Psychological Safety Required for Deeper Learning
This post is by Carrie Craven, Education Specialist Program Manager, Center for Research on Equity and Innovation, High Tech High Graduate School of Education.
When Jeff Duncan Andrade spoke at Deeper Learning 2018, I was struck by his lived experience, research, and daily work. He pulls together profound learnings about trauma, chronic-stress, and the responsibility we all share to support our young people better. His powerful stories propelled many conversations on my campus, including ones centered on what it actually looks like to create learning spaces that nurture mental health.
Studies suggest that up to 89 percent of US adults have experienced a potentially traumatic event, while one in five adolescents nationwide have a diagnosable mental health condition. I recall one young student, acting cranky and exhausted, had, the night before, been plopped in his parent's car to drive down to the scene of his uncle's murder. It is no wonder that he did not arrive at school that day ready for class. In light of realities like this, we must build trauma-informed spaces for youth to grow and learn.
Good teaching asks students to engage in challenging cognitive tasks. Since rigorous challenges involve a certain level of stress, they can prove especially difficult for students dealing with anxiety or symptoms of post- or chronic traumatic stress. In fact, when activated, our body's stress-response system makes it nearly impossible to think and communicate in the ways this type of work requires.
To put it simply, the amygdala is the brain's alarm system and when it is on high alert our stress response turns on: heart rates increase, muscles tense... our bodies prepare for fight, flight, or freeze. Essentially, our brains reduce support for any function that is not essential to our immediate survival. Thus, during this time, it becomes difficult if not impossible to access the prefrontal cortex, and the higher-order-thinking skills that happen there. Students experiencing unusually high levels of stress often have a difficult time accessing words to describe or explain what is going on. This may be interpreted as shutting down or defiance, when it is actually a neurological response to a perceived threat.
What Educators Can Do
Get to Know Your Students as Individuals, and Accept Variation
- Some students seek more frequent praise; some need more physical space, as touch can trigger an automatic stress-response; some need quiet, while others crave near-constant sensory stimulus.
- You don't always need to know the personal details of what's going on for a child at home, or what they have endured in the past. As Ross Greene's common sense refrain reminds us, "kids do well when they can."
Provide Predictable Structures and Routines
- Children experiencing chronic stress are all too familiar with chaos. Predictable routines can provide a sense of safety. Start the day with a morning meeting where you greet one another and review the day's agenda. Use visual and auditory signals when it's time to transition.
- Structure activities with clear directions and expectations. When expectations aren't met, follow through according to pre-established rules. Issue consequences in a non-emotional way that restates the expectation. For example, "We keep our hands to ourselves. Take a two-minute break in the back of class." Although some students with trauma histories have a hard time regulating their responses to consequences, consistent reinforcement for desired and undesired behaviors helps.
Don't Take Things Personally
- Many young people have been harmed by the very adults who were supposed to protect them. Why should they trust us after just a few months? Remind yourself it's not about you. These children, even more than others, need to see that they are welcomed every day, even if they blew up the day before. Therapists call this "unconditional positive regard," and while it can sometimes be quite difficult, this consistent kindness is immensely powerful.
Don't Layer on Consequences in the Midst of a Blow-up
- If a kid seems "out of control," they probably are! The psychology word for this is dysregulation. Consequences can come later, but in a moment of extreme behaviors, what the child needs is safety and help calming down. Sometimes talking and providing rationale only adds fuel to the fire; if a student is struggling to access the rational part of her brain, trying to reason with her just won't work. Model calm, take deep breaths, limit the audience, ask for support. Crisis prevention and intervention (CPI) training includes some excellent strategies for de-escalating students.
Engage as Partners with Families
- Don't assume parents are "to blame" for whatever has happened to a child who demonstrates challenging behaviors. Communicate proactively and focus on how you can build a strong relationship based on respect and collaboration. Except in very rare cases, the child's parent is not going to change. A teacher can sometimes help a child and parent see one another in a new light. Strong bonds with a caregiver have been shown to be a protective factor supporting resilience in youth who experience potentially traumatic events.
Support Mental Health Services in School
- Encourage your administration to retain quality school counselors and social workers (the American Counseling Association recommends a ratio of 1 counselor per 250 students), conduct universal screenings, and provide services during the school day.
- Support in-school evidence-based trauma supports such as Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (TF-CBT) and Cognitive Behavioral Intervention for Trauma in Schools (CBITS).
- Be flexible about students missing class to get mental health support. Research shows that students are significantly more likely to get treatment at school than out of it, and Maslow reminds us that attending to humans' sense of safety is essential to help children build esteem and higher-order cognitive skills.
Take Care of Yourself
- Model healthy social-emotional behavior. Show and verbalize feelings when appropriate, especially to model how to cope with frustration, disappointment, and hurt. Saying, "I am feeling hurt by what just happened. I need a few minutes before we talk more," can be a powerful demonstration of managing strong emotions.
- Process hard days with a colleague, friend, or a counselor. Many schools offer Employee Assistance Programs that include 6-8 free counseling sessions. We must take care of ourselves in order to take care of others.
At the end of his speech, Duncan Andrade shared the Mayan idea of "In lak'ech," or, "You are the other me." When working with youth, he implored, "The goal is not to fix them, the goal is to find yourself in them."