own knowledge of your students.  What do you know about their life outside of school?  What interests do they have?  What did they do over the weekend?  What do you know about their family?

As you assess your own knowledge, are there any kids who stand out as someone you don’t know much about?  If you don’t know much about that child, how can you be sure that you are creating a learning environment that meets that child’s needs?

The good news, it’s still very early in the school year!  If there are kids you want to get to know better, there’s plenty of time for that.  Make it a goal to learn what you can about those kids you aren’t able to write much about.  Use strategies like the 2 for 10 method (spending 2 minutes every day for 10 days talking about something that has nothing to do with school) can help you learn a lot in a very short time.  Conversations in the hallway or at recess can be a great chance to get to know kids too.

Caring about kids can have a huge impact.  The kids who drop out of school in 9th or 10th grade don’t decide one random Monday morning that they are going to sleep in and never come back.  Dave Brown and Trudy Knowles share in What Every Middle School Teacher Should Know that:

“The decision to drop out is a reflective process that begins during the middle level years based primarily on the relationships they have at school with classmates and particularly with teachers.”

In the book Canaries Reflect on the Mine: Dropouts’ Stories of Schooling, Jeanne Cameron interviewed several high school dropouts.  One of the things that stood out in the comments from those students was the belief that they needed teachers to notice them and care about them.  That care doesn’t come just from looking at students grades and test scores.  It comes from the recognizing the difficulties that each of our students have in their lives.

If that isn’t enough of a motivator for you to try to get to know those quiet kids a little bit better, I don’t know what would be.  Do you know there are kids that you don’t know much about?  What do you know about the quietest kid in your class?  What are you going to do in the next week to get to know those kids?  Share your thoughts in the comments below!