Kristin Van Marter Souers with Pete Hall RELATIONSHIP, RESPONSIBILITY, AND REGULATION —Trauma-Invested Practices for Fostering Resilient Learners
I wanted to read just one book over spring break. With a brief reprieve requiring flights to and from home, I needed something that would refill my cup and put the pieces of my thinking into place. Being a principal often requires you to constantly be on the go with quick yet thoughtful responses to questions and concerns in your back pocket. I am a big fan of Kristin Souers and Peter Hall’s first book Fostering Resilient Learners. Their second book Relationship, Responsibility, and Regulation Trauma-Invested Practices for Fostering Resilient Learners was an obvious choice for me after I read the first paragraph of their Preface. The author’s stated “Whenever I train and consult, I want attendees to walk away saying, ‘Now that was a good use of my time!’ When you’re finished with the last paragraph in the last chapter of this book, I hope you say the same thing.”
Rather than write a summary of Souers and Hall’s book I want to share my reflections as a leader who is constantly on the search for practices that will ultimately enhance the learning experience for students and staff. In their second book, they reviewed the five fundamental truths about what is known about trauma. In brief summary, trauma is real for each of us and it is more prevalent than we think. Not only is trauma literally toxic to the brain and its development, but in our schools and classrooms, we need to be aware of its impact in order to support our students so they can be and become the “competent, special, and awesome” individuals we know they can be (p. 1-3).
Souers and Hall remind the reader that our mindset matters. Do we hop on the bandwagon and become a trauma-informed school, which is certainly a phrase we hear a lot in education right now, or do we dive deeper and become-trauma invested school? Meaning...creating a learning environment where students not only learn they thrive! (p. 21-27). I want our students to go to that type of school, where they not only know, they believe they are capable learners and strive to get closer to their “yet” every single day. So where to start?
The authors recommend teachers and leaders understanding student needs versus student behavior. This was the biggest ah-ha reminder for me because well there are days that is all I do...behavior management. Souers and Halls reminded this reader, “Every behavior is an expression of need.” And they said it over and over...understandably to help make it stick. Our next course of action is “need-sleuthing”. What are the “needs underlying their actions” and “break the behavior down by need” including their emotional, relational, physical, and control needs? The author’s recommendations including being relentless in your inquiry on “What need is this child trying to make?” (p. 53-55).
It is important to note this is not a solo journey but one you take together in partnership with the student, the staff and their families. Rather than admiring the challenges students bring to school, you rally as a team with a forward-thinking mindset to find a student-focused solution that works. Remembering, the student is a critical member of the problem-solving team with the adults in the room and together you determine an outcome and the steps needed to support student’s ownership of their actions. Key for growth is these actions are in partnership with the student rather than for or to the student.
The first step begins with relationship strategies that are meaningful for the students. Souers and Hall offer the reader plenty of recommended relationship strategies for educators to incorporate with their daily interactions with all students but are truly beneficial for students impacted by trauma. A few simple suggestions include using the child’s name often, ask questions, and most importantly listen. Students have a wealth of knowledge inside their trauma-influenced brains with a story to tell. It is up to us to remember to stop talking, lean in, and listen to decipher how we best support the student.
My favorite takeaway is the “whisper-wish” relationship strategy. Consider a student or a group of students and begin their day by whispering, “Ooh, I have a wish for you today: I wish you [or each of you] will ____.” Just think of the possibilities> You can wish them to remember to be kind to themselves or others, find a new favorite book, make a different friend today, and the possibilities go on and on. Finally at the end of the day, after the seed of the expectation has been planted you revisit it by simply asking, “Did my wish for you come true today?” It gives them a goal, a purpose, and a belief statement all in one simple wish (p. 85).
We then move onto to teaching them the responsibility needed to internalize how their actions affect themselves and those around them. These students are often burdened with multiple narratives that regularly summon self-doubt and negative belief system. Souers and Hall refer to the story of The Little Engine That Could. We need to be their champions who remind them of their competence “I knew you could. I knew you could.” Moving away from their fixed mindset towards growth with frequent invites for them to keep trying. Responsibility strategies include providing clear expectation, setting goals with frequent check-ins, assign responsibilities or jobs in their classrooms, and the lifelong skill of grit and determination. They may not have reached their goal yet, but that doesn’t mean it is not attainable.
Finally, it is so important to teach them how to regulate and manage their emotional state including moving away from their fight and flight “downstairs brain” to understanding the cause and effect connections in their “upstairs brain.” Students needing support with regulation can be easy to see. They fidget often, find transitions difficult, shut down, or shout out, and can do all of the above up and down all day. Regulation strategies give students tools to manage their “emotional and behavioral responses accordingly (p. 151). We are just beginning some of these regulation strategies in our school and have already found the benefits of starting our day with soft music, an expandable stress ball to regulate their breathing and lots of brain breaks with movement throughout our day.
Although Souers and Hall remind each of us none of the relationships, responsibility, and regulation strategies will be effective if we don’t first take care of ourselves first. There is a list of these self-care strategies in the book and the recent blog post of their Fostering Resilient Learners website. A few of my favorites was to literally breath, share “the work” with others, sleep, show your gratitude and remember…“Although we may not be perfect, we are enough” (p. 194). We can get stuck on how difficult the multitude of challenges we face in our roles as we support students, but it requires maintaining an “Eeyore-Pooh balance”. Don’t let you negative pessimistic side outweigh your optimistic side, and vice-versus (p. 191).
“All our students need us to focus on their strengths and potential. They look to us to provide assurance that we see them as having potential in a safe, predictable, and consistent manner.”Kristin Souers with Pete Hall