“People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care”- Theodore Roosevelt
Some of the greatest minds of our times have touched on the idea that there is value in being known and that relationships are what’s needed to build trust. This messaging is apparent in politics as “we the people” prefer to be connected with our political candidates and know that our interests are aligned, but more importantly that we are visible to them. The same messaging has proven true in literature as evidenced by the fact that people across the globe flock to writers and artists who make them feel seen, who make them feel connected, and show them that experiences they identify with are so valuable and worth sharing that they’ve been written in a book and shared with the world. Let’s not forget hip hop culture…. The concepts of trust, loyalty, and authenticity are at the crux of meaningful “family-like” relationships and those values are engrained in the music. Our young people see that and long for that experience of really and truly being known, accepted, and celebrated for their strength.
There is widespread agreement that when children are connected to trustworthy adults in the school environment who welcome the whole student, the student feels safe and as a result is more motivated to engage in academic exercise.
So what do we mean when we say the whole student or the whole story?
The message, captured by some pretty influential people is simple…if educational systems expect students to excel academically they have to be willing to invest not only in relationships that motivate, inspire, and foster growth, but they also have to invest in the development of social-emotional curriculum that compliments the existing academic requirements.
In 2017, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundations reported that nationally, approximately 46% (roughly 36 million) youth under the age of 18 years old report at least one Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE). This means that 36 million young people in our schools, neighborhoods, and homes have been exposed to some form of abuse or toxic environmental stressor. And so welcoming the whole student means that we cannot afford to ignore these very important aspect of the student’s story, instead we must acknowledge any history of trauma and adversity and create environments that are trauma informed and culturally responsive.
Traumatic experiences are events, series of events, or a set of circumstances that are experienced as physically or emotionally harmful or life-threatening. The individual may experience the event directly, witness the event, or learn of the event in other ways. Traumatic events and the reactions our young people have to them are subjective and developmentally bound. This means that the severity of the response depends a great deal on the individual’s developmental stage, internal and external resources, cultural influences, and other relevant history.
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration created The 4 R’s as guiding principles for all people-serving systems to ensure that steps are taken to implement policies and procedures universally, to create trauma-informed environments:
1st REALIZE: SAMHSA states a program, organization, or system that is trauma-informed realizes the widespread impact of trauma and understands potential paths for recovery. Traumatic experiences can cause delayed achievement of developmental milestones and negatively impact social and behavioral functioning. If students are not in environments where these things are acknowledged and replacement skills are taught, they may continue to struggle with processing information in social and academic settings. This places them at risk for depression, anxiety, PTSD, and other health complications as they enter adulthood.
2nd RECOGNIZE: Educational systems must recognize the signs and symptoms of trauma in students, families, staff, and others involved within their system.
3rd RESPOND: Educational systems should respond to their awareness of the signs and symptoms by fully integrating knowledge about trauma into policies, procedures, and practices.
4th RESIST: Systems should actively resist re-traumatization.
Educational systems can honor SAMHSA’s 4 R’s by encouraging teachers to genuinely connect with students and incorporate the experiences of their youth into lesson plans. To create healing environments teachers must foster attunement. Attunement is the first step towards knowing students and means that educators make an effort to connect to their own emotions and that of the students in the care so that they are better positioned to respond to behaviors in a way that meets the underlying needs. To practice attunement in the classroom teachers may:
- Identify how the student is feeling
- Consider how you are feeling in response to the way the student is showing his/her feelings
- Try to show understanding of how the student is feeling or at least curiosity about why the student is feeling a certain emotion
It is not necessary to agree with student’s feelings or behavior but it is necessary to attempt to understand it.
When attempts are made to understand the students full story and strengths psychological safety is created in the classroom. The concept of psychological safety transcends physical safety and taps into the idea that students feel emotionally safe and able to manage challenging feelings in the classroom environment. However, psychological safety also suggests that if for some reason the student is not able to cope, they trust that someone in the school environment is available to them to show vulnerability and rely on for additional support in getting grounded. Teachers can foster attunement and psychological safety by:
- Expressing value for the individual and his/her beliefs
- Striving to build trust through respectful interactions
- Providing opportunities for youth to have personal control, exercise self-determination, and collaborate with others to make decisions
Environments that lack connection and psychological safety are often chaotic and absolutely present youth with trauma triggers that can cause re-traumatization. Trauma-informed and culturally responsive education systems present a stark contrast because they provide teachers and students with consistent attempts for attunement in the classroom and promote connectedness. When connectedness is established there is room for children to thrive. There are increase opportunities to become “known” and everyone (including teachers) feels more fulfilled because they are engaged in meaningful experiences. Educators are then able to leverage the connections and relationships they’ve been establishing from the start to engage students in problem solving and development of social-emotional skills. Learning new skills and having the opportunity to make active choices is what support youth resilience and sense of competency or self-esteem.
If you have the desire to address the challenging behaviors of a youth in your life but want to do so in a way that goes beyond punitive action, consider this activity:
- Identifying 2 2 challenging behaviors of the youth
- Consider what need is being communicated when those behaviors are present
- Identify 2 alternative ways to respond to those behaviors that will help the child learn a different way to communicate needs
BRIDGE Trauma-Informed Culturally-Responsive (TICR) Program from iOpening Enterprises (iOE) is designed for teachers and school staff to develop classroom strategies that promote students’ social-emotional health and academic achievement while supporting staff wellness. Structured for staff in elementary and secondary schools and available through on-site and virtual models, these programs allow schools to scale learning and build internal capacity for using a whole-child approach to education.
Contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org or 310-694-6008 to find out how professional development training from iOpening Enterprises gives educators the skills they need to help students.