Fostering Resilient Learners: Strategies for Creating a Trauma-Sensitive Classroom

One thing I appreciate about my district is our Teacher Leadership Book Study. This phenomenal professional development opportunity is spearheaded by Amy Illingworth, our Director of Professional Growth. For the past 2 years, we’ve had four book studies spread throughout the year–at each book study, we meet teachers from across the district, discuss the book, and reflect on our teaching practices. This year’s version allowed us to select from a list of books around a unifying topic.

The fourth book study focused on social-emotional learner, and I opted to read Fostering Resilient Learners: Strategies for Creating a Trauma-Sensitive Classroom by Kristin Souers and Pete Hall. This book was originally recommended to me by my dear friend Rosy Burke last year, and is such a great read. While the overall concept of the book was familiar to me, I learned a lot about trauma and how it affects our students’ lives.

My takeaways:

One of my biggest takeaways from this book is “the power of seven seconds,” which Pete Hall describes as, “every morning, ever student who enters the school has a story…we don’t know these stories, and we can’t control what has already happened. But we can control our ability to say, ‘Good morning!’ right off the bat. The first seven seconds of our interaction with every student in our school should be brimming with enthusiasm, joy, compliments, or some sort of friendly banter” (Souers & Hall, 110). These relationships mean everything to our students!

A student walks into first period 10 minutes late. Instead of putting them on the defensive by grilling them for why they’re late, cheerfully say, “I’m so glad you’re here today! I was worried we wouldn’t see you. You’re just in time for our lab!” The students’ entire demeanor changes when they realize they’re being celebrated, not scolded.

Another big takeaway from the book is the concept of the downstairs brain (fight or flight reflexes) and the upstairs brain (empathetic response). It made me sit back and realize that when a student is in their downstairs brain and acting out or refusing to work, I need to stay in my upstairs brain and not get sucked into the frustrating back-and-forth with the student. I know when I’m frustrated with a student’s actions, I’m not the empathetic and caring listener that they need at that moment.

Here are some strategies I already use in my classroom:

Restorative practices: Restorative practices is a mindset where students are held accountable for their behavior in conjunction with a high level of empathy. The goal is to have students empathetically understand how their actions impact those around them, and take steps to repair any harm caused. This can be a whole-class strategy for discussing an incident, running a mediation between two students, or having a conversation with an individual student. In any case, we use the same three guiding questions: What happened? Who was impacted? What needs to be done to repair the harm?

Fidget box: I know my students come to class burdened with all kinds of trauma and stress. Some is the everyday middle school drama, while others are deeply rooted life experiences. I provide a fidget box that students can choose an item to help focus or calm down in class. In order to use the fidget box, students must first meet with me to discuss expectations. These expectations include trying out a few different fidgets to see what works, not sharing a fidget with another student (it quickly becomes a toy that way), and to select and return their fidget without distracting their peers. It has worked out great for my students!

Behavior log: When we do have minor incidents in class, I track these with a behavior log. It’s a simple Google Form a student fills out as the second chance in class (after a warning). The purpose is to reflect on what happened in class, and how they can make a change. After class or during work time, I’ll quickly conference with the student to debrief the incident. One new thing I will implement next year is behavior log cards; these will allow me to nonverbally ask students to complete behavior logs.

Each student and each class presents their own unique set of challenges and successes. I am grateful to support my students, no matter their circumstances outside our classroom.

Classroom Strategies

Restorative Practices Starts with Empathy

“Kids do well if they can.” -Dr. Stuart Ablon

I recently watched the TED Talk “Rethinking Challenging Kids-Where There’s a Skill There’s a Way” by Dr. J. Stuart Albon. His phenomenal message helps us shift they way we approach behavior challenges, by empowering students with the skills to do well. We can teach these three skills: flexibility, frustration tolerance, and problem solving.

It’s incredible to watch a student shift from being a tuned-out behavior challenge to one who turns in their work and asks questions! When I approach a student with empathy, work on skills, and set them up for small successes, it’s amazing what happens!

What is Restorative Practices?

Restorative Practices is an approach to discipline where there is a high level of control and a high level of support. Individuals are encouraged to uphold community expectations, and when they don’t, they are held accountable for their choices. We “restore” an individual to the community after a trust-breaking incident through forgiveness and making different choices.

I highly recommend these two of the books: Restorative Practices Handbook for Teachers, Disciplinarians, and Administrators and Restorative Circles in Schools: Building Community and Enhancing Learning. I’ve been using these ideas consistently, both dealing with minor incidents in the classroom and larger issues between students.

It is about our mindset, rather than rigid practices. We build a community of empathy, every single day–my kids know I’ve got their back, even when they make poor choices. Far more frequently after a 1:1 conversation with a student, it ends with a “would you like a hug?” rather than consequences.

Here are some of the strategies I use as I’ve implemented Restorative Practices in my classroom:

Daily Check-in Form

Every day I check in with my students through their daily check-in and warm-up questions (read more here). This gives me an excellent read on the class at the very beginning, and I can prioritize students’ needs.

When I notice a trend with a student, such as things are overall a “1” for more than a single day, I will find a ways to loop back to that student multiple times during class, making casual conversation, complimenting them, or asking general questions. If a student tells me something in the “anything else I need to know” question, I will speak with them privately about what they shared.

This has allowed me to make quick personal connections with each student in the first 5 minutes of class.

Student Behavior Log Reflection

When minor incidents happen in class, I use progressive consequences to address them: warning, behavior log, change seat, referral. Rarely do we get past a behavior log! Although, for larger or more serious issues where a student is interfering with our safety or productively, we will skip to a referral.

After a student receives a warning, the next step is a behavior log. Students fill out this Form (Make a copy) at one of the computers in our room, then sit back down. The majority of behavior log entries are for a forgotten or dead iPad (no warnings, automatic behavior log) or off-task behavior, especially chatting.

When students take responsibility for reflecting on how their choices impact our wider community, they usually make immediate changes. Occasionally I’ll have a quick follow-up conversation with the student, either during class or just after. This gives me an opportunity to listen to their thought process, and how they will take ownership of their actions.

Restorative Circles

Our favorite part of Restorative Practices is the use of circles! My students and I use community-building proactive circles for check-ins and to share the positives in their lives. At the beginning of the year, we do circles almost every Friday. As the school year progresses and we get busier, they seem to get pushed to the side and happen every couple weeks. Students have grown accustomed to our talking piece, a small stuffed penguin–it signals to all to listen and be respectful to the speaker (some do need a reminder, or two!).

We ask a variety of questions in circles, some I come up with and others are student suggestions. Here are some examples:

  • If you could have any superpower, what would you have and what would you do with it?
  • What qualities make a good friend?
  • What was the best part of your week?
  • What is one goal you have for next (week, semester, year, etc.)?

Many of my quietest students feel confident enough to contribute in the circle, especially towards the end of first semester. If a student wants to pass their turn, they are allowed to; although their neighbors usually encourage them to share something.

Other times, we need to use circles for restorative conversations. In these circles, something major has happened that we need to process together then figure out a plan for moving forward.

We go through the following restorative questions together:

  • What happened?
  • Who was affected by this?
  • What needs to happen to fix the harm caused?

This year, two of my classes made poor choices with subs, both in my class and in our other teamed classes. I took the majority of a block period to have students write their answers to the restorative circle questions, followed by a lengthy circle discussion. Many students talked about how some students’ behavior was disruptive or disrespectful, and they felt embarrassed that our subs had a difficult time keeping the class under control. The students who were responsible for more outright acts of defiance listened, contributed on a surface-level, but I could see the gears working as they heard their peers talking about behavior. That is powerful! Since this specific circle in early February, I’ve had fewer sub behavior incidents–they’re not perfect, but they’re more aware of their actions.

I love that my classroom is a community where all are welcome! How have you implemented Restorative Practices in your classroom?


2016-2017 School Year Goals

In March, I learned about #onenewthing from Lisa Thumann at the LA County GAFE Summit. I love her message of trying just one new thing, especially when surrounded by so many good ideas. My #onenewthing in March was to try vlogging with students–I took a class to the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, I gave students vlogging prompts, and we all vlogged about our experience. It was new to most students, although once they figured out I was basically asking them to create a Snapchat story, they felt much better. This has prompted me to use #onenewthing as a goal-setting technique for myself.

In my summer adventures at different conferences and learning opportunities, including CUE Rockstar Vista, ISTE 2016, Google Innovator Academy (#COL16!), and reading many EduBooks, my head is swimming with ideas and things to try. Really, I want to do all the things. I know that’s not practical, and I’ll drive myself insane trying to do everything, all the time. So, where do I start?

My schedule for next year is: 3 periods of 7th grade science, 1 period of 8th grade AVID, 1 period of “Blended Learning Specialist” or technology resource.

I’m picking a #onenewthing for each different aspect of my teaching day. I’m hoping these goals will keep me focused throughout the school year. I’m expecting my goals will change, evolve, or completely flip over time, and I’m ready and willing to reevaluate as often as necessary.

7th grade science & 8th grade AVIDMany teachers at my school attended the Restorative Justice training last school year. I didn’t sign up because I had been out of the classroom for other trainings way to much, and I knew it wouldn’t be wise to add yet another thing into my brain. From what I’ve heard, there will be more trainings and focus on restorative justice at our school this year. Instead, I bought The Restorative Practices Handbook and Restorative Circles in Schools and read them over summer break. After reading through both books, I realize I do some of the ideas of restorative practices, but there is also a lot I can work on in individual and small group conversations with students. I am going to use restorative circles in my classroom as needed, and also implement Friday Family Time.

Restorative Practices Books

Friday Family Time is my middle school spin on the elementary school “morning meeting” that many of my friends use in their classrooms. I always saw it as something I wish I could do, if only I had the time. I do have the time, because the benefits will far outweigh giving up my 30 minute period each Friday–time that is usually not well-spent anyway! I have no set plans for Friday Family Time, except we’ll all sit in a circle together, and I’ll either put out a question for each to answer (using some sort of talking marker, I’m thinking my mini stuffed penguin) or discuss things that happened in the past week or what is coming up. I’m hoping that once I put the structure in place, students will help me grow and mold it to our needs.

Blended Learning Specialist
Ok, so I actually have #twonewthings here, but they are distinctly different. In my BLS period, my goal is to spend less time in my own classroom, and more time working with teachers in their classroom. I have no idea how to go about implementing this with teachers, so I will be relying on the #TOSAchat community to guide me through this. I did it a little bit last year when teachers requested, but I don’t feel like I maximized my time for the benefit of the entire school. I’ll continue with our Tech Tuesday lunch club, and use that as my launching point for more specific one-on-one interactions.

My second goal is to grow our Viking Tech Crew (previously called Genius Bar) student club. I have a new leadership team who are excited to take on projects and help out students and teachers. I am working with a few TOSA/teacher friends to develop a more comprehensive student badge-based training for technology-related skills. I’d love to see my VTC students continue to develop their leadership skills and take ownership of their club.

In science and AVID, there are plenty of things I’m planning to try, test, and experiment with. This includes more regular use of social media in class, working more with scientific phenomena, improving on flipped learning, digital badges, and blogging with my AVID students. I had a blast in the 2015-2016 school year, with so many new opportunities. I’m beginning this school year with the same excitement!

I’m back to work on Monday, July 18th, and students return on Wednesday, July 20th! 

If you have experience or expertise with any of my goals for this school year, I’d love to hear your advice and wisdom 🙂