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I’ve noticed a recent trend: Social Emotional Learning (SEL) is being connected with trauma-informed teaching.

Studies suggest that half or more of our students experience some type of childhood trauma. We could say this now applies to 100 percent of our students, as they are living through a global pandemic, an incredibly confusing, uncertain and trying time. For many students and their families this time has intensified existing issues of food, housing, financial, health, physical and/or emotional insecurity.

Now, more than ever, it is imperative that we foster a humanizing pedagogy. Students need to feel safe, cared for, and seen. We need to attend to our students’ holistic needs. One especially effective way to support our students’ emotional well-being is the use of Project Based Learning. 

Project Based Teaching Practices—which also reflect culturally responsive pedagogy—can work in tandem with SEL to support trauma-informed practice. We can leverage a few key strategies in our current online learning spaces and continue them when we return to face to face teaching and learning. 

Here are five ways you can holistically support students through PBL:

1. Cultivate relationships.

More than anything, students need to feel safe and seen in your classroom, whether it’s online or in person. This is Great Teaching 101. It is important to have thoughtful interactions with your students beyond just the academic focus of the moment. Ask students how they are feeling or what is happening in their lives and actively listen to how they respond, then provide support as appropriate. Support can be as simple as saying, “I am here for you,” “That sounds difficult,” or “I know someone who can help with that.” Schedule one on one check-ins with your students.  

When you work to build the culture in your PBL classroom, develop a community of collaboration where everyone is visible and no one is left out. Hold online learning circles or team check-ins. Create student working groups so students aren’t spending too much time working alone. Additionally, create agreements with students around how they will care for each other.  Showing genuine interest in and care for your students as human beings is by far the most important action you can take. 

2. Acknowledge and build upon your students’ strengths.

A key to culturally responsive teaching is knowing your students. Uncover their funds of knowledge: What are their cultural, social, and academic assets? What are their interests? Where do they excel in and out of the classroom? Knowledge of students aids in designing and planning relevant and authentic projects that highlight students’ assets. 

When you have a sense of a student’s strengths, it can be used to help them develop self confidence and resilience.  Not only is it an equity lever, but this practice helps us to see students beyond their trauma.

3. Be open and responsive to changes.

Providing routine and structure is integral to creating a safe learning environment. Consistency is important, and relational consistency matters most. During the COVID-19 pandemic, things are changing rapidly and we have to be adaptable. In PBL, we know  that the messy middle of a project can take students down many different paths. Some students may push through without difficulty, while others may need more scaffolding and possibly redirection.

This is also true for emotional triggers; students can be triggered in many different ways and at any point in time. It may happen in the middle of a mini-lesson or when students are engaging in collaborative work. Rather than rushing to quell the student’s emotional response, be open to supporting the student in that moment and help them to manage their emotions. This can include letting students journal about their feelings, practice mindfulness, take a break, or talk with a school counselor.

You can also provide “feeling cards” to help students name emotions, as students when triggered tend to express through behavior rather than words—and teachers who are not emotionally attuned will interpret this as misbehavior. It is important to note that students will respond to trauma in different ways and at different times. We should not assume they are all experiencing deep trauma at the same point in time, but rather notice their cues and respond accordingly.

4. Give supportive feedback.

Throughout a project experience, teachers engage and coach students to help them persist. This practice requires teachers to know when students need redirection in their project work, offer encouragement throughout the process and to celebrate successes. Teachers can expand that practice to include feedback on how students are showing up emotionally.

Encourage students when they are feeling overwhelmed or defeated. Know when to redirect or help them navigate their emotions. Ask students to name how they felt at the beginning, middle and end of a project. Ask them to describe what supported them to be resilient, what was less supportive, and what emotional support techniques they would use to move forward. Be sure to acknowledge when they are successfully managing their emotions or their academics. This can easily be done during a check in or via a note or email. A little positive feedback goes a long way.

5. Design projects that have a social-emotional component.

You could do a project that actually focuses on managing trauma or stress. In addition to providing an opportunity to study the topic, these projects can give students a sense of agency that helps them deal with their situation—or a voice to share their stories. Here are five examples you could adapt for remote learning and for the current situation (and for other grade levels) from the project library at my.pblworks.org:

•    Boom Boom Flash! (grade 1)
•    Ready for Anything (grade 4)
•    Bridging the Gap (grades 7-8)
•    Planning to Thrive (grade 7)
•    The Moth (grades 11-12)

In the midst of the shift to online and remote learning, teachers are not untouched by this pandemic.

They are also managing their own lives and emotions. We must practice self care and awareness of our own trauma at this time, so we are better equipped to attend to students’ needs. The current reality has and will continue to deeply impact us all. Teachers are charged with a tremendous task. 

While academic outcomes are important, they cannot and should not be our primary focus. We don’t have to become experts in trauma-informed practices overnight. We should approach our work with a heightened ethic of care and empathy. 

Let’s focus on affirming and validating students—who they are and what they bring to the learning environment. We can holistically support our students with a commitment to attention and intention. We can pay more attention to and address our students’ overall well-being by doing what we are already doing with more intention and love.  
 

Laureen Adams, Curriculum and Program Manager
Laureen is part of the curriculum team at PBLWorks. She is a former PBL teacher and administrator and is deeply committed to educational equity and the use of PBL to transform our world.