Classroom Management

Getting Curious (Not Furious) With Students

When teachers get curious instead of furious, they don't take the student's behavior personally, and they don't act on anger. They respond to student behaviors rather than react to them.
June 29, 2016
A short-haired, blond female teacher in a pink shirt and black blouse is sitting next to a brunette teenager girl, helping her study.
iStock.com/Steve Debenport

I'm not an expert when it comes to identifying trauma in students, but I've spent enough time in classrooms to recognize stress- and trauma-related behaviors. During my tenure as a high school teacher, I wanted to better support my students who were struggling emotionally. This prompted me to seek literature and training.

My work now is in teacher education, and I have continued to educate myself in this arena so that I could inform the novice teachers I work with as they bring challenging situations from their own classrooms to our discussions in the university classroom.

When their students act out, I propose the novice teachers do the following: Get curious, not furious. Let's explore what that means. Rather than a teacher resorting to traditional discipline measures, it behooves the student greatly for the teacher to realize classroom outbursts, verbal defiance, or volatile anger can be symptomatic of repeated exposure to neglect, abuse, or violence. Traumatic stress can also manifest as withdrawal or self-injury.

The Brain

As we know, neuroscience is informing the field of education. A good number of us educators as of recent have been reading about what routine distress or trauma can do to the brain and to learning. It basically shuts it down. When we ask students to do high-level tasks, such as problem solving or design thinking, it's nearly impossible if they are in a triggered state of fight, flight, or freeze. This trauma state may look like defiance or anger, and we may perceive this refusal as choice, but it is not necessarily so.

Schools and districts are participating in professional development on trauma-informed teaching, as the benefits are clear. According to research conducted by the National Institute for Trauma and Loss in Children, here are a few of the key benefits of becoming a trauma-informed school:

  • Improved student academic achievement
  • Less student absences, detentions, and suspensions
  • Reduction of stress for staff and students and less bullying and harassment
  • Improved teacher sense of job satisfaction and safety

Start Here

As you seek to learn more about trauma-sensitive teaching, you can also explore the curious-not-furious maxim I offer to novice teachers. Getting curious on the part of the teacher looks like this: Why might the student be behaving this way? What might be some contributing factors? Might this be a reaction to fear or insecurity? Might she be scared, hungry, lonely, or tired? Instead of defaulting immediately to a disciplinary measure (detention, off to the principal's office, a time out), the teacher chooses to first ask the child: How are you? Are you okay today? How can I help? Is there anything you would like to talk about?

Some may be thinking that this isn't in the job description of a teacher (I am not a counselor or therapist.) But this isn't about saving anyone, I assure you. In fact, I see teachers burn out, in part, because teachers can get into thinking that they can save troubled students, and when they can't, they believe they have failed at their job. But here's an important truth to remember: We can't heal or save anyone except ourselves.

Creating Classrooms of Care

What is this truly about? It's about us moving more towards what I like to call classrooms of care -- an antithetical turn or very intentional detour from the institution of schooling. When we do this, we humanize ourselves with our students and create spaces for them to do the same, going beyond the singular dimension of "teacher" and singular dimension of "student." A classroom no longer seems sterile, regimented, or threatening. In this transformation, more and more classrooms become communities of care, discovery, and learning (for students and teachers).

When teachers get curious, not furious, they don't take the student's behavior personally, and they don't act on anger. They respond to student behaviors rather than react to them. They are then able to seek what the next steps might be for supporting a child in distress and emotional pain (a talk after class, arranging a meeting with the school counselor, etc.) According to the research of Adena Klem and James Connell, students who perceive a teacher as caring have higher attendance, better grades, and are more engaged in the classroom and at school.

In my 20 years as an educator, and from observing numerous classrooms and teachers, I do know this: Compassion and care can transform learning spaces. In the words of the Buddhist scholar and meditation teacher, Sharon Salzberg, "Our society tends to dismiss kindness as a minor virtue, rather than the tremendous force it can truly be."