Supporting Resilient Learners

Personally, one of the main reasons I want to be a teacher is to cheer my students on and support them as they go through high school, one of the toughest and most stressful seasons of life. High schoolers often face the stresses of academics, peer pressure, the desire to fit in and belong, depression and anxiety, bullying, balancing relationships, discerning their futures, and navigating drama and conflict, etc. in only four years. High school can be hard for a lot of students, and many have experienced trauma by the time they reach high school that is bound to follow them into the classroom.

What trauma?

As we know in the post-COVID classroom, many adolescents struggle with their mental health and it has become increasingly common among teenagers in recent years. Approximately 1 in 5 teens between 12-18 years old suffer from at least diagnosable mental health disorder. Between 2009 and 2017, cases of major depression in teens 16-17 rose by 69% and the suicide rate among teen girls ages 18-19 increased by 56%, according to Adolescent Wellness Academy.

But, trauma in adolescents can come from a variety of factors. Although this list is not comprehensive, types of trauma may include:

  • Substance abuse in the home
  • Parental separation or divorce
  • Mental illness in the home
  • Witnessing domestic violence
  • Death of a parent or loved one
  • Parental incarceration
  • Experience of abuse (psychological, physical, or sexual)
  • Experience of neglect (emotional or physical)
  • Poverty
  • Victimization or bullying

Trauma is an exceptional experience in which powerful and dangerous events overwhelm a person’s capacity to cope.

(Rice & Groves, 2005, p. 3)

When teachers are often the primary adult adolescents will spend the majority of their day with, it is so important that teachers acknowledge and are aware of their students’ trauma. Based on the definition above, trauma is limiting, and can hinder students’ ability learn, be motivated, succeed, and/or build relationships. While students are not defined by their traumatic experiences, it shapes them into the person they are and changes them. However, as Kristin Souers says in her book, Fostering Resilient Learners, we are “not necessarily forever damaged,” as that part is up to us to act on (Souers, 2016, p. 137).

What Teachers CAN Do –

It’s important to know that oftentimes trauma manifests itself in the form of outbursts, fight, flight, or freeze responses. When this occurs, we need to try our best to depersonalize the situation because how they are acting or responding in a certain situation is not about us, but may just be in response to their trauma. While we as teachers can’t change the traumatic experiences of our students, we can love and support them where they are at through implementing simple, yet effective strategies in the classroom.

  1. Communicate effectively with students through the 6 communication steps: listen, reassure, validate, respond, repair, resolve. We want to address each one in order to make our students feel seen and heard, instead of jumping to our own response or finding a quick “fix” to their problem.
  2. Identify triggers in students in order to avoid them and be aware of them. Common triggers in students and ourselves are things like exhaustion, previous bad experiences, challenges to our belief system, preconceived notions, and fear (Souers, 2016, p. 70-71). This is key to knowing our students, through identifying certain stimuli that may impact their behaviors or energy levels.
  3. Help ground students to regulate their “downstairs” brain. When students are driven by their emotions, their downstairs brain may have overcome their ability to think rationally or logically. When this happens, it is important that we help students learn how to ground themselves through breathing exercises and asking them questions to help them think rationally.
  4. Continue building meaningful relationships with students. Students need to know that they are supported by their teachers. Oxytocin calms our nervous system after stress, so enabling students to feel calm and safe with you can do more than you think – it’s science! Show students that you care not just about their academic success, but their emotional, mental, and physical well being too.
  5. Everybody breathe! When faced with a high intensity, stressful situation with a student, we as teachers need to be able to take a few seconds to pause, slow down, and breathe. Also, students can be taught how to practice mindfulness through breathing exercises, which can be used before tests or at the beginning of class. This is an simple, yet important social emotional skill for all of us!

Supporting Our (already) Resilient Learners

No matter the subject or age of our students, each student has developed resiliency over the course of their life, education, and unique experiences. In my opinion, resilience isn’t fostered in students because students already have resilience. Resilience isn’t something to give from the teacher necessarily, but can absolutely be supported and encouraged in the classroom.

Instead of fostering a trauma-informed classroom, we can move towards healing-centered engagement, which is a newer approach by Shawn Ginwright. Healing-centered engagement views trauma not simply as an individual isolated experience, but highlights the ways in which trauma and healing are experienced collectively. Overall, this is less of a deficit approach and focuses more holistically to foster student well-being, because students are not defined by one traumatic event, as they are complex human beings. Check out the lecture by Ginwright below or his article linked here to learn more!

Don’t forget YOU, too

When discussing trauma and addressing it in the classroom, we have to remember that this is heavy stuff, and as teachers, we can’t pour from an empty cup. We have to be able to practice self-care and take care of our own traumatic experiences if we are to effectively support and engage with our students. Even if it’s for a few minutes each day, it is crucial for educators to take a moment to rest, reflect, and recharge. Don’t forget about yourself in the process of caring for your students – seek out help, community, and support as you need it too!

Thanks for being here! I’d love to hear your thoughts on this topic in the comments!

As always, Miss Creeden


  1. Hey Luke!
    Thanks for your comments, I appreciate it! I think that taking time to “refill your cup” is something that doesn’t always come naturally to me, or to other educators since they tend to be focused on giving. But for me, currently, I recharge by spending time outside and in the sunshine, taking a break from work when I recognize I need it, and reading my Bible and connecting with God as a way of meditating and relaxing. I think that spending time with family and friends also leaves me feeling energized and renewed, so I would definitely want to prioritize this in the future!

  2. Hey Michael,
    Thanks so much for your feedback. That’s a good question. I think it’s less about quantifying the amount of resiliency they have, and more about acknowledging their prior experiences or past trauma may have developed a lot of resilience in them already. So, I think it is important to ask intentional questions and be open to hearing about their trauma, if it is something they want to discuss, and then affirming their resilience through that. I think that looking out for the way students are resilient and overcoming should be focused on more than their deficits.

  3. Hi Rachel!

    You did such a great job on this blog post! The infographics you included were extremely helpful and complimented your writing so well. I think it was really unique that you mentioned that many of our students will have developed some amount of resiliency before reaching our classroom. How do you think we can get a feel for how resilient they are when they are in our classrooms?

  4. Hi Rachel!
    Wow! I really liked your post! It was very informative and practical in methods for responding to students’ trauma. I thought it was important how you said to depersonalize these conflicts because most of the time, it’s not about you as the teacher. Also, I really appreciate that you tied in the healing centered engagement framework that paints a different picture of students, emphasizing their strengths rather than their trauma. You mention at the end how important it is to have time for yourself, to “refill your cup”. What are some ways that you personally do this, or could see yourself doing this in the future?

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