Questions for Trauma-Sensitive Decision-Making

Questions for Trauma-Sensitive Decision-Making

A shorter version of “Questions for Trauma-Sensitive Decision-Making” was included on the Attachment & Trauma Network’s blog in the fall of 2020. Read it to explore four questions that will help you make trauma-sensitive decisions during the pandemic and beyond.

The 2020/2021 school year during a pandemic is stressful for many school leaders, educators, families, and students. Hundreds of thousands have already died, and right now, in December of 2020, thousands more are dying each day. The grief is overwhelming and so is fear. This is true in relation to the virus and its effects but also the fallout that impacts every area of people’s lives, including school. For everybody, school is different (and changing) whether folks are engaged in face-to-face, distance, or hybrid learning.

Supporting Students and Staff After COVID-19

I wrote my new e-book Supporting Students and Staff After COVID-19 for administrators, teachers, instructional coaches, and educational support staff. It provides right now suggestions for soothing stress responses so that everyone in the elementary school setting can feel as safe as possible and thus, more ready for teaching and learning. Learn more by watching the video below.

In the book, readers will find discussion questions, suggestions for meeting the diverse needs of students, lessons that facilitate community-building, and more. Throughout, I encourage educators to focus on equity as well as their own self-care while building trauma-sensitive learning environments.

As you meet the needs of students between now and when a vaccine is readily available, continuing change and flexibility will be required more than ever. While no one can predict every issue or decision you will face, nor give you advice that will cover it all, I do want to help you, as an educator, make trauma-informed decisions. As such, I have put together four questions to encourage critical thinking. Each corresponds with one essential of building trauma-sensitive schools and thus, aligns with safety, connection, regulation, and learning. The questions are listed below. When making a decision, ask yourself all four questions. Then, if all answers are positive, proceed.

Here are the questions.

  1. Feel safe: Reflect, “Could this decision cause harm?”
  2. Be connected: Ask yourself, “Could it tend to people’s right now feelings and needs?”
  3. Get regulated: Consider, “Is it just right for promoting regulation?”
  4. Learn: Decide, “Will this help the student(s) learn?”

Let’s explore each question in more depth.

Could this decision cause harm?

The first question centers safety. Reflect on whether what you are thinking about doing could cause harm. If the answer is yes, meaning the decision could cause harm, don’t do it. If the answer is no, which is a positive response, proceed to the next question. For example, an instructor might consider assigning the following writing prompt in hopes of encouraging positive thinking during a difficult time.

“The best thing about the pandemic has been…”

As you think about this idea, start by imagining a worst-case scenario. For example, pretend that a student in your classroom experienced the death of a loved one due to COVID-19, but no one at school knows because they didn’t want to seem different from peers. Reflect on whether the above writing prompt for that student could cause harm. The answer? It absolutely could be harmful because the pandemic caused suffering, loss, and potential trauma, while the writing prompt makes light of the situation. A grieving student may feel more alone, overwhelmed, and perhaps unsafe at school if required to consider anything positive about their own tragic experience. The assignment is insensitive and could cause harm so it shouldn’t be assigned for anyone.

Instead, offer writing prompt choices, including those that have nothing to do with the pandemic. Then, if a student decides to write about the pandemic or even something good that came from sheltering at home, that’s okay because they made a choice for themselves. What you shouldn’t do is require assignments that would unnecessarily trigger an overwhelming grief or trauma response. This is especially important because teachers won’t always know who has experienced adversity in their classrooms and who hasn’t, nor are they entitled to such information. Assume trauma is in your school (because it is) and make decisions accordingly.

Will it tend to people’s right now feelings and needs?

The next question emphasizes the importance of connected relationships where adults are sensitive to students. To put it another way, educators must work together to notice and meet the needs of one another, their students, and families. Of course, do this without triggering unnecessary stress responses.

Educators must work together to notice and meet the needs of one another, their students, and families.

An educator, for example, might think about avoiding any discussion related to COVID-19 because they worry about triggering a grief or trauma response related to the pandemic. That decision, however, wouldn’t tend to people’s right now feelings and needs. Rather, it ignores them. Adults and youth benefit from opportunities to share as little or as much as they want to about how they’re doing in a supportive environment, especially during times of big stress or change. With that in mind, invite, but don’t force, students to share what they want to as part of open ended check-ins. This doesn’t mean you necessarily have to ask about the pandemic or how students feel about it, but you can invite students to share what they feel or need in general. From there, each person decides what they want to disclose (if anything). Find easy-to-use check-ins for children in my new ebook.

Is it just right for promoting regulation?

This question is all about regulation. It requires considering whether something you might do in the classroom could be too much or not enough for students. Specifically, think critically about whether a proposed decision might cause dysregulation that could overwhelm a student and interfere with their day. This isn’t always easy to predict, especially when different people may need different things.

Never mentioning COVID-19 at school is an extreme case of not enough. Trying to help students process their emotions in the classroom setting is likely too much. This is especially true when the pandemic isn’t over yet. What’s just right is probably in between. Read my book to learn how to incorporate just right SEL lessons that invite, but don’t force, children to explore their feelings and needs. Each lesson contains downloads, offers regulation strategies, and can be tailored to meet varied needs. As always, I encourage you to connect children with support personnel if they need more than what you, as classroom teacher, can provide by yourself.

Never mentioning COVID-19 at school is an extreme case of not enough. Trying to help students process their emotions in the classroom setting is likely too much. This is especially true when the pandemic isn’t over yet. What’s just right is probably in between.

Will this help students learn?

The last question entails deciding if what you’re about to do will help children access an appropriate education. If your decision will help students feel safe, connect with others in a healthy way, and get regulated, then it likely helps them get closer to learning. If it won’t help youth get ready for eventual learning, change course. I shared oodles of ideas to help you help kids learn in the book. Each community building lesson, for example, includes career connections so your students are not only thinking of their right now needs. I wanted them to experience hope for the future too.

If your decision will help students feel safe, connect with others in a healthy way, and get regulated, then it likely helps them get closer to learning.

Proceed when you can answer each of the four questions positively, meaning you won’t be causing harm and will be tending to students’ feelings and needs in ways that foster connection, regulation ,and learning. As you go, evaluate the effectiveness of your actions. Then, adjust what you’re doing when necessary.

Always remember that what you do as a trauma-sensitive educator matters. How you go about making and carrying out decisions , however, matters even more. That doesn’t mean you need to be perfect. Just be thoughtful, intentional, and honest when you realize your impact isn’t what you intended it to be. You’re doing the best you can so give yourself and others grace–all while remembering that you’re human, not a machine. Like everybody else, you too are trying to navigate a difficult school year, during a pandemic. As always, your feelings and needs matter too.

Always remember that what you do as a trauma-sensitive educator matters. How you go about making and carrying out decisions , however, matters even more.

To Learn More…

  1. Read this Brookes Publishing Q&A about about my new book.
  2. Explore an excerpt from my new ebook here or purchase it here.
  3. Learn tips I wrote for educators and parents as well as school leaders over on the Brookes Publishing blog. Additionally, watch my Brookes Publishing webinars about helping stressed educators and supporting stressed students.
  4. Purchase trauma-sensitive post cards from Ms. Jen’s Shop that you can send or give to students to remind them how much you care during stressful times. 
  5. To learn more about becoming a trauma-sensitive educator, please also consider attending one of my trainings. Come by yourself or better yet, with a team for an interactive learning experience. While all seminars are online (for now), we use break-out rooms to facilitate small group discussions so you receive support, encouragement, and feedback. Come to learn practical strategies to improve practices as trauma-sensitive educator and leave feeling filled up. Click here for more information and to register today. Or, email me info@msjenalexander.com to inquire about how I could facilitate a training for your school or district.

Let’s connect!

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