Imagine walking into a classroom with an average amount of chaos that begins each school day. Students start to gradually settle down and take their seats and an argument escalates toward the back of the classroom. A boy named Jordan is screaming and shoving his neighbor. You notice his tattered shirt and the stress in his eyes; however, your priority is to break up the fight and restore a positive learning environment, so you send Jordan to the principal’s office to restore order and begin today’s lesson.

What you don’t know is that Jordan and his mother have been living out of their car, and he hasn’t had a decent night’s sleep in over a month. Jordan is in survival mode–a persistent state of fight or flight that is controlled by the primal brain stem function. Because learning takes place in the cerebral cortex, he is unable to learn when in this mindset.

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As educators, we are called to this profession. We want to make a difference in children’s lives. However, most traditional training doesn’t adequately prepare us for teaching students like Jordan–students in trauma.

Through a holistic, hands-on approach to educator training and capacity building, school districts can better prepare educators to work with students facing personal challenges and promote a safe, caring learning environment that re-engages and empowers students regardless of their history.

The argument for a different approach

“Whole children” with “whole lives” show up at school. Many have been historically underserved, exposed to violence, poverty, and adversity. Many of these students have enrolled and failed in well-intentioned schools whose design does not account for the background and experiences of the youth they serve; many educators are ill-equipped to understand how to transition students from a survival mode to a learning mode. Some educators might unfairly label these students as “troubled” or “bad kids” and subsequently give up on them because they haven’t been trained with the skills and empathy to navigate these specific circumstances. These conditions can result in poor performance and behavior issues, high dropout rates and ultimately perpetuate economic and health disparities in our country. It does not have to be this way.

When schools are structured with an understanding of students’ needs and experiences, even the most challenged youth can and do thrive, irrespective of what they bring with them to school. These students need teachers and administrators to believe in them and recognize that not all students are the same. The required skills and knowledge to do so effectively, however, typically don’t come naturally. Educators must develop the ability to identify individual student needs and the skills to help them cope with their circumstances and re-engage in learning. By prioritizing intentional school design and trauma-informed instruction, districts can better equip educators to help students shift from a survival mindset to a learning one.

Immersion and practical learning deepens educator success

Capacity-building programs that offer an immersive and hands-on model to training staff, like those Camelot Education provides its faculty and administrators, can yield substantial gains in engagement and academic performance, even with the most challenging students in the district.

This training approach is more effective than traditional models because social-emotional learning and trauma-informed practices are at the core. It teaches educators how to connect with students individually and foster educational equity by meeting them where they are—helping to create and maintain a healthy school culture.

Training that is immersive and hands-on provides practice on the most important skills. In addition to training modules and ongoing coaching, staff can participate in intense residencies and rounds, similar to medical training, observing and practicing skills in a real-life classroom environment.

Let's rethink how we educate our educators

In a holistic, hands-on method, educators are trained to:

  • Develop trust with students and their families. Trust, especially for children in trauma, is vital but can be challenging to develop due to their personal experiences. Educators must learn cultural competency, understanding their community and looking at a student’s circumstances with empathy. They should be coached and supported to spend time getting to know each child and family to engender trust. One effective way to do this is to be present at morning arrival and afternoon dismissal each and every day. Greet each student and their family as they approach the school, shake hands and engage them in conversation to develop deeper, personal relationships. The consistency of this ritual will allow staff to build a database of patterns and behaviors for each student, over time making it easier to spot and address any variance in those patterns before a student can act out.
  • Look for odd behavior and triage students in crisis. Being present at the start of each day not only helps build trust, but it also gives staff opportunities to look for behavior red flags. If something seems unusual, educators should be trained to approach students and inquire. An essential training component is the positioning of questions. For instance, some may approach a student acting out and ask, “What’s wrong with you?” This question implies that something is wrong with them rather than acknowledging that something may have happened to them. Coaching teachers to adjust their approach by asking, “What’s going on?” or “What’s happening in your life right now?,” will help students feel more comfortable and at ease around staff, enabling them to open up about problems.
  • Teach students the norms that are expected of them at school. As educators, we often assume that students understand what is expected of them. However, many students experience a different set of norms in their communities or on the street and bring those into their school environments, disrupting the education process. Educators should be coached on how to reinforce the school’s positive norms to support a positive culture.

Four effective strategies for teaching the school’s norms include:
1. Engage the whole school community (teachers, student, and staff) to reinforce the norms of the school
2. Discussing at school-wide and in small group meetings
3. Displaying on posters in hallways and classrooms
4. Give students a voice and platform to participate in and direct in their school

At Camelot Education, we work with some of our nation’s most underserved students who all previously had significant truancy, academic, and/or behavioral issues. Yet, with these same students, our programs are consistently among the highest-rated schools in their districts. These programs are graduating students at a 93 percent success rate, and 90 percent of students report they feel safer and more cared for.

By embedding research-based and field-proven practices into a professional development approach, and working with a partner with expertise in teaching students struggling with trauma, school districts can empower educators and create a culture of belonging and engagement. Ultimately, this helps students overcome social, emotional and academic challenges—enabling them to re-engage in their education, enhance life skills and improve educational outcomes.

About the Author:

Dr. Carter works as the Superintendent of Schools with Camelot Education. Joe joined Camelot in 2004 and currently oversees the daily operations of Camelot’s 40 programs and schools. He earned his Doctor of Education from the University of Houston. Dr. Carter holds dual Masters Degrees in Education Administration and Criminal Justice Administration; is a certified principal and superintendent, and holds certifications in Special Education and English as a Second Language in multiple states. While serving as principal of Excel Academy in Philadelphia, Joe developed and implemented Camelot’s accelerated high school model.

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