In trauma-informed networks, teachers may be unsure of their role. Teachers may think they are being asked to act as counselors. That’s simply not the case. Instead, teachers should strive to find their limits in a trauma-informed network. One way is by defining clear boundaries in relation to a) helping students manage their trauma, b) expectations for students in your classroom, and c) appropriate teacher-student interactions.
Students, particularly those affected by trauma, thrive with consistency and clear expectations from teachers. What’s more, teachers who hold clear boundaries are more likely to feel confident in their ability to support the academic success of trauma-affected youth. Knowing your limits and what should be expected of you in your role as a trauma-informed teacher can start by defining your own boundaries. Not sure where the boundaries should be? Read on to find out!
Your Boundaries in Helping students Manage the Impacts of Trauma
Student trauma can manifest in the classroom in many ways. Some survivors of trauma may be easily distracted and fidgety, others may have a hard time managing anger and irritability. Whatever it is that students are doing as a result of their trauma (or as a result of being human!) you should know when and how it is appropriate for you to support them. In the same vein, knowing when it’s appropriate for you to support students can also help you know when it’s time to call for help.
So, when is it appropriate for you to help students?
I absolutely love Alex Shevrin Venet’s analogy for knowing when you should be the one to help students and when you need to call for help (click here, not for her analogy, but for an incredible article she wrote on teacher's role in TI networks).
In a breakout session in the Fall 2020 Trauma-Informed Schools Institute, she explained that you should picture yourself as a homeowner when considering where your boundaries are. Things break in our homes. Some problems we can solve, some we can’t.
Let’s say the light is not turning on. One thing you are totally qualified to do is change the lightbulb. As long as you have a replacement bulb and can reach the socket, you are good to go. But what if you change the bulb and the light still doesn’t work? It might be a wiring issue inside the ceiling. If you try to fix the wiring, you can create irreparable damage or even burn the house down. There’s no clear rule for where you can support students and where you need to call for help. You must be constantly reflecting to learn your own limits.
What are some ways to support students? Check out my blog post on developing replacement behaviors and my post on reflective listening for some tools for you to help students when manifestations of trauma make it hard for them to be successful in your classroom.
Your Boundaries in Establishing Expectations for Trauma-Affected Students in your Classroom
Just because a student has experiences of trauma and the impacts of trauma may manifest as behavioral and academic difficulties doesn’t mean they are any less capable of their peers. Nor does it mean you don’t hold them to the same standard as other students.
The key words here are consistency and support.
Make sure your students know how you will respond to as many possible scenarios as you can.
Here’s a story: in my classroom, there were always options for the type of seat a student could use. Inevitably, students would fuss over the seats. My school was in a non-profit and there weren’t enough of each kind of seat for every student.
I valued these seating options, especially for my students who truly needed to move. So, instead of allowing students’ bickering to result in us losing the chairs, I collaborated with students to establish some ground rules and NEVER made exceptions unless they were agreed upon as a group. It may sound harsh, but students knew what to expect so any decision I made, after the rules were established, felt fair and predictable.
Your Boundaries in Personal Interactions with Students
For this boundary, consider what you are comfortable sharing with students and what you are okay with them bringing into the classroom. The more I learn about Elizabeth Dutro’s Testimony and Witness, the more I realize that the threshold for stories of adversity in the classroom is set pretty low.
Even so, there are limits to what you are personally comfortable with. If you cross those boundaries, you can risk your own mental well-being. Always be reflecting and mindful so you notice when there is a red flag and you need to take a step back. As you start to recognize when something is too much for you or when you may have crossed a line, you will become better at avoiding crossing those boundaries in the future.
My name is Erin E. Silcox. I'm working on my Ph.D. in Literacy Education, focusing on the intersection of trauma and literacy. I want to deepen our base of knowledge about trauma-informed practices in schools and help teachers apply findings right now.