The post below was written by Joanne Alford, a board member of PESA, experienced lead educator and positive psychology practitioner based in Victoria, Australia. Joanne has a vast amount of practical experience implementing a blend of positive education and trauma informed learning within schools and kindly agreed to share some invaluable insights and ideas for further exploration.
Meeting the needs of complex learners
Teachers around the globe struggle every day to help those students in their class whose behaviour make it almost impossible to teach. As we know, sometimes the behaviours can be so difficult it makes it seem untenable for teachers to even like these students who, every day, appear to love derailing the lessons they sit in. A teacher or school system, who is trauma aware, can meet the needs of these complex learners by shifting the way these outward behaviours are interpreted and responding to the unmet needs rather than reacting to their outward expressions.
Being trauma aware doesn’t mean the teacher suddenly needs a degree in psychology to understand their students, trauma is a complex state that most of us have some empathy with, it is more about being open hearted and meeting the child where they are at with “unconditional positive regard”. So many of our positive learning experiences have been conditional both as learners and teachers, the child does the homework and we (the teachers) are happy, the child is compliant in class, perfect, the child comes prepared, tick, we meet the child’s parents for meetings, great. These standardised conditions of the learning partnership though can get in the way of the child who has had adverse experiences during their development.
Think about the child in your class who appears to be unable to form a positive relationship with teachers, the child whose reactions fill the room, or the child who can’t move past the belief that they can’t achieve success and is stuck in negative thinking, or the hypervigilant child who is constantly on alert to anything happening around them, even remembering or sequencing events in the learning process can be a challenge. The challenge with these students is how do we, as busy teachers, develop the skills to respond to the needs of the children in our classes and not react to the behaviours in unhelpful ways? Being trauma aware means shifting our mindset to see any behaviour that is unhelpful to learning as an unmet need in the child and the response from the adult is to meet that need with calm unconditional positive regard.
Children need an adult in their life that helps them feel safe – teachers who can see what in the past has been described as wilful disobedience as a child’s stress response is teaching with trauma awareness. Meeting children’s needs with unconditional positive regard means that as the adult in the room we meet the child where they are at, without judgement.
I watched a TED talk many years ago that had a profound effect on the way I was seeing some of the children in my class. Rita Pearson in her now famous TED talk said, “you won’t like every child in your class, but they should never know it”, this is unconditional positive regard.
Unconditional positive regard comes from a place from within the teacher that puts the emphasise back on us, as the professional in the room, to be a part of the solution not part of the problem. A teacher’s own self-understanding is so very helpful in these situations. As an art teacher I always found it a challenge to deal with the child who was consistently stuck in negative thinking, for others your trigger might be the loud child who can’t stop moving or the child that refuses to work. We all have our triggers and with practice we can develop an awareness and develop the skills to regulate and respond and not react. Then you are able to bring young people into your calm. My own mindfulness practice helped me respond with awareness and compassion. The responsibility is on us, not the children.
As the school principal of Berry Street School I have the privilege of traveling between our four campuses which are remote from each other in Victoria. On one such visit I sat in a young graduate teacher’s class, to my left sat a boy who I know was born with partial foetal disorder, he is only 13 and has a drug addiction and finds it hard to self-regulate and learn. As the teacher began giving instruction it was clear that Johnny (not his real name) and his friend Jimmy (deidentified) were about to disrupt the learning of others. They were becoming heightened by the challenge that lay ahead, they had already predicted that they were going to be asked to do something they may not have the capacity to do yet. The wellbeing leader walked into the class without any announcement and simply sat next to Johnny and calmly spoke with him about anything but the learning and within minutes Johnny and Jimmy regulated into the calm space of the wellbeing leader, he was then able to guide the boys into the lesson. It was like watching a waltz unfold before my eyes.
Think about a time when you saw a child about to derail the lesson or their own learning, in that moment we have a choice – we can either discipline and confront the child or bring the child into our calm. The ability to regulate emotions is a skill and knowing that as the adult in the room we have the power to bring the child into our calm, over time, forms a positive relationship.
The science and research around how trauma is showing up in our schools and, more importantly, how we as teachers can shift our practice to support all young people has been integral to the development of what it means to be a trauma aware educator and school. There are many strategies we use throughout the day at Berry Street School to break down the barriers to learning for the children in our care such as predicable routines, focus plans, explicitly taught skills of wellbeing lessons, and brain breaks. Each strategy is woven into our trauma aware school pedagogy. Each strategy is prefaced with unconditional positive regard. Try it – the difference in your relationships with the young people in your class will be profound.
Links to Explore
Berry Street School – The Good Childhood Blog
Perry, B. D., & Szalavitz, M. (2017). The boy who was raised as a dog: And other stories from a child psychiatrist’s notebook–What traumatized children can teach us about loss, love, and healing. Basic Books.
Szalavitz, M., & Perry, B. D. (2011). Born for love: Why empathy is essential–and endangered. Harper.
Van der Kolk, B. A. (2015). The body keeps the score: Brain, mind, and body in the healing of trauma. Penguin Books.