Living on Common Ground

Nothing is easy about what you will read, and no simple answers exist; because I value sharing space here with you, I want to tell you that much of this might prove downright triggering, something in trauma-responsive work we seek to avoid.


Thinking about this piece and looking at the word avoid, I am reminded that we, as educators, often do avoid aspects of our day-to-day, in one form or another, and that’s because this work is so personal and so weighted; we avoid taking care of ourselves, we avoid being vulnerable with our students, our colleagues, and ourselves, we figure out our proper balance and by extension avoid asking for what we need. 

There is an enormous, uncertain world out there; it impacts school communities more heavily than many careers, so it makes sense that we feel an unsettling amount of avoidance.

I’m pretty sure we have a lot in common. Like me, you might strive to practice self-kindness, maintain positive self-talk, and seek hope. You're likely acting courageously despite fears and working on self-improvement regularly. Our days often consist of endless to-do lists fueled by copious amounts of coffee and balancing time for personal care like gym sessions.


We face challenges like grading essays, managing children's schedules, and navigating complex situations. All these tasks carry a significant weight, making them hard to avoid even when we wish to.

Imagine what our students are going through if you read this and feel it throughout your body. In the K-12 universe, students have schedules, routines, and adults to follow, rules at every step to adhere to, friends to keep, personal issues to potentially address, and the ever-present social media universe looming over them, watching, and often, monitoring and judging them and their peers. 

They face pressure around building self-esteem and fitting into that online world in ways we, as adults, have never dreamed of. In short, they find they have much less control over their worlds, bodies, and feelings than they would like, which takes a toll.

All Trauma Has a Beginning: Big Feelings and Beyond

In the film world, movies are often laid out, bought, and sold through the power of a “log line”–a one-sentence summary that grabs the reader or listener’s attention, painting a vivid picture of the story before them. 

To understand how to be an effective trauma-responsive educator, I first had to look within, understand and unpack my origin, and decipher my story. It wasn’t easy, heck, it was ultra messy, and to be honest, I’m still doing it. Just because I've lived in trauma, survived trauma, supported and taught countless students in trauma and crisis, and even studied trauma throughout much of my educational career does not make me an expert in trauma. 


Still, it does bring me much closer to my humanity and my imperfections and allows me to be able to appreciate what I have been through–this provides me the ability to speak honestly and empathetically connect with others who have known trauma in their own lives.

Here’s my logline–I haven’t figured out a background score to go with it yet, but I’m working on that.

A hyper-emotional little boy, bitten up into pieces by grown-up monsters, experiences a journey of abuse, healing, and self-discovery when he learns that love– vulnerable, authentic love, will give him purpose, reshape his identity, and set him on a course towards revealing his servant’s heart and discovering redemption through the lives of the students and families he reaches.

It’s in draft form, like me. What’s your log line? 

Call it trauma, call it dysregulation, call it a crisis or a heightened emotional state. What matters most in your work as a parent or school staff member is that you understand that children need you. They also want you to know that out in the world and the schoolhouse, they experience discomfort, harm, and fluctuating emotional experiences at every age. 

Often, they are trying to communicate with us but cannot always do it with words; it cannot be overstated–behavior is communication. Due to the direct and indirect effects of the pandemic on families and schools, many students have struggled with their emotions, their behaviors, or both. 


During the pandemic, many K-12 children have experienced profound loss, anxiety, depression, and even substance abuse. As a response, it becomes essential for parents and school staff to adopt a prevention-focused approach in their interactions with children. This involves creating safe spaces, consistently developing and safeguarding trust, actively listening to their needs, recognizing their cues, and providing empathetic support to protect them and others.

We are responsible for building their conditions and experiences that mitigate their uncertainty, pain, and trauma. When we are unable to, we utilize our mental health support and additional external support partners to bridge them towards the help they and their family may need. 

Trauma-Informed and Trauma-Responsive

To engage in the work, it is critical to first understand before one acts. Alex Shevrin Venet, in her 2021 book Equity Centered Trauma Informed Education, proposes an operating definition: “Trauma-informed educational practices respond to the impacts of trauma on the entire school community and prevent future trauma from occurring. Equity and social justice are key concerns of trauma-informed educators as we make changes in our practice, in classrooms, in schools, and in district-wide and state-wide systems (p.10).” 

Educators and school staff generally like lists, and while I have been a school administrator for the past six years, I was a teacher for twenty years, and lists are always easy to digest, so let’s start with these foundational approaches:

  • We are not repairing or “fixing” children or adults; they are not to be treated as broken

  • We must validate their emotional experiences and seek to listen

  • We must provide safe spaces for them to decompress and emotionally de-escalate; these are preferably built in schools with their consent and suggestions on the design.

  • We must be mindful of the origins of their stories and seek to avoid behaviors in ourselves that would become re-traumatization rather than providing support.

  • We must frame our work with Unconditional Positive Regard (UPR)--again, Shevin Venet (2021) shares that this work states, “I care about you. You have value. You don’t have to do anything to prove it to me, and nothing’s going to change my mind (p.98).”

  • We must work to be preventative and responsive and never reactive.

Trauma-Sensitive, Trauma-Responsive–TSTR

In this current climate, the world of going to school every day is filled with a lot of weight. Staff, students, and community are all carrying rocks in their pockets, pulled down by everything consumed in the news cycles and through various social media platforms.

For every invisible backpack, a child carries that is filled with their stories and pain, there is a parallel staff member living trauma adjacent trying to create a balance between their own lives and what they are vicariously experiencing. Reflect on the following actionable strategies to bring trauma-responsive love to your work:

Language Framing

  • (Baseline) Is it okay if I come closer? (or) Is this a reasonable distance for us to talk?
  • (Query) Tell me more about that...
  • (Validate) It sounds like you feel...
  • (Restate/Reflect) What I hear you saying is…
  • (Clarify) I want to be sure I understand…
  • (Responder) How can I help?

Building Spaces

  • The trauma-sensitive space should be built with students and when/how it is used.
  • It should communicate the values of the community and be organized, with visible messaging about expectations.
  • Consider warm colors and natural, dimmable lighting to avoid overstimulation.
  • The age/grade level will also determine the design of the space and its functionality.
  • Safety for students and staff is essential when placing items in the space for students to use safely, especially when they are in crisis and/or dysregulated.

Creating Your Behaviors

  • The teacher is in charge of 50% of every interaction with a student; both have a role to play and a responsibility towards the other when interacting.
  • There is never a need for an adult to engage in a power struggle with a student.
  • Offer support with if-then or when-then statements (e.g., “When we finish this task, then we can take that ten-minute walk break.”)
  • Provide verbal and non-verbal redirections with calm voice/soft eyes.
  • Provide cues for transitions (gentle music, a chime, a call & response with students, a class song).
  • Promote the community reinforcement of classroom expectations and contracts.
  • Create opportunities for students to win. For example, Elevate the simple things you observe in their behavior and schoolwork;  drop them a note during class about something they've done well without alerting the class to it; provide them something to take care of (e.g., a plant to nurture, a project to create); give them something in class to lead on if this is their skillset.
  • Students (and staff) may not always remember details, but they will never forget how you made them feel.

Living Out School Strategies

  • 2x10 Strategy: Originally called the 'two-minute intervention' by Raymond Wlodkowski, he was able to prove with his application of the strategy that he could reduce students' negative behaviors by 85% immediately following the intervention and demonstrating an extra boost to the whole class behaviors (NCESD, 2022, para. 1)." The strategy focuses on relational value and requires spending two minutes a day for ten days with a student, learning about them–speaking with them about whatever they want to engage on. It will change your life, and maybe even theirs! We are in the work of human beings and building up lives; to that end, building trust and relationships with those we serve is a critical investment. Your life, teaching, personal and professional relationships will thank you.
  • 5 to 1:  In the Behavior Analyst Today, Flora (2000) shared in her article, "Praise's magic reinforcement ratio: Five to one gets the job done," that there is a magic ratio of sorts around positive to negative interactions with students. To this point, affirming and building up a student five times a day will always win over resistance to creating these moments and emphasizing the positives within them. Equitably work towards this goal with a few students a day, creating opportunities to provide five affirming statements before you offer anything that could be received as negative or critical.
  • Origin Building: Connected with the relational work, establish conditions and opportunities for students to explore their racial/ethnic/cultural/gender identities in age-appropriate, experiential, culturally responsive, and relevant ways in your classroom. Seek ways to integrate language, content, discourse, and community messaging that share the mindset that everyone brings excellent value, skill, and belonging to the community. My 2023 article in Edutopia, "Three Crucial Types of Engagement," explores this further, as does my recently published book, Heartleader: A Trauma-Responsive Approach to Teaching, Leading, and Building Communities, explore this approach in-depth.

Heartleader is a must-read for all educators!

Sabey, C. V., Charlton, C., & Charlton, S. R. (2019). The "magic" positive-to-negative interaction ratio: benefits, applications, cautions, and recommendations. Journal of Emotional and Behavioral Disorders, 27(3), 154-164.

Craig (2008) notes that “the first step in helping children learn to regulate their emotions is to make them more aware of how different emotions feel. The next step is to teach them a vocabulary they can use to label feelings as they are experienced. The more vocabulary children have available to describe emotions, the easier it becomes for them to more precisely describe exactly how they are feeling (p.112).”

Nothing about this work is easy; it is often messy, and on any given day, an approach or solution you employ may backfire the following day, but at the heart of the work are the people–you and the students and the relationships, the patience, the story building and compassion, and yes, the love–love for a healthy self, love for a healthy student, and love for the social-emotional work that will lead you both there.

Lastly, please check out my LIVE training on Heartleading with Trauma-Responsive Strategies for K-12 Educators.

Additional Resources:

Bowerman, M. (2023). Heartleader: a trauma-responsive approach to teaching, leading, and building community. TeacherGoals.

Bowerman, M. (2023). Three types of crucial engagement. Edutopia.

Flora, S. R. (2000). Praise's magic reinforcement ratio: Five to one gets the job done. The Behavior Analyst Today, 1(4), 64–69. doi:10.1037/h0099898

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Trauma-Responsive Living was authored by:
Matthew J. Bowerman

Matthew J. Bowerman is an educator with 26 years of experience, as well as a performing artist and speaker/trainer. His work focuses on building trauma responsive school supports, social-emotional strategies, and school-family engagement.

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