George Lucas Educational Foundation
Teacher Development

Boost Your Resilience By Managing Emotional Triggers

Teachers, what or who triggers you? By exploring how we respond, we can increase our emotional resilience.
November 2, 2015
A young boy is leaning forward on a classroom table, smiling with a pencil in his hand and a worksheet in front of him, looking straight at the camera. He's surrounded by four other students and a teacher sitting at the table, focused on their worksheets.
Photo credit: jencu via flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Educators encounter a myriad of challenges every day. While these can be draining and frustrating, we can control our responses to challenges: to a student who won't follow direction, to an angry parent who wants to talk five minutes before class starts, or to an administrator who seems to only see what's not working in our classroom. By exploring how we respond to others, we can increase our emotional resilience.

Naming Your Triggers

We all have people in our lives who trigger us. When triggered, we can feel a range of uncomfortable feelings, such as frustration, anger, sadness, or embarrassment. These feelings can lead us to take certain actions, like engaging in a discussion, debate, or argument, expressing things we later wish we hadn't expressed, freezing up in fear, or making a quick exit.

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Take a moment to think about who triggers you. Perhaps it's a parent who incessantly questions your decisions as a teacher, or perhaps it's a parent who never comes to school or returns your calls but complains to the principal about you. Maybe you are triggered by teenage girls who roll their eyes, or by the boy who seems to know it all. Perhaps you're triggered by colleagues who make dismissive comments about groups of kids, or by top-down administrators.

As you reflect, you might feel like you have many triggers. That's okay. We all have them. Bringing them out of the shadows and naming them is the first step in reducing the negative impact they can have on you.

Getting to Know Your Triggers

Next, get curious about your triggers. It might help to imagine pouring your triggers into petri dishes and examining them. Trace them back in your life, and see if you can find their origins. Some triggers have roots in our early lives. For example, I'm still triggered by middle school girls who exclude others from their cliques because of the experience I had as a middle school child.

Some triggers originate in our core values and beliefs. For example, we may be committed to a belief that every child can learn, and when we encounter a colleague who seems to dismiss a group of students, who says something like, "Well, you know how these kids are!" -- we are triggered. Or we might hold a belief that we will transform schools by working really hard, and if a colleague leaves school every day at 3:30 p.m., we might question her commitment and feel triggered as she locks up her classroom.

Acknowledging Your Responses

Once you see the origins of your triggers, then notice how you act when triggered. Do you fight, flee, or freeze? What's the impact on your relationships with others -- colleagues, students, and administrators -- when you respond from a place of being triggered? Do you "get" what you ultimately want from responding in this way? (Whether that's a change in the way seventh-grade girls treat each other or a colleague's change in beliefs about students.) If you're not getting what you want, keep reading.

Exploring New Actions

Getting to know your triggers can surface painful memories, but identifying where they're coming from can also be empowering. Awareness can lead us to take different actions than we would without awareness. As a teacher, when I made the connection between my own experience as a middle school child and how I felt about some of the girls I taught, I realized that I needed to respond to my students as a teacher and not as an eleven-year-old child.

My actions became far more aligned to my vision for myself as an educator, and I was able to engage in conversations with my students about building community and being inclusive in our classroom.

Before we're able to take new actions, however, we need ways to intervene in the moment that we're triggered so that we don't respond in our habitual, less productive ways. It's much easier to notice this moment after you've done some investigation into your triggers. Your mind might sound like this: "Oh, look! There's one of my triggers! I reflected on this last week -- that I'm triggered by parents who barge into my class demanding to talk to me five minutes before school starts." When you can more quickly notice your triggers, and when you've done the exploration into their origins, you have more space to decide how to respond.

Here are a few things to try in that space:

  • Take three deep breaths.
  • Use self-talk: "Hello, trigger."
  • Visualize yourself at a juncture in a road, with your options for responses laid out along different paths. Remind yourself that you can select which response to take.

It takes practice to notice triggers and pause in the moment before you respond. For most of us, this won't come quickly or easily. But noticing triggers and cultivating ways to respond will allow you to take different actions -- and by doing so, you'll be more likely to reach your ultimate goals, and you may feel better.

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Filed Under

  • Teacher Development
  • Social and Emotional Learning