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How to Educate At-Risk Students Regardless of Trauma: To Build a Culture of Learning, Keep It REAL

“Culture” is derived from the Latin word cultus, which means to care and honor. As schools scramble to develop new operational plans, they need to ensure that their foundational beliefs, perceptions, relationships, and attitudes are all deeply rooted in honoring and caring for all students. It will be those factors that transcend into the written and unwritten rules and polices that influence how the school will function in the midst of a pandemic. COVID-19 has changed the way we do business as a school. The outbreak of coronavirus continues to negatively impact a school’s ability to reopen in the traditional model that families and students have grown to depend on. COVID-19 has challenged and changed many aspects of how our school systems operate. One aspect of our school’s systems and afterschool programing that we must strive to keep intact is the school and program culture.

In the past six months, students were rapidly pulled from the learning environment and asked to stay home and socially isolate. They were not able to interact in person with their class peers, nor were they able to participate in the normal activities that signal the end of the school year. Top this with any dramatic and rapid loss they may have experienced in their personal lives, and you have a perfect recipe for emotional and psychological trauma. For the sake of today’s conversation, let’s define trauma as “the response to a deeply distressing event that overwhelms an individual’s ability to cope, causes feeling of helplessness, and diminishes their sense of self and their ability to feel the full range of emotion and experiences."

As school leaders spend more time checking on the well-being of the students they serve, the impact of poverty has become apparent. When the effects of poverty aren’t managed correctly, it can even become traumatic. ”Poverty” is an ongoing lack or shortage of something you need and is tied tightly into your emotions. Poverty can come from lack of love, time, attention, or knowledge, and that lack can begin to develop into a mentality. For example, when a person lacks the knowledge for self-help and believes he or she isn’t capable of becoming self-sufficient, over time a poverty mindset can evolve. The poverty mindset can lead to the belief that it is the responsibility of others to take care of their basic needs.

When a person remains in a state of negative thoughts due to a lack, they may develop adverse emotions and feelings that, in turn, evolve into chronic stress. Families have lost their jobs, homes and lives during this pandemic. Stress levels are high. Unfortunately, this stress can lead to depression and emotional separation, or even toxic behaviors such as verbal, physical and mental abuse. These elements may have found a way to seep into the homes of the children you serve, adding to any trauma students may already be experiencing.

In these times, it is imperative for educators and school leaders to build a culture of learning that aids all students in maintaining their ability to learn at a rigorous rate. For at-risk students, this culture of learning is built and maintained by simply keeping it REAL. Now “REAL” is not just a colloquialism. It is an acronym that stands for relationship, academic, expectation and love. When teachers keep it REAL, they provide a tangible road map for breaking down barriers and learning How to Educate At-risk Students Regardless of Trauma (HEART). When you keep it REAL with kids, you align yourself to the matters of the HEART, and that alignment is the magical key to unlocking an unmotivated, nonperforming student. So, let’s get REAL.

R = Relationships

The R stands for “relationships” — the foundation for keeping it REAL. The first thing educators must do is establish a relationship between themselves and their students. Teacher-student relationships can be an asset or a liability. The ability to cultivate a relationship with students will determine the level of success teachers will have in the classroom or in your afterschool program. No child wakes up, gets dressed and shows up in your classroom with the mindset of, “I came to school today to do absolutely nothing but fail.” Often, there is something that is causing a mental block, and it can block you from inspiring that child to be the best that he or she can be. It is our job as educators to spend a little time figuring out what those possible barriers are so we can create changes. As you begin to build relationships with students, you may find out about past traumas that are consciously or subconsciously impacting student success. Use the “What? So what? Now what?” reflective model to help students identify what is currently impacting their ability to be successful, so what do you do now that you know and now what do you do to move past it?

Forming healthy educator-student relationships creates an easy transition to the next step in keeping it REAL, which is the E for expectations.

E = Expectations

We must not make exceptions for our students. We must set expectations for them. Les Brown said “Most people fail in life not because they aim too high and miss but because they aim too low and hit.” How can you set expectations in an afterschool environment where students are at different levels doing different assignments?

  1. Create a rigorous schedule from academic assistance to activities. Do not allow students to get stuck doing homework for the entire afterschool session. Instead, make sure to plan high-quality activities that promote exploration, and ensure that all students participate.
  2. Stimulate thinking by asking facilitative questions to draw out more of your students’ thoughts. All students should be encouraged to expand their thoughts by clarifying or expanding on their answers. Also, have processes in place to ensure that all students are called on and given the opportunity to answer questions. Using techniques like the random name selection in Class Dojo or picking names from a jar ensures that all students are reached, which is important because everyone has something to bring to the table.
  3. Have daily group reflections to ensure that things students learned were digested, and that students know how to utilize new knowledge. Set the expectation that everyone must share one takeaway from the day because everyone is responsible for learning something.

When keeping it REAL, having those healthy teacher-student relationships that are governed by high expectations sets the stage for fostering quality academic experiences.

A= Academic

When keeping it REAL, academics should leverage the cultural experience of your students. Plan lessons that reflect all cultures. Culturally relevant activities make students feel like they are part of the community, and such activities send the message that students are important and they matter. When students can learn about people who look like them and experiences that relate to them, then they are motivated to learn more. It also allows students to activate their prior knowledge and have something to help anchor their learning and enhance new learning experiences. Finally, make sure the resources within the classroom or program represent students’ experiences and cultures.

When the students return this fall, whether remotely or face to face, we cannot start with the immediate focus on ABC’s or other academic content. Students have been out of school for five months dealing with the effects of a pandemic and watching the world around them suffer from cultural divides. Stay away from stereotypes and refrain from implicit bias as you devise your plan for discussing and dealing with a room full of students where some may be coming from homes that support Black Lives Matter and some may be coming from homes that support the Confederate flag.

Teachers must create a sense of community that respects and understands what every child brings to the community. So, establish a common ground that is free from personal bias, and create a common denominator that will be followed in the classroom community. After establishing the classroom community, begin to learn and know each student. Create opportunities for students to share their likes and dislikes, and use this information to better serve the students. Make the learning relevant by designing activities that highlight the likes and challenge the dislikes.

L= Love

The greatest part of keeping it REAL with students is having the opportunity to serve and show love to all students. As I thought about ways to show love to at-risk students who’ve experienced trauma, I decided to consult one of the oldest books around, which has managed to remain on the best-seller list for years. I think the advice found in that book in 1 Corinthians 13 applies to our program’s work with at-risk students in a number of ways:

Love is patient, so when students need our help and ask the same question for the 99th time, just smile and repeat those directions.

Love is kind, so there is no place for sarcasm when speaking with challenging students.

Love does not envy, and it does not boast, so refrain from telling students, “I got mine so if you do not want to get yours, that’s on you.” Instead, find ways to motive and inspire students to want to do better and to achieve, just like you.

Love is not proud, and it does not dishonor others, so praise in public and discipline in private. Take students to a quiet area to discipline versus making them a victim of class mockery.

Love is not easily angered, so as educators, always remain in control of your emotions. Even when the child wins the power struggle, do not seek revenge. Instead, seek to positively change student behaviors so that they are more aligned to what you want in your classroom.

Love keeps no record of wrongdoing, so wipe every child’s slate at the end of the day and start the next day with a fresh start.

It always protects, so fight for all your students to be successful.

It always trusts, so be empathetic for your students and not merely sympathetic.

It always hopes and perseveres, so never give up on any of your students.

Remember: For some kids it just takes “HEART.”

Stacey Owens-Howard is an educator and entrepreneur who is passionate about helping at-risk students. She specializes in training educators to foster student success by helping students develop the skills and self-assurance they need.