Trauma-informed personalized learning

Seeing back-to-school activities & personalized learning through the lens of trauma-informed classroom practices

I had a eureka! moment this summer.

We are so lucky when our critical thinking converges ideas in ways previously unrealized. It transformationally reframes our thinking. Those moments enrich ourselves and arrive with the promise that our private learning should have public relevance to make others’ lives more just, joyful, and equitable.

I want to share a recent moment of reflection, even as I just begin my learning journey at the intersection of trauma-informed classroom practices and personalized learning.

I’ve been involved in thousands of conversations with educators from dozens of schools about personalized learning, but I have never before viewed those conversations through a trauma-informed lens. And, I don’t recall anyone overtly bringing those conversations to the table.

This past summer, I was fresh off a year with middle-level educators to continue evolving our school’s approaches to Personalized Learning. One of our final accomplishments of last year was a newly redesigned Personal Expression Process to engage students and faculty in a scaffolded inquiry into self-knowledge and understanding, focused on both individual and shared identities.

IG for PD

Somewhere in those following summer months, I serendipitously connected with education consultant Colleen Wilkinson by first stumbling across her “‘Back to School’ Activities that can Traumatize Students and What to do Instead” Instagram post. 

In her succinct half-dozen images, she caught my attention: full-stop; she provoked educators to be critical caretakers as they consider and construct back-to-school prompts. 


In an exchange with Wilkinson, she acknowledged that much of the missteps she notices are done unknowingly,

“Teachers are creative professionals who often desire to meet the many complex needs of their students without understanding the impact of some common activities.”

She also expanded on the post, explaining common missteps, why they might not work, and what to try instead.

Here is what she shared:

“Write about what you did this summer”

Why it might not work: For many reasons this question causes students to pause. The classroom is new, the teacher is new and the classroom sense of relationship and community is not yet established. Students may feel unwilling to share if they are concerned that the social hierarchy that is established if they share less than a “dream summer”.  Fabrications run rampant in this activity. Students may have experienced abuse, loss of family, removal, or other primary trauma, causing them to feel hyper-focused on those negative experiences. 

What to try instead: An easy substitution would be a writing assignment focused on the future, their hopes and dreams, or imaginations. Such assignments tell us a great deal about the child’s inner life without causing a fear-based reaction. 

 

“Origin/history of your name” activities  

Why it might not work: Imagine being named after your abuser. Or having been adopted or in foster care with no one to ask for an accurate history of your name. Students who have been teased for their name may also feel a particular dislike for this activity. 

What to try instead: Substitution activities would depend on the curriculum goal of the activity, but might include introducing yourself to 2 other students and telling them something about yourself or name acronyms. In addition, teachers should always work to correctly pronounce student names and avoid asking for permission to call students by nicknames or other names to make it “easier”.

 

“Family or Personal Timelines”

Why it might not work: Children’s lives may include loss of parents, foster care, multiple removals, multiple adoptions, memories of negative events. 

What to try instead: Instead, teach about timelines with more concrete options such as a timeline of a school day or year, or the timeline of a historical figure.

 

“Baby Picture Requests”

Why it might not work: Children may not have access to baby photos. Families may not have the time and money to print photos. Picture quality can contribute to negative classroom social hierarchies. 

What to try instead: Instead, draw a picture, use baby animal pictures, or reimagine the activity.  

 

“Family Trees”

Why it might not work: Children of single parents, adopted or foster families may have complex connections, and modern families may simply not look like the historical tree structure. 

What to try instead: An alternative activity could be to share “people who care about me” that could include anyone from a parent to a neighbor, or family trees of historical figures. Find other ways to highlight examples of non-traditional family structures to ensure students are seeing positive and supportive ideas.

 

Asking about students’ summers, weekends, out-of-school learning, names, family timelines, and baby pictures, are prompts that on the surface seem perfectly typical to many classrooms yet are impossible to answer for some students who may be, or have been, in foster care or adopted. Additionally, when these prompts are given without choice, they push students to be vulnerable on our terms, not theirs and can trigger recollections of traumatic events, re-traumatized students who deserve nothing but our very best care. 

Two things struck me when I read through Wilkinson’s post and still strike me now: 

  1. It made me realize just how common a practice it is for teachers to, with no intention of doing so, harm vulnerable children with common classroom activities. I have not talked to a single veteran teacher who has said they have not put one of these prompts in front of whole classes of students.
  2. I was gifted a new lens to reexamine countless conversations about learning and to be more critical about future ones.

While my learning arc has just begun, and I now engage in self-work toward deeper understanding, that eureka moment has clarified this personal, working truth:

When we invite our students to consider self-knowledge and understanding, we must do so knowing that we have an immeasurable responsibility to not further marginalize and re-traumatize our most vulnerable students.

That statement seems overly obvious, but classroom upon classroom is unknowingly attempting to connect with students only to push some of them further away, further marginalizing the very students who most need positive connections.

While a few decades old, the landmark 1998 Adverse Childhood Experiences Study (ACEs) brought to light “the relationship of health risk behavior and disease in adulthood to the breadth of exposure to childhood emotional, physical, or sexual abuse, and household dysfunction during childhood,” and it provided a yardstick for just how pervasive these reported experiences are for children. ACEs found that nearly 52% of adults reported an adverse childhood experience, as outlined below, and 6.2% of adults reported at least four adverse childhood experiences:

  • Abuse:
    • Emotional abuse
    • Physical abuse
    • Sexual abuse
  • Household Challenges:
    • Mother treated violently
    • Substance abuse in the household
    • Mental illness in the household
    • Parental separation or divorce
    • Incarcerated household member
  • Neglect:
    • Emotional neglect
    • Physical neglect

(“About the CDC-Kaiser Study.” CDC)

From 2016, The Child & Adolescent Health Measurement Initiative reports that 46% of children, nationally and a similar percentage in Vermont, have experienced one or more adverse childhood experiences from the list of 9 ACEs. (CAHMI)

While it’s an imperfect correlation, we know many students are disempowered, and we need to inform our design of education with that in mind.

Applying a trauma-informed lens to personalized learning:

There are so many getting-to-know-you activities, like the ones Wilkinson shared, that educators use every year as a means for organizing student inquiry into self-knowledge and understanding. It’s an honest, yet uncritical, attempt to capture some of the “Critical Elements” of the Personal Learning Plan, such as a student’s own understanding of strengths, abilities, and skills; core principles; career assessment and/or learning styles inventory; and academic achievement.

As I reconsider potential learning opportunities to scaffold inquiry into self-knowledge, I wish to give students a choice:

  • to inspire creativity,
  • to imagine empowering hopes and dreams, and
  • to determine how and to what degree they allow themselves to be vulnerable.

Alex Shevrin, who works extensively in the field of trauma-informed education, has this to say about trauma and personalized learning:

“A great promise of PLP and personalized learning, in general, is that it offers students a chance to be in control of creating their own story, on their terms. So to me, the takeaway here is that, rather than providing limited choices for students that may dredge up traumatic memory or current traumatic situations, consider how students are truly given the choice to let themselves be known in the way that they want to be. It’s also worth noting that for some kids, it’s not safe to let adults or peers get to know you, and keeping a distance might be a survival mechanism.

“Similarly, some kids really struggle with the ‘strengths-based’ part of PLPs because they have a damaged self-concept and don’t know how to see themselves as a person with strengths. I think that the biggest thing for teachers is: don’t shy away from the complexity — there is no magical “trauma-informed getting to know you prompt,” it’s just about applying what we know about trauma to our classroom design. And challenge yourself to provide many options when it comes to students sharing personal things, while always giving the power to the student to choose the level of vulnerability.”

How do you approach trauma-informed personalized learning?

Additional Resources:

 

Author

Tim O'Leary

Tim O'Leary lives in Ripton, Vermont with his family, is the co-director of What's the Story? The Vermont Young People Social Action Team, and also a Digital Learning Leader in Shelburne, Vermont.

2 thoughts on “Trauma-informed personalized learning

  • October 9, 2019 at 12:28 pm
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    Thank you so much for sharing this Tim. So important for us to the impact our activities on our most vulnerable students. I particularly appreciate the tweaks on common activities to make them more inclusive. Thank you again!

    Reply
  • hoyler.emily@gmail.com'
    October 15, 2019 at 2:09 pm
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    I am so glad I saw your post about this on Facebook! I had never considered this before I know I’ve made some of these mistakes. So grateful to learn how to do better by my students. Thank you for putting this out there.

    Reply

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