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Restorative Practices in the Classroom

By Michelle Hirschy, Upper School counselor
Ms. Hirschy published an article sharing how students who feel supported and safe are more likely to be present and engaged in class.
Upper School Counselor Michelle Hirschy’s article “Teacher Tips: Restorative Practices” was published in The Center for Spiritual and Ethical Education’s quarterly journal, CSEE Connections. Read more below. 

It can be said that you can never know beyond the shadow of a doubt which of your students have experienced trauma and which haven't. While that continues to be the case, the students coming into your classroom (physically or virtually) in the 20-21 school year will all be in the midst of a globally traumatic experience.

COVID-19’s impact has been far-reaching and affected our youth in ways that will be felt for years to come. It has closed schools, drastically altered the consistency that children rely on, limited their ability to have normal social interaction, and made simple excursions anxiety-ridden or even impossible. The pandemic has caused housing and food insecurity at record numbers and has forced thousands of children to experience worries that should be beyond their years, including the health of their family members. Another major concern over the past few months is that there has been an unprecedented decrease in child abuse and neglect reports to the child welfare system. Our nation’s system of reporting child abuse relies heavily on in-person interactions between children and their teachers, counselors, and doctors. As many of these visits are now minimized or moved to virtual platforms, it is no wonder places like New York City saw as high as a 51% reduction in reporting after the stay-at-home orders went into effect.

When we are finally able to welcome students back to our campuses, the likelihood of our students having experienced a traumatic event that could affect their behavior and learning has never been higher. This will undoubtedly affect your classroom in a multitude of ways. As an example, children who have experienced trauma have been found to test lower on reading ability and IQ tests (Delaney-Black, 2002) and are 32 times more likely to have learning and behavioral problems than their peers (Burke, 2011).

The power and necessity of a trauma-informed classroom has never been more important. We need to be aware that a student that has experienced a traumatic event is at risk for being triggered into a biological stress response, particularly when facing a stressful situation at school. While it may be impossible to avoid this response at all times, here are some tips that can help make your classroom a trauma-informed space for your students.

1. Be aware of how a traumatic response shows up in the classroom
When a student is triggered into a biological stress response in the classroom, their brain sends signals to them that they are in danger thus provoking a fight-flight-freeze response. Otherwise known as the Amygdala Hijack (a term first used by psychologist Daniel Goleman), your student may experience an immediate and intense emotional reaction that’s out of proportion with the situation. Students that have undergone trauma may appear defiant, hyperactive, rigid, and dysregulated, have difficulty paying attention, and may lack appropriate boundaries. By recognizing these signs and seeking proactive support from your school counselors, psychologists, and learning specialists before the behavior escalates, you will be in a better position to support that student and build a positive classroom relationship.

2. Create safe spaces and encourage students to use them
Some call it a “Safe Space” or a “Calm Down Corner” or even a “Zen Den.” No matter what it’s called, safe spaces that students can utilize in the classroom can help students self-regulate without having to leave the room. When a child has experienced trauma, they can often have a high degree of sensitivity to sensory input which often contributes to attentional or behavioral outbursts in the classroom. These students are often highly anxious, have mood swings, and can be easily overwhelmed. By teaching them to recognize these feelings and encouraging them to utilize a space in the room that has tools to help regulate these strong feelings, you are doing them an invaluable service for both their learning and their future.

3. Teach students how to label and express their emotions in healthy ways through SEL
Half the battle in getting students to utilize a resource such as a calm down corner is teaching students how to process and label their feelings. There is an overwhelming body of evidence that incorporating a robust SEL program that is composed of both implicit and explicit instruction enhances a student’s social/emotional health and also increases their academic success. Many teacher preparation programs fall short of preparing our teachers to lead these crucial initiatives. Be proactive in seeking out professional development that can help build your SEL toolbox. When doing this, don't forget that you likely have in-house experts in your school—counselors and psychologists—that can help you implement these programs.

4. Utilize restorative practices
When a student's behavior is disruptive to the learning environment, teachers often lack the resources and time to handle the escalating behavior. Teachers are sometimes forced to refer the classroom situation to an administrator or dean for that person to determine appropriate action. Many schools then use punitive disciplinary systems that involve withdrawing attention and support (detention/suspension, etc.), when a student likely needs attention and support the most.

As an alternative to punitive systems of discipline, restorative practice is a social science that studies how to build social capital and achieve social discipline through participatory learning and decision-making (Wachtel, 2013). In education, circles and groups provide opportunities for students to share their feelings, build relationships, and solve problems. When there is wrongdoing, students are encouraged to play an active role in addressing the wrong and making things right (Riestenberg, 2002). The ultimate goal of a robust restorative program is to repair harm, promote positive social behavior, and build a system of universal interventions that are preventative in nature, and consequently, build a stronger school community with better teacher-student relationships.

5. Manage your own stress and trauma
Of all the possible tips to focus on, this is the most important one. Yes, you heard that correctly! Your mental health and wellness is one of the most important components of a trauma-informed classroom. While much of the focus in schools is often on our students, a fully functioning wellness program at any school must consider the wellness of the faculty, staff, and administrators. Particularly as we are in the midst of a global pandemic, trauma is not exclusive to our students. Educators can experience the stress of compassion fatigue and/or secondary traumatic stress (Hydon, 2015), which can lead to a number of negative physical and psychological symptoms. Keep this in mind after a particularly difficult day or week. How can you prioritize your own self-care? Just remember, putting on your own oxygen mask first does not show a lack of love or concern for others; instead, it shows love for oneself.

6. Collaborate with the mental health team at your school
Trust that the counselors, social workers, and/or psychologists at your school are there to support you! If you are concerned about a student, struggling to curb disruptive behavior, or need support in handling a tricky situation, reach out for help. While counselors often are limited in what they can share due to confidentiality, they may be able to give you some context or strategies that could be helpful in navigating challenging classroom dynamics, It can also be helpful to have additional faculty looking for patterns of behavior beyond your classroom, and by collaborating you are removing the silos that are easily erected in the busy school day and contributing to a stronger school community as a whole.

In a world that has never been more uncertain, having a trauma-informed approach is crucial to not only manage behaviors in a classroom but also to enhance learning.

Students that feel supported and safe are more likely to be present in the class and engaged in their education. Remember that being an educator is a wonderful gift but can also be exceptionally challenging, even on the best of days. Being an educator during COVID-19 will require us all, more than ever, to support each other, and to build our toolbox so that students have the social and emotional support to thrive.

Delaney-Black, V., Covington, C, Ondersma, SJ, Nordstrom-Klee, B., Templin, T., Ager, J., Janisse, J., & Sokol, RJ. (2002). Violence exposure, trauma, and IQ and/or reading deficits among urban children. Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine, 156, 280-285.

Burke, NJ., Hellman, J.L, Scott, B.G, Weems, C.F, & Carrion, V.G. (2011). The impact of adverse childhood experiences on an urban pediatric population. Child Abuse & Neglect, 35, 408-413.

Wachtel, T. (2013). Dreaming of a new reality: How restorative practices reduce crime and violence, improve relationships and strengthen civil society. Bethlehem, PA: The Piper's Press.

Riestenberg, N. (2002, August). Restorative measures in schools: Evaluation results. Paper presented at the Third International Conference on Conferencing, Circles and other Restorative Practices, Minneapolis, MN.

Hydon S, Wong M, Langley AK, Stein BD, & Kataoka SH (2015). Preventing secondary traumatic stress in educators. Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Clinics of North America, 24, 319-333.

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