Creating an environment of unconditional positive regard

When it comes to student safety, every administrator will tell you that it is the most important thing. However, with recent conflicts abroad and violence in our own communities, ensuring a sense of safety is a challenging task. Some students and families have personally experienced violence, while others may be dealing with new fears and anxieties.

The effects of early exposure to violence are extensive and well-documented. This can lead to academic, mental health, behavioral, and social-emotional issues for students, causing compassion fatigue and vicarious secondary trauma for educators. The violence disrupts a child’s cognitive and emotional development.

Teachers are concerned about the well-being of their students, but they often find it challenging to work with students who have experienced trauma. These compounding stressors contribute to problems with teacher retention.

Administrators also face this struggle, as supporting students is one of their top stressors. As a special education district administrator who works with trauma-impacted students and experienced violence at home, I have seen firsthand how these issues affect the school environment.

Supporting Students Affected by Trauma

According to Alex Shevrin Venet’s Equity-Centered Trauma-Informed Education, administrators can create a community of care through unconditional positive regard (UPR). This approach values each student as a person deserving of empathy and acceptance, regardless of their behavior or circumstances.

Implementing UPR strategies for students affected by violence helps educators set healthier boundaries and promotes resilience for all students.

Here’s how it looks in action.

Lead with narrative, values-focused feedback 

When we are aware that a student has faced or experienced violence, we may feel the need to “fix” that child. However, taking this approach ties our self-worth as educators to the student’s response. It can also result in overlooking students who may need support but don’t openly show it.

Instead, provide narrative, value-focused feedback on behavior to create a supportive, neutral environment. Offer positive observations while interacting with students in the hallways or classrooms. Be specific in your praise and highlight the efforts and positive behaviors of individual students or groups.

This approach engages all students, reinforces shared values, and prompts those experiencing trauma to reflect on their behavior. By addressing inappropriate behavior neutrally and affirming an active, calming presence, administrators establish trust with teachers.

Build relationships beyond academics

Students living in violent environments may face additional adverse childhood experiences (ACEs). These students may have a diminished sense of stability, making it challenging to form attachments. As educators, we may not always be aware of which students need support.

To build resilience, it is crucial to express genuine interest in a student’s life outside of school. Engage in casual conversations about their interests and listen attentively. Focus on their individuality rather than trying to find the perfect response.

Establishing a relationship with a student, even around shared interests, sets the foundation for intervention if a student expresses feeling unsafe.

Dedicate spaces for emotional regulation

Students impacted by violence may struggle to envision a safe place. Creating a designated spot denoting safety and belonging can help students regroup and feel secure. Consider implementing calming corners or similar areas where children can process and regulate their emotions.

These spaces should prioritize mindfulness and choice, and educators should be present to guide students as needed. The presence of visible leadership allows children to observe healthy ways of handling and responding to emotions.

Implementing these strategies fosters well-being for both students and teachers, decreasing reactibility among educators and improving job satisfaction.

As administrators, we may not always be aware of the adversities our students face. However, by embracing a culture of unconditional positive regard, we send a powerful message of empathy and support to every member of the school community. These strategies enhance students’ resilience and contribute to the well-being of our entire team.

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