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!

Childhood trauma – part 2

Last week I encouraged you to watch the TED Talk by Nadine Burke Harris titled “How childhood trauma affects health across a lifetime.”  If you missed it and still would like to watch it, click here.  Even if you didn’t watch the talk, hopefully there will be information in today’s post that will help you understand: 1) the impact of trauma on children; 2) that childhood trauma can affect any community; and 3) a few ways to be able to impact the lives of students and their families to improve outcomes.

Childhood trauma: it affects brain development, the immune system, hormonal systems, and the way our DNA is read and transcribed. It leads to increased risk of heart disease and lung cancer, and can cause a 20-year difference in life expectancy.  Even with all these factors, many doctors are not prepared to be able to identify childhood trauma, and even fewer have the tools necessary to treat these issues.

Trauma

Many physicians, especially those that work in public health, are trained to try to identify root causes of an illness.  When 50 people from the same neighborhood begin exhibiting the same symptoms, doctors are not only going to treat the patients, they are also going to look at what’s going on in that neighborhood.

Dr. Harris began to notice a pattern in many of her patients that she couldn’t initially put her finger on.  She was having kids referred to her for ADHD, but she could not make that diagnosis.  As she got to know more of these patients, the pattern that she found in many was that they had experienced some form of severe trauma.

There is a direct link between childhood trauma and adult onset of chronic disease, as well as mental illness, doing time in prison, and work issues, such as absenteeism.Eventually, Dr. Harris learned from a colleague of a study called the Adverse Childhood Experiences Study (ACEs Study).  This ongoing study is a collaboration of Kaiser Permanente and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.  I believe that every educator needs to be aware of the ACEs Study.  The study shows a correlation between ACEs that occurred prior to reaching the age of 18 and many health and social problems as an adult.  Here are some basic stats from the ACEs Study:

  • 17,300 adults were part of the original study
  • 70% were Caucasian
  • 70% were college educated
  • All participants have/had livable wages and health insurance
  • All were middle class or affluent

While there were many forms of trauma that the participants in the study had been through, the study identified the top 10 ACEs.  They are:

  1. Sexual Abuse
  2. Physical Abuse
  3. Emotional Abuse
  4. Physical Neglect
  5. Emotional Neglect
  6. Loss of a Parent
  7. Witnessing Family Violence
  8. Incarceration of a Family Member
  9. Having a Mentally Ill, Depressed, or Suicidal Family Member
  10. Living with a Drug Addicted or Alcoholic Family Member

ACEs scores are determined by 1 point per each of the ACEs listed above.  A couple things to be aware of about ACE scores: first, they are extremely common.  67% of the population had at least one ACE, and 12.6% had 4 or more ACEs.  Second, the higher the ACEs score, the worse the potential health outcomes.

ACEs can also have an impact on student success.  In one Washington State University study, students who had at least 3 ACEs were 3 times likelier to experience academic failure.  They are 5 times likelier to have attendance issues.  And they are 6 times as likely to exhibit behavioral problems.

Sunset chaserWhy does this happen?  For the normally developed brain, when it encounters a stressful situation the adrenal gland kicks in and releases adrenaline and cortisol, which gets the body ready for fight, flight, or freeze.  For a child living in trauma, those adrenal glands are constantly being triggered, which causes their brain to have bottom up control, and prevents the upper part of the brain (those that control reasoning, self-control, learning, and understanding), from being able to take control.  And what are the triggers for our trauma students?  You may never know.  It could be walking into their home, it could be a loud voice, it could be a simple as a facial expression.  These triggers are so frequent that the trauma brain is constantly in fight, flight, or freeze mode.

One of the things that we all know is that being an educator can be a very emotional task.  You become connected to your students, you want the best of them, and no matter how hard we try, there are times that they become frustrated.  These frustrations may manifest themselves in many different ways.  We have to be able to help our students to calm their brains and return to top-down control.  Punishments and logic will not work for a dysregulated student.  Instead, our students need relationships, connections, and acceptance.  When we are able to stay calm when our students are not, we may be able to help get our students back to calm.  Remember, when a student is struggling, it is not about us, and we can’t take it personally.

Your presence is the most precious gift you can give another human being.In their book The Trauma-Informed School, Jim Sporleder and Heather T. Forbes identified a few strategies that we can all use to interact with students (and I would suggest that these strategies work for all kids, not just those who have been through trauma).  Here’s a few of them:

  • Respond instead of react – ask yourself “am I responding to this student as a person or am I reacting to his behavior?”
  • Give emotional space – allow the student to be upset, and be there to support the student when they are once again regulated.
  • Ask the right questions – What’s driving the behavior? What can I do to improve my relationship with this student?
  • Statements that show support – What do you need from me right now that takes care of you and allows me to continue teaching?
  • Choose your battles – sometimes it’s best to just get your class going on something, then quietly approach the student to check in.
  • Keep yourself regulated – drop your personal mirror and seek the cause to the problem that is happening in front of you.

No two situations are going to be identical.  No two kids are going to react in the same way.  What works today might not work tomorrow, but simply being aware of what’s going on in the brains of our students, and some possible strategies for when a student becomes dysregulated will help all of us to be able to better meet the needs of our kids.

What strategies have been successful for you?  Are there things that you have done in the past with kids that aren’t included here?  Share your thoughts in the comments below so that we can all spread our knowledge.

5 questions

Inquiry

Student voice, student choice, relevancy, collaboration, intellectual risk-taking.  All these phrases should sound familiar as they come from the HSE21 Best Practice Model.  While these are all things that we strive for, sometimes we might wonder how we help our students understand that this is what we’re going for.

I recently saw an article from the Harvard Business Review about questions that businesses should ask their employees.  Based on a 2016 study by Deloitte, people feel loyalty to companies that support their own career and life ambitions.  Wouldn’t it be fair to say that our students are likely to feel the same way (more interested in learning when they feel that the learning is valuable to them)?

With that, imagine the empowerment our students would feel if we not only ask these questions, but actually use their answers to guide the learning that’s taking place in our classrooms!  Here are the questions:

  1. What are you good at doing? What school activities take less effort? What do you do first because you know it will be easy? What things do others notice as strengths for you? These questions will help students to identify their strengths and find possibilities to grow those strengths.
  2. What do you enjoy? What are the things at school that you most look forward to? What things give you extra energy when you know they were coming up? If you could design your own school day with no restrictions, what would you spend your time learning? These questions help students find, or remember, what they love about school.
  3. What feels most useful? What about school makes you feel most proud? What do you do that is critical to the success of others? What are your highest priorities for your life, and how does school fit in? These questions will highlight the inherent value of certain activities.
  4. What creates a sense of forward momentum? What are you learning that you’ll use in the future? What do you envision for your future? How’s your work today getting you closer to what you want for yourself? This line of questioning will help students think about how the things they are doing now will help them achieve their goals.
  5. How do you relate to others? What kind of work partnerships are best for you? How does your work at school enhance your connections with others outside of school? This will help our students see the value in meaningful relationships.

Helping our students to identify their purpose for learning will help them feel more connected in the classroom, and to see the value that comes from their learning.

Gentle pushback

How do you spend the beginning of the school year?  What types of activities are you using in your classroom?  Keep in mind that the expectations that you set in the first few weeks will carry throughout the year.

So often at the beginning of the year, we spend lots of time on relationship building.  Those of you who know me will know that relationships are a key part to success (see previous posts here, here, and here).  Relationships alone aren’t enough though (I have a bigger post on this topic coming soon).

Part of what got me thinking about this was a series of tweets from Rick Wormeli – I happened to be on Twitter last Saturday evening, and he had a string of tweets on this topic.  He focused on the first week of school – we’re past that already in my school corporation – but I think that his sentiment can carry over to the first month of school.

What things have you tried for the beginning of the year to push your students in intellectual, academic, or creative ways?  What do you think about Wormeli’s thoughts?  Do you have different opinions?  Share your thoughts in the comments below.

One key to student success

With it being the beginning of the school year, many of us have been spending countless hours getting ready for our students.  We made sure our classrooms look just right, we made sure to pick the perfect activities for our students to get to know each other (and for us to get to know them).  Before the first day I’m sure you were all just as excited as I was thinking about this school year.

One thing that many of us think about during the summer time is how to help our students to be successful.  For those of us in education, that is something that we all want for our students.  I’ve read many philosophies of education, written by lots of great teachers, and all of them say something about helping our students to be successful.  So what needs to happen in order to help our students be successful?

As I was thinking about this question earlier this week, I found myself drawn back to a book that I read a while back – What Every Middle School Teacher Should Know by Dave Brown and Trudy Knowles.  I know I’ve mentioned this book in previous posts – if you haven’t yet, it’s definitely worth the read!

In order to create cognitive growth for our students, they have to be willing to take risks in their own learning.  They have to be willing to try things that they’ve never done.  They have to be willing to fail from time to time.  Failure leads to growth for all of us!

The problem is, failure is scary.  How many of us have not tried something because we were worried we wouldn’t be able to do it?  During my high school years in Bloomington we would hang out at the Indiana University outdoor pool.  If you’ve never been there, one thing you should know is that there are multiple diving boards, including a platform.  I had a couple of friends who were divers, and they made it look so easy to go off the 3-meter springboard, or any one of the platforms.  I on the other hand, while being a strong swimmer, was scared to death to jump off that top platform.  Multiple trips to the pool, and many times watching others go for it, and I just couldn’t bring myself to do it.  Finally one of my buddies got me to go up the platform with him – “don’t worry, if you don’t want to jump, you can go back down.”  Once I got to the top, he jumped right off.  I was next in line, I turned around and there was a line behind me.  I didn’t want to walk past all of them, so I walked up to the end of the platform, looked over the edge, thought about it for a moment or two, and went for it.  What a rush it was to take that jump!  My fear had held me back and prevented me from a fun experience.

For some of our students, the fear that I felt about jumping off that platform is what they feel about reading aloud, or writing a story.  Maybe a teacher has told them that math isn’t their strong suit, so they don’t want to solve a problem for the class.  We expect our students to come to school for 180 days to do something that feels risky.  How many adults would do something risky every day?  A lot of us might just give up.  For the kids who feel this level of fear about their academics, they may say to themselves “If I’m not good at it, why even try.  I don’t want to embarrass myself.”

These students need our encouragement and support to build enough confidence to take risks.  That comes back to our classroom culture – the expectations we set about how students treat each other, as well as the things we (the adults in the room) say in the classroom.  Kids need to feel safe enough to be able to take risks.  Brown and Knowles share the following list of things students need to feel academic safety:

  • No one laughs at them when they attempt to ask or answer questions
  • Teachers establish realistic academic expectations and outcomes for every student
  • Students’ efforts are recognized, as well as the products of those efforts
  • Teachers eliminate competitive situations that create inequity among students
  • Teachers develop cooperative grouping strategies that encourage students to collaborate in their learning and share their knowledge and expertise with one another
  • Teachers play the role of learning facilitator to encourage student independence
  • Teachers choose alternative instructional strategies to meet each student’s learning style
  • Teachers recognize and appreciate talents other than academic skills

This list is not meant to be the end all be all solution for all our students, but it provides some ideas that we can reflect on in our planning and preparation to make sure that our students will feel safe in our classroom.  They need that safety to take risks, and they have to take risks to grow.

What steps do you plan to take in your classroom to make sure that all of your students feel comfortable to take risks in your classroom?  How can you model your willingness to take risks in your own learning and growth?  Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Cognitive load

How many times have you been in a conversation with a colleague, and they started giving you suggestions?  Each one sounds great, you think they could work in your room, but then you walk away from the conversation and nothing has stuck.  All those great ideas went in your ears, passed through your brain, and then disappeared into the ether.  No amount of thought can bring them back, and you feel embarrassed to go back to the colleague because you think that they might be offended that you didn’t remember the first time.

Created by Marshall Vandruff

For all of us, there’s this idea called cognitive load.  Cognitive load refers to the total amount of mental effort being used in the working memory.  When you were talking with that colleague and they were sharing more and more ideas with you, it was causing your brain more and more of a cognitive load.  In that moment, your brain is kind of like a cup – it can only hold so much new information before it begins to overflow.

Now, if each of us struggles cognitively to hold on to multiple ideas in a short conversation, how does this translate to our students?  In a lot of the research on cognitive load in children, there is a clear difference between adult and child knowledge.  Because of the differences in knowledge, children have to make a greater effort to simply process what is coming in, which means that their cognitive load will be exceeded more quickly.

I know that there were times as a teacher when I might have a student ask me a question.  As I was answering the question, I might give more detail than was entirely necessary in order for students to better understand.  Then, a few minutes later the student would ask the same question.  At the time, it was frustrating – “Come on, I just told you that!” but I now understand that by giving the extra details, I was causing too heavy of a cognitive load on my students.

So, what does that mean for us?  As we talk with students – whether we are giving them feedback on classwork, discussing their behavior, or making suggestions, we need to keep it short and to the point.  In a recent post from Matt Miller, he suggested using the sandwich technique:

 

  • A compliment (positive feedback)
  • A change they could make
  • Another compliment (more positive feedback)

Is it possible that we could suggest 17 corrections?  Sure!  But if we make all 17 at one time, the student will be overwhelmed, and none will get done.  Pick your main point, your main concern, and focus on that.  Once the student has shown that they understand your initial change, then maybe attack one of the other 17 things.

Meaningful feedback to students is one of the best ways to increase learning outcomes for our students.  Give that feedback in the moment – while you’re walking around and peaking over shoulders, and keep it to the point.  Students will learn and grow.

What are some of the strategies you use to give feedback to your students?  Share with us in the comments below.  If you’re looking for a few new ways to give quick feedback to your students, check out this awesome post from Matt Miller:

10 strategies for lightning-quick feedback students can REALLY use