Trauma-Informed Practices

Building a Culture of Unconditional Positive Regard

A district administrator shares how school leaders can support all students, including those affected by trauma.

January 19, 2024
Scott Laumann / The iSpot

Ask any administrator about student safety, and they’ll say that it’s paramount. Yet, between recent conflicts abroad and violence close to home, maintaining a sense of safety is a daunting challenge. Some students and families may be personally affected, while others grapple with new fears and anxieties.

The impacts of early exposure to violence are pervasive and well-documented—spurring compassion fatigue and vicarious secondary trauma for educators teaching these students. Violence disrupts a child’s neurocognitive development and can lead to academic, mental health, behavioral, and social-emotional issues.

And while teachers are concerned about their students’ well-being, they may find working with trauma-impacted students challenging and feel less prepared to support students with adverse childhood experiences (ACEs). These compounding stressors are contributing to problems in teacher retention.

Administrators echo this struggle: Supporting students is a top stressor for school leaders. As a special education district administrator working with trauma-impacted students and a survivor of a violent, abusive home, I’ve seen how these issues affect the school climate.

Supporting Students Affected by Trauma

According to Alex Shevrin Venet’s Equity-Centered Trauma-Informed Education, unconditional positive regard (UPR) offers one way administrators can foster a community of care, not just one of compliance—whether or not educators know that a particular student has been affected by violence. 

Popularized by psychologist Carl Rogers, UPR values each student as a person worthy of wholehearted empathy and acceptance no matter their behavior or circumstances. This equity-centered, trauma-focused approach denotes care toward others as distinct from one’s own experiences and emotions. When we apply UPR strategies to children who may have been impacted by violence, we facilitate healthier boundary-setting for educators and boost resilience for all students.

Here’s what that looks like in action. 

Lead with narrative, values-focused feedback 

When we know a student faces or experiences violence, it’s easy to default to a deficit mentality: “I need to ‘fix’ that child.” This approach, however, ties our worth as educators to how the student responds. We also risk excluding students who we may not know need support. 

For all students, providing narrative, value-focused feedback on behavior shifts this thinking to a supportive, neutral psychological space. Share positive observations as an administrator while walking the halls or visiting classrooms. Be specific in your praise: “Brynn, your diorama is filled with effort!” Or: “Nevaeh and Avery have their materials out, and their eyes are up front, ready for math. Love it!” You can also praise a group: “Fifth grade, today’s lunch went amazing. Everyone demonstrated respect by leaving the tables clean.”

This narration engages all students and reinforces shared community values of hard work, preparedness, and respect while prompting those needing direction—often the case with students experiencing trauma—to pause and self-monitor their behavior. You can refer back to community values when addressing inappropriate behavior: “That’s not something we do here. I know you’re capable of doing better.” Taking on a neutral role affirms an active, calming presence to students and staff. When administrators engage in this kind of positive, transformational leadership, teachers have more trust in their principal and are more committed to their job.

Build relationships beyond academics

Youth living in violent environments may be facing additional ACEs like addiction, incarceration, or neglect. In school, these students may have an eroded sense of stability, causing wariness of attachment. We may not always know for sure if this is the case with our students, and connecting with them while recognizing our limits removes us from an authority role and reassures students that there are trustworthy, reliable people in their lives, whether or not that is specifically us.

Expressing genuine interest in a student’s life outside of school separates their identity from their emotions, a crucial step in building resilience. Engaging in casual conversations before school, during bus duty, or at a snack break about a student’s unique interests uplifts their individuality and reshapes their perceptions around trust. Broad questions like “How was your weekend?” can be triggering and uncomfortable. Ask about favorite music, games, books, and hobbies. Focus on listening rather than coming up with the perfect response in these conversations.

A core concept of UPR is that we serve as caring adults in students’ lives but do not hold responsibility for personal adversities. Establishing a relationship with a student, even around a sport or movie, creates a foundation for intervention if a student shows or shares feelings of being unsafe.

Dedicate spaces for emotional regulation

Violence-impacted students, especially in early childhood, might have trouble imagining a safe place. A physical spot denoting safety and belonging actualizes those feelings and can be helpful for any student who needs to regroup. Some districts and state foster care systems have created calming corners or Lily Pad rooms, designated zones where children can process and regulate emotions.

Successful calm rooms prioritize mindfulness and choice. School leaders can helm a group of teachers and related service providers to create a tailored space for your community. Consider cozy seating, soft lighting, breathing posters, sensory tools like art supplies or bubbles, or an area for kids to complete work. While calm rooms are generally self-directed, educators should be present to guide students as needed.

Visible leadership also allows children to observe adults handling and responding to emotions in healthy, productive ways, potentially something they don’t see at home. Some administrators are opting for rolling carts to be more accessible to students and staff. Dropping by classrooms, calm rooms, or recess offers opportunities for students to witness administrators effectively communicating and problem-solving. When a child has reference points and dedicated spaces to ground themselves, they build confidence in navigating difficult feelings and circumstances. Practicing UPR in this way also reminds educators that their students can heal. 

Fostering an environment that nurtures well-being can also have a stabilizing effect on teachers. While in an ideal world schools would have separate adult and student calm spaces, you can explore creative ways to schedule and divide the same space as a calm room for both students and teachers. Accessible, system-wide supports like calm rooms can decrease an educator’s reactibility and improve job satisfaction.

As administrators, we may never know the profound adversities our students face. However, school leaders embracing a culture of unconditional positive regard extend a powerful message of universal empathy and unwavering support to every person in a school community. It’s an underlying factor that bolsters students’ competence, connection, and coping skills—all vital to resilience—whether or not violence is part of their everyday realities. In implementing these strategies, we also uplift the contributions of our teams and alleviate the emotional and mental toll on educators helping all our students thrive. 

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