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At Hope, Not At Risk: Helping Children with Trauma Experiences at School (Part 3)

Here’s the final post in the series! In closing, I thought I would share eleven quick tips for supporting children who have had experiences of trauma. In my coaching work, these eleven tips are the strategies I most commonly recommend to teachers as they work to move towards an inclusive space for children with trauma.

When I was writing this, I realised that I have been using the terms trauma-sensitive and trauma-informed interchangeably since I began discussing this topic. However, as I was typing this post, I realised that there is probably a difference between the two terms which are so commonly used to refer to the same practices. Being trauma-sensitive, to me, is being aware that children may have experienced trauma and are deserving of a compassionate, understanding approach to their learning or behavioural barriers. Being trauma-informed indicates your knowledge of strategies which can help children to move beyond their barriers in order to achieve success at school. I think it is necessary to be both trauma-sensitive and trauma-informed to be successful in our work as teachers.

Here are some strategies to increase our skills as trauma-informed educators. Many of these can be universally designed to benefit the whole class!

  1. Always give 1 metre of space when talking to a student who is angry or upset. It’s safer for the teacher, and you are less likely to trigger a child to remember previous traumatic situations, such as physical or sexual abuse, violence they witnessed, etc. If it seems natural to comfort the student, you can always ask “would you like a hug?” first.
  2. Greet students with the same phrase every morning. For example, “Good morning, ____! It’s great to have you at school today.” It’s important that you use exactly the same words, not just the same sentiment. Children who have experienced trauma will often experience anxiety about how you connect with them on a daily basis. If you say “Good to see you!” one morning, and “Hi!” the next, they might wonder how your relationship has changed and become stressed.
  3. Help students to develop emotional literacy and an awareness of the range of emotions using strategies such as Feeling Thermometers. Often, children who have experienced trauma are desensitised to lower-intensity feelings (for example, being annoyed vs. being furious) and are not able to recognise these in time to be proactive and prevent explosive escalation. The Zones of Regulation is an enormously helpful resource which pairs well with Feeling Thermometers.
  4. Explicitly discuss safety and how to recognise if a situation is safe. This is a useful discussion for all students to participate in, and could help students identify the ways that teachers keep kids safe at school, what “unsafe” looks like, and what to do when they are feeling unsafe.
  5. Create separate spaces that children can move into, but still share what is going on in the rest of the class. Corners with rugs, rocking chairs, or beanbags allow students to take time apart from the group when they need physical and emotional space.
  6. Consider providing the choice for a student to move to a different classroom, with a familiar teacher on days when a substitute will be replacing the regular classroom teacher. Often this type of change is a trigger for significant anxiety, and a substitute may not be aware of or prepared to use the strategies in place for support. If the student wishes to remain in class with their peers, provide this as an option if the student experiences difficulty during the day.
  7. Provide praise in a neutral tone of voice. A raised voice may cause a student to become anxious and fail to understand the message as positive, which can trigger challenging behaviours.
  8. Provide fun and playful experiences which are NOT offered as a reward. Children who struggle with trauma experiences need to participate in low-stress, engaging activities regularly. These activities serve to lower their arousal levels, help build social connections with peers, and develop a narrative of inclusion for the student. If their challenging behaviour prevents them from being considered for these opportunities (eg. if you go all week without hitting, you can come to the class party on Friday), they will miss valuable learning.
  9. Use Social Behaviour Mapping tools to help children draw connections between their thoughts, feelings, behaviour, and the thoughts, feelings, and reactions of those around them. Provide these opportunities to reflect regularly within a private and non-threatening context.
  10. Understand that students with trauma experiences may struggle to encode and access memories. Use strategies to support memory, such as visual aids, multisensory experiences, retellings, review, and reminders such as sticky notes. Schedules which include visuals are helpful at all grade levels to support routines.
  11. Follow the following formula for structuring classroom activities: 10 minutes excitement/high interest, 10 minutes calming, 30 minutes concentration. For young children, shorten the time periods (eg. 5, 5, and 15) but follow the same pattern.

Please let me know if you find these suggestions helpful or share your own strategies in the comments!


At Hope, Not At-Risk: Helping Children with Trauma Experiences at School (Part 2)

Yikes! It’s been busy lately, but I finally got around to writing the second part of my post on Trauma-Informed classrooms, as promised. I had planned for this to be a two-post series, but before I move on to classroom strategies for supporting children with trauma experiences, I realised that there are a few important concepts which inform which strategies we choose to use in our classrooms.

The fundamental understanding to have about children and trauma is that when a child has experienced trauma it can have a long-term impact on that child’s brain. Memory, impulse control, emotional processing, language and many other cognitive functions can be impaired, and these kids need our help to learn new skills. We need to know what trauma “looks like” when it’s in our classrooms, so that we can take steps to help our students who are struggling.

Hypervigilence: “Hypervigilence is an enhanced state of sensory sensitivity accompanied by an exaggerated intensity of behaviors whose purpose is to detect threats. Hypervigilance is also accompanied by a state of increased anxiety which can cause exhaustion. Other symptoms include: abnormally increased arousal, a high responsiveness to stimuli, and a constant scanning of the environment for threats.” In the classroom this can look like excessive eye contact, a tense body posture, putting distance between themselves and other students, aggressive or provocative statements and actions. It is very important to be aware that hypervigilent students will often start a conflict themselves, rather than wait to see what reaction they will get from others around them. Waiting is often too stressful and frightening when they believe that a conflict is inevitable, so they take control of the situation. It is important to maintain consistency in our interactions with these children in order to reduce their stress that results from “guessing” about outcomes.

Freeze and Dissociation: “When a threat is utterly overwhelming and too much for the fight / flight system to cope with, the brain goes into a ‘Freeze’ state; a numbing or collapse response. This sort of trauma is experienced as a general shutdown, lack of vitality, emotional separation and detachment.” In the classroom, this can look like a “who cares?” attitude or total withdrawal, such as refraining from speech, staring blankly, pulling a hood up, or putting their head down on a desk. The “threat” that causes a freeze and dissociation response is frequently not perceived by those around the child, but remains real and frightening regardless. At times, students may actually re-live sensory elements of their trauma during dissociation. It is important that we stay personally calm, and limit elements which may contribute to sensory overload, such as loud noises or frenetic activity.

Amygdala Hijack: “The amygdala …regulates the fight or flight response that is key to the survival mechanism for many animals, including humans and other primates. At the moment a threat is perceived, the amygdala can override the neocortex, the center of higher thinking, and initiate a violent response. In the wild or in the presence of actual physical threats, this can be a life-saving function. In ordinary day-to-day living, however, this amygdala hijack can inspire impulsive responses the person will later regret.” Studies show that it can take up to thirty minutes before the brain is able to process information normally again, after the amygdala has taken over from the neocortex – if the student is not re-triggered to remain stressed. In the classroom, this can look like tantrums or destructive behaviour as a result of strong emotional responses, such as punching walls, throwing objects, lying down and crying etc. Students may feel regretful or embarrassed later, when they are regulated once more. It is important that we explicitly coach students in ways to calm down, as opposed to simply “letting” them calm down, which can worsen the situation – coaching deep breathing, using stress tools, or having the child label their emotions may help. Shame increases affect dysregulation, so it is additionally essential to protect the dignity of these children and to refrain from comments which may be perceived as demeaning, such as “you’re too old for this” or “you know better.” A quick summary of how Amygdala Hijack occurs can be found on youtube here.

Cortisol: “Cortisol is a stress hormone… Chronic stress and elevated cortisol levels also increase risk for depression, mental illness, and lower life expectancy. This week, two separate studies were published in Science linking elevated cortisol levels as a potential trigger for mental illness and decreased resilience—especially in adolescence.” When the body is in a stressed state, as part of the General Adaptation Syndrome, the body produces cortisol. If a baby is left to cry, cortisol levels elevate in that baby until he or she is comforted by the mother. Worrying about safety or if there will be enough money for food raises cortisol, as does witnessing traumatic events. Over time, the body of a child who has regularly elevated cortisol levels may begin to overproduce cortisol and remain in a stressed state for prolonged periods of time. In the classroom, this can look like hypervigilence, exhaustion, pain, depression, and even chronic illness. It is important that we provide guided opportunities to release stress and lower cortisol levels during the course of the school day. Children with elevated cortisol may experience time that other students use to “unwind,” such as recess, free play, and active gym games, as stressful because of the unpredictability and high level of sensory input. Deliberate and calm exercise breaks (yoga, balancing, etc.), guided meditations, listening to music, and other trauma-sensitive breaks should be built into the school routine at regular intervals.

Please feel free to leave a question in the comments if you have anything particular you would like me to mention in my next post about strategies! I am excited to write my final post in this series and share some ideas for building Trauma-Informed classrooms.

-Katia Reid


Quotes taken from…


At Hope, Not At-Risk: Helping Children with Trauma Experiences in School (Part 1)

In the first tier of our response to Intervention model, we acknowledge the importance of understanding the background of each child to the best of our ability. As educators, we recognise that the life of a child outside or before entering school has an indisputable impact on a child’s readiness to learn and participate in school activities. While classrooms are often prepared to address factors such as cultural, linguistic, or familial diversity, new understandings about the importance of addressing childhood trauma at school are beginning to have a positive impact on our ability to meet kids “where they’re at.” In my work with teachers of behaviourally challenging kids this year, one aspect I have been focusing on is the connection between trauma and learning. Recent studies have deepened and developed our understanding of the role that childhood experiences of trauma can have in schools and learning, giving us more tools than ever to help children.

Childhood trauma can include physical, sexual, or emotional abuse, but it can also include events such as the loss of a home to fire, divorce, serious illness, witnessing an accident, neglect and many other events. Trauma is very subjective, and whether a child experiences a negative event as “trauma” is based in part on how many protective factors a child has in their life. For instance, the death of a pet may not be traumatic for a child with strong family relationships, a secure home situation, and positive school experiences, while a child without these protective factors may find the same event traumatic. Recent studies show that 63% of children under the age of eighteen experience at least one incidence of trauma, meaning these experiences are incredibly common in our classrooms. As the number of different types of negative experience increase for an individual, so does their level of risk for tragic life outcomes such as suicide, drug use, intimate partner violence, illness, and many others.*

Beyond simply affecting the emotional well-being of a child, trauma experiences have a deep impact on the way that children learn – which, in turn, means we need to adjust our practices to meet the needs of children who are healing from trauma. One of the interesting facts about trauma is that it changes the brain. Not just the “software” of the brain, such as neural pathways, but the “hardware” as well. The shape and size of a child’s brain may be changed by traumatic experiences in childhood, which can have an impact on the way in which a child processes information and emotions at school. Because the frontal lobe of the brain develops last (and isn’t fully developed until well into adulthood), trauma typically has the greatest impact on this area of the brain. Memory, impulse control, and language are some areas of the brain which may be affected by trauma; and similarly these are skill domains that are heavily relied on in traditional classrooms. Supporting the philosophy that “kids do well if they can,” neuroscience has revealed that children with significant out-of-school challenges need our understanding to help remove barriers to their learning.

Trauma-Sensitive or Trauma-Informed classrooms are school settings where trauma is understood, recognised, and responded to in ways that empower survivors. These supports are often Universally Designed, in order to avoid isolating individuals who have experienced trauma, and also to ensure that all children benefit from these safe and caring spaces! The strategies used in trauma-informed practice emphasize executive skill development, brain-based learning, emotional intelligence, and non-adversarial discipline to help children grow in their academic learning and their behaviour self-regulation. The goal of trauma-sensitive classrooms is not to replace therapy, but rather to put in place simple supports that help children cope with the demands of the school day in order to do their best learning.

In my next post, I will share some trauma-informed practices for inclusive classrooms. Do you have experience with trauma-informed practice? Please share if you do!

-Katia Reid

*Visit here to read the ACE Study or assess your own ACE score.

Sharing Our Vision

Finding the time to pause and reflect on the past busy months, I notice that my thoughts are still spinning from all the learning and growth I have experienced with staff. At the start of the year, I always feel the pressure to do more and faster. At Seba Beach, we have launched several new initiatives including Response to Intervention, a school-wide numeracy program, and a proactive discipline plan which incorporates Collaborative Problem Solving. All these changes take time, resources, and sustained enthusiasm to become a permanent part of the culture in a school. At times, it can feel like there are endless tasks to accomplish and that the need to hurry is overwhelming.

Last week, I was asked to observe students in a Grade One art class. They were tearing squares of construction paper and using them to create collages of Fall trees, and I helped one little boy to begin his work. Eventually, I left him to help other children with the work of pasting paper and creating their art. Each time I looked back, the boy was hard at work, but soon I realised that he was simply tearing squares of paper and hadn’t begun to glue them into his collage. When the pile of torn paper was several inches high, I approached him and asked if he would like some help getting started with the glue. He looked calmly at me and whispered “Shhh, Miss Reid, I’m still practicing.”

When I saw the peaceful look on the face of the little boy creating his collage, I was reminded of the importance of entering change slowly and deliberately with a clear vision for what we want to accomplish. If we are not intentional in establishing our definitions of success, we risk running straight past the markers or in the wrong direction entirely. During our session work around inclusion with Dianne McConnell, we were asked to define the terms “inclusion” and “inclusive education system.” As I tried to incorporate all the aspects of my vision for inclusion into a single, cohesive definition, it became obvious that I while actively work toward particular attributes of this vision, I have rarely considered how they are interrelated.

As we strive to be “agents of change” within our educational settings, it’s so important to pause to consider what our definitions of success for inclusion really are… and what implications these have for classroom practice. In my coaching work, I will be asking teachers for their definition of inclusion as we begin our collaborative process. Comparing and contrasting our different understandings of these complex terms, supports considering all the diverse facets of inclusive education and helps to align our goals. Sometimes, unpacking the meaning of a word can mean removing barriers to building the kind of classrooms we strive for. I hope to share these conversations with many colleagues over the next little while?



cc licensed ( BY NC ) flickr photo shared by NJ Moore

At times, in my personal life, I have struggled with a particular teaching from my spiritual tradition. The teaching is to “make your offering, then step away,” meaning that when we have given what we have to give, we need to consciously let go of expectations of how other people might receive our offerings. Ultimately, this teaching frees us from the desire to control responses or feelings that we can’t, but truly it is a difficult teaching to accept. So often I wish that I could influence others to see the “offerings” of my coaching work as something they are ready to invite into their classroom, wholeheartedly embrace, or view as the way toward teaching growth.  In such relational work, it is easy to tangle our ideas with our identities, and to feel any hesitance as rejection.

The recognition that those around us are on their own path, and will take from us only what they need and see value in at any given time, is a gift that allows me to create my offerings without expectation – and a gift that I feel I have finally been able to accept during this year. I am grateful for my struggles with the challenges of coaching in this first year as I learned how to move forward with respect for the individual journeys of those around me. Enriched with my new understandings and continued passion for inclusive practices, I am excited to make the offering of another year of coaching and personal growth.


Restoring Discipline

More and more often, the conversations I have with teachers about supporting children with challenging behaviours are turning to the question of discipline. Prevention – through universally designed lessons, conversations which build understanding, mentoring, and other structures of support – is obviously preferable to reactive discipline, but often we are forced to play “catch up”, disciplining children for incidents that have already occurred.

Although I have been using the Collaborative Problem Solving model for some time to prevent and address challenging behaviours, there are points at which I have found the model to offer me insufficient tools. This is by no means a reflection on the value of CPS for individuals, but a recognition that at times CPS is not able to address the concerns of others “around” an incident (parents, other children, teachers etc.) when they have been seriously harmed by a behaviour.

While CPS is necessarily an individual approach, Restorative Justice practices can offer us an opportunity to address the needs of others who have been harmed by a particular action. These processes, when used in schools, are called “restorative discipline” and usually take the form of a conferencing circle where all those affected by an incident participate. Questions are asked which help the child to recognise the impact his or her actions have had on others, and those impacted are given an opportunity to suggest how the child might make restitution and repair the damaged relationships. Some examples of questions that can be asked are; “What were you thinking about at the time of the incident?” “What have you thought about since?” “Who was harmed by this?” “What needs to happen to make things right?” There are often times when the harm cannot be completely alleviated, but in all cases the focus is on how to make the situation “as right as possible,” given that we cannot change the past.

Punishment rarely assists others around an incident to feel better about the harm that was done to them – for example, the forced apology, or a three day suspension from which a child frequently returns angry. It also often has a ripple effect, where the punished child feels blameful of others and can often become vengeful rather than developing accountability. Most importantly however, punishment can damage relationships with adults and with the community. The fewer positive, trusting, and consistent relationships that a child has in his or her life, the more likely that child is to be at risk for self-harm, risky behaviour, and aggression or violence, or at risk to have these behaviours escalate.

Embedding restorative circle processes as a part of classroom routines is not an overnight solution. Children are often unfamiliar with these type of practices and (as Dr. Ross Greene extensively notes in his books on CPS) are often very unused to being listened to. They are uncomfortable and unsure in discipline proceedings that do not follow the pattern we have become accustomed to:  one-on-one, in an office, directive rather than investigative, top-down etc. We need to be intentional in teaching students how to participate in circle conferencing if we have chosen to use this approach.

While not all children or teachers are ready to use circle processes, we can ensure that our discipline practices are restorative, regardless of what form they will take. We need to be honest in evaluating whether our discipline policies are a net loss or gain to our communities, both within the school and outside it.

Here are some excellent resources to support us in the process…  (Dr. Greene’s School Discipline Survey) (“Restorative Justice: It’s Elementary” video) (“Teach Kids a Lesson… Or Help Them Learn?” article)

The Teacher’s Guide to Restorative Classroom Discipline (I am happy to send this PDF to anyone interested)


“We Make the Road by Walking”: Implementing CPS

As the school year comes to an end, we are already making plans for September and preparing ourselves for the challenges next year will bring. One of our big, exciting, and intimidating, plans for the coming year at Seba Beach School is to begin whole-school implementation of differentiated discipline, using the Collaborative Problem Solving model. Although I have used the approach in my classroom for some time, designing an implementation plan for Seba Beach has been a process of learning many new skills! I have been reminded of the importance of collaboration as I searched the internet for examples to follow and found very few concrete resources to support us. Once again, I have become cognisant of our own role in sharing the resources we develop and the wisdom we gain from reflection.

Lately, I have had many questions come my way by email about the Collaborative Problem Solving approach and challenges with implementation. While I do not have the expertise of Dr. Greene (obviously), I feel that it might be beneficial to post some of these questions and the best answers I can offer from my experience with the approach. I’m also very willing to try to find answers that I don’t know!


1. What message does CPS send to other children? Are we showing that misbehaviour is tolerated?

CPS sends the message to all children that making mistakes is a normal part of learning, and that the caring adults in their lives will help to guide them through challenges. CPS advocates that misbehaviour does not occur because we haven’t punished children harshly or publicly enough to make an example of them, it occurs because kids don’t have the skills yet to make better choices. The only way out of this dilemma is to educate them.

2. What about kids who do not have genuine challenges, but are simply testing boundaries?

From the perspective of CPS, there are no such children. The types of challenges that children are encountering may be invisible to us, but the job of CPS is to uncover what these challenges are. The bottom line is that kids do well if they can… if they’re not doing well, it’s because they can’t (yet).

3. I tried the approach, but it isn’t working to end the behaviour!

CPS is not a quick fix… it is a commitment to help children learn to solve problems, and often this takes more than one CPS conversation. It is important to think back on the initial CPS conversation and ask ourselves “did I fully understand the problem from the child’s perspective?” before jumping to a strategy. Also, was the agreed upon solution mutually satisfactory and realistic? Keep in mind that if an adult generated the solution, it is not CPS! There are a number of ways that the initial conversation may have not provided the key to solving the issue. It is always okay to return to the dialogue and reflect.

4. (If you are a Coach) I’m not sure how to help teachers start thinking about CPS.

Something that has worked in the past for me is reviewing the Bill of Rights for Behaviourally Challenging Kids with teachers. You can find it here: . This document includes some fairly new ideas about children and discipline, and it’s a great opportunity for some “heavy” coaching conversations about our assumptions and philosophies.

5. Can you use CPS with an existing discipline plan?

Yes, but there should be a clear delineation between CPS conversations and discipline practices. CPS is not a punishment, and if children think it could be used as such (or information they provide could be used against them!) they will not participate honestly in the process, if at all. Some schools are trying CPS as a reintegration practice, after the existing discipline policy had been followed. My personal opinion is that some CPS is better than no CPS, if people are not ready to make the transition completely.

6. Once a specific lagging skill is identified, how should it be taught?

Fortunately, the process of doing CPS itself teaches many of the lagging skills listed in the ALSUP (eg. considering the perspective of others, considering likely outcomes, seeing “greys”, etc.) Another possibility is that the proposed solution may “teach” the skill (eg. wearing a digital watch may help develop time awareness for a child who loses track of time.) Any lagging skills that cannot be taught these ways, can be taught exactly as we do usually… maybe this is an opportunity for teachers to speak with their Learning Coach for ideas?


One of my principals consistently reminds teachers of the quote from educator Paulo Freire that “we make the road by walking”. It has been especially helpful for me to reflect on that concept as we move forward in our plans for implementing CPS: There is no road for us to follow, but the action we take now will determine what kind of path we leave for others.

-Katia Reid

Reflecting on our Image of the Child

It’s necessary that we believe that the child is very intelligent, that the child is strong and beautiful and has very ambitious desires and requests. This is the image of the child that we need to hold. Those who have the image of the child as fragile, incomplete, weak, made of glass gain something from this belief only for themselves. We don’t need that as an image of children. Instead of always giving children protection, we need to give them the recognition of their rights and of their strengths. – Loris Malaguzzi

Lately, I have been reflecting often on the concept of the “image of the child”. For those of us who have read about or worked in Reggio Emilia inspired spaces, this idea is familiar ground, but regardless of our pedagogy I feel it offers us a way of deepening our understanding of ourselves as teachers.

It goes like this:  Inside each of us is an image of a child. This child embodies the characteristics we believe are typical of childhood, and we can examine these qualities. As we imagine this, we can ask ourselves, what is this child like?

  • What does this child look like?
  • What does this child hope for and need?
  • What kind of environment are they in?
  • What is the child doing, or learning?
  • What is the potential of this child, what are they capable of achieving?

Truthfully, whatever image we see is not an image of a child, but rather our image of a child. Specifically, it is the image of the child behind our teaching practice. We are responsible for what characteristics we plan to see in children, and which are unacknowledged. The spaces we create for children are spaces designed for our image of the child to live within, as is the discipline we use, the activities we plan, the assessment we choose, and everything else which influences our approach as teachers.

And it is a self-fulfilling prophecy.  If we imagine that children are not capable and we arrange classrooms in a way that facilitates receiving adult help, rather than fostering independence, the children in such a room therefore become dependent. Unless we are conscious of it, our image of the child is further confirmed because we have not challenged ourselves to look for evidence that complicates our understandings.  In order to understand the children in our classrooms, I feel we need to be explicit in examining the image of the child which we hold.

Once, in my Kindergarten classroom, a girl approached me with a container of applesauce. Saying nothing, she held it up to me and I distractedly peeled the foil top back for her while talking to an adult in the room. I only looked down when I heard her wail “no!” and I asked her what was wrong. She said “Miss Reid, I didn’t need it opened! I just want you to look at what kind I have! And you threw away the lid!” This was a moment that allowed me to examine my image of the child (dependent) and compare it with the reality of child in my classroom (curious, delighted). On that day, if had I asked my student to share her image of an adult, I can imagine it would have included “careless” and “hasty!”

To see our students clearly, I feel we need to gently examine what beliefs we might hold already, and then search our classrooms for evidence to help us widen our vision. Have you heard of the “image of the child” before? Has it helped to enrich your practice?

-Katia Reid


Teaching “Fair”

One of the concerns I have heard lately from teachers is worry about how we can teach children to understand and respect environmental and instructional accommodations for other children. We often say “fair is not always equal”, but do children always understand phrases like these? What should a teacher say to a student who protests that a support for another child is unfair?

As a kindergarten teacher, I have used a short lesson to teach this concept to small children. I read about it somewhere on the internet, years ago, and it quickly earned a permanent place in my year plan. I ask the children to sit in a circle with me, close their eyes, and imagine (with as limited theatrics as possible!)  a little hurt somewhere on their body. Maybe scraped knee, maybe a cut on a finger. Then I call the children up one by one and ask them where their imaginary injury is. Regardless of what they say, I say “Ouch, that must hurt!” and put a bandaid on their upper arm. By the end, every child has a bandaid in the very same spot, and despite their protests and redirects, I never change the placement of the bandaid.

At the end of the lesson, I ask them what was wrong with what just happened. Most kids are very willing to tell me how I got it all wrong and put the bandaid on an incorrect spot. I feign surprise and say “Oh I’m sorry! Did you want me to help you where you got hurt?” The kids shout “Yes!” and then I say “… but wouldn’t that be unfair if everyone got a bandaid in a different place?” Usually, at this point, someone will point out that it’s not unfair, because every child still gets a bandaid. I use this as a conversation starter to explain that even though everyone gets different kinds of help in our class, everyone gets help where they need it. Sometimes that means that my help for one child looks different from my help for another child, but I always emphasize that if someone feels like they need help, they have a right to ask me for what they need. I explain that, just like if someone was hurt for real, helping people in our class is important and part of my job. Help isn’t a privilege, a special reward for good behaviour, or a bribe – it’s a right.

I always wondered how to do something similar with older kids, as the bandaid scenario seems like it would work better with young children, but the other day, my principal told me of an example he did with junior high kids; he put a chocolate bar on the top of a door and explained that whoever could reach the bar, could have it. A different premise, but a similar conversation follows.

Fortunately, I feel that Universal Design for Learning also addresses some of these concerns inherently. When we ensure that most of the choices available are available to every child in the class, the instances of one child having something unique are greatly reduced. There are still times, however, when one child will require a particular type of support that is not available to every child (for example, extra “break” time or an expensive assistive technology).

From coaching, I am learning that just as many adults are as concerned with being “unfair” as children. Teachers are legitimately worried about how different treatment could be seen as preferential treatment. Truthfully, I think that part of being fair to kids is helping them to understand what “fair” really is, and what it looks like in the classroom. I think we need to bring children in to these conversations: What really are their concerns? What does “fair” look like? And most importantly, how can coaches support teachers to open these dialogues in their classroom?

(Have you “taught” differentiation creatively in your classrooms? How have you supported teachers in explaining differentiated instruction to children?)

-Katia Reid

Kids Do Well If They Can: Links between Universal Design for Learning and the Collaborative Problem Solving Approach

The central question of Universal Design for Learning (UDL) surrounds the idea of barriers to learning: Is the child “disabled”? Or, could we more accurately say that many of our school environments are disabling to children? As Kathy Howery reminded us in our Webinar last week, many of us wear glasses or contacts. While most of those who do tend not to consider ourselves “disabled”, without this adaptive technology some of us would find ourselves very disabled indeed – unable to drive, watch movies, write legibly, and complete a myriad of other tasks related to our daily life. Many of us would also find ourselves unable to learn effectively in the traditional method of presentations or lectures, where a visual impairment would mean we were unable to see a power-point or a whiteboard.

In fact, I found myself in this situation not long ago. Sitting in a large lecture theatre for a presentation that I was attending voluntarily, I reached into my purse for my glasses and realized I had forgotten them at home. The lecture was two hours long and although my hearing is fine, being within a visual fog that made it impossible to see the lecturer was frustrating. After a while, I gave up trying to listen, and I took out my cell phone instead.

Was I unmotivated? No, I had chosen the lecture myself and was looking forward to it, although it may have seemed this way to others. Was I lazy? Not particularly, I simply felt overwhelmed, frustrated and headachy, but possibly people sitting around me may have thought so. Was I rude? If the lecturer had seen me texting, this is exactly the conclusion he may have reached…but I don’t consider myself generally rude. Was I disabled? Absolutely. And by being disabled, my behavior suffered.

Certainly in this case, my rude behavior could be traced to one of the ways that I was physically prevented from participating fully (I should add that in this case it was my fault, and I’ll try to remember that next time I’m irritated that a student doesn’t have a pencil with them…) but are there more subtle ways for children to be disabled?

The question that came to mind for me this week, was the following: Can an environment be emotionally or behaviourally disabling? And, if so, how can we address these barriers to success, given that emotional needs are so subjective, changeable, and private?

Over the past couple of years in my classroom practice, I have been working with the Collaborative Problem Solving Approach (CPS), pioneered by Dr. Ross Greene. As Dr. Greene describes it, “challenging behaviour in kids is best understood as the result of lagging skills […] and the best way to reduce challenging episodes is by collaboratively solving the problems setting them in motion in the first place, rather than by […] intensive use of reward and punishment procedures” ( The basic idea of CPS is that, behind every challenging behaviour, there is a missing skill. When the environment demands the use of a particular skill in order to cope, and the child struggles to meet that demand, we see the challenging behaviours that are familiar to all of us who teach or parent; whining, crying, hitting, refusing, swearing, and all the rest. And, Dr. Greene emphasizes, we don’t just see these behaviours in kids who carry the descriptor of “disabled”.

This strikes me as such an important personal insight as it connects to UDL. We understand, through UDL, that environments can disable learning and the significance of identifying and eliminating barriers to access. Further, we understand that children whose learning is obstructed by the environment, can sometimes behave in challenging ways. CPS takes this one step more, encouraging teachers to recognize that even children with no physical or cognitive barriers to learning, may struggle with emotional barriers. These may be difficult to identify at times, but identifying and collaboratively addressing these barriers is as essential to our work as it is to ensure that children can work within their preferred learning style, or have access to assistive technologies. This doesn’t mean that the demands of the environment are wrong – “no hitting” is a fair and realistic rule, for instance – simply that some children don’t have the skills to abide by these expectations and that preparing them to do so is a teaching task, not a task of punishment.

If we believe (and I do), that children who fail to be engaged in school work and learning are in some way disabled by their environments, then I feel we must believe the same of behaviour. Rather than labeling children with unkind and unhelpful descriptors such as “unmotivated” or “defiant”, we need to see challenging behaviours as expressions of an inability to meet the demands of the environment. As Dr. Greene notes, it should the right of every child to have their personal emotional struggles regarded as legitimate and not as deliberate refusal to meet expectations, because “kids do well if they can”.

(Sorry this post is so long! Has anyone else worked with CPS? Do you see the same relationship to UDL that I am seeing? I’d love to hear your thoughts!)

-Katia Reid

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