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Peek Inside a Classroom


Peek Inside a Classroom: Effective Education Reform


Sandra L. Bloom, M.D.  and Daun H. Kauffman M.Ed., M.B.A.

Classroom insights provided by Daun Kauffman.  Also published at 

I always started school days with my class by sharing a personal greeting and an optional hug with each student, as they entered the door of our room.  They had a comforting routine with coats and backpacks and warmup work on the board ready for them.  They knew that someone who knew them had prepared especially for them.  Our startup was paired with breakfast for everyone, courtesy of Title 1.  The familiarity helped students with self-regulation in the transition to a classroom environment.

Teachers can learn too!

I felt we had a positive, caring beginning to our day of academics, but I couldn’t help but push the pace, especially when days overflowed with Lesson Plans.

That is, I felt that way until a friend who pioneered the development of the “Sanctuary Model,” Dr. Sandra Bloom, M.D., suggested an addition.  With an ear-to-ear smile she pressed gently and politely and respectfully, but oh so firmly and confidently.  She pressed the case to “add one question,” add “just one question”.  Dr. Bloom waited… pointedly and expectantly.  She wanted me to try adding a “Community Meeting” to our daily startup.  “Go around the classroom so each student participates: My name is ___.  One word for my feelings this morning is ____.” 

I agreed, skeptically, thinking we already had a fine, “community” startup, and wondering where we’d find the time.

We started with learning the routine.  I added some options to Dr. Bloom’s question:  a) to ‘pass’, knowing that sometimes some of the kids would be dealing with heavy stuff, and b) to add a reason for their feeling or simply say “no reason”.

The first ten days, many simply shared “I feel happy.  No reason”.  Or “I feel sad. No reason”.  So, I began to incorporate “feelings words” into our other vocabulary work and I bought a large wall  poster with visualizations of feelings words.  The kids began to be intrigued.

“Knowing” is not the same as “Understanding”

The “Community Meeting” in the Sanctuary Model “Toolkit begins similarly, as part of building any trauma-informed organization.  Explicit acknowledgement of feelings as first priority, embedded in establishing social norms of safety and caring for each person in the group.

In our school classroom, “How are you feeling?” became central to developing community, to learning clear oral communication, and to building class ‘norms.’.

It also generated undeniably invaluable learning about “feelings”.

Then, even more:  practice composing and publicly sharing those feelings.

But most importantly it moved us beyond factually “knowing” names.  It became understanding feelings, understanding the person.  Understanding ourselves better.  Understanding motivations.  Our own and others.  Children understanding each other as people.  Myself understanding children and their childhood traumas.  “Social literacy.”

Building understanding required investments of time and labor.  We didn’t achieve it for free.  We invested about 20 minutes from our already packed schedule.  We prioritized that time to listen to each other.  So, we had more learning to do.   We had to learn to listen: Not interrupting, not even politely questioning.

Simply listening.

Ultimately, it started with all of us being “in the moment”

Immeasurable, but invaluable

We progressed to “I have two (!) feelings.  Can I share them both?” (with much elaboration).

No one ever “passed.”

We progressed:  All of this investment steadily reinforced norms of a socially literate, caring classroom culture with a common understanding of goals. The value becomes obvious when we move on to academic topics

We progressed to Kerrie, eyes brimming, “I feel hurt.  My dad told me that I wasn’t his daughter if I couldn’t read better.”

Should understanding Kerrie’s pain change how literacy was taught that day and beyond?  Could we be successful without understanding?

DeShawn, squirming with anticipation, “I feel excited.  We’re going to see my dad this weekend for my birthday.”  (Later sharing privately: “he’s at the state prison.  He did something really bad…”).

Would Math or Social Studies lessons be different after that new understanding?  Would we be successful without understanding?

Starr, trying to appear nonchalant, “I feel sad.  I miss my dad.  He’s in the hospital again for fight… no he didn’t really fight this time.  He just banged his head on the car real bad.”  Long pause.  “My mom can’t pick me up after school, so my sister [3rdgrade] will.  We can walk by ourselves.

Should my understanding of Starr’s behaviors and motivations be more aligned with the “Common Core” and ‘National Standards’ or should I adjust national standards to be aligned with Starr’s core?

Kerrie, DeShawn and Starr are not unusual.  Childhood trauma affects 2 out of 3 students at some level.  Too many (one is too many) to ignore.

Our Philadelphia School Reform Commission(SRC) and other “reformers” across our nation command “standardized” learning —  an illogical,  inconceivable goal.  Be assured, from the reality of the front line in the classroom, that students are all unique….  people.  They each have a unique heart and a unique mind and a unique life.  Not better or worse than one another, just different.

Children can not and do not learn in “standardized”, robotic fashion, or synchronized timing.

It’s clear to educators:  academic success in any classroom at any age has to be student-centered, not “standardized”.

Back to Community Meetings:  I usually shared my feelings too.  If a long weekend was coming, I shared two (!) feelings:  the excitement of the break and the sadness at missing each one in our class. I often shared explicitly that I loved each one in the class. Sometimes I shared feelings about my own children when I was going to see them soon, or sometimes how I missed them.  My students wanted to understand me as a father and as a grandfather, not just as a talking head “presenter”.

Let me paraphrase the quote attributed to Theodore Roosevelt:

Students don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.

It does go both ways:

On the days I dared try to skip our Community Meeting, I was immediately, verbally hounded.   Even If I only forgot (or intentionally skipped) only myself, the kids raced, almost tripping over each other to ask: “Mr. Kauffman, how are you feeling today?…   No, really, How are you feeling?”

Powerful learning, powerful understanding grew all around our classroom.

Implications in our trauma-impacted world

Our learning was such a great story.  Really.

But I can’t stop here with a feel-good story.  The "Community Meeting" is only the first step in the Toolkit towards a trauma-informed system.

We all live in very violent, dysfunctional times.

Statistics tell us that 25% to 50% of students in all schools are dealing with life-changing levels of developmental, or “childhood”, trauma.

It’s urgent.

Neuroscience tells us that unaddressed developmental trauma and toxic stress change the architecture of the physical brain and secondly, social behaviors Cognition, or learning, is impaired. For some of those children in ‘survival mode’, academics are impossible, “in the moment.”

Developmental trauma is not a poverty issue.  It’s not a “color” issue.  It’s not a geography issue. It is not an income issue.  Experts call it  ‘national crisis’, an ‘epidemic’.   Yet, it’s the elephant in all our classrooms.

Developmental trauma is an ‘achievement gap’ issue, given its skew to high stress, higher violence urban areas.

Developmental trauma is an equity issue.

It gets worse.

Biological and social adaptations to childhood trauma will affect our health throughout our lifetimes, and can lead to early death.

It’s urgent.

Effective education reform  begins with recognizing the child and remains child-centered.

Effective reform will prioritize training and support to schoolwide staffs, so they understand and accommodate millions of trauma-impacted children nationally.   Community Meetings can be integral to becoming trauma-informed.

At the school level, effective reform includes identifying, or in some way screening for, students’ trauma histories.  It’s too easy to miss those who are quietly dissociating.  We should also be re-evaluating zero-tolerance discipline stances.  We should also be adjusting efforts against the “achievement gap” to areas with greater violence, stress and trauma.  We should also be understanding the disconnect of regimented, time-based national standards from unique humans learning.  We should also be understanding the illogical impotence of “standardized” test-and-punish model for academics.

Without effective reform, students have valid claim that we haven’t given them equal access to learning.  Millions of students.

Listening is integral to effective reform. 

We all have much to learn, much to care about, much to understand.  

If you agree, ask someone else “How are you feeling?”,

and then simply listen.


Graphic 2

All student vignettes in the “Peek Inside a Classroom” series use pseudonyms in their true stories.

For more on developmental trauma, in short, true vignettes, click on the narrative series below, “Nowhere to Hide”.  The vignettes may be used as "PSA"s in social media:

Nowhere to Hide the Elephant in the [Class]Room  (overview)

Nowhere to Hide.  Maria Fight, flight or freeze?
Nowhere to Hide.  Andre’s fear.   What are Adverse Childhood Experiences?
Nowhere to Hide.  Jamar’s Hyperarousal
Nowhere to Hide.  Roberto’s Dissociation
Nowhere to Hide.  Danny’s Memories
Nowhere to Hide.  Ashley’s Education Part1
Nowhere to Hide.  Ashley’s Education Part2

Click below for more “Peek Inside a Classroom”;

Peek Inside a Classroom: Jasmine
Peek Inside a Classroom: Danny
Peek Inside a Classroom:  Jose
Peek Inside a Classroom: Failing Schools, or Failing Paradigm?
Peek Inside a Classroom:  Effective Education Reform (with Dr. Sandra Bloom, M.D.)

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Comments (5)

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Hey Jennifer,


I have the same request for advice with politicians.  

In the case of developmental trauma at our city and our state levels, the first goal is simply "awareness".  Even with me as an example, I had to dig around and dig around to eventually put pieces together to begin to grasp the portion of the concept that I know have.  Maybe I should expand that slightly to be "accurate" awareness.  At any rate, folks should not have to dig around that hard to get informed.

After "awareness" (which really should be part of school/college "basic-training"  for all),  I have had a few politicians ask specifically for quantification related to the intersection of public education and developmental trauma --  "What quantifiable difference will it make if we fund xyz ?"   In other words, with developmental trauma,  there is still more work (research) to do.  I believe the research can be designed and the politicians' questions can be answered.  I have seen the numbers when the "costs" of lost productivity and quality of life, or shortened life are estimated,  but these particular politicians are asking about quantifiable impacts on education (test scores --  another whole set of issues).

Any actual progress with politicians will be reported on this end.  I hope you will do the same.

Daun Kauffman posted:

Jennifer,  the issue needs to be explicitly, directly addressed.  I agree.  I'm not sure if "carrot" or "stick" is best,  maybe combination...  Thanks for sharing, and for your passion!

Hi Daun, I think combo of carrot and stick, but as we've discovered, carrot won't work until stick is brandished. As soon as we attach serious consequences to emotional abuse, adults who bully kids, then everyone will get educated fast.

When we wanted to stop people smoking and harming others with second hand smoke, we quickly implemented laws that fined people and threatened jail. Everyone is now well educated about the harms of smoking and second-hand smoke.

If suicide was the second leading cause of death in adults---if it was correlated by 40 years of research with bullying---I can tell you right now laws would be put in place.

Children don't have money or power, so the laws are not in place nor do policymakers move quickly. If anything, the legal system supports those with money and power: namely adults.

So I'm not sure "passion" is the right word for what I feel; it's more like fury and disgust.

I am passionate about protecting kids. I'm passionate about the incredibly important role of educators in classrooms and in sports, but I am profoundly distraught at the failure we have in the 21st century to hold adults accountable who harm children.

We're getting much better at protecting children's bodies from physical and sexual abuse. We now need to protect their brains from emotional abuse.

I applaud the amazing work you do and I know it will make a difference. If you have any advice on how I can reach policymakers with my research and concerns, please let me know. Thanks, Jennifer

Jennifer,  the issue needs to be explicitly, directly addressed.  I agree.  I'm not sure if "carrot" or "stick" is best,  maybe combination...  Thanks for sharing, and for your passion!

Considering the recent suicide by hanging of a 13 year old boy in Staten Island, Danny Fitzpatrick, I believe we must intensify the above. We must discuss that sometimes teachers, coaches, school administrators are the ones causing trauma in children and they are not remotely safe people to "listen" to or protect a child.

We have to take a hard, honest look at Bullying in schools, which continues to rise, and ask the question: hate is a learned who is teaching bullying?

We need laws, consequences for adults in caregiver positions who emotionally abuse children. Until that happens, we will continue to have suicide as the second leading cause of death in our adolescent populations. If so many deaths were being caused by second hand cigarette smoke, no teacher would be allowed to smoke at school or any public place where children might be exposed.

We put laws in place that eliminated second-hand smoke harming children; we can do the same with emotional abuse. Those in the Education system and in Sports would get instantly educated. They don't appear to be galvanized by so many suicides, but they might care if the laws impact them. 

Thanks for this post Sandy and Daun! To say it is urgent we transform our schools and communities is by far the key priority facing educators and public health officials today! There remains minimal benefit from common core and standardized testing if we cannot help children (and staff) learn emotion regulation and so so post haste!  

I couldn't agree more with your post. As a team member who has co-authored and worked with Sandy Bloom, Sarah Yanosy and a few others  on some of  Sanctuary's most useful education materials and adaptations for the classroom, I would have to agree transformation begins with the community meeting practice. And, this is just the beginning!

 While some educators struggle with "How to make more time for The community meeting, I suggest that the question "what's happening" be every administrator and educator's "go to" response when addressing this type of resistance! Toxic stress and violence have unfortunately become a part of every community- the hub of which is the school. But it's important to realize that the achievement gap ISN'T just for our children! It's the adults too.

Understanding the urgency across the board makes this tool invaluable for the entire community. Community meeting goes far beyond the morning check in and when implemented with care and fidelity, it was been linked to increased staff and student engagement, increased parent engagement, decreased aggression, increased safety and above all, rescripting (transforming)    past trauma by promoting this one emotion regulation tool. (Look for more tools in follow-up posts!) 

Given the widely accepted "morning meeting" practice, it makes sense for educators to adapt and implement  the Community Mtg. at the start and end of the day for all staff and students. Moreover, community meeting's strength isn't just to start the academic day, it is also a valuable crisis intervention often utilized to redirect a potentially violent student outburst.

Look for my follow-up information  on the practical use of Sanctuary Model's community meeting, S.E.LF framework and other trauma informed, trauma competent tools for the educational environment. 


Landa C. Harrison has been working with Dr. Sandra Bloom and   Her colleagues all over the world  for the 10 years across various settings including mental health and educational environments. Follow me on Twitter  @LandaHarrison and @HumanCondition

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