Building Brilliance by Fostering Resilience

When we start to look at the prevalence of the adversity that many of us have faced in our lives, we must also celebrate the power of resilience.

Kristin Souers, p. 23

One of a teacher’s biggest joys is seeing brilliance in their students. Whether that be academic brilliance, emotional brilliance, or social brilliance, all of these are hindered by the presence of trauma. To respond to this trauma, our students need to be resilient, yet how do we build this in our students?

Kristin Souers and Pete Hall offer a framework and depth of experience on this topic in their book, Fostering Resilient Learners: Strategies for Creating a Trauma-Sensitive Classroom. In this blog, I want to take some time to respond to this book, asking some key questions that will guide teachers in their trauma response.

1. What is trauma?

Trauma is a big buzz word in education, but what does it really mean? What do we need to know about it in order to respond best to it? Kristin and Pete provide these five points that describe trauma in the classroom.

  1. Trauma is real.
  2. Trauma is prevalent. In fact, it is likely much more common than we care to admit.
  3. Trauma is toxic to the brain and can affect development and learning in a multitude of ways.
  4. In our schools, we need to be prepared to support students who have experienced trauma, even if we don’t know exactly who they are.
  5. Children are resilient, and within positive learning environments they can grow, learn, and succeed.

(Souers & Hall, 2016, p. 10)

Oftentimes, students with trauma will also have a high ACE score, a measure of the number of Adverse Childhood Experiences someone has had. These range from abuse and neglect to poverty to divorce. Whatever the student’s score, any ACE is going to change how a particular child views the world. They will develop specific coping mechanisms (good or bad) to deal with their hurt, and they will bring these into the classroom with them.

I found the video below helpful to visualize what trauma looks like and dive deeper into what that entails for a student.

2. What isn’t trauma?

After defining trauma, the question that naturally follows is what isn’t trauma? In this explanation, I am not trying to delineate between bad experiences that are not traumatic versus actual trauma, and I don’t think I have the qualifications to do so.

What I’m actually getting at is that trauma is not what defines our students. When I had the opportunity to teach in a middle school, I heard far too often teachers describing kids to me solely based on a traumatic experience in their life. Yet this frames these students in a deficit light. This deficit thinking asserts that because of their trauma, students can’t _________. Regardless of what you fill in the blank with, you are hindering students’ growth and potential.

Souers challenges us in her book by asking the following questions:

Can we focus on our students’ strengths rather than their deficits? Can we view our students as overflowing with potential rather than doomed to failure? It’s up to us.

Souers & Hall, 2016, p. 141

There has been an increasing call to reframe the way we view students with trauma and how we deal with it. Instead of focusing on each student’s specific issue, focusing on the cultural context of each student and their strengths, what they bring to the table.

This new framework, often called Healing Centered Engagement is summarized and championed in this article by Shawn Ginwright.

When we stop defining students by their trauma and start seeing them for their strengths, we can begin to build their resilience that leads to brilliance.

3. What can we do? Trauma-sensitive teaching has become a major topic recently as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.

So what can we do, as teachers, to respond to the trauma our students bring to the classroom with them? I wish I could provide a simple cure-all method that would work all the time, but that’s not the nature of trauma. Each student’s experiences are different, so our responses to each must also be different.

But I will seek to provide to you a couple of methods that apply broadly to situations where students with trauma (or those without) descend into their emotional “downstairs brain” and behave in a way not conducive to a safe and healthy learning environment.

One tried and true method is simply taking a breath. While this doesn’t sound like cutting edge educational research, it is a necessary step whenever you are confronted with a harrowing situation. Souers describes this breath as “time to give ourselves and our students the opportunity to pause and reflect before reacting to whatever is happening in front of us” (Souers & Hall, 2016, p. 68).

And sometimes more than a one second breath is needed. Sometimes it might mean sending a student to cool down in the hallway for a minute or waiting two minutes before confronting a student that is clearly in their “downstairs brain”.

When these conversations eventually need to happen though, it can be easy for you and your students to go right back to being tense and on-edge. A guideline is provided by the authors that breaks down the steps of a healthy conversation when a student is acting out of their trauma coping mechanism.

It goes like this:

  1. Listen
  2. Reassure
  3. Validate
  4. Respond
  5. Repair
  6. Resolve

(Souers & Hall, 2016, p. 79)

Some of these steps might seem unnecessary and a waste of time. Yet far too often, we only listen to students until we can come up with a solution, yet this does not make them feel validated or reassured, and it doesn’t repair the relationship.

For students who have dealt with significant trauma, these steps are essential to assure the student that they can trust you in these moments.

For more information about trauma-sensitive instruction, check out this blog from Learning For Justice.

4. What can’t we do?

Finally, I want to end by acknowledging that we have limitations on the care we can provide to students that have gone through trauma. No, I’m not talking about government regulations or school policies (although those definitely play a role), but a more personal limitation.

Namely, you can’t give what you don’t have. You can’t pour from an empty glass. If you are not taking care of yourself as a teacher, how can you expect to take care of hundreds of children?

In their experience, Kristin and Pete describe that “the more self-aware we become, the easier it is for us to manage the needs of those in front of us” (Souers & Hall, 2016, p. 45).

In order to respond well to the trauma we will learn about from our students, it is so important that we can take care of ourselves. Whether that means taking up a hobby like fishing, birdwatching, or tennis, or finding a perfect TV show to watch or band to listen to, or praying or volunteering with a religious group, find something that can ground you!

Listen to the top teachers in the nation talk about what has been beneficial to them:

In the end, all of us will at some point have a student that has dealt with trauma in our classroom. Will we rise to the occasion and see the brilliance in that kid or write them off as a lost cause, too far gone to be helped? It’s up to us!

Thanks for reading, and I hope this helped!

Catch ya later!

Mr. Larson


  1. Hi Ellie!
    Thanks for reading the blog! Covid affected every student almost universally, yet in so many different ways. Whether a student lost a love one, dealt with illness, had a parent lose their job, or any other number of things, every student was changed by the pandemic. I think that this is where showing grace to our students is so important because we certainly needed it at points in the pandemic. And flexibility plays a huge part because Covid has led to complicated situations, so being flexible with students is more important than ever.

  2. Luke!

    I really enjoyed reading your blog post, especially when you unpack what isn’t trauma. I think it is so easy to get in our heads about traumatic events and what students hold trauma and how that reflects them that we start expecting trauma in every situation. And it’s okay to acknowledge that sometimes that isn’t the case. I also enjoyed how you connected to Covid-19 which resulted in trauma in the majority of students, and I would love to unpack this more. How do you think we are seeing the trauma of Covid-19 reflected in all students and what can we as teachers do to help students cope in these “unprecedented times”?

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.