3 Things to Remember When Helping Students Living With Trauma & Toxic Stress

The hammering, sawing and drilling next door was more than I could stand. I had planned on a peaceful and relaxing day. Instead what I got was an experience that I won’t soon forget and one that has helped me rethink the effects that childhood trauma and toxic stress can have on our students’ emotional well-being.

By no means am I comparing a few hours of noisy construction to what many students experience on a daily basis. I was simply given a little perspective. I was unable to think, focus or have a coherent thought because of the construction that was taking place next door.

My experience lasted only a few hours and I could have left if necessary. On the other hand, many of our students live with much worse every day with no chance of escape—except for the seven and half hours they spend with us. Therefore, it is our obligation to provide them with a learning environment that best meets their needs. What follows are three strategies I have found to be helpful when working with students that are dealing with trauma and toxic stress.

Don’t Pile On

Many of our students are broken and bent before they even walk through our doors. We know who they are. They are already down.

So why pile on?

Don’t get me wrong. There are situations and circumstances that require us to intervene. And there are certain students that might need more frequent reminders than others. But we should be able to identify these by now. We are the adults. Furthermore, I think we must ask ourselves; will our actions make the situation better or worse? If the answer is worse, then I think we must re-evaluate what we are doing.

I am not implying that we ignore bad decision-making or that we let things go. But I do believe that oftentimes the end result of a pile on is a more beaten and battered child. Instead, we must try to lighten their load or at the very least, not to add to it. We may not always be able to make things better, but we must certainly do everything we can to not make it worse.

Give Space

Trauma and toxic stress can cause students’ brains to feel overcrowded. Unable to escape the thoughts in their head, students quickly become overwhelmed. Oftentimes what they need is just a little extra space. Eric Jensen, author of Teaching With the Brain in Mind, notes that:

“Students need time to digest, think about, and act on their learning; connections need time to strengthen. Therefore, adding more content makes little sense. Each learner probably has an ideal number of ideas that he or she can learn in an hour.”

And yet, because of demands placed on teachers, space is something they feel they can’t afford to grant. But for children whose brains are already stressed, space is exactly what they need.

Sometimes, the best thing for an overtaxed brain is quiet and permission to rest and yet rarely are either given. But they can be. And they should be. As an administrator and former teacher, I was guilty of not giving students space more times than I can remember.

Students often benefit more from time and space than they do a clever word. Many times, I have given what I thought was great advice only to find that it accomplished nothing. I should have simply offered a place to sit and kept my mouth shut.

Remember When They Feel Better, They’ll Do better

As an educator it can be frustrating when we feel as if a student has disrespected us or ignored a simple request. This is when things can escalate quickly and before we know it, there is a confrontation that results in anger, hurt feelings and further emotional stress on a child that can’t afford to take any more.

Think back to last time you had a headache—maybe even a migraine. Anyone making a noise felt your wrath and answering even the simplest question seemed impossible. Well, many of our students feel like this every day. Their memory is weakened because of the stress they are under.

We must remind ourselves that in order for our students to do better they must first feel better. I saved this strategy for last because I think it is not only the easiest to implement but it is also the one that will have the greatest impact.

Helping students feel better is something we can do right away. Or at least we can try. There will be times when we just can’t figure out how to help a child feel better. It is during these times when we must reach out to each other. Our ego must not be allowed to intervene.

Maybe the student feels more comfortable with one of our colleagues. Don’t take it personally. Maybe the student is directing their anger towards us. Not because they are angry with us. Quite the contrary. Oftentimes students who have experienced trauma will lash out at those that help them feel safe. It’s tough to bare but we must ride the storm out as best we can. Or maybe, we ask the student what we can do for them. Yes, we are the adult and they are the child. But sometimes they know best what it is they need to feel better. So just ask them.

Unfortunately, the number of students experiencing trauma and toxic stress is increasing. It is painful, frustrating and heartbreaking to watch what they go through on a daily basis. But we can make things better. Maybe not as much as we’d like and that is difficult to accept. We want to be able to instantly take away the pain and suffering for our students. But we can’t. What we can do though is try and implement the strategies above. That is a start and a step in the right direction.

How Childhood Trauma Affects Health Across a Lifetime – a powerful TED talk by Dr. Nadine Burke Harris that is well worth the 18 minutes it takes to view.

*If you would like to have my next article and my latest podcast episode delivered to your in box just click HERE. And as an extra bonus, when you sign up for my newsletter you will receive A Teacher’s Blueprint To The Best Week Ever. This is a free, 40 page pdf designed to help you have an awesome week. It’s not what you think, trust me.

The In-Between

I’ll never forget Men’s Fortnight. Two weeks that I will cherish for the rest of my life. Just to clarify, these two weeks had nothing to do with the wildly popular video game nor did they have anything to do with men.

Men’s Fortnight is what my 8-year-old son and I call the 2 weeks that he and I spent together last summer. My wife and daughter were in Australia, leaving my son and I to fend for ourselves. We went to bed when we wanted. We woke up when we wanted. We ate what we wanted. Which meant a lot of Chik-fil-A nuggets and pizza.

We went swimming every day, played lots of one-on-one basketball and watched movies from the fort we built in the big bedroom. The time. The laughs. The fun we had during those two weeks was what every father dreams of.


This sounds nice.

And my son and I did spend 14 days awesome days together last summer. But Men’s Fortnight isn’t the norm. I wish I could say it was. But it’s not. Don’t get me wrong. I try to spend quality time with my son every day. But it doesn’t always happen.

There are days when I come from work exhausted or with a headache and all I want to do is veg out and watch Netflix.

My son often asks me as soon as I walk in the door, “when are we playing Daddy?” My usual response is a lackluster, “A little bit later buddy. Let Daddy rest for a little while. He just got home.” All the while, I’m hoping that one of his friends from the neighborhood knock on the door. Essentially letting me off the hook.

And while I am off the hook, I do feel bad for not playing with my son. I mean, I want to. I really do. I just get lazy some days.

Why am I sharing this with you?

It’s not to relieve myself of some guilt. I still feel a little once in a while. I share this because I want you to know that you are not alone. And to be honest, there’s nothing wrong with resting when I get home from work. And there’s nothing wrong with hoping my son’s friends ring the doorbell so they can play with him.

Here’s why I am worried.

Most of what we see on social media are people’s best, happiest and most sensational moments. Not that there is anything inherently wrong with that. I mean I don’t go on social media to see stuff that makes me sad or depressed or anxious.

But that’s exactly what’s happening. We see what someone posted on social media and we compare it to our own lives. These picture-perfect Hallmark moments cause us to wonder what is wrong with us. We begin to question ourselves, our self-worth and suddenly we feel like crap.

We must stop doing this. I have guilty and I still am from time to time. But here’s the thing. Each one of us has our Hallmark moments, our Men’s Fortnights, our highlight reels.

We just don’t have them all the time. Nobody does. Not Beyonce. Not Tom Brady. Not Michelle Obama. Nobody.

But there is something that we do all have in common.

The time in-between.

The late nights.

The sweat.

The struggles.

The tears.

The failed attempts.

And so on and so on.

It is the in-between that helps us have the moments that we cherish and crave. But we mustn’t ever forget that without the in-between, there is no Hallmark moment, no Men’s Fortnight and no highlight reel.

So hang in there and know that your moments are coming. You may need to grind a little more and you may need to suffer a few setbacks. You’re certainly going to make mistakes along the way.

It’s okay.

You’re not alone.

In fact, I’d be willing to bet that most of us are in the in-between at this very moment. And that’s okay. Because before you know it, you’ll be having one of those moments that we’ll hear or see on social media. And we’ll be happy for you because we’ll remember that like us, you spend most of your time in the in-between and that’s okay.


Want to receive a free chapter from my book My Bad: 24 Educators Who Messed Up, Fessed Up & Grew? It will remind you that you’re not alone and that everything isn’t about highlight reels and Hallmark moments.

Click HERE to claim your free chapter.




Take the Small Hits


I’ve told my told my son to pick up up after himself but it’s still not happening. Or at least it’s not happening as often as I’d like (which would be every time). How difficult is it to just throw your trash away?

Well, one morning this week I woke up early to brew my 1st cup of coffee. And I glanced over to see empty boxes of treats, cookies and cereal, lying on their side and crumbs all over the floor.


I was livid. That’s it. No more snacks. No more eating in front of the tv while playing Madden. No more Mr. Nice Guy.

My wife came down a few minutes later as I was in the middle of my rant. Surely she was on my side. We can’t allow our son to make the tv area his personal trash can?

My wife didn’t share my frustration.


While my wife acknowledged that, yes our son did make and leave a mess, she said that that was a hit she willing to take. She reminded how much fun he had hanging out with his friend and eating snacks while playing video games.


Mic drop!

She was right. Why was I getting worked up over something so small and something that resulted in much happiness?

idk GIF

An even better question is how often do I allow myself to become angry or upset over small stuff? I have to admit it is often. Too often. It’s time I reflect on what I am allowing to make me angry and what I am allowing to disrupt my sense of calm and steal my energy. I think this is something that we as educators need to take time to reflect upon because we can’t afford to become upset over small stuff. We need to save our energy for bigger issues.

I have a compiled a list of questions we need to begin asking ourselves before we lose our sh%$ over little stuff.

Is It Causing a Problem or Does it Simply Irritate You?

I was irritated by the mess my son left. But it didn’t cause a problem because when I asked him to clean it up, he did so without arguing. Therein lies the difference. I think this is a question that we must continually ask ourselves before we become angry.

Students forgetting to bring a pencil is irritating but is it a problem? No, not really. So, from here on out, don’t even let things as minor as this irritate you. As I am writing this, there is a day-old yogurt tube sitting next to the tv where my son plays Madden. Was it intended for yesterday’s breakfast? Probably. Did I let it irritate me? No. I simply reminded my son to throw it away and he obliged. End of story.

Do You Have to Get Involved?

We are helpers by nature. It’s what we educators do.

But …

There are times when we need to back off. Some things will fix themselves and don’t concern us. I’m not saying we shouldn’t pitch in and I’m not saying that we shouldn’t help our colleagues when we’re able and the situation calls for it.

But how many times have we “piled on” when we could have left well enough alone? I know I have been guilty more times than I care to count. And it adds up.

For example, my wife may be taking care of a situation with one of our kids and I, for some reason, feel the need to chime in when I should have left it alone. First, my wife didn’t need or want my help. Second, that is energy I can save for something else.

We have our hands full as it is, why jump into situations in which we are not needed just to chime in. It takes energy. It takes power away from the other person. And it causes resentment from the child or student that is being addressed.

Do You Have Energy For the Big Stuff?

Do you find yourself worn out and exhausted by the end of the day? If you’re like 99.9% of educators then you’re answer is yes.

Now I get it, your job is incredibly difficult and energy consuming. But, what if you saved a little bit? And instead of fighting every-little-battle you began saving energy for the big stuff. Because we know there is going to be big stuff.

Unfortunately, we spend so much of our time with the little piddly stuff that when it comes time to take on the big issues, we have nothing left.

  • Don’t freak out when a student curses in your class. Address it and move on. Or, and this can be difficult, don’t even acknowledge the cursing and it might go away. Remember I said might.
  • Who cares that your colleague didn’t say good morning to you today? Maybe they were having a bad day. Maybe they were daydreaming. Maybe. Maybe. Maybe. Let it go
  • And that parent who continues to forget to sign their child’s paper? Don’t take it personally. Stuff happens. Is it that big a deal? Is it worth getting bent out of shape over?

You only have a limited amount of energy and patience when you begin each day. Don’t waste it on stupid stuff. I know I could have worded that a little more eloquently, but you know what I mean. Plus, I didn’t want to spend another 20 minutes wordsmithing one sentence when I could be using that time for something else. Like taking a nap.

Have a great week and remember, don’t sweat the small stuff.


Related Blog Pieces

It’s Gonna Be Alright

I Worry Less

Balance, It’s All About You

Related Podcast

Maintaining Your Emotional Stability When Students Lose Theirs

Related Book

Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff … and it’s all small stuff



*If you would like to have my next article and my latest podcast episode delivered to your in box just click HERE. And as an extra bonus, when you sign up for my newsletter you will receive A Teacher’s Blueprint To The Best Week Ever. This is a free, 40 page pdf designed to help you have an awesome week. It’s not what you think, trust me.








What Teachers Can Look Forward To

Days can be long, especially during the winter months when there days off seem nonexistent. For many of us, the days are cold and nights are long. This won’t last for long because before we know it, it will be spring and kids will be playing outside after dinner. But for now, it can be tough.

Students are restless because they’ve been indoors, state testing is on the horizon and you’re still waiting to be observed by your administrator. This is the time of the year where you sometimes feel like you just want to crawl into a hole and hibernate until summer—without having to do lesson plans of course.

The thing is, we know we must grind through. And you always do. It never ceases to amaze me how you are able to persevere through this season. Despite your students’ behavior. Despite catching the flu. Despite, despite, despite.

You always make it.

But at what cost?

Oftentimes your mental health pays the price because you feel like you are constantly in survival mode.

The days when your lesson isn’t coming together or that one student has plucked your last nerve or you just plain feel like crap. We all have them. But teachers you are always on and I know these days come around more often than you’d like to admit.

While I can’t help with your lesson or calm your student or help you feel better physically, I do have something that can help you make it through the tough days without losing it. It doesn’t cost a thing and you have everything you need with you at this very moment.

Let me explain.

You remember when you were a kid and you were able to magically take yourself to far off lands? Maybe you were a Star Wars fan and you imagined yourself fighting alongside Luke Skywalker. Or maybe you loved Harry Potter so you pretended you were Hermione and you were able to cast spells on people. Regardless of whoever you imagined yourself to be, you had the ability to take yourself away from wherever you were just by using your imagination.

Guess what?

You still can.

When you’re having a rough day, in a bad way or just want to get away (hey that rhymed) just try the following:

Give Yourself Something to Look Forward to When You Get Home

It doesn’t need to be elaborate or expensive or involve anyone else. Maybe you can’t wait to watch the latest episode of Vikings while eating a bag of chips. Or you could excited about the workout you are going to get in. The one you have been putting off for days. Today is the day you take that pilates class, run that mile or lift some weights. Maybe it’s a beautiful day and you want to just put on your sweatpants and take your dog for a long, peaceful walk.

Whatever you do, each morning when you wake up, give yourself at least one thing to look forward to when you get home. Of course, you might have schoolwork to do. Yes, you have to cook dinner or maybe you work a 2nd job. Regardless, give yourself one thing that is yours.

So when your day starts dragging or that student starts whining or your lesson starts bombing, just remember—in a few hours it will be your time. And nobody can touch that. It is amazing what a little positive visualization can do to your current state. It’s magical.

Give Yourself Something to Look Forward to This Weekend

Okay, maybe you need more. In that case, begin to plan something fun for the weekend. You have Friday night, Saturday and Sunday. Most likely you have some type of obligation or event that will take up a portion of your time. But the rest of the weekend? Is yours.

Plan to hangout with friends. Nothing elaborate. Maybe you order pizza, drink wine and watch your favorite John Hughes movies (did I just age myself?). Or maybe you and your significant other plan a date that you’ve been putting off for a while. It could be dinner and a movie or it could just be picking up take-out and watching whatever is on Netflix.

Some of you may be introverted, like me. You love the company of your loved ones but you recharge best when you are alone. The thought of the morning lying in bed, reading books and taking two naps may sound like Heaven.

Whatever you do, give yourself something to look forward to this weekend. Trust me, and you know this, there will be times this week when you will need to remind yourself that better times lie ahead. This is not a knock on your students, your school or your administration. This is simply real life.

Give Yourself Something to Look Forward to This Summer

Here is where you can really go crazy. Plan big. Go wild. I know it’s only January and with only a few days off between now and the end of the school year, it’s easy to get in a rut. Here’s how you are going to pull yourself out.

Start to plan the best summer ever.

You have several months this summer and what you do with it is up to you. No administrators telling you what to do (I’m one and I get it), no students giving you grief and no lesson plans to write or papers to grade. I know, I know. Some of you teach summer school. But it’s different and it’s usually only part of the summer and half a day.

So, get thinking about how to make your summer awesome! You only have a finite number of summers left. Take advantage of this one and plan it, dream about it and most of all—look forward to it.

Try to balance fun with relaxation. Excitement with calm. Friends and family with alone-time. Travel with staycations. This is the one that is going to get you through the testing season. That time of the year that just plain s… I’m trying to keep this clean.

Just remember.

You got this!

Teachers, what you what you do is incredibly difficult and it seems it is getting more difficult with each day and each new law that is passed. Many of which are not taking your physical and mental well-being into consideration. I’m just being honest.

Just remember this week when you begin to feel stressed, tired and frustrated—take yourself to another place. Think about your evening, your weekend and your summer. It won’t make your problems go away, but it will take you to a better place.

Good luck!


“Peace. It does not mean to be in a place where there is no noise, trouble or hard work. It means to be in the midst of those things and still be calm in your heart.”

Author unknown


Related Blog Pieces

5 Strategies to Help With the Day After Blues

The Big Four

I Got Nothing Done & It Was Great

Related Podcast Episode

To Find Joy and Stay Positive About Teaching (No Matter What), Do This

Related Book

Stillness is the Key


*If you would like to have my next article and my latest podcast episode delivered to your in box just click HERE. And as an extra bonus, when you sign up for my newsletter you will receive A Teacher’s Blueprint To The Best Week Ever. This is a free, 40 page pdf designed to help you have an awesome week. It’s not what you think, trust me.





You Didn’t Know You Messed Up. Now What?

“I wish I didn’t know now what I didn’t know then.”

Bob Seger


I first heard these lyrics as a result of needle on vinyl. In high school and even as a young adult, I thought I got them. I was convinced I understood what Seger was saying. Each time I heard those 11 words, I would bob my head along with the beat. Or at least I’d try to. Sometimes in life, there are truths we wish we never knew. Because they hurt. And because once we learn about them, they hurt even more.

But now? As I am approaching 50, I’m not as confident as I once was. You see, I want to know now what I didn’t know then. I want to get better. I want to make amends. I want to move forward. And I bet you do too.  You don’t want to hide from your mistakes or wish that you didn’t know about them. No, you want to face them head-on. Like a grown up.

Unlike what Bob Seger sang his ‘70s rock hit, you want to know now what you didn’t know then. You want to own your mistakes even though you may have had no idea you were making them at the time. That’s not easy to do.

But each one of us can.

How did we move forward? What did can we do that allows us to get back up?

First, we own their mistakes. This is difficult because the mistakes we often make are unintentional.

So what?

Just because they weren’t intentional doesn’t mean they weren’t hurtful. Think about it. When someone hurts you, does it sting any less knowing it was done unintentionally. Sometimes. But not often. In fact, we often think to ourselves, well, they should have known— how could they not have known?

Former Navy Seal and highly decorated war hero Jocko Willink said it best, “Let go of your delicate pride.” Yeah, you messed up. Now what? Well, since you are reading this book, I am assuming you care about righting your wrong. And this book is about ownership and moving forward once we fall—here we go.

In my opinion, the first step is the most difficult because it requires you to admit you messed up. And the mistake you made wasn’t even your fault. Well, guess what? Nobody cares. What they do care about is what you do next. People will sometimes forgive you for doing the wrong thing. But once you have, they rarely forgive you if you respond by doing nothing,

Bite the bullet.

Eat your frog. Own it.

You’re human.

You’re busy.

You’re going miss stuff.

Acknowledge that and move on. You can do it. Know you are not alone and that people are forgiving. And remember the most important person that must forgive you is you.

Take that first step.


*This short piece was taken from a modified portion of my book, My Bad: 24 Educators Who Messed Up, Fessed Up & Grew. If you enjoyed reading this and are interested in taking a look at the book just clock HERE.

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