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Monday / December 17

Q&A with Author Ricky Robertson: How to Help Students Recover From Trauma

On Monday, September 24, Corwin hosted a webinar with Ricky Robertson on “Adverse Childhood Experiences.” Robertson uses on a whole-staff approach to help educators learn how to integrate trauma-informed practices and procedures into schoolwide behavior management and instructional systems. You can watch a recording of the webinar here.

Several webinar participants submitted questions for Ricky after the webinar to find out more about specific strategies and interventions that build resiliency, promote growth mindset, and develop social-emotional skills in students that have experienced trauma.

How can a teacher be stern yet understanding with traumatized students? 

Excellent question. The word “stern” can have many connotations. I am interpreting it to mean a teacher who is direct and consistent about classroom expectations, norms, and routines. In this regard, being stern is a strength in trauma-informed teaching. Regardless of whether a student likes this type of structure, the consistency alone has the potential to foster a sense of trust and safety. This approach is more likely to be successful when the teacher explicitly teaches, practices, and reinforces expected behaviors, and if the teacher proactively provides academic, behavioral, and social-emotional supports (such as the Talk Trust Feel Repair Toolkit) to assist students in meeting high expectations.

Having said that, stern can have negative connotations as well. Stern can imply a teacher whose approach is “my way or the highway.” Failing to account for the holistic needs of students; relying on exclusionary discipline, sarcasm, or ridicule to manage a classroom; and/or refusing to provide differentiated supports for students is harmful to all students, especially those who have experienced trauma. I don’t think that is the type of stern you are speaking of, but I have certainly encountered it in my time as an educator.

For a stern teacher to be understanding, there is only the need for a willingness to build relationships and listen. It is not about compromising expectations, but assessing where a student is and what supports they need to be successful. The more that a student and teacher can build trust and identify strengths and needs together, the better.

When you discuss the need for children to feel safe when they are escalated, what is your perspective on physical restraint? In my first placement, I was in a setting where the CPI model was a must at times. However, now that I am working with the autism population, I try to never utilize holds. I feel like students with ACEs shouldn’t be held, but what other ways can we utilize to foster their physical safety?

 The use of physical restraint should be avoided except when there is no other alternative to prevent a child from causing serious harm to him/herself or others. For example, I’m thinking about a student who has run from the school and is about to head into on-coming traffic. Much of our trauma-informed approach is about helping educators to anticipate and plan for the needs of students in order to prevent behavioral escalations.

If the student is on the Autism spectrum and you suspect that restraint is providing sensory reinforcement, then I suggest working with an Occupational Therapist to find another source of deep pressure stimulation. I would also recommend proactively working with students, individually or in small groups, to equip them with strategies to express their needs as well as regulate emotions (i.e. SEL curriculums like Zones of Regulation).

If a student has significant behavioral needs, I suggest a trauma-informed intervention plan that identifies the student’s triggers, maps his/her escalation cycle, and includes interventions at each stage of escalation that help the student to down regulate. This plan may also include replacement behaviors, reinforcers, a behavior script, etc. When we provide supports that help a student to remain in his or her optimal zone of emotional arousal, we can prevent behavioral escalations and avoid potentially dangerous situations.

Have you looked at the impact of trauma in immigrants/unaccompanied minors/kids separated from their parents? How can we help students when services are not provided in their native language?

One of the first educators to contact me after the publication of our book worked at an alternative school for unaccompanied minors. Many of the school’s students were immigrants, homeless, and separated from their parents. These young people were enduring significant stress and trauma. The school recognized that to best serve their students, the staff needed professional development to establish a shared understanding of trauma and resilience, multi-tiered school-wide systems of support, strong ELL programming, and practices to foster educator resilience that mitigate the impact of secondary trauma.

When services are not provided in the student’s native language this adds to the stress that the student is already experiencing. ELL best practices are a key component of helping students to be academically, behaviorally, and emotionally successful in school. I have worked with schools to incorporate tools like social stories, visual schedules, and many other ELL interventions to support students who are learning a new language while navigating the impact of trauma.  Culturally-responsive teaching practices that incorporate the student’s native language and/or culture into the curriculum and school environment also foster a sense of safety, trust, and belonging, which are especially important for students who have experienced trauma. 

How do you navigate the pressure to move many of the students experiencing trauma into special education, for example placing them into emotional and behavior disabilities programs or specific learning disabilities programs?

Your question speaks to one of the key reasons that my co-authors and I work with schools and districts to develop and implement multi-tiered trauma-informed systems of support. When children who have experienced ACEs and trauma do not receive appropriate support, they are disproportionately referred for special education services.

As a result, special education departments are often overtaxed and under-resourced. Students with IEPs may receive behavioral and/or academic supports that fail to address their underlying needs and the impact of trauma, while other students may experience trauma but not meet the eligibility requirements for special education and continue to struggle academically, behaviorally, and socially. To resist the pressure to move our students into special education, I advocate for schools to receive professional development on trauma-informed practices and implement these multi-tiered supports.

To be frank, I talk to as many people as I can. I speak with parents, school psychologists, teachers, administrators, even public officials about the impact of ACEs and trauma on learning and behavior. I stress the need for our schools to be provided with professional development and resources to implement comprehensive trauma-informed services—there  is just too much at stake for them not to.

I am an ESL teacher and I have a refugee student from Congo who has lived through really horrific times. I cannot communicate with her because she speaks Swahili (and obviously I don’t). Nobody in my high school does. She is very well behaved, but I bet she needs help. What techniques can I use when there is no common language?

I have been in your shoes many times. I can’t say I have always handled it the best. If a guidance counselor is willing to help, find out if the student and her family are connected with a refugee resettlement organization. If they are, the family will likely have a case manager. Sometimes case managers are willing to be a liaison between the student’s home and the school. They can also connect the student with appropriate mental health resources if they are needed and the family is willing to access them.

The thing I remind myself is that kindness is a common language. Small acts of kindness can help to build trust and convey your care for this student. Noticing if there is a snack that she likes and bringing it to school one day, offering her an umbrella on a rainy day if you happen to have one on hand, giving her a stuffed animal as a gift on her birthday, little things that show that you see her and she matters.

For example, I worked with a refugee student, and before he could speak English, we built a relationship by playing the card game Uno for a few minutes each day during lunch. There was another refugee student in my class who did not speak English and I noticed that she loved to draw. I brought in a set of oil pastels. She drew me picture after picture and eventually learned enough English to explain to me what they meant. It was a simple gesture, but we established a bond that lasted throughout her years at our school.

Finally, and this may sound silly, school districts often contract with translator services that can be reached by phone. Consider using this service, or even Google translate, to say “hi” and have a brief conversation with her. As always, it is important to ensure that she is receiving appropriate ELL services in your school. With time, she will learn English. She will know that you have cared for her and she will be able to share her story.


Learn More

To learn more about trauma-informed strategies for teacher and student well-being, check out Ricky Robertson’s book, Building Resilience in Students Impacted by Adverse Childhood Experiences or learn more about his workshops.

About Ricky Robertson

Ricky Robertson works with students from pre-K to 12th grade who have persevered in the face of adverse experiences and trauma. Drawing from experience as a teacher and Behavior Intervention Specialist, Ricky coaches educators in developing a relationship-based approach to teaching and learning that inspires transformation through compassion, humor, deep listening, and “real talk.” He is the author of Building Resilience in Students Impacted by Adverse Childhood Experiences with Victoria Romero and Amber Warner.

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Sam is the Marketing Intern for Global Professional Learning Services at Corwin.

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