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Mind Your Triggers

In what ways might we best support learners during this unique school year? One way is to learn about and understand triggers - in ourselves and in our students - so that we can remain calm resources in their lives as they transition towards another year of learning.

Triggers
The teacher walked directly at me in the high school library, sighed heavily, threw up his arms and shook his head. In most circumstances, these behaviors might be interpreted as negative and perhaps hostile. I would typically find myself catching my breath or getting that pit in my stomach, but in this situation, I refrained from being triggered by his response. My experience reflecting on my own triggers has helped me learn to take a step back and think about other peoples’ responses before reacting myself. I consider this an aspect of self-care.

Think of a trigger as a reaction that causes a negative response. Each of us perceives things in our world that can trigger us. A trigger can be raw and unpredictable. In the scenario I just presented, the teacher was triggered because his own child had missed the bus, but he did not consider that I would not know this. I was not triggered because he and I had just had a pleasant conversation during our professional development session, and I knew that there was no cause for him to be upset with me.

Now think about students and educators who have been home for the past eight weeks or so. It is impossible to know how the days have played out for each individual and therefore, impossible to know what triggers folks will some back to school carrying after a summer break. So, how might we prepare ourselves to be more sensitive to learners’ needs while avoiding being triggered ourselves?

Perception
As we work in the instructional space, we can be mindful of the relationship between triggers and perceptions. We can mediate our own inclination to be triggered by asking ourselves some specific questions:

  • What perception is driving the behavior I’m witnessing?
  • Assuming positive intent for this person, what need is or is not being met?

These two questions help me think about the invisible aspect of what I witness. In my scenario in the school library described above, I was able to regulate my response based on these two questions. Because I was willing to ask the questions, I could attribute his behavior to something beyond myself and thus avoided becoming defensive:

  • Perception? He sighed and shook his head to communicate that he was unhappy. This perception and response did not connect to what had happened in the library.
  • Positive intent? He wanted me to know he was frustrated, and he was able to do this because he was not frustrated with me.

Asking these two questions helps me to understand the “why” of what is happening and then to minimize my own reactions, which might actually exacerbate the situation. A teacher who asks these questions in the face of challenging student behavior will be able to avoid personal triggers and be able to make better decisions about how to respond to the student.

Relationships
Another helpful approach when dealing with triggers in the classroom is to remain as flexible as possible, while remaining focused on the long-term goal. If our goal is to build student agency and understanding, students can learn to manage their own triggers by moving to another part of the room or engaging in a task that helps them to become calmer. While this might feel like a loss of instructional time, our investing in the longer-term goal of building student agency helps students learn to navigate the classroom more consistently as time goes on. Over time, students will grow in their capacity to be present for instruction as they develop the agency to self-regulate.

Another helpful strategy is to make time to develop relationships with students when no one is escalated. For instance, Alex was my student who had a large amount of anger after unfortunately witnessing the murder of his own father. Knowing this, I made time for him: periodically, we would have lunch together to just talk about how he was doing. During these times, we were able to agree on some strategies he was willing to try in order to maintain a calmer state. Because we invested time together away from his extreme emotional state, he learned to think more clearly and make better decisions for himself when triggered.

Self Care and Self Regulation
During this pandemic, we are all carrying new triggers with us. In some cases, these cause behaviors that may not make sense or may not connect to what is happening in the learning environment. To manage these challenges, teachers can practice self-care; we can also help students understand themselves better to learn the skills for self-regulation.

When we establish safety and trust in our classrooms, students are willing to explore concepts and ideas presented during instruction. Managing triggers - our own and our students’ - is a helpful step to this end.

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