When it comes to student trauma, teachers are often in a unique and challenging position. Teachers play an important role in the lives of the children they serve, and many will have an immediate and lasting effect on students who have had a recent traumatic experience, whether they want to or not. That’s a unique situation. At the same time, teachers are rarely the adults who are ultimately charged with repairing student trauma, and that’s a challenging situation.
Fortunately, when there are unique and challenging situations in your workplace, CPI training can help!
The Nonviolent Crisis Intervention® (NCI™) Training program from CPI encourages teachers to look at these situations as opportunities rather than as challenges. Behaviors that can be categorized as “Anxiety,” “Defensive,” or “Risk Behavior” each can be challenging for sure, and students who have been through traumatic events are more likely to allow these behaviors to manifest. However, with the right tools in the toolbox, there are many ways teachers can help de-escalate these behaviors and leave a lasting positive impact on students who have been through challenging situations. NCI™ Training provides us with these tools.
When I consider the young people I have worked with in the past, and some of the high levels of trauma they had experienced at a young age, it is unfortunate that so many examples come to mind. But I’d like to think I made at least a small, positive difference with each of these students.
Let me tell you about three of these students: Edgar, Tiffany, and Rachel (not their real names).
When Edgar came to me, I was told that he came from a broken home where the father was verbally and physically abusive. And while Edgar had avoided much of the physical abuse that was too often directed at his mother, he still witnessed it and was traumatized as a result. Importantly, it didn’t seem that Edgar had any behaviors that manifested due to his trauma. He was quiet and kept to himself, avoiding conversation, and trying to blend in like many students do.
Being the positive guy that I am, I was confident that my personality would earn his trust, and I assumed I was getting through to him whether his words or body language reflected it or not. Maybe I was, but none of my prior behavior seemed to matter on a day when I raised my voice at another student in the class. Whether it was the volume of my voice or the intensity of my body language, Edgar walked out of my class that day. He didn’t yell back at me or cause a scene, but his behavior certainly communicated something.
First, it’s important to note that the student to whom I raised my voice likely needed me to raise my voice. Young people often see me as a nice guy, and in school, that sometimes gets mistaken for someone who doesn’t care about rules. I did, of course, and this student was consistently challenging my expectations.
But this story isn’t about him. Instead, it’s about the student who walked out of my room that day.
Edgar first went to find a quiet space and then went to his counselor’s office, where she escorted him back to me. The counselor knew I would do the right thing. I didn’t claim that raising my voice at one of his peers was the right thing to do, nor did I respond angrily that he left my room or shared his experience with another adult. Instead, we walked to a table in our nearby commons, and I apologized to him for raising my voice. In the moment, my NCI™ training came racing into my head. I knew I needed to alter my approach to being as supportive as possible. I used the softest, most supportive voice that I could and used the opportunity to sit next to him as a chance to be a little vulnerable myself. He needed to see that I could accept criticism and convey remorse. He needed to see that I could respect his past situation. With time, he saw my consistent respect for his needs push me to handle challenging situations in class with a softer volume, body language, and tone. This is sometimes what you must do when dealing with student trauma in your classroom.
Having recently lost her father, Tiffany was searching for something. Her trauma caused her to convey almost constant anxiety. Her world had been rocked and she was searching for answers and sustainability. Many people had been kind to her recently, but I couldn’t be certain if any of them were truly willing to dig in and learn what was going on inside her head.
There is a featured activity in Module 3 of NCI™ Training that encourages “listening with empathy.” This is an important activity because truly listening can be challenging when the pace of the school day is trying to pull a teacher in multiple directions. Two key pieces that I like to remember from this activity are to “allow silence for reflection” and to “paraphrase what you understand.” I believe these tips ended up being critical to my support of Tiffany.
Tiffany didn’t need me to solve her problems or even to fix the trauma she was going through. I was her language arts teacher, not her therapist. I wasn’t trained to be her therapist. However, she often found me watching the hallways before school and sought my attention. And what I was trained to do was to be supportive when a student had anxiety manifesting itself in multiple ways. I listened as Tiffany explained her mind to me. She had fears that her mother would suffer a similarly tragic death to that of her father, and she had an overall perception that bad things were going to happen locally and around the world. I couldn’t fix any of these things, and I couldn’t promise her those things wouldn’t happen. However, I could “listen with empathy” and make enough of a difference that Tiffany’s anxiety was eased for the 90 minutes she was in my class each day.
Perhaps the most challenging example of student trauma I have chosen to discuss here was Rachel, because her behaviors went well beyond that of anxiety. Rachel had a vibrant personality and liked to command the attention of others. She also liked to do things her way, so when a teacher had expectations and a schedule, she didn’t always like it. She made the first few months of school very, very tough.
A foster child, Rachel had been passed from one house to the next and enrolled in several different schools. If she wasn’t threatening to get me fired, she was throwing objects to the ground in disgust, raising her voice, or—on one occasion—putting a hole in the wall. Rachel didn’t understand the impact her anger had on the other students in our classroom. There was a tenseness that followed her around. Other students were scared of her. She also had a habit of removing items from my classroom before I caught her doing so. There were consequences for her actions, but none of that mattered. I wasn’t helping her work through her inconsistent, traumatic past. Nothing was improving.
In conversations with her counselor and with my administrator, I learned that she might subconsciously be searching for a way to be remembered by someone. . . or by anyone. She didn’t really remember her birth parents, though she was with at least one of them in her youth, and she had told her counselor that she didn’t think they remembered her or cared to. Knowing this story encouraged me to take a very proactive approach to the remainder of the school year.
The CPI Crisis Development ModelSM encourages us to respond to “Defensive” behaviors with a “Directive” response, and I had been doing this. However, in those first few months of the school year, I had neglected to provide any real “Therapeutic Rapport” following her incidents. When Rachel moved beyond a crisis event, she was almost always in an office receiving a disciplinary consequence. But she should have been with me. I was the teacher for whom her behavior had escalated. I needed to figure out what this behavior was trying to communicate.
The NCI™ course provides us with the COPING ModelSM, designed to push us to have true restorative conversations with our students. This model makes it easy to figure out why a behavior may have occurred and how to better cope with specific emotions in the future. However, a teacher can’t do this with a student who is angry. Restorative conversation can be powerful if it comes from a place of supportiveness.
In the previous examples of how I worked with Edgar and with Tiffany, I shared how I altered my approach to be more supportive. Providing Therapeutic Rapport is like this, but a teacher must do it, even when he or she was the recipient of negative behavior just moments earlier. With Rachel, I had to find a way to be in a “Supportive Stance” where I could be mindful of having nonthreatening body language and communicating respect while we talked. I needed to ask questions and listen with empathy, even though she may have called me some offensive names just moments before. I didn’t condone her behaviors, but I didn’t call them out more than I had to. We were searching for solutions, and I was part of her process. Eventually, Rachel learned that I was willing to provide her the rapport that she needed.
With each of these examples, I learned that consistency was critical to my ability to positively impact the student trauma I was dealing with. Rachel needed to know that I would consistently try to understand what her behavior was communicating, that I was going to be her teacher at least until the end of the year, and that I would remember her. And though her name isn’t really Rachel, I do clearly remember her! My other two examples of student trauma also needed consistency in my actions (Edgar) and in the time I was willing to give (Tiffany).
As teachers, we don’t always feel well-equipped to handle student trauma. However, if you consider all the skills highlighted in your NCI™ training, I bet you find you have the tools you need to be a positive in the lives of students who have been through way too much negative.
Kevin Mabie, Ed.D. is a Global Professional Instructor at Crisis Prevention Institute, and an educator with over 20 years of experience as a high school teacher and administrator. Dr. Mabie also facilitates trainings for the National School Reform Faculty.