Clean slate

How many times have you messed up? Forgotten something at home? Been a couple minutes late to a meeting? Have you ever paid a bill late? Or have you ever done something that hurt a close friend? If you’re anything like me, you can probably identify some examples of times that you have messed up, both professionally and personally. Now pause and think – as an adult, what has been the reaction of other adults? I find that more often than not, the adults we are around are quick to accept our apologies and move on (although we might have to pay a late fee on that bill!)

I know that there are times that as a classroom teacher, there were students who would manage to make my life difficult. Maybe they came to class unprepared. Maybe they spent too much time chatting with their neighbors. Other times the behavior was a lot more serious – acting out in major ways, knocking over a chair, throwing a desk, etc. I know that I sometimes took that behavior personally.

As teachers, sometimes it is hard for us to show the same level of grace to our student’s tough behaviors that we might show to an adult who makes mistakes (I know, the behaviors are different, but the emotional and cognitive coping skills of an adult are way different than a kid in our classroom).

Here’s the reality that I think we can all agree on – teaching is an emotional gig! You get invested in your students. You hope for the best from them. You pour your time and energy into them. You celebrate the smallest of victories. And yet, at times, the response we get just doesn’t quite live up to our expectations. Sometimes we feel disappointed, upset, or even hurt by how kids act in our classroom.

So, when a student become dysregulated, it can be frustrating for us as the adult in the room. Real quickly, in case dysregulation is a new term for you, let me define it for you:

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 These emotions can be internalized by our students, which causes them to appear withdrawn, shut down, or non-engaged.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.

A couple years ago, I wrote a post on adult responses to dysregulation. You can see that post here. In this post, there is a link to a document that can serve as a really solid reminder of how to respond when students are dysregulated.

It can be so tempting at times to take a student’s dysregulation personally. But we have to remember the acronym Q-TIP – Quit Taking It Personally! When our students are flipping their lid, we might wonder “Why are they doing this to me?” The fact is, most of the time, this behavior has nothing to do with us. It could be that they are hungry, or tired, or thirsty. Maybe they had an argument with mom right before getting on the bus. Maybe someone hurt them.

I believe that part of working with kids is being able to give a kid a clean slate every day. Each morning, you and that student need to start refreshed and ready for the day. And here’s the thing, kids can sense it in your para-verbal and non-verbal cues. The tone of your voice during your first interaction, the body language when the student enters the room, both can impact how the day is going to go with that student. And as a former colleague of mine pointed out to me earlier this week, sometimes that reset to a clean slate might need to be more often than just the beginning of the day. Sometimes the clean slate comes into play after returning from lunch for the second half of the day. Sometimes it might even be after every transition!

Students who have been through trauma are often the ones that are most likely to carry out those difficult behaviors. They are also the ones who are most sensitive to what the adult who’s “in charge” is doing, because that’s how they have learned to keep themselves safe. It’s their survival mode. The single most important way to help our students who have been in trauma? The love and support of a caring and trusted adult.

Think about the students in your class? Who are the ones that most need that clean slate? Once you have those students in mind, challenge yourself to become that caring and trusted adult for them. Be that person they know they can turn to and confide in. Be that person who will be there even when they act like they don’t want you to. That’s what our kids with challenging behaviors need most!

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.


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.