Trauma informed practice: Classroom management strategies for the first weeks of school

The first few weeks of school is where we really begin to solidify classroom expectations for the semester and for the year. We often come in hot the first week, outlining what we expect from students, listing things such as "respect, due dates, attendance, cell phone policy," etc. However, aside from these basic rules to set a tone for the class, what are the other expectations, often communicated non-verbally or addressed only when they're breached? How can we establish these expectations, or perhaps better referred to as "mutual understandings," early on with our class to make sure our students begin to feel safer right away? What are the important considerations we should make, over and above "policy?"


Below I've outlined some of the most important and above all *simplest* ways to create a more trauma informed space within the initial weeks of meeting your class!


Students will be given full autonomy over their bodies and their needs


We may not say this explicitly, but that's because, with the hustle of curriculum and our own deadlines to meet, we often neglect this important element. We follow policy and list classroom rules, but do we include our expectations around autonomy? For instance, do students have to use a hall pass to use the bathroom or get water? Is this a school policy, or a teacher policy? What's the purpose of this policy, beyond keeping track of how many kids are in your room?


I ask these questions because using the bathroom is deeply personal, and many students need this space for reasons beyond just actually needing the bathroom. If this is a school policy, this can be difficult to avoid; however, if this is a teacher policy, it may be worth it to reconsider or consider alternative methods of knowing who is in your room. Bathroom passes can be alienating for students who need the bathroom for self-regulation. They often get harassed by fellow students or the teacher due to "monopolizing the pass," which puts them in a position of having to explain their bathroom use. Furthermore, for our students who have experienced residential school trauma (i.e. generational trauma as a result of colonization), it's a daily reminder of the power imbalance and inability to self-regulate at the hands of their teacher.


Similarly, when it comes to getting water, the brief walk to the water fountain can be an incredible self-regulating strategy for students. Imposing rules around when students can access water can increase overall student anxiety, which in turn increases the behaviors we try to avoid when we implement new policies and rules.


So you're ready to make a change and want to give students autonomy! How?!


The best way to establish this new way of working is to model it! When students ask to use the bathroom, always say yes! When students ask to get water, always say yes! If students appear stressed, or admit that they are anxious, suggest they take a walk and get some water. Consistently model the understanding that students have autonomy, and let them know they are safe to meet their needs as needed. This will decrease feelings of anxiety and decrease the risks of certain anxiety related behaviors emerging throughout the semester as kids try to self-regulate in stressful environments.


Student lives take priority over student academics


Again, the hustle of school curriculum, standardized tests, etc. can often take precedent over students being human! This means that we strictly enforce deadlines by taking marks off for late work, or we scold students for being late. However, our students are humans and have full, complicated lives outside of our classes. Sometimes its heavy, complex situations they're grappling with, and other times, it's just that they are taking several intense subjects all with due dates landing on the same day! Knowing why they need grace, isn't important. Offering it without explanation is what's important. We expect, as adults and professionals, that we should be treated with a certain level of respect and trust, and we often expect students to demonstrate they're deserving of this same level of respect and trust without ever giving them the chance to prove they can be responsible. If we give students space to tell us what they need, and we give it without strings, we create a culture where students can be honest and take ownership over their learning. It also models for students what empathy and grace look like in practice!


The learning matters more than the grade


Standardized tests have made this a really tough lesson to teach! We stress the importance of test scores so much that students find more value in the grade than they do the growth. So how do we combat this? We allow students to rewrite tests or papers as many times as they need, we let them correct mistakes in their homework, and we assess based on the growth, and not the initial attempt. This gives room for more authentic learning and places the value on the growth over the initial grade. It can take a while to establish this culture, and not every student will take you up on the offer of re-writes, but those that do will begin to feel a sense of pride in their growth and less stressed when marks are handed out!


Conclusion:


These are just a few ways in which we can weave in trauma informed strategies into our class in the early days of the semester. Setting flexible expectations is done through modeling flexibility, as opposed to adding another "rule." Although we can, of course, tell students these policies in the early days of class, modeling this level of flexibility is paramount to building authenticity and trust in these policies. This also means students will feel safer and value their learning in your space!


What are your favourite trauma informed "rules" to include in the initial days of your class?!