student success

Here's How Teachers Can Help All Students Thrive, Even After Trauma

Fall has always been my favorite season. Having the opportunity to join hundreds of educators at the recent LEAP InnovatED Summit, just days before most students return to school, reminded me of exactly why. The fall holds hope and potential for the school year to come and the new relationships that will be built. 

Teachers flooded into the conference room for my presentation, eager to enhance their own purpose statements about why they work in education, as well as to share their hopes for the upcoming school year. As teachers prepare for the journey ahead, students will arrive in their classrooms with backpacks full of their own life experiences—positive, negative and sometimes traumatic. 

At Turnaround for Children, we work to ensure that educators realize the power they carry to be brain builders in children’s lives by showing them how context—the relationships, environments and experiences in a child’s life—shapes development. Supportive, buffering relationships with adults can prevent and even reverse the effects of traumatic experiences on learning.

We know that each child has limitless potential. By creating a safe and supportive environment, and by being attuned and responsive to each student’s individual, holistic needs, educators can play a critical role in students’ healthy development and learning.

They can either reinforce a student’s past experiences with school, whether negative or positive, or they can unlock a new way of being and interacting with caring adults. It is an enormous responsibility, but intentional strategies and interactions can pave the way for meaningful teacher-student relationships.

Lay The Foundation for A Great School Year

Here are two quick and easy strategies educators can embrace to lay the foundation for truly transformational adult-student relationships. The first can be used with all students. The second is a strategy to be used with a student who might need additional support. 

Journaling or Conversation Notebooks

Teachers use journaling in the classroom in a variety of ways that can support relationship building. Here are some ideas to spark your thinking: 

  1. Students journal freely or respond to prompts and the teacher selects a few each day to respond to personally.
  2. The class may have a shared journal that is brought home by individual students on a rotating basis each weekend. Students can read the previous journal entry and write their own. The teacher should be included in this rotation.
  3. Students may utilize a “conversation notebook,” in which they jot questions or topics of choice that the teacher will address.

The Secret Code

  1. Identify a student who is struggling to self-regulate when interacting with peers.
  2. With the student, identify a secret code that can be used to communicate that the student wants a break or needs to talk to you.
  3. Or, use the code to communicate that the teacher wants to talk with the student later.
  4. Practice the code and celebrate when it is used correctly.

Remember that no matter a student’s start in life or the obstacles they may have faced, science tells us we can design schools and classrooms—starting with each educator—that nurture the development of the whole child. By doing this, we can unleash the potential in every child.

Photo courtesy of the author.
Amy Nicholson is Director of Integrated Program Strategy at Turnaround for Children, a nonprofit organization that translates the science of learning and development into tools, practices and systems for educators to help all students thrive, particularly children who have been impacted by adversity.

Join the Movement