Posts by Heather Cox

Trauma Informed Teaching

Several weeks ago, I had the opportunity to attend a two day training offered at NWTC called Crisis Intervention Partners. The training covered difficult, but important topics like mental health; suicide; special populations: veterans, children, and autism, and crisis deescalation; however, the component that really stayed with me was the topic of trauma informed care.

Trauma informed care is a response to ACES (Adverse Childhood Experience Study) that was conducted between 1995 and 1997. The study looked at the effects of childhood trauma including exposure to abuse (physical, sexual, emotional), neglect (physical and emotional), violence, substance abuse, mental illness, parental separation or divorce, and incarceration of a household member. The results of the study are truly staggering.  The more ACES that a child was exposed to, the greater their risk for

  • Social, Emotional, and Cognitive Impairment
  • Adoption of health-risk behaviors (smoking, alcohol and drug abuse, promiscuity, and severe obesity)
  • Disease, disability, and social problems
  • Early death

While researching more about the topic, I came across a documentary entitled Paper Tigers (Available on Amazon Prime). This documentary looked at students in an alternative high school in Washington State that had very poor student success outcomes. However, the school made a 180 degree turn around in student success when they moved away from a penal system of addressing behavior problems in the classroom to a trauma informed teaching methodology. The statement that really stood out to me was that instead of looking at a student and wondering/asking “What is wrong with you?”, the question becomes “What happened to you, and how can I support you?”

When you consider the results of ACES, more than two-thirds of participants reported at least one ACE, with 87% of those individuals reporting at least one additional (referred to as co morbid or co-occurring). When you think about that statistic, that means that potentially two out of three individuals that we encounter on a daily basis struggle with overcoming past (or present) traumas in their lives. Some are aware of these traumas and their triggers, while others may not be as self-aware.

One poignant quote from the training that stood out to me was, “It would be wise to assume that trauma may play in a person’s current life difficulties and that our job is to insure that our policies, procedures, activities, environment and ways that we relate and talk to each other creates a safe and trusting environment.”

Thankfully, there are guiding principles to help us respond to those in need:

  • Listen Actively
  • Validate (“That must be hard”; I am sorry you were hurt in that way”)
  • Normalize
  • Assist (Make referrals)
  • Avoid re-traumatization

We can do this by promoting an environment where we “understand the prevalence and impact of trauma; promote safety; earn trust; embrace diversity; provide holistic care; respect human rights; pursue a person’s strengths, choice, and autonomy; share power; and communication with compassion.”

When I consider these actions, I can see a lot our NWTC values. We have access to all the tools and services we need to effectively serve our students. We must each do our part to ensure that we all – students and faculty alike – enjoy a positive, successful experience at NWTC.



The Wise Choice Process: Proactive or Reactive

The wise choice process is an exceptional tool to use with struggling students. If you are not familiar with this process, it is introduced in the text On Course: Strategies for Creating Success in College and in Life by Skip Downing.

The Wise Choice process has six steps:

  1. What is my present situation?
  2. How would I like my situation to be?
  3. What are my possible choices?
  4. What’s the likely outcome of each possible choice?
  5. Which choice(s) will I commit to doing?
  6. When and how will I evaluate my plan?

My first experience with utilizing the wise choice process was with a student after they had stopped persisting for a time and had returned to class. In other words, I was using the process as a reactive tool after a student had already experienced the consequences of making poor choices.

The more I considered the wise choice process and what it represented, I decided to utilize the process as a proactive exercise earlier in each semester.

During the first week of each course, I now ask my students to consider any “fork in the road” they MAY encounter during the semester. This could be transportation concerns, financial hardships, loss of childcare, assumed difficulty with the academic rigor of the course, etc.  I then ask the students to work through The Wise Choice Process making a plan for addressing their circumstance – in advance! As part of that plan, they are provided with a copy of all available students services and are asked to include at least one student service they could utilize to aid in their situation.

Note: the purpose of this activity is to encourage the students to make a plan for how they will respond in advance of the hardship actually occurring. I have found when a student has a plan for how to deal with a possible “fork in the road” in advance, they are less likely to be thrown off course when the circumstance happens, then if they had made no plan at all. Additionally, is a circumstance does cause the student to get off course, they generally stay off course for a shorter period of time.

Understanding Student Motivation

When I first landed in teaching more years ago than I care to admit, I believed that it was my responsibility as an instructor to motivate my students to be successful. It didn’t matter whether they were the star football player, dreading writing an essay in English Composition I, or a GED student who had a poor, prior educational experience. I believed their success had more to do with my teaching and the classroom atmosphere I created than with their efforts. After all, if I did my job, the students should want to do their best…right? Well, not always!

This mindset, though heartfelt and well meant, was naive at best. As you can image, there have now been many times, when despite my best efforts, students failed a test, a course, or even stopped persisting altogether. After all, we have probably all heard the cliche, “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make them drink.”

It wasn’t until I was introduced to the concept of On Course that I began to understand more about student motivation. In his text, On Course Strategies for Creating Success in College and Life, Skip Downing defined motivation with the formula V x E = M. “In this formula, “V” stands for value…”E” stands for expectation…In a nutshell, the V x E = M formula says that you level of motivation in college is determined by multiplying your value score by your exception score.” In other words, the more a student values their education and expects to do well, the higher their motivation will be.

Yet, I have found that it does not always follow that a student who has a high degree of motivation will be successful. Why?

Several years ago, a team member and I began discussion our observations on this topic. We noticed that many students came to NWTC very motivated. They valued their educational opportunity; they even expected to do well. By all accounts, the student appeared like they will be successful. However, several weeks into their course of study, they would stop persisting, and if they did return, they would not do so for weeks or often months. When students did return, we usually found that they had encountered a substantial “fork in the road,” that had thrown them off their projected course. (If you think of a student’s educational experience as a race course, then this experience was a very high, seemingly insurmountable hurdle.)

In that discussion, we made modifications to the motivation formula. Our result was V x E = M/ Current Circumstances. In explanation, if the circumstances were greater than the motivation than the student would stop persisting. If the motivation was greater than the circumstance, the student would stay the course. The most common circumstances usually involved unexpected financial situations, inadequate childcare, a change in work schedule, or the perception of outside familial obligations greater than that of their own education.

Every student responds differently to circumstances. This response is influenced by many factors – family background/beliefs, socioeconomic status, physical and mental health, acceptance in various degrees of social relationship, and one I have only recently learned about – the presence or absence of traumas in a person’s life.

Even when a student takes personal responsibility for their response to an undesirable circumstance, the outcome is not always positive. To use an On Course example, there are times when an escalator stops. Though I can’t control the circumstance, I need to take responsibility for myself and walk up the stairs. However, what if the escalator was an elevator? I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t be able to climb my way out of an elevator shaft, no matter how motivated I was. I would be pressing the “HELP” button – several times over!

Thankfully, NWTC has many options when it comes to the “HELP” button in the form of student services. The sooner we can connect students to these services, the more likely it will be that their motivation will overcome their current circumstance. I have had the opportunity to see some of these services in operation, and they truly do make a difference in many students lives.

So, how can you motivate your students? It starts with creating a welcoming  environment in your class where students feel safe. Then, listen and observe. When something doesn’t seem right – ask. Then, connect or refer students to the proper service.

Student success really does take a village, and thankfully, we have a pretty great one!