How Social and Emotional Learning Can Help Students Who Have Experienced Trauma

Melissa Hughes

Learn how a Chicago English teacher is sharing social-emotional learning (SEL) tools with her high school students that they can use both inside and beyond the classroom.

Because most of her 21 years as a high school English teacher have been spent in Chicago schools and communities that are "generally hyper-segregated" — where the majority of her students who are Black and Latino are impacted by systematic racism, poverty, and oppression — Melissa Hughes has been incorporating lessons around social and emotional learning (SEL) before it was even a formalized program.

"Trauma was showing up in student behavior that looked like defiance, disruption, or disengagement. It was because of the Zero Tolerance period in education in the early 1990s that I really started understanding the connection between trauma and students' ability — inability — to learn," says Ms. Hughes who currently works at Michele Clark Academic Prep Magnet High School.

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At her last school, in Chicago's Englewood neighborhood, several students were murdered or died. These tragedies piled on top of the already relentless racism and inequality that students and their families experienced across multiple aspects of their lives.

"For a long time, I was feeling sort of beat down and lost. I knew my students were experiencing trauma but it wasn't being addressed, school-wide, and there were no outlets. You can love, support, and try to teach your students, but if you don't have the language or the tools, you feel like you are falling short at every turn," says Ms. Hughes who 12 years into her teaching career went back and earned a master's in Youth Development.

To address what she calls her students' communal trauma, she started to be more intentional in her planning of classroom structures, offering opportunities for students to reflect on and self-monitor their feelings, their responses to their classmates, and their responses to her. For example, she says, "We set up a safe space for students to go if they were feeling upset or needed to disengage that we named the 'Check Yourself Before You Wreck Yourself' corner after a lyric from an Ice Cube song. It seemed like a small thing at first, but it turned out to make an enormous difference in the classroom.

One of the best parts of the corner turned out to be the fact that it offered students the opportunity to say to me, 'Ms. Hughes, do you need to go to the Check Yourself Before You Wreck Yourself corner?' if I was responding to them in a way that they felt was unsafe, over the top, stern, or whatever. Then I, too, could have a moment to pause and recalibrate, to learn from them, and to model for them. And setting up that original safe-space corner helped me better understand all the systems being placed on these kids — racially, socio-economically, politically."

One step at a time — out of need — she created SEL-like tools and strategies as well as units in her curriculum that started to make a difference in the lives of her students in and beyond the classroom.

The Problem with Shame

Ms. Hughes knows from years of experience in mostly understaffed and underfunded schools that students cannot learn if their heads are filled with stress, anxiety, fear, and shame.

"I'm not diagnosing my students, but potentially disassociating, having outbursts, putting their heads down, falling asleep, or getting really upset seem, to me, like reactions to triggers. Your brain can only handle so much until it needs to protect itself with whatever coping mechanisms you may have," she says. "Fury is a more than a reasonable reaction to unrelenting racism. Shutting down to push out unthinkable thoughts is a more than reasonable reaction to trauma. There is no shame in that. So, I try to help my students learn to recognize their triggers — the what and why of their emotions — and slowly learn to let go of any related shame."

The Power of Spoken-Word Poetry

Chicago has an incredible poetry scene, particularly youth poetry. "We look at and listen to a lot of poems, especially those written by people who look like my students, who are from the same city, and who are maybe experiencing similar challenges," says Ms. Hughes. "We also write poetry and students can perform their pieces during our Open Mic Fridays."

Their Open Mic Fridays were inspired by reading Nikki Grimes' novel Bronx Masquerade — a powerful exploration of self and an homage to spoken-word poetry — as well as their participation in a local youth poetry festival, called Louder Than a Bomb, for which Ms. Hughes and another teacher were the coaches. At Team Englewood, where Ms. Hughes taught before Michele Clark, poetry — especially poetry centered on social justice — became a part of their school's culture. There were slams. Local poets would visit and lead writing workshops, sharing experiences reflected through words.

"Poetry inspired our students socially and emotionally, and we were also able to tie it all in academically … think figurative language, metaphors, similes," she says. "A few related projects we did in English focused on personifying emotions through, for example, a letter to grief or anger or imagining a world without police. Many of my students choose to write these assignments in verse. They started writing more on their own, they'd show them to me after class, there was a sense of burgeoning pride. They were telling their stories on their own terms. It was powerful."

Truth and Story Reframing

In addition to using poetry in her class to teach English and SEL, Ms. Hughes has also created units that underscore the importance of "windows and mirrors"— of giving students opportunities to not only see themselves in what they are reading but also to lift up their own voices to develop a healthier self-identity and learn to self-advocate.

"I don't think you can teach SEL without telling students the truth, right? We can't teach SEL if there's an elephant in the middle of the room that is silently shouting about the realities of systematic racism or the school-to-prison pipeline. Once we begin talking about the realities of these systems, and the fact that the single story or dominant narrative is not true, students can then begin to reframe their own stories … shift their own stories away from the deficit view they may have of themselves and their communities.

"Students know what's going on. They want to discuss the difficult realities they read about and see in their own lives," she adds. "I remember asking my students during the Trayvon Martin murder trial if they wanted to talk about it. I had this one boy say, ‘I want to talk about it because that could be me and I'd want people to talk about my life.'"

Healing-Centered Engagement

The principal at Michele Clark is deeply supportive of SEL, providing more opportunities for students, if they choose, to talk about current events that are impacting their community and, in particular, incorporating restorative practices in the classroom.

Certified in Healing Centered Engagement (HCE), and leading the professional development for it at her school, Ms. Hughes knows that "trauma-informed care" doesn't encompass the totality of a person's experience and focuses only on their harm, injury, and trauma. Instead, HCE expands how people think about responses to trauma and offers more holistic approaches to fostering well-being. Described by Shawn Ginwright, PhD, who created and built the framework for HCE, "A healing-centered approach to addressing trauma requires a different question that moves beyond 'what happened to you' to 'what's right with you' and views those exposed to trauma as agents in the creation of their own well-being rather than victims of traumatic events."

"HCE is aligned with SEL in that we are focusing on lessons like taking responsibility for our actions, being accountable, building relationships, and developing self-awareness," says Ms. Hughes. "We are shining a light on the wellness that we all want instead of on the harm that has already been done. It doesn't ignore or minimize the effects of our students' traumas and experiences, rather it helps them move from self-blame and shame because we can talk about the larger systems like systematic racism, poverty, and oppression that have caused the harm and have led to some of these trauma responses in our communities."


Creating a Sense of Safety

Because of incorporating SEL into her class and curriculum, Ms. Hughes says there is a vastly improved and expanded sense of safety, honesty, and openness in her classroom. "I think because of some of our practices and tools, my students are more comfortable expressing their needs and better understand what they know is true for themselves, who they are, and what they deserve and desire. Our work around poetry and social justice, especially, has helped them to amplify and share their voices," she says. "By providing opportunities through SEL, our students can in many ways lead the way, letting us know what they need and how they want to improve themselves. SEL skills are really what they need to succeed in the real world."

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