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October 2015 | Volume 73 | Number 2
Emotionally Healthy Kids
For many troubled students, adults have represented danger and uncertainty. Let's change that.
The Harry Potter books introduced readers to mountain trolls, huge and volatile creatures who roam the landscape, unable to reason with humans, solving all conflicts by knocking people unconscious with their heavy clubs. You don't want to run into a mountain troll.
It's helpful to remember that image when we consider how our most emotionally precarious students have often experienced adults. For many of these students, adults have been like mountain trolls: unpredictable, dangerous, powerful creatures that walk through their lives, seemingly incapable of listening and unable to recognize human emotions. Many emotionally fragile students who withdraw or act out in class may be victims of pervasive and often undocumented abuse. They've lived through such abuse year after year, leading to what Bessel van der Kolk (2014) labels developmental trauma disorder, cloaked in various diagnoses. No wonder these students don't trust us. They enter the arena of the classroom truly guarded.
Some might characterize such students as having a closed mindset (Dweck, 2006) because they seem averse to academic risk taking. Some might label them slow, disorganized, monosyllabic, or resistant. I urge us to think of them instead as students who challenge us. Our task with them is to identify ourselves as the antithesis of mountain trolls: predictable, organized, reasonable, and able to listen.
Gaining vulnerable students' trust is a baseline necessity, something we must do daily—even minute to minute—because there are no tricks or shortcuts. As the saying goes, if it's been a long walk into the woods, it's a long walk out of the woods (Benson, 2014). Our abused students are capable of taking that walk with us, however tentatively, through the landscape of our academic classes. At first, they may just watch us with other students to verify that we are safe guides into learning. Then they'll join us—first lagging behind, then at our side, and in the best cases, pulling us along. Educators can engender this journey in every moment, from kindergarten through 12th grade, in academic settings. Guiding children like this isn't just the job of therapists or counselors; it's something we can all do. Our opportunities to enhance or diminish students' trust are mundane and innumerable.
Here are four tried-and-true actions educators can take (or, in one case, not take) to foster students' trust—actions that supervisors, evaluators, and staff coaches would do well to support.
Stand at the door to your classroom as kids walk in. Offer each a handshake; a fist bump; a hug (for the little ones); or at least a simple greeting ("Hello, Marie") and eye contact. For those most in need of trust, set aside two more seconds and add a personal touch: "I like that hat"; "How's your little sister?"; "Glad you made it today."
Teachers working in teams should track "significant conversations," making sure that one adult on the team has reached out to every at-risk student at least once a week to say more than hello. Given that there are scores of adults in a school, the expectation that at least one adult will have a significant conversation with a student at least once a week is a low threshold to meet—well within our capacity and incredibly important.
The practice of noticing students and reflecting what we see back to them ("Dave, you look tired today"), even when we can't do more than that, falls within this set of actions. In the same way teachers are mandated reporters of abuse, we can be "mandated noticers" of students' moods. Of course, it's crucial for every student to have one adult that he or she feels safe to seek out, but all teachers can take a few seconds to quietly reflect back to an at-risk student the obvious turmoil, confusion, or joy that child is displaying. A lot of student behavior is a way of getting us to notice, so notice them first.
Teachers often conclude a lecture or set of directions with, "Any questions?"—and if no one responds within two seconds, they move right along. What happens in the mind of traumatized students (and others who process information slowly) in that two-second time frame? They have to consider whether they have a question (confused kids may have several); organize their confusion into a question (how's that for a challenge!); and scan the social conditions of the room to make sure they won't be shamed if they pose their question in front of everyone.
All this can't be done in two seconds. Speed literally creates shutdowns, resistance, and acting out behavior. When we slow it all down by asking our question and then mentally counting to 15, we communicate that the class belongs to everyone. The first time you wait those 15 seconds may seem like an eternity. That alone is proof of our need to slow down because we can certainly afford that small portion of time in the service of our greater mission. You might use the time to scan faces, make eye contact, and smile—communicating that you are anything but a mountain troll.
To be seen as trusted, predictable, organized adults, we need to reliably do what we say we will. We need to follow our part of the classroom rules. So we shouldn't have so many rules that we end up either ignoring the rules, randomly enforcing them, or becoming handcuffed to them all day long in an endless exercise of consistency that makes our job feel like we're playing Whack-A-Mole in the arcade, scrutinizing every possible place a rule might be broken.
For instance, we shouldn't ask students to be absolutely quiet for very long or very often. It's just not possible for them to hold up their end of that expectation. We'll end up giving some students a harsh look, others a "Shhh," and others the full force of our frustration, with all the consequences we can impose.
Have a few important rules about the significant safety and respect needs of your class. This is as important for traumatized quiet students as for traumatized students who act out—and for every child who needs to feel safe in a crowded room. Follow through on those rules rigidly because they are rules. Know the steps you have to take to enforce them and make sure school administrators know the part they need to play.
Let everything else be a guideline. Work within the child's zone of proximal development. Gauge the climate of the group to assess whether a troublesome behavior might disappear if you ignore it; whether the students involved need a brief reminder; whether this is a teachable moment, a time to practice skills that students need to have reinforced; or whether you need to call home. Determine whether the situations and the personalities involved will allow that kind of intervention to succeed. And do call home with good news, too!
Our most troubled and troubling students will often surprise us with their reactions to the standard give and take of a class. You can't have a rule to predict everything, and you shouldn't. Respond respectfully in the moment, and resist the impulse to come up with a new rule—although for a particular student, you might develop an individual behavior plan.
In medicine, the motto is, "Above all else, do no harm." In education it must be, "Never shame a student." We can discipline students, correct and coach them, and set high expectations—all without shaming them in front of their peers. When we forget that absolute standard, every student in the class will know that he or she risks being the recipient of our adult frustration.
Students who are already traumatized often have little capacity left to manage adult power. Many traumatized students will try to disappear. Many will take few risks. Sadly, many will behave in a way that provokes our shaming because that's the kind of adult attention they have become accustomed to seeking.
Adults and children have different needs, but the need to be treated respectfully in front of one's peers transcends age. Think about how you would like to be treated by the principal at a staff meeting when he or she isn't pleased with your performance. You would never consider it good practice for the principal to yell at you across the room, hold up your evaluation as an example of what not to do, call on you when you're obviously preoccupied and unprepared to answer, or snap "No" when you make a request.
Just as we would never forget being humiliated in a staff meeting, students never forget shaming moments Instead, walk over to the student whose behavior is difficult and give redirection. Sometimes, just your presence is enough to alter the student's behavior.
Students with emotional and mental health problems aren't bad people, and they aren't beyond redemption. In too many cases, their anxiety around powerful adults is a well-earned outcome of their life experiences. By committing ourselves to being predictable, organized, reasonable, and able to listen, teachers may represent these students' best hope to grow into their better selves.
It's hard work at times, and we have to hang in—often through many reiterations of the same lesson (Benson, 2012). The good news is that we can establish ourselves as touchstones for all those better selves in our students—in so many ways, every day, every hour.
Benson, J. (2012). 100 repetitions. Educational Leadership, 71(2), 71–78.
Benson, J. (2014). Hanging In: Strategies for Teaching the Students Who Challenge Us Most. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.
Dweck, C. (2006). Mindset. New York: Ballantine Books.
van der Kolk, B. (2014). The body keeps the score. New York: Viking.
Jeffrey Benson is an education consultant, coach, and author with many years of experience in K–12 education. He is the author of Hanging In—Strategies for Teaching the Students Who Challenge Us Most (ASCD, 2014) and Ten Steps to Managing Change in Schools (ASCD, 2015).
Copyright © 2015 by ASCD
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