You may have heard or even used yourself the words lazy and laziness during a virtual staff meeting when talking about students’ recent behaviour. It is perfectly understandable to think about students being lazy at the moment because they are at home just like us, and there is nothing much to do, so why not do the tasks we are assigning? Right?
Procrastination is more likely to happen when students care about the task and see it as something meaningful. Students of all ages who do not begin a task often do so because they are feeling anxious about their final product not being to their own standard, or simply not ‘good enough’. Another common reason for procrastinating is regarding the unknown steps that need to be taken in order to complete the given task, which makes the student ‘stuck’. Paralysing feelings of fear and failure are incredibly difficult to go or fade away. Maybe, despite all your efforts in being clear, students are staring at a computer screen for hours unable to start a task. Many feel worried and torture themselves for not being able to start. This is certainly not laziness and the student should not be described as lazy just because other students are coping better with the situation.
The problem with procrastination is that teachers are usually unaware of what is happening behind the scenes until there is a deadline and no final product is received. By setting up an empathic atmosphere, students and teachers are free to ask questions about the assignments and tasks. Teachers can try to help students that are struggling by advising them to try to discover what is preventing the start of the task. In addition, they can provide simple coping techniques. If it is anxiety, the student needs to stop trying to do the task and engage with something that is relaxing and pleasurable to put things into perspective. Another common scenario is related to those students who do not know how to divide a larger assignment into a series of specific, and shorter tasks and that is exactly why teachers should scaffold tasks as much as possible.
Students do not actively choose to fail or disappoint you. There are many invisible barriers to learning in general, but certainly more when learning languages. There is a reason and an explanation about the behaviour of the ‘lazy’ student that can be found by asking questions in an empathic, non-threatening way.
Before discussing Trauma-informed teaching, let me give you a definition of trauma by Rice and Groves (2005) who define it as ‘an exceptional experience in which powerful and dangerous events overwhelm a person’s capacity to cope’. As you can see, what we all are experiencing now because of COVID-19 can be described as collective trauma. Therefore, it is important to be aware of this when planning our current and future lessons.
Trauma-informed teaching is inspired by trauma-informed care which is a framework developed to assist and improve clinical practice and social service delivery. Basically, it has been helping professionals to deal with traumatized individuals and prevent re-trauma. The original framework consists of five guiding principles which are safety, choice, collaboration, trustworthiness and empowerment.
In education, trauma-informed teaching aims to raise awareness among academic and non-academic staff of the impacts of trauma in learning. It provides practical classroom strategies and responses to students’ behaviour by creating a physically and emotionally safe environment. It also seeks to establish trust and boundaries, and support autonomy and choice by creating collaborative relationships and participation.
With or without COVID-19, it is unlikely that all students have suffered trauma, but it is much more common than we had originally thought as current research suggest. Choosing to use trauma-informed teaching practices with all students does no harm, in fact, it can potentially lead to improved social-emotional wellbeing, and better learning outcomes to all students. So, my humble and bold suggestion is to treat every student as if they all needed help navigating classes in terms of social and emotional aspects. Relationships should come first and then they will be followed by content. Easier said than done? Don’t have time? Too many students? Probably! But trust me (and the research that informs my bold advice). It might look and feel that you are wasting time and falling behind the curriculum, but in fact, the extra time you spend on trauma-informed practices is highly likely to result in more motivated students responding faster and showing higher levels of engagement – see Getting the kids on your side, an article with tips from English Teaching professional, if you would like to build more meaningful relationships with students.
Trauma-informed tips during and after COVID-19
- Be flexible.
- Provide students with a communication channel and explicitly tell them what times you are available.
- Have a candid conversation with students, show empathy and let them know that you really understand the situation.
- Try backwards design and start by first designing learning outcomes and the assessment tasks.
- Design demanding tasks that are both short and achievable.
- Make room for student choice.
- Consider giving extension to assignments whenever possible.
- Avoid incentive or threat-based strategies during class.
- Explain what your teaching goals are and possibly write them down as an agenda.
- Give precise and clear written instructions.
- Set clear time-limits for activities and provide time warnings towards the end of the activity.
- Remind students that sometimes the process is more important than the product.
- Scaffold content and assessment tasks as much as you can.
- Establish deadlines as early as possible.
- Don’t be afraid to show your vulnerability.
- Be tactful with the language you use.
- Always look after and be kind to yourself.
- Remember to be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle that you are unaware of.
It might be too soon to talk about silver-linings for COVID-19, but this pandemic has certainly raised more awareness of mental health issues, particularly those in educational settings. Let us use these rather hard times to add a new tool to our teaching toolbox.
Please share any other techniques you’ve found useful in the comments below.
Rice, K. & Groves, B. (2005). Hope and Healing: A Caregiver's Guide to Helping Young Children Affected by Trauma. Washington, DC: Zero to Three.