Teachers are not new to the idea that students’ life experiences have great influence on their school engagement, presentation and achievement. Recent advances in trauma theory and accompanying neuroscience have allowed us to literally see the impact of adverse experiences on the developing brain and body.
We are, therefore, also starting to understand how to heal and correct adverse childhood experiences in very concrete ways through our own choices, behavior, and relationships with students. Below are nine (yes, 9, not 10, you can handle this!) ways you can concretely and creatively begin to create a trauma-informed classroom community during the first days and weeks of the school year.
Routine and Ritual: From the first moments and days, introducing routines and rituals with you students creates a sense of order, structure and belonging. It sends the message that even though they are unsure and maybe nervous, you, the grown-up, has this under control.
Flexibility: But within routines and rituals, consider what’s negotiable and non-negotiable--and then consider again. Your students will also have really good ideas about what works and what doesn’t, what’s fun and what’s not. Don’t get attached to your perfect day or week or ‘pinterested’ bulletin board or team building activity. Stay connected to the feeling and energy of your new classroom community.
Acceptance: We talk a lot about acceptance and inclusivity in our classrooms these days, but consider how your value of acceptance is communicated over the first few days of school. Some students will love and maybe even appreciate your beautiful classroom design and awesome “getting-to-know-you” activities, but some may not. Some students won’t be ready to engage at the level required by the activities or don’t like the team mascot you’ve chosen for your new classroom community. Be sure to be accepting of these students, and their thoughts and feelings, as well.
Movement: So your students have probably had one of two versions of summer break: 1) Running, playing, yelling, riding bikes, staying up late with friends or family, and relative chaos (this would be my kids’ version) OR 2) Days spent inside watching television, playing games, using social media and following grown-ups around while they have work, errands to run, appointments, etc. In either case, students will need to be re-acclimated to school-centered movement. Give them time, and maybe even instruction on how to move and be still within the classroom and school building. And make sure they get lots of time to move their bodies BIG. Running, lifting, climbing, swinging-- there are a lot of adrenaline and other body chemicals to metabolize those first few days and weeks.
Aesthetics: Let’s face it, one of the reasons teachers become teachers is to have some sense of control over their own little piece of the world (I know it was part of my teacher daydreams!). Think about the impact and messaging you wish to have with your classroom and aesthetics. And know that for students who are overstimulated already or hyper aware of their surroundings, what’s just right for you may be too much for them. Leave space in your classroom for sensory “breath of fresh air.” In other words, leave some blank space. This will also provide the opportunity for student contribution to the physical environment.
Fun: Build in time for fun, for the sake of fun. Fun, play and joy are human needs (yes, all humans). Students know if you’re trying to put one over on them by disguising a review of multiplication facts with a game of catch. There will be time for review and assessment. Allow time for student- and teacher-led fun because you know, as a master teacher, groups of people bind more quickly through play (and maybe a little competition).
Form, Storm and Norm: One cool thing about trauma theory (you didn’t know it was cool?!), is that it continued to disseminate just how alike, and therefore predictable, all humans are. This goes for groups of humans as well. When groups come together for any significant length of time, the group tends to experience three stages: Forming (getting to know you), Storming (who goes where and with whom) and Norming (sigh of relief). As a master trauma-informed teacher, you can plan for and be informed by these very normal and healthy stages of classroom community development. This is even more important to keep in mind as students continue to join your classroom community throughout the year.
Parents and Families: If possible, send communication (email, letter, blog entry, video) home introducing yourself and some of the things you are excited about for the upcoming school year. Some of your students won’t have a consistent mailing address on file, but most families are on social media today. We, as teachers, can take advantage of this. Whether you can get to them before the first day or not, be sure to spend time during the first days and weeks of school getting to know your students’ “home people”, who they are living with and changes they may have had or expect to have in their household, and giving families information about you, to whatever extent you are comfortable with. Always be conscious of language like “families”, “parents”, “house”, etc. These terms do not apply to some students. Words like “people at home”, “your grown-ups”, “home” are safer and more inclusive until you get to know the specifics of each child’s at-home community.
Yourself: So, last but not least. In fact, last and most important. YOU! While those little (or big) creatures you call your students have a huge impact on your classroom community and on whether you remember this year as a GREAT year or the year you considered becoming an alpaca farmer, YOU have the greatest influence on your classroom and the experience you have together this school year (no pressure!). One of the best ways to manage this awesome power and responsibility is to practice mindfulness. Even before the first day with your students, write down your intentions, expectations, and worries surrounding the first days and weeks of the school year. Maybe create an intention or motto or mantra to act as a tether throughout the school year that is connected to your purpose as a teacher. Take good care of yourself, in little and big ways, throughout the weeks of the school year. Eat. Go to the bathroom. Drink LOTS of water. Turn off your teacher brain at the end of the day and at the end of the week. Read stuff that has nothing to do with teaching. You get the idea.
Teachers are the caretakers of our future. In every way. I salute you and wish you and your students a school year full of connection, learning, fun, and growth.
For information about yoga and mindfulness curriculum for teachers, administrators, support staff, and other school community stakeholders, visit https://www.pranamani.com/teachertraining.