Four Core Priorities for Trauma-Informed Distance Learning

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Trauma-informed teaching cannot be simplified to cookie-cutter practices. Take this example: a teacher worked with a student to develop a silent signal that he could use when he needed extra breaks during class. Hearing how well it worked, another teacher tried to apply the signal without first building a relationship with the student. It bombed. With the second teacher, the signal became “an angry ear tug instead of a trauma-informed ear tug,” said Alex Shevrin Venet, who shared this story during a recent webinar on trauma-informed distance learning.

Venet is a college professor and consultant who facilitates professional development on implementing trauma-informed practices. She offered her webinar after seeing that, amid the COVID-19 pandemic, “many teachers were reckoning with their own experiences of overwhelming stress and anxiety and for some this offered a new window into what it feels like for students who experience overwhelming stress regularly.” Registration reached its max capacity of 300 participants for all four sessions she offered.

As shown by the ear tug story, what trauma-informed teaching looks like varies for different teachers and students. For that reason, Venet has developed “four core priorities,” rather than “strategies,” for trauma-informed classrooms. During her webinars, she explained the four priorities and how to consider them in the context of distance learning.

Predictability

Trauma can create “intense feelings of unpredictability,” said Venet, and whether students have experienced trauma or not, COVID-19 has upended normal life for kids and adults alike. The loss of our usual habits can cause shock and grief, so one way educators and parents can prioritize predictability is by creating routines. Pennsylvania teacher Elizabeth Raff, for instance, posts a check-in video for her students at the same time every day.

In addition to creating new routines, Venet encouraged teachers to “notice what’s normal” and apply familiar practices to distance learning. With her undergraduate students, she has transferred their usual opening activity, “roses and thorns,” to a message board conversation. And just as teachers might normally schedule a calming activity such as read-aloud after lunch or recess, she recommended planning for dysregulation during distance learning. If a class is meeting through Google Meet, for instance, students may be anxious or excited to see their peers. Creating an opportunity to connect before jumping into instruction will help them be better able to engage in learning.

Flexibility

Because trauma involves a loss of control, inflexible teaching methods can trigger some students into survival mode. Venet encouraged teachers to notice what students need and collaborate with them to find routines, resources and strategies that will best support them. While physical schools provide some level of uniformity, at home the learning environment for each student looks different. Some students have limited Internet or computer access. Some may be responsible for caring for younger siblings while parents work. And some may be working jobs of their own. Venet advised teachers to ask what’s really important in education at this time. Does it matter if students are logging on at a certain time? Can grading be switched to a pass/fail system?

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When possible, teachers can ask parents for insights into what their children need right now. For some kids, school work gives them a healthy focus. For others, self-care may be the priority. Venet shared an adage for staying flexible: “there are different paths up the mountain.”

Connection

Relationships are key to resilience, “so anything that teachers can do to help foster relationships should be a priority right now,” said Venet. She’s heard from parents that some teachers are sending impersonal emails checking on whether students have logged into online learning. Such emails can have unintended consequences because people affected by trauma sometimes interpret neutral signals as negative. “I invite (educators) to be crystal, crystal clear with students that you miss them and you care about them,” Venet said. And because the coronavirus pandemic has disrupted many types of relationships, she recommended that teachers also consider how to help students connect with each other, with family and with their community.

Empowerment

Trauma takes power from people, so trauma-informed educators need to think critically about not reproducing that dynamic. Venet said that means dropping power struggles, such as the demands she’s seen that students wear certain clothes or sit in certain parts of their house during distance learning. Rigid expectations can create barriers to learning for trauma-affected students. Educators should focus instead on empowering students through shared decision-making and authentic choice. They also need to model consent by not taking pictures of Zoom calls or sharing students’ work without permission, Venet noted.

Empowerment applies to assignments, as well. “Now more than ever, kids don’t need to be doing fake work. They don’t need to be doing worksheets,” said Venet. “Give them problems to solve. Ask what they’re interested in. There’s so much data coming out right now for them to be working with. There’s so many stories coming out … Give them tools to think about ‘How am I affecting the world around me?’”

More advice for understanding trauma

In addition to the four priorities, Venet shared some reminders and cautions for teachers getting started with trauma-informed teaching.

  • Use trauma as “a lens, not a label” to understand students.
  • Trauma is a response, not an event. Do not assume that any particular child definitely did or did not experience something as trauma.
  • Although the COVID-19 pandemic is creating widespread anxiety, not all kids are experiencing it as stressful. Resources and relationships play a role.
  • For some students, school closures may be an escape from the stress or trauma caused by racism, bullying, not seeing themselves in the curriculum, test anxiety and other issues.
  • Social and emotional learning can help students, but the systemic issues that create stress and trauma also need to be addressed.
  • Trauma is not destiny. Healing is possible.