Today’s guest author is Angie Zara. Angie is a 3rd-grade general education teacher at Capital City Public Charter School, a Title I Inclusion school in Washington, DC. She recently completed her certification in Applied Educational Neuroscience and has a deep passion for trauma-informed practices.
Race and equity were key words in education long before America’s racial reckoning was re-sparked in the summer of 2020. If you work in education, you are probably well aware of the disproportionate achievement of black and brown students compared to their white counterparts, higher discipline referrals and suspensions, a higher diagnosis of students with disabilities (The Hechinger Report, “Special Education’s Hidden Racial Gap”, 2017), and “behavior issues” (National Women’s Law Center ). We also know that Coronavirus had a disproportionate effect on communities of color throughout the country (Health Equity Considerations & Racial & Ethnic Minority Groups, 2021). So, after the events of 2020, we are called not to ask the question of “Why should we center equity…” but rather: “How can we center equity and trauma-informed practices in a system that claims to want us to focus on the whole being, but doesn’t alleviate the stressors or pressures put upon us to operate with the liberty to do so?” As a teacher, brain-aligned practitioner, and trauma-informed leader in my school community, I have thought long and hard about this topic.
This year we will embark on what is hoped to be a year of healing and recalibration. My hope is to also redefine a “new normal”, based on everything we know about trauma, the brain, the acknowledgment of racial inequities, and the human need for social connection. My hopes here are to continue to propel the momentum and continue to shift the paradigm. Many other trailblazers before me have begun this essential work, including the likes of Dr. Lori Desautels, Bruce Perry, Mathew Portell, and Jim Sporleder, just to name a few. These trailblazers have helped us understand what it means to be brain-aligned, and trauma-informed; to lead with compassion, understanding the lived experience of the students and colleagues we serve, and to put relationships first. So here I propose we take it a step further and frame our understanding of lived experiences centered in equity, and healing-not just students, but ourselves. My goal in this is to inspire hope, courage, and most of all, inspire action in our schools and communities, especially when we are considering the lived experience of our students of color. We know that COVID has affected us as humans on various levels.
As students go back to school and begin a new year after a collective trauma, it is imperative that we understand the impact that this experience has had on a fundamental level. Then, we must consider the deepened impact and lived experiences of the humans entering our schools, classrooms, and personal spaces.
In an interview with “Collaborative Classroom”, Zaretta Hammond used the National Equity Project’s definition of educational equity as “reducing the predictability of who succeeds and who fails, interrupting reproductive practices that negatively impact students, and cultivating the gifts and talents of every student.”(A conversation about instructional equity with Zaretta Hammond). I would argue that one of the “reproductive practices that negatively impact students” that may be referred to here is the disproportionate diagnoses students of color receive for behaviors that are within the confines of our cultural acceptability and categorized by subjective adjectives such as “disturbed”, “disrespectful”, or “disobedient”. This could be a student who needs to sway and move while learning, a student who frequently calls out and interrupts during instruction, or a student who is perceived as “defiant” or “aggressive”.
Since its origin, the educational landscape has long been rooted in adult-to-student compliance, rather than partnership and shared understanding. Increasing COVID protocols, rules, and restrictions may cause us to feel the need to tighten our grip, thus perpetuating a compliance-oriented mindset where students “do what I say because I say so”. For many adults and students, returning to school or to in-person work settings will raise some anxiety and discomfort. It is possible that youth will show and experience significant regression of social skills and need assistance managing how to interact with each other again. I know all too well from personal experience that when our stress increases and the stakes increase, we tend to become more rigid.
Now, with COVID protocols in place as well as the likelihood of behaviors occurring due to being out of our routine and predictable patterns for the last 15 months, we have to be more vigilant than ever to disrupt our shift towards compliance and obedience.
Disrupting Our Patterns
Far too often do we feel the need to pathologize behaviors we see in the classroom, and I do not omit my own role in being a proponent of this behavior early in my career. In efforts to be helpful and gain control of a situation or challenging incidents, we often feel the need to label students in a way to try to better understand them and their needs. If they are evaluated and have a copy of specific goals, it makes supporting them seem to be more manageable. However, I would argue that now more than ever we must be vigilant about disrupting the need to “diagnose” behaviors and see them as a recalibration phase. To “recalibrate” is defined as “to change the way you do or think about something” (Cambridge Dictionary). So what if we changed the way we thought about and approached behavior entirely this year and viewed it as an adjustment period? What if we gave students the grace to adjust to the system and routine of in-person schooling again, without diagnosing or labeling them along the way? How might this change the framing with which we approach behavior and relationship building and shift the trajectory of the 2021-2022 school year? As we know from the research of Dr. Bruce Perry and Bessel Van der Kolk MD, among many others, trauma impacts our brain systems and lives in our bodies. We know that everyone has collectively lived through a traumatic experience and experienced this to varying degrees.
So, with all of this knowledge and research, surely we must intellectually understand the need to pause on labels and diagnoses and just allow ourselves to sit alongside each other, build connections, and co-regulate along the way.
Not only must we be trauma-informed on a big picture level, but in the day-to-day interactions, we have with our students and other staff. Instead of stamping a label on a student in order to categorize them and their behaviors to help us gain a sense of control, instead, we can ask key questions specific to the context we find ourselves in. As we as a society emerge from the trauma of 2020, it is imperative to ask ourselves: “Am I providing connection? Am I providing relational and physical safety? Am I providing predictability and consistency?” I would also push us to pause and reflect on these additional questions before feeling compelled to label or diagnose a student:
- What experiences was this student missing during the pandemic?
- What is this behavior communicating?
- How can I give this student opportunities to practice the skills I expect/hope to see?
- How am I modeling this skill in my own classroom/school community?
- What was this student’s experience during the COVID pandemic?
- What was this student’s experience during 2020?
- What was this student’s experience in school last year? What about in years prior?
There is no doubt that we are setting out on another year like no other. I know that my practices this year will be centered on healing, building relationships, and acknowledging the human experience of the students that enter my classroom community. In order to heal, we must all take care of ourselves and allow time for recalibration; giving ourselves and our learners grace along the way. I ask us all as educators at this critical moment to reflect often and center our self-awareness, particularly considering our lens of approach to serving those that have been disproportionately impacted by COVID. We are in a critical time in history right now. We are all well aware as humans first, educators, and readers that the experiences and events in 2020 are not simply to be swept under the rug. While we know this, we must also know that there will be underlying yet consistent pressure to return to “business as usual”. We also know as changemakers that we cannot allow this to happen.
- “A Conversation About Instructional Equity with Zaretta Hammond.” Center for the Collaborative Classroom, 15 May 2021, http://www.collaborativeclassroom.org/blog/a-conversation-about-instructional-equity-with-zaretta-hammond/.
- Felton, Emmanuel. “Special Education’s Hidden Racial Gap.” The Hechinger Report, 30 Mar. 2020, hechingerreport.org/special-educations-hidden-racial-gap/.
- “Health Equity Considerations and Racial and Ethnic Minority Groups.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, http://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/community/health-equity/race-ethnicity.html.
- “Recalibrate.” RECALIBRATE | Definition in the Cambridge English Dictionary, dictionary.cambridge.org/us/dictionary/english/recalibrate.
- “Unlocking Opportunity for African American Girls: A Call to Action for Educational Equity.” NWLC, 21 July 2020, nwlc.org/resources/unlocking-opportunity-african-american-girls-call-action-educational-equity/.